There’s more to the signage in Japan than just poorly translated English. There’s also Japanese signs in perfectly-translated JAPANESE, warning you about the strangest things or otherwise just being really cute. All captions are translations/rough translations, not my commentary:
KFC, disease-curing water, ominous fortunes, bar-hopping in Osaka, traditional New Year’s osechi-ryori, the reappearance of glorious festival food– the holidays in Japan were just as magical as they can be in the US.
“Kentucky for Christmas”
Although not as widespread as, say, the idea of turkey or ham for Christmas is in the US, it’s the closest you can get to the idea of a “traditional” Japanese Christmas dinner in a nation that’s 1.5% Christian. But don’t be mistaken– it absolutely is a thing, with reservations opening up weeks in advance, and hours-long lines on Christmas day if you failed to make one. KFC even offers a bottle of “shanmerry” (their words) alongside their whimsical Christmas-design buckets. I made my reservation about a week in advance, and even by then, they had already run out of said buckets and said champagne.
How was it? Well, they don’t change the recipe just for Christmas, but you better believe that combining that warm Christmas drunkenness with greasy, salty fried chicken makes for simultaneously one of the best and worst meals you’ll ever have in your life.
Osechi-Ryori: New Year’s Cuisine
The prevalence of Christmas in Japan is more for marketing and as a couple’s holiday than for religion or family. Instead, New Year’s Day is the most significant holiday in the Japanese calendar. The first part of this is osechi-ryori, traditional New Year’s food. It always comes in a special box, and although you traditionally cook it yourself, it has become much more common to order it instead. Most of the food is pickled, boiled, steamed, and the like: basically, food that could’ve been prepared a few days beforehand and would’ve kept well until the actual holiday.
It is, of course, best enjoyed with sake.
Hatsumode: Hiraoka Shrine and Saijinja
Hatsumode is the tradition of visiting your family’s shrine to make prayers and offerings. Each shrine houses a particular god, and there’s a specific way to make a prayer:
Throw a coin into the donation box at the front.
If there’s a bell, ring it.
Clap twice, to get their attention.
Tell them your deepest desires and wishes.
Bow once more as thanks.
My girlfriend, her grandparents, and I also took a short hike up to Saijinja Shrine in Nara, famed for its mountain spring water with healing qualities.
The water was dispensed from this stone fountain thing, where people were waiting in line with empty bottles or standing by with metal cups provided by the shrine. It tasted fresh, very mineral-y, and exactly how you would imagine the boulder above to taste, but of course there was no sediment or anything like that. I definitely did feel a little more invigorated, enough to decide to buy some of it bottled– only 100 yen ($1)!
There was also a bamboo stick piped into the spring, where you could listen to the wonderfully comforting sound of dripping water, echoing deep inside the recesses of of the Earth. Forgiving the background noise of passersby, you can listen a recording I made here!
You can also get your fortune, omikuji, at shrines. They are printed on tiny scrolls of paper, and the one you get is determined by shaking around a bunch of sticks inside a wooden box. One stick comes out, and the number printed on it tells you which one to ask for from the shrine maiden. Now, these are the most legitimate fortunes I have ever received: firstly, they contain many different sections, from romantic relationships to your studies to that thing you lost. And they are not always positive or platitudinous either– one year, Rika’s mother got one that essentially said “You will never be happy or successful.” Mine told me to stop eating junk food, and the one I got for my friend told him to stop being lazy, and that the “person you are waiting for, will not come.” Dream-crushing fortunes, now that’s something I can get behind!
For the price of another coin, you can wash down the sorrows of an outrageous fortune with a pour of sake.
Hiraoka’s offering was very light and a little syrupy, with a hint of flowery sweetness.
Festival food makes its reappearance too– one of these is tamago senbei, which translates to the much less sexy-sounding “egg rice cracker.” It’s a shrimp-flavored rice cracker topped with takoyaki sauce, crunchy bits of tempura batter, and an egg fried sunny-side up, finished off with a generous squeeze or two of Japanese mayo. If you like eggs, or delicious food at all, I’m sure you’d love tamago senbei. As a bonus, the eggs are sometimes fried in fun shapes, like hearts.
That was all New Year’s Day, January 1st. As for New Year’s Eve and the countdown to the beginning of 2019, it’s very much a party atmosphere like anywhere else. I spent it outside a club in Shinsaibashi, Osaka. The name and the details, I can no longer recall.
To see the heights to which the concept of convenience can reach, look no further than the humble, ubiquitous konbini— the Japanese convenience store. To avoid saying konbini 800 times, I will just namedrop all the chains I’ve ever seen. Here are 26 things you can see/do should you ever find yourself in one:
American dogs. Konbinis feature both American and Japanese junk food. At the hot food section, you may be able to buy an American dog, i.e. a corn dog.
Bento boxes. They’ll heat it up for you, too!
Cash withdrawal. Every konbini has an ATM, which are necessary in the land where banks close at 3 PM on weekdays, are not open on weekends, and are much less widespread than 7-Eleven and friends.
Dine in. Some konbinis have small dining areas so you don’t have to wait another moment to enjoy that steaming bento box!
Erotic literature. Are you, too, a Harvard-educated man/woman who still enjoys the high-class art of printed pornography? Then support your local giant-boob artist and head down to Lawson’s today.
Fried chicken… for Christmas. Did you know that traditional Christmas dinner in Japan is… Kentucky Fried Chicken? Reservations open weeks in advance, and if you miss the deadline then it’s okay, you can still go with the equally-as-good konbini versions.
Get your Amazon package. You can order things online and have them shipped to your local Sunkus for pickup instead. This may be beneficial because deliverymen will not leave packages if you are not home, you have to deal with the dreaded redelivery notice instead.
Hot bottled drinks. In addition to cold bottled drinks, there will also be a hot bottle section to get your portable tea/coffee fix.
Instant ramen. If you weren’t really a fan of it before, you’ll probably become one once you’re here. From seafood to curry to Pringles, the possibilities are limitless.
John PlayerSpecials. Likely one of the coolest-named cigarettes ever, konbinis also offer an outside smoking area where you can enjoy it. Unlike the US, where smoking is allowed nowhere indoors but in practice is allowed EVERYWHERE outdoors, Japan is the opposite. Smoking on the street is a kind of no-no, but there are many designated outdoors smoking spaces and indoor smoking rooms.
Kit-Kats. It’s popular to bring back strawberry or green tea kit-kats as a souvenir for people back home. But, that’s only the tip of the iceberg– there’s flavors that we in the States cannot even fathom, from pumpkin to miso and wasabi.
Lemon Coke. And to round it out, there’s peach and even coffee Coke!
Mail packages and letters. Screw the post office, come to Daily Yamazaki instead!
Nigiri sushi. I believe American 7-Elevens also sell sushi, but for some weird reason I can’t figure out, there’s just something about sushi in Japan that seems less shady. And would you believe, in general I have found cheap sushi in Japan to be just “OK,” not much different from cheap sushi in the US.
Utsunomiya City omiyage. These are rice crackers in the shape of gyoza dumplings, which they are famous for.
Omiyage. Omiyage are regional souvenirs, usually in the form of individually-wrapped cookies, rice crackers, pastries, etc. with a flavor/design unique to that region. It is a societal expectation to bring back omiyage for your coworkers whenever going somewhere. For this reason, many konbinis in touristy/well-traveled areas will sell such souvenir boxes.
Postage stamps. You can buy stamps at the konbini too, how exhilarating!
Quaff a beer or three outside. Public drinking is not against the law in Japan, so aside from perhaps a few glances, you are free to sit on the curb and slug one back with the tomodachi, unharried by policemen.
Rice balls. Onigiri (Japanese rice balls) are the grab-and-go equivalent of the sandwich. They come with different fillings from mere seaweed to salmon to bulgogi or pork and mayo.
Strong. Even better than beer is Strong, a vodka-based carbonated cocktail-in-a-can, boasting percentages as high as 9%. If you’ll be drinking in Japan, it’s almost guaranteed you’ll be pre-gaming with a Strong or two. That’s the strength of two standard drinks for less than $2.
Trash cans. Public trash cans, like out on the street, simply do not exist. You don’t even find them in most public bathrooms (which is why many people still carry handkerchiefs). Even people climbing Mount Fuji are told to take their trash to the peak and back with them. Why so few trash cans? Apparently, they were taken away in response to a 1995 terrorist attack involving nerve gas bombs being dropped in places on the subway– it’s one less place for terrorists to plant something in the future.
Utility bill payment. Your utility bills come with bar codes that can also be scanned and paid for in cash at the local konbini. That’s how I keep my water, gas, and electricity flowing every month.
Verify your point balance. Every chain has their own rewards card, of course featuring a cute animal mascot. You can earn points towards future purchases, and even win prizes like stuffed animals during special promotions!
Warm up. Found yourself woefully underdressed for winter? Stop in FamilyMart and equip yourself with some gloves, a beanie, or a scarf.
Xerox a document. Most konbinis have printer stations.
Yogurt soda. Carbonated Yakult? Yes! Yes!
Zoo tickets. Concert tickets, sports tickets: anything you can buy online, you can also arrange to pick it up at the konbini.
Japanese train stations are massive. Some are so big, that it could take you a full half hour to walk from one end to the next. Many have stores, restaurants, and even markets. You could buy dinner for the day, a book to read on your next train, and hell, even an outfit for the day before even exiting the station gates. Tokyo Station is no exception. It serves over 450,000 people a day, more than the entire population of Iceland. Featuring stunning early 20th century architecture, what you see is in reality a restoration only six years old, a return to form after the station had been damaged by Allied bombing in 1945 and never quite the same thereafter.
As a side-note, it is interesting to be in places with such connections to history, to be somewhere that had actually been bombed just a generation ago. Interesting fact– Japan did manage to bomb the US exactly one time, in a failed attempt to start forest fires in Oregon in 1942. The story of that, and pilot Nobuo Fujita’s attempt to atone for what he did, of a man prepared to commit suicide in case the residents of Oregon would not forgive him (spoiler: they did), is a heart-warming read.
Anyways, Tokyo Station is the terminus of many a Shinkansen ride, i.e. the famed Japanese bullet train. It covers the 300-mile/500-kilometer distance from Osaka in a breathtaking 2.5 hours, which makes for an average speed of 120 miles an hour (193 km/h). That’s roughly the distance between Los Angeles and San Francisco! One of the highlights of this sprint to Tokyo is passing by Mount Fuji:
Upon arrival, you find out yet another cool thing: that the station is directly across from the freaking Imperial Palace of Japan, the residence of Emperor Akihito himself.
Tokyo Imperial Palace
The actual Imperial Palace grounds are open only on special occasions, for example on the Emperor’s birthday, and unfortunately we happened to come on a day that it was neither. In fact, it was pretty much surrounded by policemen, who incredibly are still armed with…
I’d say it’s either a testament to how safe Japan is, or perhaps how, in a lot of ways, Japan is still pretty old-fashioned. The police sport 5-shot, .38 special revolvers, much like how American cops did up until the late 1980s. Either way, I think it’s awesome.
The palace perimeter was closed off, so the farthest we could get in was the avenue of trees at the top of this section. Despite this, where else in the world would a quick train ride and hop across the station take you so close to the country’s most eminent person?
I was in Tokyo for a total of maybe 16 waking hours. In that time, I saw:
Sumo wrestlers at Tokyo Station
That Japanese cops still carry revolvers
The first one is kind of cheating, because I saw him at Tokyo ComicCon. But hey, it kinda counts, right?
Despite its name, Tokyo ComicCon actually takes place in the neighboring Chiba prefecture. Tokyo Disneyland is also in Chiba prefecture, for that matter, but calling it Chiba Disneyland just doesn’t have the same ring. Anyways, right off the bat: I have been to only one other ComicCon in my life, ComicCon Revolution in Ontario, CA. And believe it or not, this latter unofficial offshoot of ComicCon had actually been bigger than this official ComicCon in Tokyo. There were very few amateur booths where people were selling their products/handmade stuff. There were, however, many official booths (unlike ComicCon Revolution) of some of the biggest players in the comic industry: Marvel, Star Wars, DC, and so on. At the Marvel setup, I got to meet the editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics C.B. Cebulski! He was a very nice guy and signed my bag.
Tom Hiddleston came as a guest, where he basically answered all Avengers-related questions with “I know the answer but I can’t tell you.” And of course, lots of awesome costumes. The girlfriend and I dressed up as Han and Qi’ra from Solo:
I guess you could skip the rest of this post if you’re not a Star Wars fan. We saw lots of Star Wars costumes, but for brevity I’ll include only cosplays I haven’t seen before:
This post is too long already, so let’s save the next for part 2!
Poorly translated English is still hilarious to this day. Why it happens, I couldn’t say. The only thing I can attest to is that machine translation, like Google Translate, still does a pretty poor job. Try conversing with someone in Japanese (or most any Asian language, for that matter) with Google Translate as the middleman, and you’ll get results like this:
So, maybe Google Translate screwed someone over, or maybe the dude they put in charge of it just dropped the ball. Here’s some of the great signs I’ve seen so far (across all my trips):
Here’s a challenge for you: you need a Japanese phone number to sign up for anything. You need a credit card to get a Japanese phone number. You cannot get a phone number without a credit card. You can’t get a credit, or even debit, card until you’ve been in Japan for six months. What do you do?
It has been a month since my last blog post, and to be honest with you, the only thing of note that has happened is that did I finally get that freaking credit card. The thing is, it actually DID take a month– I can’t tell you how many hoops I had to jump through and just how convoluted the entire process was. Wait, just kidding, I can and I WILL tell you because you’re sitting here right now, with seemingly nothing better to do than to read my blog. You should be out with your friends.
Although it’s easy to navigate around Japan on a surface level with only the most basic knowledge of Japanese (train signs, asking for directions, ordering at restaurants), combine not-speaking Japanese with MOUNTAINS of paperwork and bureaucratic hoops for anything related to living, and you’ll find a plethora of articles on the Internet on things as simple as buying a used bicycle, which requires a registration and “deed of transfer” paperwork. As you can imagine, this also extends to getting a credit card.
For this reason, you conduct most of your business in cash, which is handy in its own way. I pay my water and gas bills at the konbini (convenience store); that is, I am mailed slips that can be scanned and paid for in cash. You can even make online orders on, say, Amazon, and get emailed a QR code that lets you pay in cash at the konbini.
But paying for non-Amazon things online, or transferring money back home, is a nightmare. I had to wrangle a teacher at my school to help take me to my bank (SMBC), withdraw cash, feed it back into the same machine, have the same incredibly nice teacher call the bank on the ATM phone, and then walk me through the right sequence of buttons. Though ATMs offer Japanese and English, advanced services like sending money are in Japanese only. If you can’t read it, then you either find a good Samaritan-san or go home defeated. Or, come back in a few years when you’ve mastered Japanese enough to navigate matters such as these.
I do have a card, featuring Midosuke the SMBC otter as seen above, but it is for ATM use only (i.e. no debit card function), and I can’t even use the online banking app until February either. The only way to check my balance would be to go to an ATM and get a physical receipt printed. On another trip, I had also tried to apply for the bank’s credit card, the paperwork for which is the picture at the top of this post. After about an hour of back and forth in broken English and my broken Japanese to painstakingly fill out the form, the result was that no, you can’t do it after all and to come back in February when you’ve been in Japan for six months. Sorry!
In the end, I filled out an online application for the foreigner-friendly Rakuten credit card, and to solve the phone number problem I bought one from Skype. One week, one approval, and one failed delivery attempt later, I can finally conduct online financial business without needing to bike a few miles and/or strong-arm a harried teacher into helping this foreigner dude press some Japanese buttons in the right order.