In keeping with its reputation for being a country that can surprise first-time visitors, following are a few lesser-known facts about Japan.
A significant amount of commerce takes place in Japan on sidewalks and streets, as well as through the usual retail and food outlets. Yet many of these operators, who have to set up their mode of operation each day or night, would never be encountered by tourists on the average trip to Japan.
Food is a central theme in many of these businesses, foremost among them being the sidewalk food stalls, yatai, that are a popular stopover for many a peckish office worker between the office and railway station. A variety of dishes is usually available, but primarily food that can be pre-prepared and kept hot, such as oden, or quickly cooked, such as yakitori, is common at these mobile eateries, and beer the most common beverage. Many businessmen seem in no hurry to get home, once they settle in at one of these places.
Some street vendors specialise in one particular kind of food, such as sweet potato, a very old and simple Japanese delicacy, or manjū, a steamed bun filled with sweet bean paste, another popular traditional snack food. Seldom seen nowadays are the tofu vendors, often plying their trade at night among narrow urban streets on bicycle, sounding a kind of whistle clearly identifying where they are and what they’re selling.
A non-food product sold from a vehicle, moving from street to street, are the clothing poles found on every apartment balcony and house back yard, from which clothes are hung out to dry on various kinds of clothes hangers.
The address system
Apart from main thoroughfares and city centres, streets in Japan do not have names. Finally, now with GPS capability in mobile phones and cars, the difficulties caused by this characteristic can be readily overcome. Nevertheless, through historical necessity, there’s a tendency among the Japanese to obtain clear directions to any intended destination. Also, many business cards contain a simple map showing the exact location of the business, in relation to nearby landmarks.
So what did people do before the advent of satellite navigation? Basically what most people still do: they utilise the practical and efficient Japanese address system, which operates according to numbers and localities. It’s a logical system that usually works well, stumbling only when the address plates are missing or hard to locate, especially at night.
At most suburban intersections, placed vertically on a fence or building can be seen small oblong metal markers bearing details of the immediate area. Usually they’re printed in kanji (Japanised Chinese characters that are Japan’s main writing form, but enough are in English for the system to be useable by visitors. This information is supplemented by numbers on a smaller plate on each building, often near the post box.
From the micro to the macro, a Japanese address comprises the following: firstly, if the place is an apartment, the apartment number in the building; second (or first if the place is a house), the number of the building, similar to a street number; third, the chome number, chome being the name for the area into which each suburb is split up numerically; fourth, the ward or municipality name; fifth, the city name. The postcode comprises seven digits, hyphenated after the first three, relating specifically to the particular chome of the ward.
Thus, using the following address of an apartment as an example, 2-20-17-111 Hoshiguma, Jonan-ku, Fukuoka 814-0132: the number 111 is the apartment number; 20-17 is the apartment building number; and the building is situated in 2-chome, in the suburb of Hoshiguma, in Jonan ward, in the city of Fukuoka, the postcode of this particular chome in all of Japan being 814-0132.
High visibility of students
It’s uncommon for students, from elementary through to high school, to be taken to school by a parent. In urban areas, most young children attend a school within walking distance, and they go to school on foot, either on their own or in groups, gathering children along the way. This may still be the case in junior high and high school, but there is more likelihood students attend a school further than walking distance, necessitating travel by bicycle or public transport.
This constant movement of students, from dawn to dusk, is a prevalent sight in all Japanese towns and cities. Most elementary schools do not have uniforms, but all students carry the standard school bag, randoseru, on their backs. Junior high and high school students are easily identified by their militaristic uniforms, largely unchanged since the 19th century, although some schools are now replacing these with more fashionable styles, as a way of attracting students in an age of a declining birthrate and school enrolments.
Movement of junior high and high school students on suburban streets and sidewalks doesn’t cease in mid or late afternoon, when school ends, as legions of these students will then be making their way to cram schools, jukus, for a further few hours of tuition, many not returning home until late into the night.
An activity not normally attended by visitors to Japan, but well worth watching even if for just a few minutes, is a school’s annual sports festival, undokai, a major day-long event held on a weekend that has been preceded by weeks of training and preparation, and provides a much anticipated opportunity for whole family involvement. These are colourful, noisy, highly entertaining events that are a major event for students and parents alike, especially at elementary school level.
The Japanese fascination with cartoon publications and characters is well-known, yet few visitors to Japan would intentionally seek to experience this culture first hand. In a sense it’s an example of the paradox that is modern-day Japan, where sights that have remained unchanged for centuries, such as kimono-clad young women, especially on coming-of-age day, can be seen alongside sights that are days or weeks old, such as young women dressed as a cartoon character. Such vastly different outfits might appear to emanate from equally different cultures, but they don’t, as Japan is a multi-faceted culture with numerous representations, like these, from eras many years apart but coexisting peacefully and naturally in the present.
The increasingly common term otaku, first appeared in the 1970s to describe people who were excessively fond of cartoons, anime and manga, as the work nerd or geek might describe a computer nut. Now the word describes people who have an obsessive interest in anything, such as computers, video games, trains, cars, cameras, pop stars or groups, and costumes. Yet it remains primarily associated with people whose lives revolve around reading, viewing, collecting and character-playing anime and manga.
The main thing that defines otaku is their unrelenting pursuit of information about their subject of interest, to become a walking, breathing encyclopedia about it, to the exclusion of information about virtually everything else except what is required for daily life.
Akihabara, in Tokyo, is the best-known meeting place for the main kind of otaku, the collectors of manga and anime. Originally best known as a technological Mecca, where every available electronic product and part could be purchased, Akihabara is now equally famous for its shops, restaurants and other venues catering to otaku fashions and fetishes, whether it be something to read, look at, play with or wear.
A common sight is young women, bishōjo, dressed up as maids or cartoon characters, walking around handing out leaflets promoting venues, working as waitresses at maid cafes, or taking visitors on guided tours around the area, an experience worth having.
A huge array of accommodation styles is available to choose from during a trip to Japan, ranging from a family-run small town minshuku, like a B & B, to a major city hotel complex. Rarely considered by tourists are love hotels, an entirely separate form of accommodation, ubiquitous throughout urban Japan, and often clustered around railway centres.
They first appeared in the 1960s, reflecting the country’s new-found affluence, and a desire for pleasure: their purpose is specifically to facilitate short-term sexual liaisons, rooms rented by the hour, including overnight from 9 or 10 pm through to late morning or midday. In most cases the bedrooms are luxuriously appointed, with equally opulent and spacious bathrooms. Whilst their purpose might appear sleazy, they’re always clean and offer an inexpensive and interesting alternative to traditional forms of accommodation, some even with family rooms.
There is no reception or check-in counter, and a door leads from each garage or car space to a room or selection of rooms, enabling a quick and anonymous entry and exit. Windows are non-existent or painted over. An illuminated signboard contains photos of all rooms, from which a choice can be made.
Once the selected room is entered, it can only be exited by payment of the fee, calculated on the hourly or overnight basis. Many of the hotels are purpose-built, ranging in appearance from a Gothic castle to a rocket launching pad. Their names, usually in English, often contain what might appear to be a double entendre, such as Pure, White House, Next, Up, Beside, Box.
The bed, queen or king size, heart shape, vibrating, rotating or any other variation, is usually the focus of the bedroom, which may well be designed according to a theme, ranging from science fiction to anime stories, or a harem, usually with plenty of mirrors, with a soft porn video channel standard fare for television viewing, and an ample supply of condoms plus adult products provided. Fetishist outfits, such as doctor and nurse uniforms, plus school uniforms, can be rented at some hotels, and light snack food is available in each room.
Since the primary objective is privacy and anonymity, there is no reception. The method of payment varies from place to place, but there are three main types: a) by pneumatic tube, whereby cash is put in a cylinder, which is then placed in a vacuum-operated tube accessed from a small enclosure near the door. Press the shute button, the cylinder whizzes off to a never-to-be-seen office somewhere in the bowels of the building, and any change will soon come back the same way. The door then automatically unlocks; b) by an automatic cash machine; c) at a kind of reception, where the person is hidden and only a pair of hands seen.
Apart from stumbling upon cleaners, human contact outside of each room is uncommon and avoided. Rates are around ¥2,500 for two hours (¥3,000 on weekends and public holidays), going up about ¥1,000 per subsequent hour. An overnight stay usually ranges between ¥7,500 and ¥9,000 during the week – all very good value, and a unique experience in the process.
© Copyright 2015 SJ Peterson