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The twelfth of my images of Japan collection November 19, 2006

Posted by urbanblue in Images of Japan.
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Now this may seem like an odd choice of topic, and possibly not in the best taste, but the Japanese toilet is a modern marvel.

They play music to disguise any disconcerting noises, they wash you in all sorts of places that I am certainly not going to list here, they have heated seats for your “cheeky” comfort, they have non-touch flushing so you don’t have to put your hands anywhere that others have been (and that extends to the taps, the soap, and even the toilet seat itself sometimes – you don’t actually touch anything). All in all it’s more like a fun day out than a quick run in to spend a penny. That being said, many have come a cropper by being flummoxed by the sheer number of buttons and gizmos, and have left the cubicle soaking wet and more than a little mortified having been sprayed from all directions. You have been warned.

The other end of this is of course the really old fashioned asian-style squatter, which is still very prominent in older buildings and train stations. Least said about these the better.

Which button is the flush?!

The eleventh of my images of Japan collection November 4, 2006

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I have tried some weird and wacky things in Japan and in other places around Asia. I’ve eaten grasshoppers, raw horse, raw whale (don’t go getting all judgemental on me for that one, I didn’t even know it WAS whale when I was having it), turtle, crocodile, kangaroo and deep fried chicken cartelidge. Squid is extremely tame when compared to this Noah’s Ark of a menu, but I still shudder when I see them dried in bags in the convenience store looking like something Sigourney Weaver should be chasing.

Squid and octopus are very much part of the every day staple diet for a lot of Japanese. One of my first memories of wandering into a supermarket here was seeing colossal bright red octopus tentacles all coiled up and vacuum packed on display. They reminded me of the kind of things the school chef from the Beano used to have sticking out of his cooking pot. Takoyaki, or “octopus balls” (not literally!), are a common snack from street vendors. Fireworks displays in the summer are often accompanied by whole grilled squid on a stick. I personally have never really been a big fan of either, but they are kinda difficult to avoid if you’re out and about. These squid here were drying out in the sun ready to be enjoyed as a beer snack. I think I’ll stick with my pork scratchings and a bag of dry roasted.

Squid on a rack

The tenth of my images of Japan collection October 15, 2006

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About 80% of people love karaoke, and the other 20% are liars. I think people in the UK are put off by having to get up on stage and sing in front of a room of strangers. My friend Kate and I experienced that in Glasgow back in 1993, when I forgot just how high “Careless Whisper” gets and waved goodbye to my dignity. But in Japan there’s none of that. It’s all about your own private booth, just you and your friends. The whole system has been getting increasingly more fancy since my arrival in the country. When I first got here, you got your booth, two microphones on leads, a book of songs and a remote control. Now the mikes are cordless, and the remote control is now used for everything from searching for the songs to ordering your drinks. It’s all got a bit unnecessarily complicated to be truthful, but the fun factor has not diminished one iota.

Some karaoke booths have a special function remote control that can put even the most tone deaf in tune. Others have a fake applause button to boost your ego if no one was really listening. The one nearest me even rents out costumes to add to the whole experience. Personally I don’t see the appeal of knocking out a Radiohead number dressed as a gorilla, but I suppose it takes all sorts.

If you’re feeling brave you can also have a stab at a Japanese pop song. You’ve got a wealth of choice of bands with fabulous names, such as The Michelle Gun Elephant, Kinki Kids, Bump of Chicken, or The Pigeon’s Milk. That last one even prompted a discussion between me and a friend about whether or not birds lactate. We decided they didn’t.

Karaoke in action

The ninth of my images of Japan collection October 8, 2006

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Am I up to nine already? Blimey.

Anyways. On to the business in hand, which is “purikura“. Purikura is a shortened form of “purintto kurabbu” (Print Club), the fad that just doesn’t seem to be dying out. You step into a plastic curtained booth, insert your 400 yen, and a manic little animated character with a voice like a smurf on helium appears with techno eurobeat blaring in the background. Before you know it the character begins its ultra quick “San..ni..ichi..GO!” countdown and you’re being snapped from all angles; above, below, from the side, from behind, who knows where else. You needs your wits about you if you don’t want pictures of your backside or worse. After that you have 90 seconds to jazz up your picture with special effects and stamps and glittery nonsense by using a metal pen and touch screen system. All the meanwhile the manic little anime creature is screaming at you that time is running out and the eurobeat gets faster and faster. And then it’s all over and you’re asked to wait outside for your prints. Phew.
Needless to say it takes a bit of getting used to. Many a poor sod has come out of one of those booths in need of a stiff drink, but is instead rewarded with a sheet of tiny pictures of themselves looking gormless and lost and covered in pink lovehearts. But my good friend Be and I have braved the booths over the years and have mastered the art. Here are a selection from years gone by. I’d like to say I was drunk when we did them, but I’ve already used that excuse for the monkey page, and I don’t think it’ll wash a second time.
Purikura

The seventh (and eighth) of my images of Japan collection October 3, 2006

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Souvenirs. Ah, it’s always tricky to know what to buy when you’re on your hols. Here in the land of the rising sun, you won’t find any sticks of rock, sombreros, wicker donkeys or “My friend went to Japan and all he got was this lousy T-shirt” T-shirts. So to prevent any further angst as to what you can get, in an unprecedented act of kindness, I have provided not one but two pictures in today’s “images of Japan” collection.

The first one is a picture of traditional Japanese dolls, or “ningyo“. Admittedly these are not to everyone’s taste (you certainly won’t find any in my tastefully decorated abode), but they are a popular gift. Different regions have different kinds of dolls, you’ll find something very different if you were to go looking in Kyoto or Fukuoka for example. But the most popular Japanese “omiyage” (souvenir) is sweets, featured in the second picture. Japanese sweets tend to be made with ingredients that most westerners would associate with savoury dishes, i.e. red beans, pulped rice, sweet potatoes, green tea etc. As such, they again may not be to everyone’s taste. But certainly worth a try. If in doubt, stick to “sembe” (rice crackers). Everyone loves them.

Other suggestions would be “washi” (traditional Japanese paper), “geta” (wooden clog-like sandals), “sensu” (traditional hand-held fans), “o-hashi” (chopsticks), “shikki” (lacquerware) or “yukata” (light summer kimonos for men and women – don’t expect to get a full traditional kimono unless you’re willing to pay literally the price of a small car).

Or a good old postcard.

Japanese dollsJapanese Sweets

The sixth of my images of Japan collection September 28, 2006

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The word sake actually refers to alcohol in general in Japan. It’s also pronounced like the “..sa Ke..” in “Lisa Kendall”, rather than as “sarky”. The rice wine that has become so popular in other countries is called in Japan Nihon-shu (literally Japanese alcohol). And, as with the wines of France, Australia and Italy, the varieties are infinite and the quality highly variable. You can buy a cheap 100 yen One-Cup (about 50p or $1) from the convenience store if you’re not fond of your stomach lining and would like to see it burnt away. Or you can spent literally hundreds or even thousands of pounds on a particularly sought-after high calibre brand. I don’t know how that tastes. Better than the One-Cup I imagine.
The thing is though that the popularity of Nihon-shu declining somewhat. It’s considered by many to be the chosen tipple of the older generations. Far more popular is sho-chu (literally distilled liquor). Sho-chu is a white spirit which is either drunk with mixers such as orange juice, iced green tea or jasmine tea, or straight. It’s actually originally from Korea and China, and this is reflected by the popularity of the most commonly bought  brand, Jinro, which is a Korean label. Naturally there is nothing political whatsoever in the fact that Japanese sho-chu, particularly the sho-chu of Southern Kyushu and Okinawa, are considered to be particularly fine and the Japanese sommeliers’ choice whereas Korean sho-chu is for use as a cheap mixer at student parties. Hmm.
Barrels of sake at a temple in Nikko

The fifth of my images of Japan collection September 23, 2006

Posted by urbanblue in Images of Japan.
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Five years ago, the districts of Shibuya and Harajuku in Tokyo were swarming with “yamamba“. These are girls in their late teens and early twenties who go all out to tan their skins as dark and as orange as they can, wear white and silver make-up, dye their hair as outrageously as possible and generally look like freakish extras from a Clacton Pier pantomime. They’re very much in decline now however, as this fashion is becoming overtaken by the Mariah Carey inspired “gyaru” style. Big hair, glittery make-up and Hello Kitty accessories.
Which means that yamamba spotting is becoming somewhat of a hobby. Bit like birdwatching. As ridiculous as the fashion is, I am going to miss it when it eventually dies out. So, for the fifth photo in this collection, and as a kind of preemptive swan song, here’s a yamamba I spotted in Yoyogi Park earlier this year.

Yamamba

The fourth of my images of Japan collection September 19, 2006

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Omikuji” are fortunes that you buy at temples and shrines. They come in many shapes and forms, but often you’ll shake a tumbler of sticks until one falls out of the little hole, and your omikuji will be attached to it. They can range from very good fortune to downright dreadful. I’ve had a few good ones in my time, but I do remember the one I got from Hasedera Temple in Kamakura when my sister came to stay a few years back. It basically told me that I was going to get sick and not recover, I was going to have a fight and I wasn’t going to win, and, if that wasn’t clear enough (if I remember the quote correctly) “Soon you will not be alive”. My special items, according to this cheerful piece of paper, were a box and a shovel.

Hmm.

My Japanese friends tell me these particular fortunes are incredibly rare and I was “lucky” (?!?) to get one. So there you go.

Well, if your omikuji isn’t too promising, the thing to do is to fold it up and tie it to a tree or similar. Apparently the wind will remove your bad luck by a third. Must be true, because I got my bad omikuji five or six years ago, and I’m still here!! I must have a few good years left in me yet before I need that box and shovel.
Here you can see some omikuji tied to a tree in Nikko (Tochigi Prefecture).

Omikuji

The third of my images of Japan collection September 17, 2006

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This is my favourite food in Japan. “Tonkatsu“. It’s hardly the healthy option, being deep-fried breaded pork cutlets, but (provided you go to a decent place) it is incredibly good. It’s served with mustard and a rich sweet barbeque-type sauce, plus – to counteract all the fat – some shredded raw cabbage. As with most Japanese restaurants, if you order the “teishoku” (set meal) it will come with boiled rice, miso soup and a selection of pickles.

This particular photo was taken at a restaurant in Shimoda. In actual fact this wasn’t the best tonkatsu I’ve ever had. The pork wasn’t particularly lean, it was very fatty. But hey, you get the idea. Plus I don’t have an extensive range of tonkatsu pictures in my library so it’ll have to do!

Tonkatsu

The second of my images of Japan collection September 13, 2006

Posted by urbanblue in Images of Japan.
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Rush hour in Tokyo never ends. The picture below looks very crowded, but in actual fact it was taken on a relatively quiet Saturday afternoon and is to most Tokyo residents’ minds very spacious. I wouldn’t even be able to raise my hands to take the photo if it was the Den-En-Toshi line on a Monday morning. I once travelled over twenty minutes on that line on one leg, simply because so many people got on that there was no space for me to put my other foot on the floor.

So it’s all very intimate!

But train travel, for any Tokyo or Yokohama resident, is an integral part of daily life. The train system (despite the squishiness) really is superb. I often use a web page on my “keitai” (mobile telephone) to determine the quickest and cheapest route to get to places. It’ll give me the exact ticket prices of the trains, how long it’ll take me to walk from platform to platform, and what time – to the minute – the train will arrive. And due to the fantastic reliability of Japanese trains, it’s never wrong. Unless someone jumps on the tracks of course…..

One more thing, in the six and a half years I’ve been living here, to my knowledge, Japan Railways have not raised their tickets prices once. Not even a little bit. Are you paying attention to that London Transport?!…….

The Tokaido Line