Let's start then with the most mundane of all things, the humble mailbox. In Japan, in some places at least, this can be elevated into something a little more special. This gives an insight into the concept of zakka, which seems to pervade many aspects of life in Japan. We turned to Wiki again to help us define this in an earlier post on Japanese aesthetics. You can head back to that if you need a reminder. It cannot be denied that the addition of a shiny panda only improves this mailbox. Also, I should comment on the shininess, not uncommon in Japan but a welcome sight to see something so well cared for.
I'll just pause shortly here to mention that I am not a fast shooter, it takes me some time to see a shot, compose and shoot. I saw the lady in traditional dress coming and got myself ready to shoot, but sadly couldn't quite get the shot before her companion appeared. Its a shame because I know this shot could be better, but still I like it.
Life in Japan seems to extend in many cases to the wearing of traditional dress, which I personally find wonderful but with a small caveat. I suspect many folks one sees in such attire are not Japanese but are tourists. there's a thriving business in many tourist areas making a long-held Geisha dream come true. I tend to figure that the best way to tell if someone is Japanese is to see how easily they walk in the restrictive outfit. Speaking of tourists, in Asakusa there was a wonderful photographer's studio, at least I assume that to be the case, which had some sample prints outside. I'm not sure who was the target market, but the prints were wonderful and I spent quite some time taking them in, until I was ushered on by A.
Talking of A, one of her must-dos for this visit was to see the newly opened Snoopy museum in Tokyo. This is found in the Roppongi area, which is not my favourite part of town due to the overwhelming numbers of ex-pats. You might wonder what this is doing in a post about life in Japan, but the Snoopy museum gives an incredible insight into the fascination the Japanese have with certain aspects of Western culture. As far as I can tell, this tends towards the more traditional side of things. A good example of this being the obsession many have with 1950s Americana, as can be seen in the shops of Ameyoko-cho in Ueno. W. David Marx has written a brilliant book (Ametora) about this, which I can only encourage you to read. David's website and monthly dispatches are great as well. Back to Snoopy, the museum was brilliant, the cafe a hoot (if pricey), and the shop contained all the Peanuts merchandise you could want.
This obsession with Americana also leads to their being some magnificent vintage stores in Japan. This is something we have only begun to scratch the surface of, and something we'll need to explore more in future visits. One thing that is for sure is that these might not be the place to grab a bargain. A premium is likely to be placed on the rare and desirable as vintage clothing seems to be greatly respected.
Dogs are also well respected. Actually, who am I kidding, dogs are often spoiled. It is not unusual to see a Shiba-Inu (my favourite of the domestic breeds) having its bottom wiped. They are, I'm told, fastidious about their cleanliness, almost cat-like in fact, and can show their displeasure through screaming. As can be seen above, many dogs are also so spoiled that they are not even allowed to walk, and are dressed in little coats to keep them warm. It seems almost like an attempt to make them seem almost human, and is another insight into the culture.
Another fascinating insight into the local culture is the huge number of machines you see selling capsule toys. For just a few hundred yen, you can experience the thrill of selecting the type of toy you'd like, of turning the chunky wheel and of opening the toy to see what fun can be found inside. The capsules tend to be huge compared to the size of the toy, and fortunately most shops have somewhere where they can be recycled. In some districts, such as in Shibuya, you'll find whole stores dedicated to these machines and they are equally loved by tourists as well as by locals.
Suffice to say, we spent a huge amount of time buying these capsules, and got some fabulous things such as the cat with it's crow friend, the toast keyring with a face, the girl slipping in a puddle and of course cup-no-fuchiko. I could try to explain this, but suffice to say that this is a series of toys with girls that can sit, climb or perform gymnastics on the edge of your cup. Its both a little creepy, a little cute, and totally innocent all at once, which I think is quite typical of Japan in some ways (and if you're intrigued, you can see some here). It helps that one of my favourite Jpop acts, Vanilla Beans, helped promote this...which is really just an excuse for some music.
I'll come back to the joys of Jpop in a future post, naturally, particularly given that we experienced a couple of shows whilst we were in Japan. How I'll link that to a future topic isn't yet clear to me but for now, back to this ramble on life in Japan.
One aspect of Japanese cities, which I find really refreshing, is that they are eminently walkable. This might seem strange in a city as huge as Tokyo but it actually makes sense when you realise that all of these places are networks of lots of smaller neighbourhoods, all of which generally have their own character. One commonality is that the streets, aways from the main drags, are pretty narrow. This explains why so many Japanese cars are tiny, and why you see a lot of scooters. The nature of these narrow streets does, again, mean that you can easily walk around and soak in the atmosphere without danger of being wiped out by a monster truck.
One of the best areas we discovered this trip was the backstreets near our hotel in Kumamoto. Given that we were heading out into the countryside on tours for two of the three days we were in town, we didn't really feel we gave these enough attention, which has whetted our appetite to go back. We did, however, find And Coffee Roasters, which was a treat (and I am sure I've mentioned them before). In ACR, we found a friendly place to stop, take the weight off, and to see how the locals relaxed (given that there was a communal table and a wonderful view of the street).
Also in Kumamoto, on our last day, we had a wonderful walk to the boating lake, which again I have mentioned, which gave us an opportunity to see some areas of town that were completely off the beaten track (at least for Western tourists). There weren't many people around but I really loved the playground, which seemed like something from my childhood in the UK. There was little sign of health and safety restricting what the kids can do, although I guess some nice soft mats to fall on might have been a good thing.
Near to the playground we saw some signs of the damage caused by the earthquake of April 2016. The blue sheeting is pretty ubiquitous in Japan, and is often seen as part of the shelters that homeless folks erect in parks nationwide. I cannot do anything to help those folks, but am planning to do something to help repair some of the damage caused by the earthquake. More on that to come once all the plans are finalised.
I mentioned above that we went on tours for two of the three days we were in Kumamoto. As part of these tours we were lucky to be welcomed into some of the local shops and in one we saw a little glimpse behind the scenes. I guess offices everywhere look the same, papers dominating a desk, in-trays and storage. Its also really important to have a small clock somewhere to watch when one is not gazing out of the window at the, truly magnificent, view.
The bulk of these tours though were based on a visit to the huge Aso caldera. I'll be providing a more detailed insight into that area in a future post, so I'll just leave you with a tantalising glimpse for now.
During these trips we had lunch at a restaurant that was clearly aimed square at the tourist market. Much hilarity ensued as I tried to catch my (very tasty) noodles as they floated down a bamboo tube filled with fast-flowing water just in front of me. My chopstick skills were somewhat lacking, but it was nice to see that locals seemed to be having as much trouble as I did. I'm nothing if not fond of my food and it was a relief to know that any noodles I failed to catch were rescued by a colander at the end of the bamboo pipe.
We were also somewhat surprised to find that the famous yatai of Fukuoka are also largely aimed at tourists, at least according to a lovely pair of young women we met whilst having yakitori. We did not eat at a yatai, partly due to time, and partly as there was a lot of rain whilst we were in Fukuoka. However, the stalls did seem to offer a warm welcome and were great fun to pass by of an evening.
Talking of rain, one aspect of life in Japan that I find remarkably welcome is the ubiquity of of umbrellas at convenience stores. These are cheap, sturdy and made of clear plastic which is a wonderful idea.
Why is the clear plastic a good thing? Well, this allows you to keep yourself well covered whilst also being able to see where you are going. This seems typical of the Japanese in that this ensures that politeness can be maintained, and bumps avoided, even when it is pouring with rain. I wish we could get these easily in the UK; I guess the disposable nature of them might not be seen as a good thing.
Talking of good things, you might be pleased to know that we're coming to the end of another rambling post. I guess that, in hindsight, it is true that we skirted around the subject of life in Japan. Its clear that without a clear plan, and a rambling mind, this tenuous style will continue, so you've got that to look forward to. As usual, we'll close by mentioning the sterling work of Canadian Film Lab, who took my Portra and Natura and made it good.