Japan

A Guide to Sushi and Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market

It was at the top of my list of "must-dos" when I finally got to Tokyo a few years ago. The city's Tsukiji Fish Market, which is the largest fish market in the world, had been recommended to me by my friends who had visited Tokyo before me and just about every travel guide. I had to check it out.

I was overwhelmed even before I stepped inside. There were people and transport trucks everywhere, not to mention men scooting...

How to Pose for Pictures in Asia

When taking pictures of Koreans, I've found there are two options for poses: 1) grumpy, unsmiling, and serious, or 2) cutey-patootey with curious hand gestures and facial expressions. The former is popular in formal situations, such as school portraits, taxi registration cards, or business photos, while the latter is usually reserved for informal, casual situations, like hanging out with friends, sel-ka (cell phone camera self-portraits, the oh-so-popular Korean hobby), and nights out.

I recently found a website of these so-called "Asian poses" including tears/teasing, horns, heart shape and giant heart, fighting fists, claws, and other favourites. While my students would be horrified (italics and bold necessary) if I ever posted pictures of them here, I can say that photos I've taken in my classroom have a large number of these creative poses.

The V-sign (uncorrectly called the "peace sign" by Westerners, including myself) is by far the most popular of all the poses; it's even one that I've adopted for my own photos. But it's not limited to the static (and dare I say, uncreative) hand-up-beside-you-with-the-V-and-smile; my students can strike a dozen different poses with this simple gesture, including the sideways-V-sign-around-an-eye, the V-sign-around-the-mouth, and the double-V-signs-covering-my-cheeks-to-make-it-look-like-I-have-a-small-face.

 Me posing at Gyeongbok Palace

Me posing at Gyeongbok Palace

The desire to have a small face poses (ha!) a problem when taking pictures. Many of my students become shy when I point my camera at them, immediate reacting to over up their face, either entirely or in portions. Another popular pose, which has yet to be included in the website, is the I'm-covering-my-entire-lower-face-with-my-hand-so-that-you-can-only-see-my-eyes-because-I-think-this-makes-me-look-like-I-have-a-small-face. (I personally think it looks like they're being suffocated. Not cute.) Other variations of this pose include using fists to cover the lower half of the face, covering one cheek, or covering both cheeks with the palms in a V to make the face look more heart-shaped.

After reviewing this list of Asian poses, I've realized that I must take boring pictures. I usually like to smile, maybe throw up the V/peace sign, orif I'm feeling boldrest my hand on my hip. I have some work to do if I want to get these poses down before I leave Korea in six weeks.

Note: Updated 15 November 2015 to fix the broken link.

How to Use a Toilet

We've all seen them: the signs on the doors with either an Asian-style squat toilet or a Western-style seat toilet. To a foreigner here, a squat toilet can be scary. It's suddenly like you're a toddler again and learning how to go potty without your mommy or daddy's help. But for the Korean who is now getting used to the new, Western-style toilets that are creeping their way into Korean public restrooms, they can seem just as foreign and scary.

 The proper technique for using an Asian squat toilet

The proper technique for using an Asian squat toilet

The Asian-style Squat Toilet

Since moving to Korea, I have not only learned how to use these squat toilets, but also learned to love them. They're comfortable and easy to use, but most of all, they're clean. There's no need to touch anything---no cheeks on the seats, no fingers on the flushers (they have foot pedals instead).

They're certainly an upgrade from the squat toilets I experienced in Africa, which were usually no more than a hole in the ground. Sandals plus a difficult target...you get the picture. Some so-called "toilets" didn't even have a hole, but were just a slab of concrete behind a door. At least then when you peed all over your feet you did it in private, right?

So, yes, I was pleasantly surprised that I could learn to love these little loos. To spread the joy, I thought I'd post this how-to picture I spotted in a stall during my travels in Japan. It's the first time I'd seen a picture for the squatter; usually it's the other way around, which brings me to...

 How to use (and not use) a Western seat toilet

How to use (and not use) a Western seat toilet

The Western-style Seat Toilet

As the less-common toilet style here, these pictures are a lot more frequent. (The bottom-right picture always makes me laugh.) The plus-side for these Johns is their laziness factor---it's certainly easier to take a seat than to balance yourself over the squatter-style ones. But, on the other hand, I know a lot of ladies out there don't even sit on the seats for fear of getting booty germs or finding a wayward drop from the last user (you know they're out there).

Now when you're in Asia and nature calls, as it does, you can relieve yourself with confidence---no matter which stall you choose.

Geeking Out in Tokyo

After my peaceful time at Meiji Jingu Shrine, I headed back into the forest to get back to the city. On the subway again, I headed towards the anime museum, the Ghibli Museum, in Mitaka, just outside of Tokyo.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I got there, but I was expectiing good things. After all, anime is a big part of Japanese culture, and I had to purchase tickets to the museum beforehand, something I don't think I've ever had to do before. Was this place really so popular that people needed to arrive at an appointed time? With all the annoying transfers and stops, it took an hour to get there from Meiji Jingu.

Even though I had given myself a lot of extra time to get there, I arrived at the museum just on time. The museum itself was like a big stucco mansion. It had multicoloured pastel paint on the outside, and vines and overgrown plants crawling all over the walls; it had the appearance of a child's imaginary house.

Inside, the rooms were no different. They were haphazardly organized with a messy collection of watercolour paintings and piles of objects, from books to toys to old-fashioned machinery. It felt less like a museum and more like an old house, where the loner owner had recently died and now people came to visit the crazy old man's place and see what he had been up to all those years. Most things were interactive; we weren't kept a safe distance from the paintings or books. I flipped through some of the old books of anime ideas, wishing I could read Japanese so I could understand the notes that accompanied the pictures.

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The museum also had a short anime film. Having never watched anime before (with the exception of Sailor Moon--does that even count?), I was quite excited to see the show.

A little girl in a pink dress and pig-tails takes a walk. It's windy outside. She opens a caramel candy, but before she can take a bite, the wind picks up. It blows the candy into the air and disappears. A wind tunnel chases her into her house. The wind tunnel turns into a 6-legged cat. She gives the cat another caramel and she eats one, too. They laugh together. A bigger cat comes, this one with eight or ten legs, and both cats leave.

At night, the little girl is sleeping when the cat comes to her window. The cat's back opens up and she crawls inside. The cat is like a flying car: its eyes light up like headlights and the little girl sits inside like the driver. They go for a ride.

They're passed by bigger and longer flying cat cars, some the size of trains, until they get to a forest. The other cats have purple-grey, egg-like alien animals inside. In the forest, the cats bodies disappear as they drop the aliens to the ground. The little girl seems to be confused as she watches all these creatures walk by her, until she sees a big, bear-like animal carrying an umbrella walk by. She runs up to it and gives it a big hug.

A huge, multi-storey flying cat car appears. It is so big it can carry all the alien creatures together, and they're all loaded up inside. The little girl gives it a caramel candy. It eats it, then licks the little girl's entire body with its giant tongue. She just laughs. She licks its nose and then they both laugh together.

The 6-legged cat returns and the little girl gets inside. It takes her home, with her laughing all the way.

I sat still at the end, with one big question in my head: What the heck was that about?

Sufficiently weirded out, I decided to get back on the subway and head for another Tokyo neighbourhood: Akihabara, the geek neighbourhood of this geeky country. Japan as a whole is like Akihabara: everything "geek" is cool here. A short walk around the area revealed a large number of video game shops and even more manga (Japanese comics) stores.

I walked around a few of these manga stores, even heading down into the 18+ sections. I was curious: could there really be cartoon for adults' eyes only? Yes, and it's called hentai, and it's creepy. I felt awkward being in the porno rooms with the businessmen, flipping though comic books with not-so-innocent Sailor Moons. The worst part though, was coming across the live-action porn, with a large number of children. When I saw pre-tween little girls dressed in bikinis and posing seductively to the camera. I knew it was time for me to get out of there; I wasn't so curious anymore.

Besides video games and manga, Akihabara is also known for its "maid cafes." After my awkward encounter with hentai and little girls in bikinis, I was a little weary of entering a maid cafe, where the servers are dressed in maid costumes. Was it a "boys only" kind of thing? Would it be a little more sexually charged than I can handle right now? I finally decided that I was, again, too curious to pass it up and, worst-case senario, would just bolt out of there it got weird.

 Ads for a "maid cafe"

Ads for a "maid cafe"

I passed by a few cafes before taking a deep breath and heading back to the first one I saw, where cute, costumed girls were standing out front to attract customers. I quickly sat down and order a Coke and slice of chocolate cake.

The cafe was decorated like a dollhouse: cute, not sexy at all. The place was simple, with long, unadorned tables and chairs. The focus, it seemed, was on the girls. The girls, as advertised, were all dressed as French maids, though each had her own style. Most outfits were the traditional black and white, though some were pink or blue. They each had crowns in their hair and high white socks. Looking around, there were only men around me. I wondered if it was unusual for a single girl like me to be there.

After watching the action around me as I ate, I was left with a lot of questions. Mostly, "Why?"  I wondered why the girls knelt down to talk with the boys they served. I wondered why they did this "heart dance" (for lack of a better name) after they served the food, where they made a heart with their fingers and"danced" it around the plate of food. And I wondered why they didn't do the dance with me. I wondered why, when they had some downtime, the girls knelt down and scrubbed the floor with a cloth. I wondered why there was a white girl working there. I wondered why someone would pay 1500 yen for a 3-minute video of themselves talking with one of the French maid waitresses. I wondered how these maid cafes came about in the first place.

One of the waitresses spoke English and, when I was feeling brave again, asked her a lot of my questions. "This started out as a geek thing," she said when I asked her if they ever had girls come in alone, "but now it's like a sightseeing thing. Don't feel weird. I girl came in by herself just before you." Whether she was lying or not, I felt better. About the mysterious heart dance, she said, "It's to put magic in the food. It's like we're putting our love in your food." So geeky.

Saying a Prayer at Meiji Jingu Shrine

One stop later I was at Meiji-Jingumae, the subway station nearest the Meiji Jingu Shrine. The shrine was built after Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken, who passed away in 1914 and 1916 respectively. Emperor Meiji, having promoted the combination of foreign influence and Japanese culture, is said to have laid the foundation for modern Japan and well respected by the Japanese people, even today. Empress Shoken is called the "model of the modern Japanese woman" for not only supporting the Emperor but also dedicating herself to the promotion of national welfare and women's education. Dedicated in their honour in 1920, the shrine sits in a forest with over 100 000 planted trees; it's a cozy natural retreat in the middle of the city.

Despite the holiday weekend crowds, my stroll through forest was a peaceful one. I passed under the grand shrine gate, Ōtorii, which I read is the biggest wooden Myōjin-style "torii" in Japan. The shrine itself, a little further into the forest, was another beautiful wooden structure. It was, like Sensoji, unlike another I've seen in Korea. There was very little colour at all; instead, the structure was mostly a dark wood with a few white and gold accents, all topped with a pale green roof. It look quite beautiful all nestled cozily in the trees.

My pamphlet outlined the ways to pay respect at the shrine, by properly drinking from the fountain and offering coins. I first walked to Temizuya, the fountain, to get a drink. No one was around---the perfect time to teach myself how to use the font. Step one was to use the dipper to rinse your hands: first your left, then your right. After that, I took another scoop of water and poured it into my left palm. I took a drink---or as the pamphlet put it, rinsed my mouth. It didn't mention anything against it in the pamphlet, so I scooped again and took a second drink. Ready for the third and final step, I rinsed my left hand with another scoop of water. And then, without refering to the pamphlet, I did it all again.

I moved over to the main shrine building to pay my respects. I threw some coins into the offertory box and enjoyed the satisfying clangs that accompanied it. According to my pamhlet, I should have bowed twice, clapped my hands, and bowed once again, but I was overcome with shyness and couldn't. Instead, I stood still and paid my respects with silence.

 Meiji Jingu prayer cards

Meiji Jingu prayer cards

To my left, I saw a huge collection of prayer cards. The collection was displayed in a circle; there were maybe five or six sides, each a couple metres tall with several rows of these overlapping wooden cards, and each of these sides came together to form a circle. The prayers (some funny, some serious) were written in many different languages and came from visitors all over the world. I knew I wanted to write one for my friend who has been fighting cancer for a few years now, but had trouble figuring out how to get an empty card. It took me an embarrassing amount of time to realize that I needed to by a card from the gift shop.

I wrote my prayer on one of the tables surrounding the display. As I finished writing, a man started beating this big drum at the shrine, and big, commanding booms echoed all around me. It was a powerful moment; I felt tears well up in my throat and had to fight them down, back inside.

More:
Geeking Out in Tokyo
My Good Fortune at Sensoji

Finding My Way in Tokyo

The subway map I grabbed in the station came complete with its own "Tokyo Sightseeing Routes," which was handy info for my guide book-less holiday. I read some of the highlights and starred my favourites: Shibuya, Tokyo Tower, Akihabara, Sensoji Temple (check), and Tsukiji Fish Market. Combined with some attractions listed in my hostel's own guidebook (Ghibli Anime Museum, Edo-Tokyo Museum, Shinjuku, Imperial Palace, Takeshita Street, and Shibuya Crossing), I realized I was in for a busy two days. 

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The map may have been handy, but the subway itself was a mess. The map was a colourful swirl of subway lines---thirteen in total---plus trains, a monorail, and apparently even a streetcar. Unfortunately for map users, the lines are separated into two companies with two separate travel passes, and the railways and monorail are separate as well, so you have to pay attention to your route. Not only that, but I soon discovered that the unusually high number of transfer stations weren't as beneficial as I originally thought. Too many lines parallel each other, meeting at station after station---the Fukutoshin and Yurakucho Lines have nine stations together in a row! Unnecessary. And too many stations have three, four, or even five lines intersecting together, making for long walks to transfer.

I slowly made my way to Shibuya Station, where I read there was a fashion building, ichi maru kyuu, that was the "epicenter of Tokyo fashion." But when I got there, I was quickly disappointed. The area reminded me of Gangnam in Seoul: business-like and boring. I decided to go for a walk. The most exciting thing I found was another subway station.

More:
Geeking Out in Tokyo
Saying a Prayer at Meiji Jingu Shrine

My Good Fortune at Sensoji

I arrived in the land of the rising sun after the sun had set, so I had to wait until morning before I could take a look at the city sights.

 scaffolding at Sensoji

scaffolding at Sensoji

My first stop was Sensoji, a famous temple that happened to be a short walk from my hostel. Right away I could see that Japanese temples are much different from those in Korea. The main gate was mostly a red colour, unlike the colourful mix of reds, yellows, greens, blues, yellows and pinks in Korea. Through the gate, the main temple seemed to have been replaced with an arena; it was covered in big, white sheets, making it look like a new hockey rink instead of an ancient place of worship. I went inside anyways, just to make sure that there was, in fact, a temple underneath it all.

Inside was a slow-moving crowd of people, some were peering into a kind of prayer room behind a sheet of glass. I wondered if always looked like that, or if the Buddha statue and prayer area was being protected from construction. After bowing towards the Buddha, visitors tossed coins into a grate placed in front of the screen. I had never seen a grate system quite like this one before. Was it there to prevent theft, or just because the sound of clinging coins falling through the grate and into the waiting treasure box below was just so exciting and fun?

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To the left was a stack of thin wooden drawers. I watched as a few people opened a drawer, took out a sheet of paper, and walked away reading it. Overhearing a family say something about a "fortune," I realized that the papers must, in fact, be fortunes.

Even though I had never been interested in fortune-telling, I decided to give it a try anyways. I watched some more visitors. Put a coin in the slot and shake the silver cylindrical container. And then, okay, so a stick comes out of the container after you shake it. Open a drawer and take a paper. Money, shake, stick, fortune. Got it.But wait---what drawer? I decided I'd better ask someone.

I approached a family who I overheard speaking English.

"Excuse me, can you help me? How do I---"

"Put one hundred yen in here," the woman said, "shake, and a stick will come out. Choose a drawer."

"Any drawer?"

"No, the one that matches the stick."

I went to pay my hundred yen, but the woman stopped me. "No, pray first," she said. "Pray first."

So I prayed. "Dear God," I said. "I am very curious to get a fortune. I don't really like praying with my hands together or anything because this is a Buddhist place and it would feel wrong. I just want you to know that I'm curious about this. Please let me get a fortune."

Then I shook and got my stick. I saw there wasn't a number, but a Japanese character. Matching the characters on the stick and drawer was easier than I thought and soon I found my drawer. As I opened it, the woman came over again to inspect my work.

"Nineteen," she said. Oh, so they are numbers, I thought.

I showed her the drawer and she said it was right, then turned and left me alone with my fortune.

No. 19 GOOD FORTUNE IN FUTURE--

Good start, I thought.

So many troubles and problems invade your family business, everything does not go so smoothly. A tiger demonstrates his spirit too much, then you should be more modest defending its dashing, then you will be safe.

Do believe in gods earnestly, do your best, then everything will be fine in the end.

Getting wealth and happiness, you may remain with them.

*Your hopes and desire turn our to be real by half. *Take long time to recover from sickness, but life will be safe. *Most of your lost articles will not be found. *Take long time to show around the man you wait for. *Building and moving your home will be good by half. *There is no problem of travelling. *Marriage will be good by half. *There is no worry about employment.

There were some concerns---my marriage, home, and hopes and desires will be real and good "by half"? What does that mean?---but I decided to focus on the positive predictions. Steady employment is always good. Remaining in wealth and happiness sounds excellent. And problem-less travelling is a plus for a wanderer like myself. I was especially pleased to see my travel/life motto was even represented with a solid "everything will be fine in the end."

With my fortune safe in my pocket, I left the scaffolding-clad temple and hopped on the subway to explore more of the city.

More:
Finding My Way in Tokyo
Saying a Prayer at Meiji Jingu Shrine 
Geeking Out in Tokyo

Go-Stop Game

Go-Stop is a classic Korean card game. It comes from Japan, where it's called Hanafuda. It's wild, fast-paced, and anything but easy---despite what my students wrote. I tried to play it once. I went to a co-worker's dinner party and after our meal we sat down to play a card game. I'm personally a big fan of card games ('King in the Corner' and 'Weehole' are a couple personal favourites) and was excited to learn a Korean game. They pulled out the Go-Stop cards and we got started.

Learning the rules was next to impossible; they seemed to change at a whim and multiply by the dozen as the game went on. I can't even begin explaining the rules, so take a look at this explanation here.

I told myself I would learn the game and even bought myself a deck of Go-Stop cards, but I haven't had the nerve to play again. One day...

Dokdo, Korea & Japan

In spring 1592, Japanese ships landed in Busan, Korea, intending to invade the country and find passage to China. This was the beginning of the Imjin War, or Seven Years War, between Korea and Japan, and the beginning of a difficult relationship between the two East Asian countries. In the late 1800s, Japan was an emerging country that wanted to protect itself, and Korea was seen as a threat. Nothing personal; just a little too close for comfort. Japan sought to annex the country before someone else---someone more dangerous---could. To get Korea, Japan fought China for several months between 1894 and 1895 and fought Russia between 1904 and 1905, winning both. So, on 22 August 1910, Japan officially annexed Korea.

For 35 years, Koreans endured harsh colonial rule and cultural genocide

For thirty-five years, Koreans endured harsh colonial rule. This period in Korea can be considered a "cultural genocide" because of the suppression of the Korean language, removal of Korean artifacts, modification of old songs and poems to refer to Japanese emperors instead of Korean emperors, and physical alteration or destruction of Korean temples and monuments. On top of that, the Korean people suffered immeasurable pain and destruction. Some people were burned or buried alive, some men were conscripted into the Japanese military, some women were forced to serve as "comfort women" to Japanese soldiers, and some families were forced to change their surname to a Japanese name.

While some scholars argue that Korea gained some economic benefits during the Japanese Imperial Period and suggest that things could have been worse if Russia or China had won the opportunity to annex Korea instead of Japan, this period definitely didn't improve the personal relationship between the Koreans and Japanese.

Today, the Japan-Korea rivalry surfaces in the dispute over the ownership of Liancourt Rocks, two small islands known as Dokdo ("solitary island") in Korea and Takeshima ("bamboo island") in Japan. The islands, currently occupied by Korea, are located roughly halfway between South Korea and Japan in the East Sea. Small and rocky, there's not much to see on the islands, but they're located in a valuable fishing area and could potentially hold natural gas reserves. Both countries are desperately searching old documents and maps for proof of territorial claims.

In July of this year, the Japanese government decided to mention the dispute in new junior high school textbooks and claim the islands as Japanese. Around the same time, the US Board of Geographic Names changed its listing of Liancourt Rocks from South Korea to "Undesignated Sovereignty." Korean politicians and citizens protested both issues, and the US quickly reversed its decision and relisted the islands as under South Korean control. At the height of the "textbook scandal," the South Korean government temporarily removed its ambassador from Japan and protesters killed live pheasants (the Japanese national bird) in demonstrations in Seoul.

When asked to make a poster advertising Korea, one group of my students chose to make a poster advertising Dokdo. Looks like the Japan-Korea rivalry isn't going away any time soon.