Diary of a Japan Tour Guide: Dakota, Lisa, Daniel and Emily in Marunouchi & Harajuku

Japan Tour Guide (JTG) is an online portal that aims to match volunteer Japanese guides with visitors coming to Japan. Read about their tours put together for tourists by these friendly local guides in this regular column!

We received a guide request from four university students, Dakota, Lisa, Daniel and Emily from Edmonton, Canada. They wanted to enjoy biking around the Imperial Palace and visit somewhere locals like. It was their first time to come to Japan, so we, Shota Asaka and myself, Yuka Takada, took them to some exciting places in Japan! We first met up with them at Yurakucho Station.
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First, we went to Tokyo International Forum, which stands between Tokyo Station and Yurakucho Station, and is a multipurpose exhibition center. When we got there, we found out that a flea market was being held, so we strolled around for a bit before heading for the Forum Art Shop. Not only does it sell souvenirs of Japan, it also sells so many kinds of goods from all over the world! Then, we headed to the museum of Aida Mitsuo, a famous Japanese poet, which was located in the same building. All of his poems were translated into English. They all seemed to be interested in them and read them closely. There was also a place to experience calligraphy, and they tried to write some of their favorite characters with a brush. I wonder if they were able to create precious memories there.
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Next, we headed for Tokyo Station to have Soba for lunch. They all had never tried Soba before, so they looked at the menu thoroughly. We all ordered either cold or hot Soba, and some of us ordered it with a mini Tendon. Before we started to eat, Shota and I taught them a little about Japanese manners. We taught them the words “Itadaki-masu,” and “gochisou-sama”, polite phrases that Japanese say before and after eating, that is said with our hands put together to express our gratitude for the meal. I think one of the good points of traveling with locals is that you are able to learn things regular tour guides probably don’t tell during their tours.
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After having lunch, we walked towards the Imperial Palace to go biking. The weather was pleasant and the wind felt so good.
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Lastly, we went to Monster Café in Harajuku. It is really popular even among tourists from other countries these days. The ornate and unique inside of the café surprised all of them! We ordered a big parfait with five colored whip cream and ice cream. They all looked like they enjoyed Japanese “Kawaii” culture a lot there!
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After taking one last picture together, we hugged, shook hands with each other, and said goodbye.
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This is just a small look into one of the many adventures you can have with Japan Tour Guide. We are looking forward to guiding you around the city and showing you the ins and outs of Japan!

Diary of a Japan Tour Guide: Bartosz in Shibuya

Japan Tour Guide (JTG) is an online portal that aims to match volunteer Japanese guides with visitors coming to Japan. Read about their tours put together for tourists by these friendly local guides in this regular column!

We received a guiding request from Bartosz, a tourist from Poland. He wanted to visit somewhere exciting with shops and entertainment related to anime. Japanese manga and anime subculture fascinated him back in Poland that he dreamed of coming to Japan one day. The guides were both university students, Kodai Ikeda and myself, Kate Esterly. We met up with Bartosz at the Hachiko statue in Shibuya.

 

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First, we headed for Mandarake, an anime shop that widely sells mangas and classic sci-fi figure dolls. After passing the big Shibuya crossing, it was ten minutes’ walk to the shop. Bartosz was surprised to see so many mangas at once, since he has only been to smaller-scale anime shops in Poland. He decided to purchase some mangas that he couldn’t get in Poland.

 

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In the same building, we went to another anime store called ‘Animate’ which was few floors above. The shop sells all kinds of merchandise of popular anime, particularly popular among female audiences. We enjoyed reflecting on different anime from old to new as we walked through the aisle.

 

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Then we headed towards PARCO in Shibuya, a department store that consists of about 180 shops. Not only does it include fashion, shops of Japanese pop culture can be found as well. We went to the ONE PIECE MUGIWARA STORE, where it has all sorts of merchandise and gallery of the popular anime, ONE PIECE. It is a great spot to take pictures too!

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As we were getting hungry, we headed to Ichiran to eat Japanese ramen. Located in Spain-zaka, a small slope with Spanish design, Ichiran is famous for its addicting Tonkotsu soup that is pork marrow bones and fat cooked for hours. After we entered, we placed our order at the vending machine and got our tickets. We could choose our favorite toppings such as boiled eggs or extra porks too! Then we filled out our order sheets (there’s English too) to select the type of broth, spicy level, noodle hardness level, etc. The restaurant is a bar seating style, where we are seated in individual cubicles. We enjoyed our delicious meal and especially Bartosz, who ordered Japanese beer that tasted exceptionally good with ramen!

 

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Lastly, we went to Big Echo, a karaoke shop. It was Bartosz’s first-time experience to sing at karaoke. He tried to sing his favorite anime songs as much as he can with the help by Kodai. He enjoyed singing a lot. After walking back towards the station, we greeted each other and said goodbye.

 

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This is just a small look into one of the many adventures you can have with Japan Tour Guide. We are looking forward to guiding you around the city and showing you the ins and outs of Japan!

About Girl’s Day And Hina Dolls

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Here in Japan, we are about to celebrate the girl’s day known as Hina-Matsuri on March 3rd. Families with daughters usually display decorative “Hina” dolls in their homes as a way of wishing for good health.

Hina dolls come in a variety of sizes, kimonos and accessories. Some are just Emperor and Empress dolls in a glass case, others include the entire imperial family along with their belongings on a seven tiered alter.

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I remember staring at these dolls for a long time and soaking in every little detail when I was little. I was mesmerized by their intricate kimonos and decorations, and their quiet and calm expressions. Interestingly enough it never occur to me that these dolls look nothing like us.

For instance, they tend to have exceptionally fair skin, ghostly white to be quite honest. The empress’ lush black hair is tied back in a way that is bigger than her face. The crimson red lipstick and high eyebrows are something you never see in everyday life. Their cheeks are so full they could be considered chubby. And if you take a really close look at her face, you’ll see she has black teeth! Slightly different from what we now consider beautiful isn’t it?

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It is said that these features are the beauty standards of the Heian period (794 to 1185). In the Heian period food was scarce and a plump face was a clear indication of wealth and plenty, and usually meant a healthy and fertile body. Slit eyes helped to emphasize plump faces and long lush hair symbolized maturity. It seems strange to us today but blackened teeth were a popular cosmetic trend at that time. (There might have been some hygienic purpose for it.) I guess as we progress in time our needs and wants change and so does what we consider beautiful.

So what are the beauty standards of today? Maybe modern dolls can give us some answers.Two popular dolls come to my mind; Licca-chan and Blythe. (Of course, Disney princesses and Barbie dolls also have a strong fanbase in Japan, but I will stick to the Japanese products.) They both have big sparkling eyes with long eyelashes. Their rosy cheeks tell us they are young and healthy. Their faces are round but not overly plump. Oh did I mention they both have blonde hair?

After WWII, Japan was enormously influenced by the US and our aesthetic standards changed dramatically. Bigger eyes, a tall nose, slender bodies, and of course white teeth became a popular barometer for beauty among Japanese ladies. These trends are still strong nowadays. Make-up techniques that make the eyes appear bigger are in style among girls. Even plastic surgery is now well accepted. Bleached or dyed hair is everywhere. Being fat or even a little chubby is a big no-no, like in most places in the world, the skinnier the better.

Yet, even today, the Hina dolls express something beautiful and alluring. Despite the standards of aesthetics constantly changing and mass media telling young girls what they should look like, we can still appreciate the beauty of the Hina dolls.

Perhaps it’s their content expressions and century-old dignity that assure us there is something more important than looks. Confidence, kindness, wit, elegance, smarts, strength, health and a whole range of different qualities make people unique and beautiful.

The standards of beauty will evolve with time, what’s popular might change tomorrow. We sometimes get fixated with how we should look like, but as long as girls grow-up happy and healthy, and be able to define their own beauty, the dolls have achieved their purpose.

Diary of a Japan Tour Guide: Ayu in Bunkyo Ward

Japan Tour Guide (JTG) is an online portal that aims to match volunteer Japanese guides with visitors coming to Japan. Read about their tours put together for tourists by these friendly local guides in this regular column.

We received a request from Ayu, a tourist from Indonesia. She asked us if we could take her somewhere less known, where foreign tourists usually don’t go, to get to know the local Japanese culture. The guides were university students, Satoru Sekiya and Kae Nishimura. We met up with her at Todai-mae Station, and gave her a tour of great spots in Bunkyo Ward.

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University of Tokyo
First, we headed to the University of Tokyo, which is the top-ranking university in Japan. We got there in 5 minutes from the station. We saw a statue of Hachiko, but it was a little bit different from the statue of Hachiko in Shibuya. We recommend that you see both statues!

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Yushima Tenmangu Shrine
This shrine is not so far from the university. This shrine receives offerings of ema (small wooden plaques). Around this time, many students write down their wishes to pass the entrance exams into junior, senior high school and university. They pray for success to enter the school they want in April. We wrote down our wishes on ema too!

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Then, we took the subway to Korakuen Station in Bunkyo Ward, where the rest of our sightseeing spots for the day awaited us.

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Tokyo Dome City
Many Japanese people like to spend time at this popular entertainment complex in Bunkyo Ward. Tokyo Dome City consists of a baseball stadium (Tokyo Dome), amusement park, shopping mall and spa resort (LaQua). We had lunch together at a restaurant which served doria, a western-style rice casserole with white sauce, that originated in Japan! It tastes like gratin.

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Purikura
Purikura is a popular activity among Japanese students, young women and couples. These machines let you take pictures and decorate them, before printing them on sticker paper. If you have chance, go try it!

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Don Quijote
Next, we introduced her to discount chain store Don Quijote. There are about 160 stores throughout Japan. They sell many kinds of products from groceries to cosplay goods. We found a unique beauty face pack that had Kumadori (Kabuki face paint) printed on it. This could be a good souvenir for your friends!

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Koishikawa Korakuen Garden

Finally, we visited Koishikawa Korakuen Garden, adjacent to Tokyo Dome City. This is one of the oldest and best gardens among the preserved parks in Tokyo. Open hours are from 9am until 5pm, and entrance costs 300 yen. Feel as if you’ve traveled back in time to the Edo period here. After walking around the park, we went back to Korakuen Station and said goodbye.

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This is just a small look into one of the many adventures you can have with Japan Tour Guide. We are looking forward to guiding you around the city and showing you the ins and outs of Japan!

The Japan Subculture Cheat Sheet

From Atom Boy to Akihabara – everything you need to know about Subculture in Japan

 

It’s not too far off to say that every Japanese grows up on a diet of anime and manga, differing in just a matter of degree – and whether one grows out of it. Indeed, it would be hard to find any Japanese who has not heard of Doraemon, One Piece or Studio Ghibli. With such anime as a common reference for society here, why is it still called a “sub” culture, and how did cutesy characters, spaceships and Godzilla get so mainstream? WAttention spoke with up-and-coming Japanese pop culture critique Uno Tsunehiro, for a brief history of subculture in Japan.

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Godzilla and Post-War Catharsis

Godzilla, the giant radiation-breathing reptile, rampaged onto the scene prior to anime in the early 1950s. It comes under the genre of a special effects production and was a reflection of post-war Japan in its Cold War tensions and atomic age anxieties. “Since direct reference to the war was taboo, Godzilla served to do that,” said Uno, who’s also chief editor of a current affairs magazine “Planets”.

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From Manga to “TV Manga” 

At around the same time, the “god of manga” Osamu Tezuka started “story manga”, or manga with richer story lines and character development, making manga not just entertainment for children but across all ages as well. In 1966, Tezuka created the first animated TV series of his monthly manga, “Astro Boy” or “Tetsuwon Atom”. Uno says anime was then referred to as “TV Manga”, and due to high production costs, animation was limited to use of still frames and emphasis was placed on the plot instead. “Astro Boy” dealt with very poignant issues, such as death, loss and acceptance – the anime is about a flying robot created to replace the son of a scientist, who died in a car accident, and his adventures and relationships in the human world.

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Manga’s popularity gained speed and by the 70’s, manga appeared not just in monthly magazines, but took the form of weekly manga magazine instead.

 Anime and Akihabara Boom

According to Uno, Tetsuwan Atom was the first anime boom, followed by Space Battleship Yamato in the 70’s and Mobile Suit Gundam in the 80’s, and Evangelion in the 90’s. In a natural evolution, manga progressed from the page to the screen and into real life via merchandising. All sorts of posters, toys and trinkets are made to allow fans to identify themselves by the manga or anime that they identify with. Plastic models of Battleship Yamato and Gundam characters are still coveted by otakus today in Akihabara. The word “otaku” (literally, “homebody” but referring to hard core fans of anime/subculture) was coined in the 1980s – in a derogatory manner. But now, otakus declare their existence with pride, with female otakus arguing that the term isn’t gender specific.

With the advent of the internet in the late 1990s, Japanese anime exploded to worldwide popularity, and so did Akihabara, the mecca for anime and manga fans. “2005 to 2006 can be said to be when the Akihabara Boom started,” said Uno.

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No Longer a “Sub” culture?

So why are anime and manga are still referred to as a subculture, rather than being part of Japan’s culture?

“For the older generation, anime and manga will be deemed to be a subculture. But gradually, there will be nothing to stop anime and manga from being accepted as a main culture. And then, anime and manga won’t be so ‘cool’ anymore,” said Uno.

Ok, So What’s Next?

Live Idols is where the next Subculture boom lies, Uno predicts. The Live Idols concept started gained popularity from the year 2000, with the original 48-member idol girl group AKB 48 making its debut in 2005. Unlike mainstream TV idols, these Live Idols perform at a regular venue, gaining a local fan base. The concept behind Live Idols is “idols you can meet” – indeed, handshake sessions are a key part of a Live Idol’s existence, and their handshake count would put most politicians to shame. CD releases come with lottery tickets for a chance to attend a “handshake event” to meet members.

So, after quick rundown on the evolution of Japanese subculture, are you ready to unleash you inner otaku yet?

Hirosaki Neputa Matsuri Festival

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Hirosaki Neputa Matsuri Festival is designated as one of the National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Assets. Neputa is a huge fan-shaped lantern with a depicted image of warlords or legendary heroines set on the carriage. 83 carriages of lighted Neputa are pulled to the sound of drums and flutes in August from 7 pm to 10 pm daily from the 1st to the 6th, and a parade of Neputa is held from 10 am to 10:30 am on the 7th, along the main streets in the city.

http://www.city.hirosaki.aomori.jp/kanko/matsuri/natsu1.html

Access: The JR Ou Honsen Line to Hirosaki Sta.

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Omotenashi In A Ramen Bowl

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One of Japan’s biggest assets is its hospitality and the quality of service. Japanese people’s meticulousness and proactive ideas are surely a source of Japan Inc.’s promising brand. In fact, this philosophy is transcended and submerged to a course of day-to-day activities in Japan. Let’s cite an example that shows this trait.

This is a bowl of ramen noodle from TENKAIPPIN, a Kyoto-based ramen chain, known for its super-thick (viscous) soup. This thick soup has got very dense flavor (that’s why customers tend to order a small bowl of rice with ramen so they can dip rice into the soup and eat it.) and they tend to drink it up until the last drop. When the last drop of soup is finished something emerges on the very bottom of the ramen bowl.

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A sentence, “We’ll be looking forward to your visit again tomorrow.” Good surprise is surely one of the core ingredients to gain attention of customers, and ultimately leads to loyalty. But, considering having this thick soup 2 days in row – you might want to consider taking Alka-Seltzer before you hit the next round.

 

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One of the most popular Ramen restaurant chains, famous for its thick soup.

http://www.tenkaippin.co.jp/

 

Gion: Geisha Street In Kyoto

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Gion, one of the symbols of Kyoto, was founded in the Middle Ages in front of the Yasaka-jinja Shrine. It is a brilliant geisha district located on both sides of the Kamo-gawa River. The area has been developed for tourism and a part of Gion is a national historical preservation Viagra pills district. The City of Kyoto has recently completed a project to restore the streets and to preserve the original beauty of Gion.

There are beenold-style Japanese houses called machiya (townhouses), some of which have been known as ochaya (tea houses) since the late 1500′s. The patrons of Gion—from the samurai warriors to modern-day businessmen—have been entertained by maiko (geisha in training) and geisha for centuries in these traditional buildings.

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In the private world inside ochaya, the evening entertainment often includes cocktails, chatting, games, as well as traditional Japanese music, singing and dancing. Shinbashi-dori Street has some traditional ochaya and okiya (geisha houses) that you can see geisha and maiko in kimono in the evening when they walk along the street to and from their engagements. Particularly, maiko draws visitors’ attention by wearing their pokkuri, high-sold clogs.

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Gion is often mistaken for a red-light district. In fact, geisha is not prostitutes but entertainers.

Another attraction is the Yasaka-jinja Shrine, popularly called Gion-san. The shrine has a pleasant garden that is a popular site for hanami (cherry blossom viewings). The shrine is the venue for Gion Festival that attracts millions of people during the festival period in July.

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Himeyuri War Memorial

Located in southern Okinawa, Himeyuri no To (Himeyuri War Memorial) was established for the 219 high school students and teachers of the First Prefectural Girls’ High School and Women’s Normal School, who sacrificed their lives during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. They were working as war nurses in the “Himeyuri (or red Lily) Corps.” The age of girls working as nurses were between 15 to 19.
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This young nursing cohort was called the Himeyuri Corps. During the Battle of Okinawa, they were forced to join the corps. An estimated 222 students and 18 other personnel were stationed in the hospitals. They were forced to serve while under intense fire and finally, sadly killed themselves as an “honorable death” after being surrounded by the US soldiers.

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Himeyuri Peace Museum is located by the Himeyuri War Monument. A number of visitors come here to learn about the tragedy and pray for peace. At Himeyuri Peace Museum, there is a room full of pictures of Himeyuri Corps which show most of the sacrificed girl’s background and the cause of her death. Visitors will see many young faces.

 

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Nara National Museum

Photo courtesy of 663highland
Photo courtesy of 663highland

The Nara National Museum, situated in the Nara Park, is one of the four prominent national museums in Japan, along with Tokyo, Kyoto and Kyushu. It houses about 1,400 collection items which are extensively represented by Buddhist art including a number of National Treasures and Important Cultural Properties.

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The museum was founded in 1889 during the Meiji Period as the Imperial Nara Museum, in concurrence with its counterparts in Tokyo and Kyoto, and was opened to the public in 1895. The original building, designated as an Important Cultural Property, represents a fine example of the Meiji-Period Western style architecture.

The museum offers both permanent and special exhibitions in its four galleries, with the latter held twice a year in spring and fall. In fall it hosts the annual Shoso-in exhibition, which is the world’s most visited exhibition attracting around 15,000 audience per day.

The two-week exhibition, started in 1946, provides a rare opportunity to see a selection of exquisite treasures from the 8th century stored in Shoso-in Repository of the adjacent Todai-ji Temple. The collections belonged to Emperor Shomu and his wife Komyo, who were the founder of the temple, and include many exotic objects brought to Japan through the Silk Road.