Friday, December 26, 2008

Merry Christmas 2008

I sincerely wish all the readers of this blog, and their family a very merry Christmas. I hope you will have a good time and forget the worries of the time.
The picture has been shot in Ryoanji (竜安寺) à Kyoto just after a snowfall. The temple is reknown for its stone garden, which is quite suprising under a show cover.
You way continue your reading by an article written last year about Christmas and the New Year in Japan
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International couples with a Japanese partner

Living in a foreign country certainly makes someone more vulnerable. Whether as a student or an expat, this is an easy time for starting a relationship. Those seem more frequent between European men and Japanese women. This may be because Japan mainly attracts western males, and Europe is more to the taste of Japanese women. Maybe this is also due to the fact both are used to the active role in romance in their own country. It seems anyways that falling in love is more common abroad. The attraction of an unknown culture, the interest of discovering even the most insignificant details of daily life far away from home, and, it has to be said, less acuity in evaluating the beauty of someone from another ethnic group, all this makes the “love blindness” more acute than in a normal relationship. However, if the beginnings are straightforward, life as an international couple is not easy to organize. This article gathers, for what they are worth, some pieces of advices.

A couple feeds on mutual respect. However, in this case, there is strong temptation to establish a hierarchy between the two countries: Europeans will look down on the chaotic planning and architecture of Japanese cities, the sometimes inefficient relentless Japanese way of working, and the specificities of local politics. Japanese people will despise train strikes, dirty streets and indifferent service in restaurants. However, this is very dangerous for the couple: even if one is aware of his country limitations, nobody likes to be taught a lesson from a foreigner. And any attempt to put a hierarchy between the countries will immediately be understood as an attempt to create the same order inside the couple. One should be especially wary on information about the partner’s country in internet forums, blogs and expatriate sites: some western sites gather some very debatable information on life in Japan, with doubtful shortcuts being commonplace. One common mistake made is to describe a marginal behavior, which can be shocking in any country, as the norm.
It is probably much wiser to declare once and for all that Europe and Japan are equally developed, which is actually true if living standards are compared. This does not forbid from discussing, with kindness and a sense of humor, the typical drawbacks from a country or another, and even to actually enjoy it, as this is part of the pleasures of travel: a European café needs a busy and rough waiter as a Japanese train line needs an employee waving a small red flag on the platform for the “experience” to be genuine.
It is also important to respect the efforts the uprooted spouse to adapt to a new environment. This is never easy, and at times discouraging. This is an excellent time to prove attachment to ones partner by helping and listening. On the contrary, if the blues of the partner is seen only as an obstacle to watching the football game or going out with friends in the latest trendy restaurant in Daikanyama, it can be quite a destructive experience for the couple.

A couple is made of affection between spouses, but it is also the choice of a common lifestyle that is acceptable to both partners. In this case, there are several challenges: the choice of a home country will mean at least one spouse will be far away from family, the country culture and products, and very likely, this will also decrease career opportunities. Internet allows for free communications and access to the origin country news, but this is not everything. You need to have been an expatriate to understand this strong need for a special meal you are used to since childhood: despite the outstanding Japanese food, after one year in Tokyo, I would have happily exchanged a diamond for a good “saucisson lyonnais”, the sausage from my home town. I believe it is important to speak with one’s partner of the life envisioned for the future before taking any hard commitment. Settling abroad is never insignificant, and very often, the spouse living in his or her home country will not be aware of the difficulties, especially if he or she never experienced living in another country. A decent compromise is probably to settle in one country, but to keep open the possibility of coming back to the other country if circumstances are appropriate. This will reduce the pressure for the expatriate partner to ‘integrate at all costs’, and so increase the rate of success. Settling abroad is of course easier if the expatriate spouse has an interest in the host country.
Japan is a very urban country. This certainly has drawbacks, from crowded trains to cramped houses. However, those are also vibrant cities: shops open at any hour, any show or cultural activity you can think of, numerous excellent restaurants, and very fashionable boutiques: all this is usually less than a few subway stops away. If a Japanese person from a metropolis (Tokyo, Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto, but also Nagoya, Hiroshima or Fukuoka) comes to Europe, the same opportunities are only available in the biggest metropolises. In France, Paris would definitely be OK, and Marseille Lyon or Toulouse may be tolerable. Settling in a small town may be a shock for a Japanese person. This is even more acute in American suburbia, where, despite excellent living conditions, life is so far away from Japanese cities.


A trip back to see the family may cost more than 1000 Euros for the spouse with a far-off family. Imported products and books may be hard to find and very expensive. A simple Japanese magazine may cost between 10 and 15 Euros in a Japanese shop in Paris, and it will be impossible to find it in other French cities. Japanese people settling in France, even from modest origin, are used to clean and safe street, and to an excellent quality of service. They will adapt better to pleasant downtown districts than to plebeian suburbs. The other way round, a European person settling in Tokyo will feel better at ease in a pleasant district with large avenues and parks. This is why money will go a long way in a successful expatriation. Also, many young adults are living at their parent’s place and use their whole salary (often around 1500 Euros monthly) as pure pocket money. If they settle with their spouse in Europe, their standard of living will certainly erode significantly. I could not recommend enough building estimates of the couple budget, and the way of life that could be achieved (housing location and size, holidays...), before taking any hard commitment.
Some practical details, such as the combination of pension benefits from two countries, should be studied in details. Double contributions are extremely costly and can reduce income by 20%. There are some agreements though between European countries and Japan (The agreement between France and Japan was signed in 2005, and deployed in 2007), and the situation has been improving a lot, but it is anyways better to check. Career opportunities in Japan for European people should be realistically evaluated. Even with a good position in a multinational company, it is not always easy to find a similar job in the Japanese subsidiary of the company. And this is the most favorable case: the professional horizon for many foreigners is limited to conversation teacher, a precarious position with limited income that some people may also find unpleasant. This may be a good second salary in a couple, but may not be enough to raise a family.

Whatever your opinion on couples that do not want to wed, immigration laws are such that it is often compulsory to get married to be able to live together. In certain cases, only the Shengen tourism visa (3 months of stay every 6 months) is available for a non-married spouse visiting Europe. And this is not the only reason to get married: the expatriate partner will feel more secure moving to another country with the couple having an official status. Also, unmarried couples are exceptional in Japan, where less than 5 percent of children are born out of wedlock. Wedding will be an almost compulsory step, and it may come slightly sooner than ideally wished. Japanese families will however not easily accept a wedding if the man is still a student, as they consider he does not yet have a job to sustain a family. Most Japanese ladies will also wish to work for a few years in Japan after they graduate before getting married and maybe following their husband in his country. Also, it seems to be easier for families to accept their children’s chosen ones when they are in their late twenties or early thirties, as this may be seen as one of the last opportunities to “marry on schedule”. This is not actually specific to international couples.

Terrifying letters on one side, absurd grammar on the other side, Japanese and some European languages (especially French) are amongst the most complex to learn. Some international couples communicate in English, others in Japanese or their mother European language, if one of them learnt it at university. The truth is that learning a new language as a young adult why having a full-time job is difficult for most people. This is however compulsory, as only reasonable abilities in the spouse language will allow a good communication with the families, and speaking the language of the country of residence will help with integration. As it is often hard to start working on a list of “Kanjis” back from work at 10pm, a 3 to 6 months sabbatical to learn the spouse language in the country may be a good idea.
Ways of life

Some people explain the difficulties of international couples by complex cultural differences due to the gap between Christian and pagan philosophy. This may be true, but the more mundane differences between the ways of life are also important. In the couple’s home, shoes can be either worn (European style) or taken off (Japanese style). The bath can be in the morning (European style) or before sleeping (Japanese style). Young Japanese ladies usually spend the last weeks of their pregnancy in their parent’s home, whereas they would stay in their marital home in Europe. Women usually manage the couple money in Japan, whereas this is more a shared decision in Europe. Holidays are short and luxurious in Japan, whereas in Europe they are longer and often just mean going to a relative’s house in the countryside. Grocery is bought everyday in Japan, every week in Europe. Good beef meat does not include fat in Europe, whereas it does in Japan. Also, Japanese people do not like surprises, and will appreciate that a schedule is established and respected. So the couple will have to decide on all those lifestyle topics of varying importance, with the good solution probably a compromise between the ways of life of the two origin countries. It is probably better to discuss the most important items before moving together.
Those few lines may have convinced that building an international couple is not trivial. Sharing another culture is a wonderful experience, but this also includes important constraints. Honest communication is key to anticipate difficulties, and find a middle way acceptable for both.
Additional Informations

Previous stories have been published on Japanese couples, and about life as an expatriate in Japan.

I would be glad to complete this story with your experience. I will enrich the topic with the best comments.
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Sunday, December 14, 2008

Nikko under the snow

The beauty of Japan is sometimes hard to grasp. Just like a bitter vegetable or a glass of red wine, you sometimes need to taste it several time to really appreciate, besides Tokyo (東京) old concrete the small charming gardens and neighborhoods. Even Kyoto (京都), the historical capital mixes centuries-old temples with pachinko parlors and crappy flats. There are however some pure instants of fleeting beauty : cherry blossoms in a remote countryside, a temple lost in the forest, or a neighborhood garden set alight by autumn colors at dawn. I was lucky enough to visit Nikko temples (日光) during a snowfall.
The town of Nikko is at the foot of the North Kanto (関東) mountains, around one hundred kilometers from Tokyo. Recorded history starts there in the 8th century when a monastery is founded by a famous Buddhist monk. It became a famous training center for monks before going back to obscurity until the 17th century, when it is chosen for the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康), the general who succeeded in unifying Japan. He was buried there in 1617, and it is during that year that his grandson Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川 家光) started the construction of the shrine and the mausoleum that is still visited today.
Even without the additional charm of a snowfall, Nikko is with Kamakura (鎌倉) a must-see historical sites in Tokyo surroundings. Its style is atypical in Japan: most of the monuments dears to the Japanese hearts have a plain style. They use beautiful raw materials and elegant composition. Nikko temples on the other hands have exuberant colors and overloaded decorations by the finest craftsmen of the time. This may be why some Japanese people despise them. Anyways, the contrast between those finely carved monuments and the beautiful cedar forest is very pleasant. The impression is probably closer from the Palatine chapel in Palermo than from the Zen gardens of Kyoto, but one can spend hours to admire the details of the bas-reliefs, with a thought for the fifteen thousands workers who had been building the monuments for two long years. And anyways, 5 minutes of Japanese television will convince anyone that the country culture is also made of bright colors fighting each other.
The main monument is Toshogu (東照宮,) it hosts the grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu, and is located in a nice forest that can become very atmospheric in the fog or, as in this beautiful morning, under the snow. The temple is reached by a long path with a 5 storey pagoda on the left. Its structure is very ingenious: the main axis of the pagoda does not touch the ground, so that it can be used as a counterweight in case of an earthquake. A similar solution is now used in modern high-rise buildings. Back to the Nikko alley, with the trees covered of snow and the foggy atmosphere, one would not be surprised to see a horde of wolves or maybe an Oni, a local ogre, appear from behind the trees. After reaching the first door of the monument, one can see the famous 3 monkey carved in wood, representing the Buddhist precept of ‘see no evil, hear no evil, tell no evil”. A picture of them is included in every Japanese guidebook, and, just like Mona Lisa, I must confess I was slightly disappointed by the crows and their relative small size.
However, the other buildings of the complex are outstanding, and, in this snowy morning, the bright colors seem ever livelier surrounded by the white snow. The contrast between the smooth carvings of the bas-relief and the rugged texture of fresh snow is striking. And any ray of sunlight will transform the temples in a baroque orgy of colors that would perfectly fit to Mozart’s requiem. The first monumental door is the Youmeimon(陽明門). It is the most decorated, and the legend has it that one of the pillar was mounted upside down as the craftsman was afraid the gods would be jealous of such a perfect masterpiece. The wall just right of the door is decorated by superb colourfull carvings surrounded by stone lanterns. Going up a stairs, visitors enter the inner shrine through the beautiful Koreimon (唐門).
A small path on the right leads to the inner shrine (Okusha奥社) through a long and mysterious stair in the forest. Even if the architecture is less impressive, the feeling of entering the holiest place, the grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu, is worth the ascent. The mausoleum is very Japanese in its simplicity, quite a surprise after the exuberant decoration of the Toshogu.
The Toshogu temple is the main reason to come to Nikko, but other historical sites are worth the visit: the Rinnoji temple (輪王寺) and the futarasan (二荒山), in the vicinity of Toshogu. Nikko is also surrounded by beautiful mountains: Chuzenji lake (中禅寺湖) appeared when a lava flow closed the valley, the famous Kegon falls (華厳の滝) and the Senjogahara swamps(戦場ヶ原) are very pleasant from June. The region is certainly worth a two or three days trip.
You may want to continue your reading by this story about Autumn in Japon.
Practical Information

The temples are at the end of Nikko main street, on the hill just the other side of the river. From Nikko station, you should turn right and walk around 30 minutes. Alternatively, you can board the bus from platform 1 or 2 up to Shinkyo station (神橋) (Y190, 1.60 Euro).

You can make the trip more pleasant by boarding the limited express « Tobu Spacia » which will allow you a VIP crossing of Tokyo’s never-ending northern suburbs (1h50, Y2720, 22.60 Euro). You may have to change trains at Shimoimaichi (下今市). The trip is more pleasant and the seats more comfortable than in the standard service from the Tobu line (東武伊勢崎線快速, 2h04, Y1320 11 Euro departure every hour).

Travelers with a generous budget may want to spend the night in the « Classic Hotel »Nikko Kaneya (日光金谷ホテル). The others may also stay at the nearby Kinugawa-Onsen (鬼怒川温泉) hot springs popular resort, a few minutes train away(from 20 to 30 minutes, train change in Shimoimaichi, Y300, 2.5 Euros).

The town also has a JR station, with a less convenient service (45 minutes from Utsunomiya宇都宮)

The Nikko Tourist Association site ( offers detailed information in English.
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Saturday, November 29, 2008

Japanese couples

A few westerners come to Japan with a mission: to liberate the poor suffering Japanese women from their macho society and their awkward men. They will teach them LOVE. This self assigned role is certainly gratifying, but one can be forgotten for failing to identify most expats in Japan as modern-day Casanovas. And actually most of my Japanese female colleague has many good things to say about the men of their country. While they acknowledged the relative lack of love declaration and roses, their boyfriends were usually kind, patient, and mindful of their desires. Far from the worn-out clichés, Japanese couples try to balance love, material life and social demands. The constraints are quite different from the west, but this does not mean the couples are less successfull.
The first love affair often happens while a teenager in the West. In Japan, high school is the toughest period of the educative system: most ambitious middle-class children aim at joining the best universities, which will give them an ideal career start, and work day and night to succeed. Teenage crisis and discovery of the other gender is often postponed to university, in the early twenties. Young couples are a very private affair. Japanese people seldom introduce their significant other to their parent before things get really serious, and more often than not, they will go alone to parties with friends. Japan is often described as a society where the group primes the individual, but it seems Japanese people defend even more their private life from outside intrusions. This goes a great length in explaining the success of “love hotels”, those flashy buildings where rooms are rent by the hour: couples can spend some time together without family or neighbors being aware of anything. Japan culture does not share Christian taboos, and while it is common to wait for a few weeks to ensure the relation is sincere before spending a night together, nobody seems to wait up to the wedding, a practice which is still common amongst religious people in the west.
After graduation and the integration in a Japanese company, people usually start considering marriage. A few people already met their partner at university, especially in student “circles”. Other may fall in love with a colleague. However, most “salarymen” (employees) have long work days, which do not leave much time to find a mate. Young people organize time-efficient go-kons (合コン), small parties with an equal number of men and women, typically 6 to 10 people, hoping that a few couples will be made. An efficient “Go-kon” organizer is a coveted friend. Although the tradition is almost lost now, there is also « omiai » (お見合い), the famous Japanese weddings arranged by the family. Resumes with a picture are circulating between the young people relative, and introduction meetings are organized between potential mates. I only heard about this practice from friends in the countryside, and it seems to be very marginal nowadays.
Romance usually last a few years, and include several “dates”. The inevitable ones include Christmas, where couples go out. All the trendy places are booked months in advance. On Valentine day, women offer chocolate to their men, and during the “White Day” one month later, the man has to offer a present double the value. Many couples only choose to settle together while married, and stay at their parent’s home or their single flat until that day.
Wedding (kekkon, 結婚) can be celebrated in a number of ways. The traditional Japanese way happens at a Shinto Shrine, but Christian ceremonies are very popular, as they remind of the Hollywood movies, up to the western priest. It is said that quite often, those priests also double up as English conversation teachers or bartenders during weekdays. A great Japanese wedding ceremony lasts for a whole afternoon and includes family, company colleagues and also the business relations of the parents. Some young couples prefer a more intimate setting by organizing a “restaurant wedding” with only friends and the close family. Wedding registration at the town hall is just paperwork, a form to fill at the counter without any ceremony of any sort.
It is very uncommon to have children while not married, even if children born out of wedlocks are since a few years ago equal in law with legitimate ones. Contraception is also less sophisticated than in the west, the “pill” is not so common and generally has a bad reputation. So there are many “dekichatta kekkon” weddings, organized because the bride is pregnant. The expression has a connotation of “wedding after a mistake”. Everything is organized in a hurry, sometimes without a ceremony: it seems the marketing efforts of the industry to promote all inclusive packages for "sazukarikon" (授かり婚), or ‘priceless wedding’ are not yet bearing their fruits. Everybody will do its best not to notice a child will be born 6 months after. This is anyways a quite common situation, some people say it represents close to half the weddings in the country. I sometimes wonder if some young Japanese people were choosing it consciously in order not to have to negotiate the wedding with their future spouse family. As young Japanese people do not usually introduce their significant other to their family before they decide to marry, some parents learn about the existence of the spouse, the child and the wedding at the same minute, which must be quite an emotion. Pregnancy is followed up more closely by doctors than in the west, and the woman usually spends the last weeks of pregnancy at her parent’s home. This can seem a shocking custom, but it is actually quite convenient in a country where most young men work very long hours.
The situation of women in the workforce has been evolving a lot. The tradition used to be that women quit their job when they marry, but this is very marginal now. However, if both the groom and the bride work in the same company, the woman usually quits her job. Limiting the amount of gossip is certainly a significant motivation for the move. It does not prevent the bride from finding a job in another company though. Almost all Japanese women continue working until they bear their first child. With the decline of the birth rate, companies anyways have to hire women employees. However, most women have “second rate” careers as a result of child bearing, which means some ambitious women may differ wedding until quite late to ensure they stay on the “fast track”. Hospitals and many public services offer nursery to their employees, but many women in the private sector also continue to work while having young children by leaving them in the public nurseries (takujisho, 託児所). There are of course waiting lists in major cities. In addition to emancipation, there are also economic reasons for female work: incomes got lower during the decade of economic crisis, and life employment is less and less common: a second income allows the household to limit risks. The extended family, especially the grandparents, takes a significant part in the children education, and the father is also doing more and more. There is at least a good thing in Japan for working mothers compared to Europe: it is easy to buy already prepared good food at a price very close to the one of the raw ingredients, which may help a busy woman with the preparation of family meals.
Japan does not have enough children, and it is thought, probably naively, this is because the couples do not spend enough time ‘very close to each other’. But asking Japanese couples why they do not have bigger families, the answers always boil down to the cost of child bearing: lodging is expensive, and so is food, even bought in bulk. Not all medical costs are covered by the social security security system. And education is an expensive affair: private schools and universities are very expensive. The tax system is also less favorable to families with children than in most Western countries with a decent birth rate. One additional child may be the difference between a comfortable middle-class life and a precarious existence with no money left on the 20th of each month. “Career women” will also often postpone their wedding until their late thirties, which does not help the birth rate.
Tradition is that the wife gets the husband salary and manages the household finance, and leaves to the husband some limited pocket money (okozukai, お小遣い). It seems this is still common, and it certainly gives women the last word in the household matters. Most advertisers aim their commercials to women. As school curriculum is quite strict in Japan, it is not easy for a family to move to another town while children are at school: the children would lose the advantages of being enrolled in a good school. So there is a common situation of “remote couples” (tanshinfunin, 単身赴任), where the wife stays in town with the children, and the husband goes working at the other end of Japan for a few years, only coming back every week at best, or more realistically every month. This is usually well accepted. Japanese people usually keep more personal freedom after wedding. It is quite common to go out without ones spouse for a party with colleagues and friends. Japanese companies are famous for organizing parties to strengthen the cohesion between coworkers, which does not help employees to have a family life. Those parties are however less and less common, as they cannot be passed as company expenses anymore. I heard mostly of weekly and more commonly monthly parties, whereas daily drinking seemed to be the norm during the eighties.
Divorce (rikon, 離婚) is more and more common in Japan, even if it is less prevalent than in the West: some couples seem to defer the break-up until the children education is over, which may explain the recent trend of “aged people divorce”. But not all couples are drifting. Most of the middle-aged people I met in Japan seemed to love their spouse, or at least they had respect for each other and found a way of life that was suitable for both. Most of the young couples I talked to were very similar to the ones in the west: a Japanese friend of mine even adapted his career to allow his wife to accept an out-of-town promotion, and young fathers seem to help educating their children as much as they can despite their very busy working lives.
You may want to continue your reading with this story about international couples with a japanese partner.
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Saturday, November 15, 2008

Red leaves in Japan

Enjoying seasons is at the heart of Japanese life. Cherry blossoms in spring are the most famous sights but autumn can also be very pleasant : at the end of november, parks and forests are covered with beautiful bright colors. More than in Europe, there are glorious sunny days at that time of the year, the light going through the leaves with blue sky in background and the pure cold air is a wonderful sensation. This is certainly worth a trip, at least as much as the humid summer and its fireworks, or Sprint and its flowers.
The tradition of walks in the autumn forest goes back to the Heain era, where Momijigari (紅葉狩り), or « maple hunting » was a refined hobby for noblemen. Maples (紅葉Momiji), especially the Japanese species, take bright red colors in autumn. Most Japanese gardens and temples include, in addition to the sakura trees, a few maple trees that will delight the visitors in autumn. This is even more enjoyable as the colder weather makes it hard for Japanese party-goers to eat, get drunk and listen to a portable karaoke machine under the trees. The atmosphere is more contemplative, which is perfectly suited to the season.
The best places to enjoy autumn leaves are the famous gardens and temples: it may be a very good time for a trip to Nikko or Hakone, and probably the best time to visit Kyoto, even if most accommodation will be fully booked in that period. Temples of the quiet neighborhood of Arashiyama (嵐山), especially Joojakkooji (常寂光字) offer outstanding sights. One of the most beautiful spot is Tofukuji (東福寺) temple. Kyomizudera (京都), uphill from Kyoto, is as great for red leaves as for cherry blossoms. In Uji (宇治), Mimurodo temple (三室戸寺) garden also has a great garden. It is in a remote place, and not that crowded. In Kansai, the ancient city of Nara is also certainly worth a visit.
If you cannot arrange to visit the best sights, or if you prefer the more transient feelings of daily life, you may enjoy a simple walk in the suburbs of any major Japanese city. You will find there beautiful maple trees stuck between a wall, an electric and a phone line. The smallest neighborhood park, with its two old benches and its plastic children toys will take outstanding colors. Even this small garden stuck between two grey office buildings downtown is worth a visit. It is certainly less impressive than the temples mentioned in the guidebooks, but those small spots of wilderness in the ocean of concrete are more moving.
Autumn is also a great season for a walk in the Japanese forest. Ome valley (青梅), a few kilometers outside Tokyo is a wonderful place for some hiking. If you manage to get a room, a stay in a remote onsen will be a great experience. The cool autumn air makes even more pleasant the rotenburos (露天風呂, hot springs with an outside pool).
After those outings, you will get very hungry, so you may want to taste a few chestnuts, or a grilled sanma (焼き秋刀魚), the seasonal fish, or rice with Matsutake (松茸), one of the most delicious Japanese mushroom. The wintry weather may also be a good time to have the first nabe (鍋), of the year, a pot dish cooked on the table in front of the guest.
Informations pratiques

Hébergement: Hotel bookings: You may find hotels in Kyoto solidly booked in the « Koyo » season. It will however always be easy to find an hotel in Osaka, especially on week-ends. From there, you are only 40 minutes away from Tokyo and 30 minutes away from Nara by train. In case you cannot book a hotel in Nikko, you may give a try to the nearby Kinugawa onsen resort, which has a large room capacity.

Access to Ome valley: Chuo line (中央線) from Shinjuku (新宿) to Tachikawa(立川), then Ome line (青梅線), with a transfert at Ome (青梅) for the train bound for Oku-Tama (奥多摩). There are also direct trains from Shinjuku to Ome.

Access to Tofukuji temple: JR Nara line (JR奈良線), Tofukuji (東福寺駅) station from Kyoto station, or Keihan line (京阪線) Tofukuji station (東福寺駅) from Osaka yodoyabashi (淀屋橋) ou Kyoto Keihansanjo (京阪三条). Entrance fee: Y400 (around 3 Euros), address: 京都府京都市東山区本町15-778 Honcho tozan-Ku Kyoto-Shi Kyoto-Fu

Access to Joojakkooji temple:15 minutes walk from JR Saga-Arashiyama (嵯峨嵐山) l Sanyo Honsen line (JR山陰本線), (20 minutes from Kyoto, Y230). Access also possible from the terminal station (Arashiyama) of the streetcar KeifukiDenkiTetstudo (京福電気鉄道) gare de Arashiyama. The line starts on Shijo avenue in Kyoto center at Shijo Omiya station (四条大宮), 22 minutes trip from Shijo Omiya, Y200 (around 1.5 Euros).

Access Mimurodo-Ji temple : 京都府宇治市菟道滋賀谷21Todo, Uji-shi, Kyoto. Entrance fee Y500, 5 minutes walk from Mimurodo station on Keihan Uji line (京阪宇治線), with a transfer at Chushojima (中書島) from Kyoto or Osaka. From the station, take the road crossing the keihan line just in front of the station exit and heading for the mountains.

Japanese weather forecast sites propose a red leaf forecast service. Yahoo Japan’s site is : Similarly to cherry blossoms, the peak time moves from north to south. In northern Japan, the best colors can be seen from mid-october, while in Kyoto or Tokyo, the best time is at the end of November.

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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Shitamachi, Tokyo low town

While the hills of the Yamanote (山手) area were housing the Japanese noblemen during the Edo era (16th to 18th century), the plain in the north of Tokyo (東京) was the heart of the plebeian city. Shitamachi (下町), literally “low town” was originally used to designate Nihonbashi (日本橋), Ginza (銀座) and Ueno (上野), but the word now refers to all neighborhoods north of a Shinjuku (新宿) – Ginza (銀座) line. Other cities in Japan also imported the name to designate similarly working class areas. Only a few minutes walk from a subway station is enough to leave trendy and noisy modern Tokyo and dive into those delightful quiet and outmoded area, a perfect cure to the hustle and bustle of the metropolis.
Shitamachi does not offer spectacular tourist sights, but untouched islands of traditional Japanese town with their chaos of small houses often decorated with a few flowerpots. Shops are often as out of fashion as their aging owners. Between the houses, some warehouses and cottage industries are still open for business. The population is usually quite old: most young people overlook those areas as they do not offer all the facilities of modern life despite a far better location than most residential suburbs. A walk in those areas offers a rare glimpse of postwar Japan, a frugal era where the country was not the economic powerhouse it is today. The small size of the houses and cheap layout of the stores is a good reminder of the frugal life of the postwar generation now in retirement. The most pleasant is to walk randomly in the streets. A compass can come in handy to follow a given direction and find back, after a few minutes walk, a major avenue.
An interesting walk starts in Iidabashi (飯田橋). While our goal is to visit the « low city », we will first walk uphill on Kagurazaka street (神楽坂); a quite trendy area in Tokyo, with some kind of French touch. If you feel in adventurous mood, the nearby alleys are certainly worth a visit. After two left turns, we will take on our right the “Waseda Dori” (早稲田通り) avenue, walk in front of the Kagurazaka subway station and continue for around half an hour in this quiet area of Tokyo. Just after the Waseda subway station, we will reach the campus of the most famous Japanese private university: Waseda Daigaku (早稲田大学). It has an excellent academic level, but, just like for American universities, it is also possible for the sons of the rich and famous to enter if they follow the expensive private lessons offered by the university from primary school. At the Nishi-Waseda (西早稲田) crossing, we will turn right and head north to our first objective: the final station of the streetcar Arakawa line (荒川線). This being a post in my blog, you were probably expecting some kind of railway to pop-up and you were right.

This venerable line is one of the two survivors of the streetcars of Tokyo (the other is the Setagaya line). It goes through many low-key areas that are not well deserved by other public transport means. You will need 50 minutes to ride the 13 kilometers of the line going north-westward to the Minowabashi (三ノ輪橋) terminal. This is an excellent way to discover areas that are not mentioned in any tourist guide. On the way, you may want to stop at Otsuka (大塚), and from there visit Sugamo (巣鴨), the shopping center of elderly people, just a train station away. The Rikugien park (六義園) is worth a short stop, as is the surprising Kyu-Furukawa-Teien (旧古河庭園), a surprising upper-class mansion in this otherwise working class neighbourhood. It is worth riding the streetcar up to the terminal station, which has an interesting architecture. Nearby covered streets have a feeling of small-town Japan. Let’s hope this streetcar, who is in competition with the more modern « Fukutoshin » (副都心) and « Nippori – Tonari Liner » (日暮里舎人ライナー) transit systems opened recently will not be retired. Minowabashi is also close to the famous “slum” of Sanya (山谷), which is not a recommended place to go for a walk. Eldery and poor daily workers, almost exclusively males, often working on construction sites, are living there. Contrary to the working class but socially integrated inhabitants of Shitamachi, they may not appreciate your visit.
After a ride on the subway, we are back in Ueno (上野), the most « working class » of the major urban centers in Tokyo. It used to be the arrival station for immigrants from poor areas in the Tohoku region (North East of Japan). It is famous for its park, which contains, in addition to the very nice National Museum, a small Shitamchi Museum. It is close to the south-eastern end of the Ueno pond, just nearby the Keisei (京成) train terminal. From Ueno, it is very pleasant to walk to Yanaka (谷中). To reach it, we will go back to the far end of the Uneo Park, and turn left on the street crossing the park just in front the National Museum. This street goes to the Yanaka cemetery, crossing through one of the quiestest areas in town. It is easy then to reach the Nippori station, and enjoy the small shops of the “Yanaka Ginza” street.
From Ueno, it is only a short trip to Kappabashi (合羽橋). This is a cluster of kitchen ustensil shops, the ideal place to find original or rare kitchen wares. Most shops were built decades ago and are worth a visit even if you do not wish to buy anything. The nearby area has been urbanized for a long time, but is still very “working class”.
Other neighbourhoods are also worth a random walk in the streets. Hongo (本郷) is a quiet oasis just behind the Tokyo Dome. It is also close to Tokyo University campus, that can be reached by a pleasant walk northward. The area east of the campus, just across Hongo-Dori avenue is well preserved, and there are still 3 storeys wooden appartments there, including the famous Hongo-Kan (本郷館, just nearby the address Hongo 6-20本郷6丁目20). Nezu (根津) is also worth a visit. The commercial street follows a small valley and will lead you directly to Nishi-Nippori (西日暮里).
While this is a little bit off-track, the Edo-Tokyo museum is also interesting. The building has a shape that reminds of a dinosaur or some star wars vehicules, but its exhibitions on urban life in the city centuries agowill pleasantly complete a walk in Shitamachi.
Practical Information

The areas presented in this story are certainly worth more than a day of visit.

Shitamachi Museum (下町風俗資料館): 2-1 Ueno Koen, Tokyo, 〒110-0007
台東区上野公園2番1号, : Y300, open every day except Monday and on the new Year, Tel : +81 3 3823 7451, Japanese site. Just nearby Uneo station (JR Yamanote et subway Hibiya (日比谷線) & Ginza (銀座線) lines)

Edo-Tokyo Museum (江戸東京博物館): 1-4-1 Yokoami, Sumida-ku, Tokyo 130-0015, Tel 03-3626-9974, open every day except Monday from 9.30am to 5.30pm et up to 7.30pm on saturday. Entrance fee : Y600. Volonteer guides propose interesting guided visits, and speak a variety of languages. Access by JR Sobu line (総武線) et par subway Oedo line (大江戸線), Ryogoku station (両国), English site.

Toden Arakawasen (都電荒川線) Flat fare : Y160, departures from Waseda (早稲田) or Minowabashi (三ノ輪橋) from 6am to around 11pm, one train every 5 or 6 minutes on peak hours, japanese site. Access to Minowabashi by the Hibiya subway line (日比谷線), Minowa (三ノ輪) station.

Rikugien Park (六義園): Bunkyo-ku, Hon-Komagome, Rokuchome 〒113-0021文京区本駒込六丁目, Open from 9am à 5pm (last entrance 4.30pm), closed between December 29th and January 1st., Entrance fee : Y300. japanese site.Close to JR Yamanote Sugamo and Komagome station, the latter also reachable by the subway Nanboku line.

Kyu-FurukawaTeien Park (旧古河庭園): Nishigahara Ichome, kita-ku, Tokyo 〒114-0024北区西ヶ原一丁目Open from 9am à 5pm (last entrance 4.30pm), closed between December 29th and January 1st., entrance fee : Y150. Japanese site. Close to Komagome and Nishigaoka stations (subway Nanboku line).

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

A day in Osaka

Modern Japan is definitely a materialistic society, and Osaka metropolis (大阪) is leading this trend. This is the least one can expect from a town where the traditional greeting, now slightly out-of-date, is « Mokarimakka ». An approximate translation would be « How is business? » or « Did you make any money today ? », a refreshing sincerity I found elsewhere only recently in a surprising greeting card wishing me “Big bucks and a good health” for the new Year. Osaka was, for the most of Japanese history, the economic center of the country. More than the great rival and more recently urbanized Tokyo (東京) with its villages and parks, Osaka is the quintessential Japanese town, vibrant, noisy, and very likeable.
For French or English people, the rivalry between Tokyo and Osaka regions is hard to imagine. There are of course sports duels between the baseball teams: Yomiuri Giants (読売巨人) in Tokyo and Hanshin Tigers (阪神タイガー). There is also a gap in behaviors between the exuberant Kansai dwellers, always ready to make an exhibition of themselves, and Tokyo people remaining aloof in all circumstances. The Tantei Knight Scoop (探偵ナイトスクープ) television show produced in the Kansai region is amongst the best examples of the inhabitants taste for making fun of themselves. The region also has its special Japanese dialect, Kansai-ben, quite distinct from the Edo dialect that became standard Japanese. You will be called “Aho” in Osaka, whereas you would be a “baka” in Tokyo, both words used to mean you are a fool. There are enough distinct words so that, in addition to the colorful accent, Kansai-ben can be immediately distinguished from standard Japanese.
Osaka is at the heart of the Osaka-Kobe-Kyoto (京阪神) region, with 18 millions inhabitants on an equivalent area to Greater Paris, with 2.6 million inhabitants in the downtown area. Called “Yamato” in the past, this plain was at the heart of Japanese history until the Shogunate moved the country administrative center to Tokyo in the 17th century. Osaka, formerly called Naniwa (難波) was even the Japanese capital in early times. The giant keyhole-shaped grave of the Emperor Nintoku (仁徳天皇, 4th century), in Sakai is one of the most impressive remains of its early history. Osaka is not only a giant warehouse, it is the birthplace of bunraku (文楽), a traditional puppet show, and had a major role in Kabuki history.
More recently, economic rivalry with Tokyo is found in the competition between Matsushita (松下, owner of Panasonic and National brands), headquartered in Osaka, and Sony, a company from the south of Tokyo. Osaka is also home to Sanyo, Sharp, Suntory, Daijin, Mizuno, and Zojirushi to quote only household names. This sounds impressive, but this very industrial city suffered a lot in the 90s crisis. The city is still considered as a place which enjoys good food: Okonomiyaki (お好み焼き), Takoyaki (たこ焼) and Udon (うどん) are amongst the most famous local delicacies. We will conclude this short overview of Kansai, by mentioning that the region mainly developped around the private local trains lines, with a final result quite as convenient as the one in Tokyo.
A walk in Osaka can start in Umeda, the modern area around Osaka station. North of Osaka is the shopping center, with branches of the main Japanese department stores. In the south is the business district with modern buildings. It is a pleasant walk to Namba (難波), the heart of the city, with a few buildings dating back early 20th century. The branch of the Bank of Japan has the neo-classical style so common in Japanese government buildings, and the headquarters of Osaka Gas (大阪ガス) company, in the south, is a nice piece of 1930 architecture. The area west of the pleasant tree-lined Midosuji (御堂筋) avenue, is the most interesting.
Namba is the vibrant center of Osaka, spreading along the Dotonbori (道頓堀) River. With its original giant signs, such as the famous giant crab, this is a concentrate of Japanese consumer society, and also a convenient and very interesting shopping area. Its covered streets give it an air of provincial Japan, It is historically the entertainment center of Osaka, and used to house many kabuki theaters.
This short tour of the city could end in Tsutenkaku (通天閣), a metallic tower built in 1956 and sponsored by Hitachi. The site hosted a replica of the Eiffel tower destroyed during the war. A few minutes walk from the Ebisucho mae(恵美須町駅) subway station, this is a representative piece of «Showa» architecture, from the name of the post-war emperor. After a few years in Japan, many people enjoy the quaint atmosphere of this style mixing concrete and metal.
A tour of Osaka can be completed by a visit to Universal studio Japan, and also the superb aquarium (Kaiyukan, 海遊館). Osaka is also a good base to visit the neighboring historical towns of Kyoto and Nara(奈良), especially during Japanese Obon and Golden Week holidays, where accommodation is almost impossible to find in Kyoto, but most “Business hotels” in Osaka will be almost empty.

Practical Information

Access to Osaka : direct flights from Paris with Airfrance (1 daily flight) and most European cities. « Open jaw » tickets (onward flight to Osaka, return through Tokyo) can be very handy, and often cost no more than a regular return ticket.

Access from Tokyo: Tokaido Shinkansen Nozomi : 2h36min, 14,050 Yens, Hikari 3h07, 13750 Yens

Access to Kyoto : Keihan line (京阪線) from Yodoyabashi (淀屋橋to Keihan Sanjo (京阪三条) (51 minutes, 400 Yens), or JR line from Osaka station to Kyoto (less convenient).

Access to aquarium: Chuo-sen subway line, 7 minutes from Honcho station to Osaka Ko. transfer from the JR Loop line to Chuo line at Bentencho ou Morinomiya stations. Open from 10am to 8pm, entry Y2000 for adults. More details on

Access to Universal Studio Japan: JR Yumesakiゆめ咲線 line, Exit at « JR Universal City », 5 minutes from Nishikujo station on the JR Osaka look lne (大阪環状線). More details on

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Sunday, September 7, 2008

10 years in Japan

I went back to my parent’s home this summer and found there in a bookcase an old and dusty Tokyo guidebook dating back 1995. I bought it for my first trip to Japan as a student during 1998 summer, exactly 10 years ago. Since then, except for one single year, I have been always coming back in the country. I had been working there for three years, and I now have personal reasons to go back often. A decade is a significant time interval, around the fifth of a healthy human adult life. The world and Japan certainly changed in this decade, but probably less than many people think. On a personal level, I believe I grew up a lot during that time in my opinion and my understanding of Japan.
1998 was the year of the perfect football game for all French fans, and probably the only time since the end of WWII that you could see all people in Paris smiling. The Lewinsky affair was all the rage, happier times where all that the American president was blamed for was an inappropriate conduct with an intern. A financial crisis was spreading from Russia and South Asia to the wider world. The reasons changed, but financial issues still made the headlines this year. In this decade, the rise of big emerging countries continued, with China forecasted to be the 3rd economic power this year up from the seventh ranking a decade ago.
A significant change to daily life became clear to me while searching for pictures to illustrate this story. On my first trip to Japan 10 years ago, I briefly played with a prototype digital camera with a resolution barely sufficient for small format printing. Today, digital photography is all the rage, and it is even hard to buy a film camera. Some people think that colors were more beautiful on film, and they may even be right. Our readers may form their own opinion by comparing pictures of this story, shot with a film camera, with the pictures on other storied, all shot whit digital camera. Anyways, film pictures were not so convenient, as they were expensive to process, inconvenient to store, and could only be shared by sending a physical copy. Digital pictures can be immediately viewed and shared at no cost through a computer. The switch to digital photography was fast, and companies had to adapt quickly. One French picture processing shop chain has transformed itself into a mobile phone retailer chain, with a small counter at the back of the shop, or even sometimes underground, for extravagant people still wishing to process film or print pictures.
Innovation ideologues may not like it, but digital photography is a rare example of a technological revolution happening in less than a decade. A sector of direct interest to travelers, aviation, continued its slow evolution, with prices mostly stable during the period. The cheapest direct flight to Japan from Paris now costs between 900 and 1000 Euros, slightly more than ten years ago. I remembered buying a ticket around 5500 French francs, now 833 Euros, on ANA in 1998. Flights are slightly more pleasant now, with modern A330/340 and B777 rolled into service, and on-line entertainment much more developed with games and video-on-demand. Old B747 sometimes only had basic earphones and a shared TV hanging from the cabin ceiling with a single program. However, the most important feature of air travel, flight time, did not change at all, and will probably not for the foreseeable future.
Many Internet services were already existing at the time of my first trip to Japan: e-mail, forums (then called newsgroup), and the web, which was much more confidential. It was the realm of universities and geeks; most sites had a very bad taste design with useless animations, awful background textures and poorly chosen fonts. The web is now a much more popular place, layout and design has been vastly improved, maybe thanks to the many women now using it. The biggest change on the internet is probably Google, the famous search engine (and host to this site), who was just starting then. By providing an efficient search on the web, Google allowed anyone to access the information put on the internet by millions of anonymous contributors, which is very powerful. I found out thanks to Google about a dedicated « Ni-Channel » thread badmouthing about the project I was working on. This ease of search encouraged the development of forums and personal sites that publish freely available information of mostly high quality. This is a precious help for the traveler: 10 years ago, you only had your guidebooks and tips from friends to prepare your journey: you would have been very lucky to find information on a specific destination if it was not a major sight. Today, almost any specific question can be answered on an internet forum, and on any topic, you will probably find, in addition to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, a few personal sites or blogs.
Internet also gives expats timely access to local news: when I was living in Japan three years ago, I could watch the training sessions of my favorite football team; and I was escaping my headaches as a manager in Japan by watching Juninho, Fred and Tiago (major players of my hometown team Lyon) scoring in the UEFA Champions League. During my first trip, it was probably possible to find about football results on the Internet, but it was much more difficult. I remember getting French news by practicing "Tachiyomi" (立ち読み), the Japanese custom of reading while standing in bookstores, on French newspapers. Modern Internet also means free international phone. A few hours of conversation with the folks back home can go a long way in keeping sanity while living abroad for a long time. Do people even remember a call to Japan used to cost around 70 Euro cents a minute?
In the late nineties, Japanese electronic stores were still selling the PC9800, a Japanese computer system developed by NEC and similar to the IBM/Microsoft PC platform, but with distinct hardware and software, and, to be honest, some improvements on the standard IBM spec. This was probably one of the last remnants of an ambitious era where Japan thought it could build everything by itself. This euphoria stopped with the bursting of the financial and real-estate bubble in 1989. In 1998, the country was still in its “lost decade”, with a sluggish economy. After claiming that Japan was on the verge of conquering the world in the eighties, our brilliant thinkers now saw Japan as a sick economy in terminal phase, with homeless tents in Japanese cities a preview of the 21st century favelas. 10 years later, the country has become a quite standard developed country with a purchasing power comparable to major European countries, while still keeping its very distinct way of doing business. On one side of the economic range, Toyota is probably the best car manufacturer in the world, and Japan manufacturing is still performing very well: Casio, Nikon, Yamaha and Sony, to name only a few companies selling consumer goods, are still setting the standards in their respective industries. On the other side, some financial transactions are only performed by foreign banks in Tokyo with no local player able to compete. Overall, the trend of the last years was an improvement in the economic conditions: it is easier for young graduates to find a job, and homeless people tents are a rarer sight on cities.
Japanese cities were significantly improved during those ten years. Tokyo prefecture (東京都, 12 millions d’habitants) has built more than 80 kilometers of entirely new, and mainly underground railway lines. As a comparison, greater Paris (10 million inhabitants) has seen only 30 kilometers of new lines, and this is a generous estimation, as more than half is actually tramway some of it built on existing rail lines. Tokyo skyline also changed a lot, with several new towers including offices, hotels, and shops. The last ten years saw the major projects of Roppongi Hills (Roppongi), Tokyo Mid-town (Akasaka) and Maru-Biru (Marunouchi), in addition to the Shiodome area near Shinbashi, where 13 new towers were built. In the same time, Paris office district “La Défense” only saw 10 new and far smaller towers (around 68.000 sq.m for “Tour Granite” in La Defense whereas the Roppongi Hills have 380.000 sq.m of office space). Tokyo is, much more than Paris, a still evolving city, with infrastructure being significantly improved, larger flats and less crowded public transport: I was surprised to learn that the average house size in Tokyo was larger than the one in Paris. Of course, Tokyo’s large urban projects have a cost, and certainly contribute to Japan debt. Another dark side is that Real-Estate is also no long time investment in Tokyo, as a flat bought by a young couple is almost worth nothing when they retire: a tragedy for middle-class Japanese people who cannot build-up savings.
When I first came to Japan, I was completely fascinated by an idealized image of the country tradition, full of bushido (武士道, Japanese chivalry code), wooden temples and Zen gardens. I was so enthusiastic I even read the whole of “Genji Monogatari”, the first Japanese novel, a quite lengthy story. I was spending most of my idle time watching Japanese historical dramas on TV, although I did not understand anything, just because I liked the atmosphere. I considered Japanese-western cuisine from Tonkatsus (豚カツ) to Omurice (オムライス) as a treason. It is only later that I authorized in my mind Japan to be also a modern country. If most French people going to Japan start with “mangas”, those very diverse Japanese comics, but the end-result is about the same: while in Europe, we know only about a bit of Japanese life, and tend to idealize it: during the first trip, we try to make the reality match with our dreams. It takes a while to realize that Japan is a complete society, with university teachers and their worn jackets, skin-tanned surfers, and ordinary retired people.
My opinion on Japan went through ups and downs. I was first completely fascinated by the country, and I would find a hidden truth and outstanding aesthetics even in a toothpaste commercial. I was sure I found the Promised Land, and I was going to settle there to live in a brave new world of politeness, tolerance and harmony. This probably lasted one year and the time of two trips. My integration dreams were broken when I realized the country does not offer that many opportunities for ambitious young westerners, especially the ones not speaking fluent Japanese. I do not blame Japanese people for that, as integration of « gaijins » (外人) in Japanese companies is often difficult, and to be fair, most westerners are not ready to adapt enough to Japan. So in the following years, my opinion on Japan sank, this contempt being largely fed by Anglo Saxon media uncompromising, and sometimes unfair, coverage of the country. By the virtue of speaking English and having escaped the Japanese education system, I thought I could solve all the issues the country was facing, from digestive troubles caused by the lack of vegetables in Japan food to banks saddled with bad debt. This sounds like very naïve, but a surprising number of expats in Japan have this attitude. I think my relation became more balanced when I took a though decision two years ago: my career in Japan was in a dead-end, and my frustration ran very high, so I decided to leave the country to come back only later on favorable terms. I also stopped thinking I could blend completely into Japanese society. Even when I come back to Japan now, I do not try to mimic the typical Japanese behavior, but I keep some of my European identity. This helped me a lot to stand back. I also escaped some common paranoia of foreign residents who see racism at the slightest weird glance in the train.
On a more pleasant topic, my opinion on Japanese ladies also changed a lot during the decade: I found most Japanese ladies absolutely fascinating, and beautiful in my first trip. This was probably due to my general enthusiasm for the country, but also of the time and effort Japanese ladies put on their clothes and make-up. With time, I got used to this, and my opinion is now that Paris and Tokyo are quite comparable, and more elegant than most cities, with perhaps a slight advantage to Paris girls for their style. I apologize to my women readers that I am not able to judge Japanese males: the only information I have comes from a female European friend who was very critical of Japanese males when she came to Japan, but then threw her life in a mess for a hopeless relationship with a Japanese man. I do not know what to make out of this story.
My adventures in the far East certainly changed my behavior. I am now able to take part in most Japanese conversations, but speaking Japanese does not mean being able to read it. I was quite busy during my stays in Japan, and I could not spend enough time studying kanjis, Chinese characters used to write most words: reading a newspaper is still painfully difficult for me. Being half illiterate did not prevent me from enjoying the very fine food and traditional arts that Japan probably preserved better than most countries: my stay there certainly contributed to refine my taste for the beautiful and the delicious. A long-term stay in Japan also made me much more demanding on quality of service: I now show more often that I am disappointed when I think I am poorly treated. Tokyo is at the center of a 30 millions inhabitant metropolis. If I appreciate the atmosphere of European cities, I find most of them, even Paris, quite sleepy in comparison: you would need to choose carefully where you go out in Paris if you wish to find people in the streets on a Sunday evening. Many services are subsidized in France, and taken for granted. In Japan most of them are billed at the true cost: education, health, public transport, leisure or sports. Paying also means appreciating things for their true value, and my trip in Japan helped me appreciate all the small pleasures of everyday life in a developed country.
A stay in a big Asian country with no ancient historical link to Europe is an excellent way to avoid racism and ethnocentrism: one can have a colored skin, no knowledge of Christian religion or ancient Roman and Greek culture, and still be refined and modern: this is a self-evident truth for anyone who knows World history, but it is certainly better to feel it through everyday life than in a book. I was also surprised how many people have a different opinion. If there are great countries of each I had been working several months in a very tense atmosphere between westerners and Japanese, this was a great lesson on the way to manage different national cultures, and I was able to apply my Japanese experience to other tense situations, with some success so far.
If I assess those 10 years with Japan inside of my life, I had a very positive and fulfilling experience, even if it was sometimes a rough ride. I tried to write a realistic account which may be useful for those who also want to start their own “Japanese journey”.

List of the 80km of new railways entering service between 1998 and 2008 in Tokyo Prefecture:
  • South section of the subway Nanboku line (from yotsuya to Meguro, 8km)

  • Sourthern extension of the Subway Mita line from Mita to Meguro (4 km)

  • Fukutoshin subway line from Ikebukuro to Shibuya (9.9 km)

  • Nippori-Toneri liner (9.9 km of elevated tracks)

  • Ooedo line (from Nerima to Tocho-mae), 40.9 km
  • Tsukuba Express railway line (15 km inside Tokyo prefecture)

List of 30 kilomètres of new tracks entering between 1998 and 2008 in Greater Paris :
  • Subway line 14 (7.5 km) from Madeleine to Bibliothèque

  • Extension of Subway line 13 (Gabriel Péri to Courtilles, 2 km)

  • Suburban train RER E (new tracks from Hausmann Saint-Lazare to Gare de l’Est, around 5 km

  • Suburban train RER E (new tracks from Hausmann Saint-Lazare to Gare de l’Est, around 5 km

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Thursday, August 28, 2008

Central Tokyo

On a first trip to Tokyo (東京), visitors often look for « downtown » around the great suburban rail terminals of Shibuya (渋谷) and Shinjuku (新宿), or even in the “Foreigner Ghetto” in Roppongi (六本木). While those are lively areas, they were only recently urbanized. Akasaka would deserve more to be called “Central Tokyo”, but It is around Tokyo stations and the Imperial palace that the oldest and most prestigious areas can be found, with a wide range of atmospheres and architecture. The area deserves two visits: one when Japanese office workers are present on weekdays, and another on Sunday, when the roads are closed to traffic and given back to pedestrian and cyclists.
We will start our walk by late afternoon at Sakuradamon (桜田門) station. It is just south of the huge moats of the Imperial Palace (皇居). The pine forest can take southern Europe colors at sunset. On the other side is the administrative district of Kasumigaseki (霞ヶ関), home to the Japanese government. The old building of the Ministry of Justice (債務所) was built in 1895 by German architects (Boeckmann et Ende) and restored after the war. It is just across the crossroad from Sakuradamon and is now used as the ministry training center. There are other buildings in red brick « London Style »: Tokyo station and its «Classic Hotel» and the « Tokyo Bankers Club » (東京銀行協会) Building. The original front of the building was kept, while a modern office tower was built above. The area around the « Bankers Club » is called Otemachi (大手町). It gathers most Japanese press headquarters since 1957, where the land was freed by the government move to Kasumigaseki.
From Sakuradamon, Otemachi can be reached by crossing the Palace Outer Gardens (皇居外苑). The main luxury of this park is the indecently wide area in a town as crowded as Tokyo. It is the most impressive just before sunset. To have a complete view of parks in the area, we can also walk through the Hibiya Park (日比谷公園), a miniature of New York Central Park, also surrounded by high buildings.
The business center of Marunochi is located north of the Hibiya Park and south of Otemachi. The word means “inside the castle fortifications”, and is used to designate areas in most town that possessed a castle. Many banks and traditional Japanese companies are headquartered in this Tokyo district. It is the area downtown with the best access to public transport: 11 out of 14 subway lines in Tokyo have a station in the areas described in this story, all enclosed in a square kilometer, there are also very convenient connections to the northern, southern and western suburbs, and fast transport links to Tokyo two commercial airports. Architecture is uncluttered, and square: Neon light and billboards, so common in other districts, are completely missing here. The atmosphere is definitely snobbish; there is even an expression for the female office employees of the area, famous for their classical and elegant style: “Marunouchi OL”. “OL” or “Office Ladies” are the female employees performing clerical work, with sometimes much more responsibility than their title imply.
If the district was the most distinguished address for an office in the city, it had a quaint and boring image and until the mid 90s. Since a revitalization plan was launched in 1996, new buildings such as the “Marunouchi Building », nicknamed « Marubiru » (丸ビル) were launched. Similarly to all new towers built in Tokyo, they gather office space, restaurants and shops. So the streets are not anymore the realm of « salarymen », male japanese employees of large established companies usually wearing a dark suit, a white shirt and a necktime with colors that can go as exuberant as marine blue or grey : their skin sometimes has a tan called sakeyake (酒焼け), meaning « alcohol-tanned », a consequence of decades of after-work drinking with colleagues.
Most lively areas in Toyko have their International Top-End Hotel, from the « Park-Hyatt » Hotel in Shinjuku that got famous thanks to « Lost in Translation » to the « Ritz-Carton Tokyo » in the brand new « Tokyo Mid Town » Tower in Akasaka. Marunouchi also got one recently when the “Peninsula Hotel”, the famous chain from Hong-Kong built a branch near Yurakucho. The famous « Imperial Hotel » (帝国ホテル), one amongst the three traditional great hotels in Tokyo (the others being the Okura and New Otani) is also located in Marunouchi. I personally often prefer the relaxing atmosphere of those typically Japanese establishments to their more trendy successors, especially considering the facts those traditional hotels are often much more affordable.
We will now go south of Marunouchi around the Yurakucho (有楽町) station. Tokyo International Forum (東京国際フォ-ラム) is a modern conference center, with a shape that reminds a boat hull, and is certainly worth a visit. If you wish to buy electronics, the « Big Camera » (ビックカメラ) shop nearby the station is as convenient as going to the Akihabara (秋葉原) Electric town. Yurakucho also has another face, with the small down-to-earth Yakitori (焼鳥) restaurants where skewered chicken can be enjoyed while drinking alcohol. Most of them are located under the railway archs south. The atmosphere is much warmer there than upstairs in the offices. There are also small ambulant “Oden” restaurants (a Japanese pot dish) with no more than 2 or 3 seats, and plastic sheets as walls. Office workers and bureaucrats enjoy there the contrast with their luxurious, but probably impersonal offices.
On the other side of the railway is the Ginza (銀座) “silver mint” area, a reference to mint workshops that were located there during the Edo area. This is traditionally the luxury and fashion district, with plenty of department stores. Mitsukoshi (三越) and Wako (和光) are located near the intersection of Chuo Dori (中央通り) and Arumi Dori (晴海通り). This crossing is the center of Ginza, the place where postcard pictures are taken. There are also company showrooms, Sony’s one being located near the Sukiyabashi (数奇屋橋) crossing.
After dawn, the area located nearby Shinbashi in the southern part if Ginza gathers the smartest hostesses of the city. They are easily recognized as the only ladies to be wear evening dress. Westerners do not usually understand Tokyo hostess bars, where businessmen and bureaucrats have drinks with beautiful young ladies who listen patiently and empathize with their trouble and worries, without offering more intimate services. The best hostesses take their jobs very seriously, and regularly read about finance and business to be ensure they have an interesting discussion with their guest. Discussing sub-primes or hybrid engines with a beautiful young lady is certainly a subtle pleasure worth the very expensive fees of those establishments.
Ginza is also a great place to find second hand cameras and eat sushis (寿司), as the Tsukiji (築地) fish market is only a few blocks away. Following some abusive behaviour by tourists, they cannot go freely anywhere anymore, but the atmosphere is worth getting up early. The market will move to the artificial island in Toyosu in 2012, and many people think the unique atmosphere will disappear with the old market, and certainly most of small merchants who may not afford the new fees will also do the same.
The business center of Shinbashi (新橋), south of Ginza, has developed around the oldest station in Tokyo. It had a quaint image until a fret terminal nearby was redeveloped in a modern office center called Shiodome (汐留). Some sights of this compact area could easily be recycled in a SF movie. The contrast with the old warehouses of nearby Tsukiji bursting with people is impressive. Our walk in Central Tokyo ends here. We will propose in further articles other highlights on the many interesting areas of this endless city.

Suggestions for a meal or a drink

Tsubakiya CoffeeTokyo, Chuo-ku, Ginza 7-7-11 Sugawara Denki Building 2-3F, 東京都中央区銀座7-7-11菅原電気ビル2・3F, tel : 03-3572-4949, open from 10am to 4.30am on weekdays, and from 10am to 11pm on Saturday and Sundays: a quite expensive coffee shop but one of the best places to watch people in Ginza. Coffee from Yen 880 (5.50 Euros), lunch sets from Yen 1100 (6.8 Euros). From Shinbashi, go northward on the Chuo-Dori and turn left on the first small street after crossing the elevated motorway. The shop is fifty meters away on the right side of the street(

Ginza Rengatei (煉瓦亭) 東京都中央区銀座3-5-16 Ginza, Chuo-Ku Tokyo, tel : 03-3561-7258,open from 11:15 to 14:15 (last order), and from 4:40pm à 8:30pm (last order) on weekdays, and from 11:15 to 14:15 (last order), and from 4:40pm to 8:00pm (last order) : one of the best places in Tokyo to experience Japanese “western” cuisine, including Deep Fried Pork cutlets (カツレツ from Yen 1200 – 7.50 Euros) Japanese Style steaks and Home Rice (オムライス, from Yen 1250 – 7.80 Euros). The restaurant is on a block opposite the Matsuya (松屋) department store, in a small street parallel to the Chuo Dori.

Lounge Faro ShiseidoShiseido (ファロ資生堂)  東京都中央区銀座8丁目8-3東京銀座資生堂ビル11F, Tel : 03-3572-3922, open from 11:30am 11:00pm from Monday to Saturday, and from 11:30am to 6:00pm on holidays. A trendy coffee shop with a futuristic white decoration, and a superb view on Ginza, on the last floor of the Shiseido showroom. It is a nice place for a pleasant lunch or afternoon tea (sweet and hot drink set Yen 1500 –9.30 Euros ). The Shiseido Parlour (資生堂パーラー) on the fourth floor is one of the more emblematic places in Ginza, probably the only place in the city with curry rice costing more than Yen 10.000.( Located on Chuo-Dori avenue south of Ginza near Shinbashi

Umai Sushi-Kan Kan (うまい鮨勘), Floor B2 (underground), Karetta Shiodome 1-8-2, Higashi Shinbashi, Minato-Ku, Tokyo〒105-7090 東京都 港区東新橋1-8-2 カレッタ汐留B2. This branch of the Umai Sushi-Kan chain has sushis sets from Yen 1500 (9.30 Euros) to Yen 3000 (18.60 Euros) per person. Open from 11ham to 11pm on weekdays, and from 11am to 10pm on holidays (

It is a good idea to look for a restaurant on Yahoo Gourmet or Gunavi (Japanese language site). Restaurants go quickly out of fashion in Tokyo, so it is better to get updated regularly.
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