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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