…prominently featured over at the Grey, Grizzled and Gaijin blog as part of their “Lifting People Up in 2018” Feature.
We’d like to thank Craig at GGG for working diligently to helping those of us working to bring you the hidden gems of Japanese culture, adventure and lifestyle. Learn more about the Grey, Grizzled and Gaijin blog here.
Today, we at WestCoastToFarEast.com bring you to the beautiful Hounoki Ski Area in Takayama Japan, or as some call it the Japanese Alps. There is excellent skiing, snowboarding, sledding for kids, and more. There are multiple lodges here where you can rest after a day on the slopes with warm, affordably priced meal. Or soak your weary bones in a hot onsen bath (my personal favorite) and overlook the mountain tops.
What’s great is that it’s a relatively quick and painless ride up the mountains from Takayama City. There are several ways to get there via bus or tour, or simply drive. If you drive while it’s snowy be sure to have a 4wd vehicle for slippery roads though! Once you are up here you’ll also be in the vicinity of several famous Onsen locations.
Today I bring to you a true Hidden Gem of Takayama-city – the Shōwa era museum. Hidden Gem in every send of the word. Hidden because it’s literally through the back of a toy & candy store, unseen until you enter through a curtained door. A Gem because while it is not huge in size, it’s uniqueness and quality make up for it in its brilliance!
The Takayama Showa-kan is located right in the middle of Takayama near the old town on a fairly nondescript side street, aside from some retro signs and animatronic sculptures that set it apart from the surroundings.
Once inside the toy and candy store… you wonder, how big could this museum be?? There’s really no way to tell without paying admission. My opinion – it’s worth the $8 to get in, and there was more to explore than I expected. Certainly not a huge museum – but an adventure for the eyes with plenty entertain you for an hour or two.
As you enter the museum you begin to feel transported to a part of Japan’s not too distant past (Showa period 1926-1989). A time that endured a lot of change and most of us have only seen in the movies, where industry, fashion and culture changed following the war. For some, that period may even be our original vision of Japan.
The layout of the museum breaks the art installations out into various themed rooms or shops that line a street.
You get the quaint feeling that this must have started as someone’s personal collection… which grew out of control, and then took on a new meaning – and then others began to contribute. Is this true? Maybe not – but i’d like to believe it is.
Some of the items are rare pop-culture relics that collectors-of-too-many-things like me would love to have in their own home, while other items feel more normal, as if you might be able to find them in a second-hand junk store. Together it works, building a vibe that allows the imagination to run.
It’s not hard to find a variety of classic movie posters, both foreign and domestic.
Gone With The Wind
Another thing that makes this museum unique is the access. There’s no barriers, ropes or security guards – you are in it. Trusted to treat the place with a measure of respect.
As i wander around, I wonder where all this stuff came from, and who in town still has treasures like these sitting in their own closet or storage house. I certainly don’t see these types of items in the local second-hand store. One side of the street we see a barber shop, while another corner has a recreation of a camera stores. You pop in and out of rooms, and inevitably your eyes are drawn to the tiny details
Video game nerds will be happy to know there is a small gaming area set aside with emulations of Nintendo, Intellivision, and other 80’s era game consoles where you can take a rest and relive some childhood memories.
And I can’t go without mentioning one room which i found to be especially endearing – the Showa era classroom. Is this classroom like the one that “the creator” of this museum went to school in? I can’t tell you. But I hope to answer some of these lingering questions about how and why this small but beautiful museum was created, and I hope that you check back if you are just as curious as I am.
Depending on where you live in Japan, the seasons can be a bit extreme. Summer often brings heat and humidity and winter brings the beautiful snowfall. One thing you can count on is that there will be plenty to entertain you. Where I’m located, near Takayama City in Gifu prefecture (often referred to as the Japanese Alps), snow is basically guaranteed.
So what can you do?
It seems like every neighborhood has it’s own community center, open to the public with activities and exercise equipment, as well as indoor sports like rock-climbing which help keep the kids busy and active during the winter. For us parents – we get the additional exercise of shoveling snow from our driveways and cleaning off our cars every morning along side our neighbors.
But another thing small Japanese towns can brag about is the sense of community created through everyday interactions, and local events and activities – such as a day for kids to come together and play in the snow at the local park.
This event was hosted by a local group associated with the city, including teachers to games and a good time for the kids like tug-of-war and other team building activities.
In addition to sledding and games, here was entertainment by local performers, with snacks and goodies provided for the kids to take home.
Of course I can’t go without mentioning the HOT miso soup cooked up in a nearby tent and provided to every chilly visitor.
Need to drive in Japan more than the 1 year given to you by your International driving permit? Your going to need a Japanese drivers license.
You could face a fine of up to 300,000 Yen or up to 1 year imprisonment for driving on an expired permit.
This could take several months – so you better get head start my friend because the clock is ticking. Does 3, or 5, or 10 attempts sound crazy? Because the Japanese practical test often presents a challenge to foreigners.
As an American – it’s more work than simply swapping out a US license for a Japanese one, unfortunately. On the positive side, neither do you have to go through the process that locals go through which includes months of driving school, and likely thousands of dollars in training and fee’s. Yes – they take driver’s licenses very seriously in Japan!
The steps you will need to take will look something like this:
Setting your initial DMV paperwork appointment
Gathering the necessary information and documentation
Providing this information to the DMV, and likely a short interview in Japanese
At least one drivers training session with an instructor
Memorizing the route/map for your practical test
Taking a simple written test (true or false)
Taking a practical driving test on a track at the DMV
Filling out forms and paying fee’s
This doesn’t look very appealing. But it’s not as bad as it seems and it can actually be quite simple provided you do a few things the right way.
You will not pass the practical test without at least one driving school session.
I know what your’e going to say. Probably the same thing I said. “That’s crazy! I’ve been driving in the US for 25 years!”, well yes, but there are many little things specific to the test in Japan that a foreigner would never think of. Examples?
Examining the car before you enter it
How smoothly you are turning the wheel
Listening for trains at railroad crossings
Having your blinker on almost entirely through the course
There’s many more, and every instructor/prefecture is looking for different things. So what is a person to do? Most likely there is a nearby driving school (in my case, less than a mile away) which has the very SAME course as the actual test! This is a huge benefit to you. Most people recommend at least 2 hours of training, but i did it with a single 30 minute session.
A holiday and festival called Hinamatsuri (雛祭り, or Girl’s Day/Doll’s Festival, is celebrated on March 3rd. Before the holiday takes place families set out a display of ornamental dolls (雛人形 hina-ningyō) representing the Emperor, Empress, attendants, and musicians (of the Heian period).
While I’ve seen these dolls in various settings, I’d never really learned the meaning behind it. As my Japan family recently set theirs up, it seemed like a good opportunity to document the occasion!
From sometime in February to March 3, the dolls are displayed, resting atop a platform of seven tiers. First the platform is assembled, and then covered by red fabric/carpet with rainbow striped at the bottom (dankake (段掛) or hi-mōsen (緋毛氈). Platforms for the dolls are placed reflecting a very specific order, which varies somewhat depending on region ( Kantō and Kansai).
Various miniature tools, and furniture are added such as chests, a mirrors, and other items you’d find in the palace.
Once the dolls have been placed, they each receive their rightful accessories including instruments for the musicians, swords and bow/arrows for the ministers, crowns, fans, and more.
Here you can see the before & after of the old minister (daijin) getting his hat, weapons, and accessories.
When complete, you end up with a rather impressive display. Some doll sets are purchased new, while many others are handed down over generations. The dolls are put away promptly following the March 3rd holiday, as a superstition surrounds those being left out for too long!
My family also had a small side table displaying some older style ceramic dolls.
That’s all for now, check back for a post on the Hinamatsuri itself, which like other Japanese festivals is about to include traditional food and drink to accompany the day.
I’ve got a small list of items here. Some I miss terribly from the US, while others are SO much better here in Japan. Am I qualified to say which is “better” after only 1 year in Japan? Absolutely not! But based on my completely biased opinion – I’m going to pass some generalized judgement judgement!
Some of these are obvious, while a few might surprise you! Disagree with me? Have one to add? Let me know in the comments below.
This is a tough one for me, as I live in the city with perhaps the best hamburger in Japan. But this list is a general one – not about exceptions, or specialties. I’ve got to admit it – I miss a fresh, inexpensive In & Out burger from time to time. There are great burgers in Japan – but i’ve got to give the nod to the good ol’ USA on this one. But Japan reigns supreme on what they call a Hambagu ( ハンバーグ ) or hamburger-steak which they’ve made into something special of their own.
Does it matter? Hell yes! In Japan all the vegetables are sourced from local farms – even better, I’m surrounded by farms with their own stands. Sometime’s it’s a bit more expensive than the US depending on what is in season/time of year, but a wise shopper learns the ropes rather quickly. Still a fraction of what those overpriced healthy supermarkets in the US cost.
This is a tough one guys – very close. I’m an American, so you know I’m basically required to love me some bread. And being a sandwich lover, the varieties of wheat, rye, sourdough that you find in the US is something I’d gotten used to. But I said this was going to be a generalized judgement. In which case, the Japanese soft white fluffy bread is delightful. And there are tiny amazing bakeries everywhere. Europe is probably the world leader, but in this contest – the slight edge here goes to Japan! They even cut the crusts off sandwiches. Shut up and take my money!
I might be opening up a can of worms here. I really love the Japanese take on Italian and Chinese food (neither of which bear much resemblance to the US variation). But when I’m talking about the availability and enjoyability of Thai, Indian, Mexican, and other ethnic food options – you just can’t beat the biggest melting-pot-of-a-country, the US of A.
Early Childcare / PreSchool:
I know what your saying, that’s not food. I didn’t say this was all about food did I? In Los Angeles I paid between $600-1000 per month for day care and then preschool. In Japan it’s mostly subsidized coming in at around a couple hundred dollars a month, and honestly – amazing. Very high ratio of teachers to students, very interactive and social environment. I have to give a round of applause to Japan here. A major influence on my move.
This one is a bit tricky, as the freeways in Japan are most definitely not free (I guess we all pay somehow, in any country). But the freeways are maintained, clean, and pretty much always have plenty of workers to make repairs where needed. But the cost of driving even just a couple hours away can really add up with tolls! It’s a bit of a toss up here – but if we’re including the word “free” then I believe the edge must go to the USA here (horrible LA freeways exempt from this win).
You know, like the ones at the park that your kids go crazy on. I was surprised to see so many of them here in Japan, built from wood and steel and concrete like it was done in the US – say 30+ years ago. The US is safety focused, lots of plastic and soft landing pads. So far the US has the advantage here – safety is important. But where Japan takes the cake is by letting kids be kids, and not worrying as much about lawsuits – frees them up to make some rather wild playgrounds by comparison. I often find myself playing alongside my kids, reliving some youth.
This is a tough one, i’ve only been here a year, and I’m tasting them as fast as a can folks! Japan has a budding microbrewery industry, and theres a site with some great info here. But just the sheer size of the US, and the advantage of being focused on it longer with more affordable brews – gives the US an edge. I may change my mind with time. So check back!
I’d like to reserve the right to remain silent… but I won’t. This one is too tough. Growing up with Santa Maria style tri-tip as part of my diet, with beef as my national staple – and then moving to Japan and enjoying Hida Beef : possibly the best beef in the world. US beef is more affordable, and you can get a nice steak any day of the week at a reasonable price. Hida beef IS the standard here, although costly, but something that every human should experience. This one is too tough folks. I love them both. Japanese Wagyu is superior, but is it an exception? or just a very high standard? What’s your opinion? Comment below.
Before moving to japan, I had a handful of visits. And while navigating Japan for me was overwhelmingly magical, there was always a few tiny things which made for minor inconveniences which could have been easily avoided – if I knew in advance. So hopefully this Blog post comes in handy for someone with an upcoming trip to Japan, so that they have zero detractions.
Problem 1: Always taking shoe’s on & off
Yes, you do it whenever you enter someone’s home. But that’s not all. Many businesses, and restaurants with tatami mats will also require it (possibly offering you slippers). It can be a new task to deal with, so think about it in advance. Solution: Slip on/off shoes. Maybe bring an extra pair of Croc’s for convenience.
Problem 2: No paper towels, only hand dryers
This one bugs me more than many of the others. I hate having wet hands! But for the sake of waste and conservation it makes sense. Solution: Always bring a handkerchief, or small hand towel with you and keep it somewhere on your person. If you have a baby, those wet-naps will come in handy too. Your’e going to want to leave any setting better than when you found it (clean up your mess).
Problem 3: Having pockets full of change .
Your American dollars are not accepted here! So get used to paying in Yen. Oh by the way, any denomination less than 1000Yen (~$10) is a coin. That’s right men, break out that coin purse. Solution: Force yourself to pay using as much change as possible in every transaction. And i’m serious, bring a coin purse / wallet with pockets.
Problem 4: No Garbage Cans / Recycling
That’s right, almost everything is either burned or recycled in Japan. I currently separate my garbage into 8, yes EIGHT different categories of trash (burnables, paper, cardboard, plastic, bottles, cans, styrofoam, non-burnables). It’s exhausting! So why is it so rare to see public trash cans, and how does everything stay so damn clean? Because you are responsible for your own trash. Solution: Keep some plastic bags on hand. Convenience store trashcans are for things you buy there only. So be prepared to bring your trash with you, back to your car/hotel or wherever. Have a baby? Bring ziplock bags for those poopy diapers. Yep, nobody want’s them.
Problem 5: You don’t speak Japanese In Tokyo many people will speak English, or at least some limited English., but beyond that – all bets are off. You are in another world, so you better come at least slightly prepared. Do yourself a favor and don’t perpetuate a bad stereotype for foreigners. If you try to speak some limited Japanese – odds are people will meet you half-way, or at least understand your intention and respect the effort. Solution: Congratulations, you live in the age of technology which opens up a lot of possibilities. But you should still memorize all the common phrases you’d need on any foreign visit. Cell phone apps like ImiWa (Dictionary) and GoogleTranslate are FREE and helpful. Want to take the next step? Download some lessons at jpod101.com
Problem 6: Squatty Potties (..er traditional Japanese toilets)
Yes, you will occasionally see the old style Japanese toilets. If you’ve never had to use one… well, imagine yourself camping, and the position you’d assume in the woods. End of lesson. It could be a little confusing the first time you see one. (Which way do I face anyway?) Solution: Most establishments have Western style toilets, or at least an option. If you don’t see one initially, check the handicapped/baby changing bathroom, as sometimes that washroom is different. Odds are there is simply an alternate business (again, convenience store) that you can walk to where they will have a Western style toilet. In the event of emergency: Sometimes waiting or going elsewhere is not an option. It’s not a bad idea to at least be able to use the old style commode! Make sure your wallet and other items are safely secured, face towards the flusher, and assume the position. After you’ve had to do it a couple times, it’s rather easy.
Problem 7: You have food allergies / Don’t like certain foods / Afraid of sushi
Don’t fear trying new things! Some things which are impossible to eat in the US, are quite edible in Japan (due to being prepared/raised differently). Having said that, some people have sensitivities. Solution: Tokyo is an endless assortment of amazing restaurants of all styles. Even in the countryside you can find McDonalds, Denny’s, CoCo’s. etc. (although menu’s vary). If you have an allergy you should be able to convey that in Japanese perfectly. Especially seafood allergies, as most “stock” sauces/soups are fish based in Japan. Maybe pack some emergency snacks in your suitcase that will satisfy you. And the convenience store is your friend, and almost always has sandwiches and other very simple fresh foods.
Problem 8: Expensive Food I’ve seen prices on food that I never thought imaginable. An $30 melon? yep. You name it. But these are specialty cases. And with restaurants, you could pay any price. But you don’t have to pay a lot for a good meal. Solution: It’s all about familiarity. For $5 i can fill up at a local Udon restaurant. Put down the travel guide, and talk to a local to find where to go. Supermarkets are loaded with freshly made inexpensive food (with sushi half-off after 6:30 – wow!).
Problem 9: You are arriving in the summer – or the winter Japan is (stereotypically) humid in the summer, and can get quite cold in the winter depending on location. Ideal times to visit are during the spring or the fall. Solution: Be prepared to sweat in the summer! Japanese are used to it, and have a great number of helpful things such as face / deodorant wipes to keep you feeling fresh and clean. For the winter I’d suggest layering of course, but stop by Uniqulo and get yourself a lightweight down jacket – it’s amazing how warm they keep you.
Truthfully this list could be any size. Why not 20 things? Or 100 things? Well, these things don’t always hit my brain at once folks!
So let’ appreciate them in small bites. Also I could go very broad and just say “nature” or something, but I don’t think that’s very interesting.
Instead I’ll list some tiny observations along the lines of, “things that make me smile on the inside” as they happen in my day.
Baiten Stands 売店
Within, say, a 6 block radius of my home I have a nice handful of these little sheds, typically stocked with vegetables grown in the field right next to it. Nobody is working at these little stores because they are self-serve on the honor system. Basically everyone grows vegetables, so why not sell your extras? These are all priced lower than the supermarket, usually around $1 US for most vegetables. Super-fresh and locally grown, Japan wins the battle of vegetable superiority.
Changing of the Leaves, or Kouyou 紅葉
It’s fall here in Japan right now and the colors are nothing less than stunning. Red, orange, yellow, green – and vibrant. It doesn’t ever get old. Coming from California (basically a seasonless land) it’s a beautiful thing to see, and also a powerful marker – a reminder that time is passing.
Kids can run, breathe, and be free
This gets to the core of why we moved here. Yes the early childhood education here is better and far cheaper. But even more than that… I love that there are numerous huge parks around the city, and outside the city are fields, mountains, hikes, rivers, and everything a kid could hope for. Want to play in the dirt? Go for it. And the playgrounds here can get rather impressive.
Home-Style Cooking 鍋物
It always comes back to food for me somehow. I can’t help it. It’s a big part of all our lives. And yes, while i love sushi, and ramen… these are things that can be found in the US. What you see much less often in the US (because the average person is unaware of it) are the many home-style foods that most Japanese enjoy. When it comes to this, it varies a lot depending on region. But for example, where I am… Nabe (hot pots, soups, stews) is very popular. Especially as it’s getting chilly now.
Is all rice the same? Of course not. And like anything, the more of you eat the more difference you can taste. I’m certainly no expert, but I’ve had my fill of bland, mushy rice in the US. In the countryside everyone has a rice field 田んぼ, and we’re fortunate enough to receive some big bags of rice from family members. It’s delicious and healthy, and helps round out almost every meal. This year was the first year I was able to witness, and semi-document the process of a rice field coming to life, and eventually being harvested.
Biking in Relative Safety
I love walking and biking, because it gives you the opportunity to witness all the tiny details in your surroundings as compared to being in a car. Now… I would not bike in Los Angeles, because LA drivers certainly do not care about your safety – and even the ones who are good drivers are probably on their cell phone. Scary. Stereotyping? Yes. Here’s another one for you. Drivers in the Japanese countryside typically take great care to watch out for pedestrians and bicyclists.
The city has very famous matsuri / festivals in the spring and summer which the tourists flock to. They are quite a spectacle. But the countryside is filled with many local food festivals, and farmers markets, and local events which are generally attended by the locals. I’ve been to more than one where I was the only non-Japanese person in sight. Nothing against tourists, but it’s nice to attend something which feels genuine and unique the neighborhood.
Ahh my favorite, the hot spring baths. I will try not to mention them in every blog post. But while many cities offer them (water piped in from natural spring) the countryside often offers a wide variety of Onsen which are right on top of the source. Literally, there are entire villages nearby which appear to just be a bunch of different Onsen locations/resorts/hotels. At times it looks like some have closed their doors, and I worry that visiting Onsen is not as popular as it once was. I only know I hope to visit hot springs across this country far and wide! (more about Onsen here!)
I could go on-and-on. And I will! Look out for upcoming blog posts about things to love about living in the Japanese countryside. Until then, check out my post about amazing Hida Beef – possibly the best beef in the world.
Do you live in the Japanese countryside, or want to? Comment and let me know something you love.
We’re all human, and share a lot in common. But now that I live in Japan, I can witness in person how culture works to mold our personalities from childhood. If you transplant a person from one culture, and place them into another – unprepared, it could result in a fish-out-of-water experience. This is especially interesting to me as my kids were born in the US but now developing here.
While I see very subtle differences in Japanese and American culture on a daily basis, here are a few that jumped out at me early on:
1. Projection of Strength
In the US I’ve often felt as if to get things done, you must prepare to go to battle. Need a utility bill corrected? Start out nice – but be ready to ramp up the intensity. Need to convince a boss of something? Things might get a little heated. The appearance of strength is often interpreted as being passionate about something in the US. Not so much in Japan. Superior effort and service is the norm while maintaining order, balance and harmony in society as well as with your own emotions is expected. In short, being determined, persistent yet respectful, and showing great effort are how you will succeed.
2. Eye Contact
How shall I put this – it’s just different. In America eye-contact happens always, and is expected to show respect. In Japan having direct eye contact with a superior could even be seen as disrespectful. While I enjoy quite a bit of leeway here as a foreigner, I do feel a subtle difference. People are happy to engage me and connect – often after I extend a friendly greeting. If someone walks by me they might not make eye contact, possibly thinking I’m a tourist, don’t speak the language or most likely just nervous about an awkward encounter. But once I engage people, I’m often lavished with friendly conversation, attention and yes, eye contact.
3. Driving Habits
I would say that in the US, there is a the bad stereotype of the asian driver. I have found that in Japan that people are generally excellent drivers, who are extremely polite and courteous of other drivers. This probably has something to do with the fact that they must spend $2000-3000 on driving school to become certified experts, and a huge investment of time to receive a license. The upside for them, is that generally traffic cops often tend to just leave people alone, at least in the countryside. Possibly being a great driver depends on everyone following the rules too, rather than the general chaos of the US. Rather than a friendly wave – you’ll see people waiting for each other, and bowing as a respectful thank you.
This extends into a number of areas, from the language itself to confrontations with others. Approaching something very directly can commonly be seen as rude, and the result is that in the language, you often hear people dancing around a topic, and decisions and issues often taking a surprisingly long time to get worked out. I’ve often thought – can’t we just ask directly? As with most things, there is a Japanese way to approach things, and often every angle must be considered.
5. A Process for Everything
There’s been a few times since moving to Japanese that I’ve thought, “without help, I could not have got this done”. Getting a cell phone, setting up a bank account, applying for a drivers license – things such as this, seem to take a ridiculous amount of time and old fashioned written paperwork. Japan is advanced in many ways, but there is a specific process for everything, usually involving a lot of paperwork. Make a mistake – you will likely be starting over. While I believe the attention to detail results in fewer errors and a clear result, the process itself can often feel far less efficient or overly complex. Cutting through the red-tape seems like a uniquely American ideal.
6. Looking Out for #1
There is a certain level of independence that Americans have, which wasn’t exactly clear to me until I moved to Japan. Not the kind of independence you might imagine (like, Yay – America – Freedom, Independence). I mean acting independently, the actions we take serving ourselves, but sometimes being only self-serving. The great positive side of this is our willingness to take risk and act alone, and make a big or even risky decision! Americans roll the dice once in a while, and I love this about our culture. Japanese tend to look towards the collective success and happiness of the group, whether it’s their company, their family or even group of friends. This cultural difference holds plenty of room for misunderstanding, simply because our approach to things can be so different.
That’s it for now. I know there are an endless supply of differences which make living in a different culture fun, interesting, at times frustrating – but mostly thought provoking and exciting.