Wednesday, October 17, 2012

My Week Among the Japanese

One of the best parts of international travel is getting to see what people in other countries are like. How are they different? How are they the same? After spending a week in Japan, here are my (admittedly superficial) observations about the people of Tokyo and Kyoto.

They are incredibly kind to lost travelers.
On two different occassions in Tokyo, someone asked us if we needed help finding something as we stood there staring stupidly at a map. The first time, an impeccably dressed woman asked us where we were headed. She didn't immediately know where the place was, but searched the map until she could point it out. The next day, another kind stranger whipped out his iPad to look up and show us the route to our destination. How's that for acts of kindness? Thank you to those Japanese strangers!

Ladies in kimonos at Kyoto's Kiyomizu Temple

Women actually wear kimonos
Whenever I tell people that I'm from Texas, they automatically assume that I was surrounded by cowboys wearing boots, ten-gallon hats, chaps and spurs. Ummm... no, not unless it's rodeo time. So I kind of thought that, similarly, no one in Japan actually walked around wearing kimonos. I was wrong. These folks were in the minority, but I saw a few kimono wearers every day. Part of it may be that cherry blossoms blooming at a temple is the perfect backdrop for a photo in traditional Japanese clothes. But I did see women walking around downtown Tokyo dressed this way, too.

Masked Tokyo salarymen stride past a busy sidewalk smoking lounge.

Tokyo's Men in Black
A black suit with a white shirt is definitely de rigueur for the Tokyo office worker. Well, I noticed one daring young career woman wearing a pinstripe charcoal pantsuit, but that was as crazy as it got. Conformity seemed to be key. The one thing that stood out was how many people wore surgical masks covering their mouth and nose. At first, I thought they were sick and thoughtfully keeping germs from spreading. A guide later informed me that the pollen count was high, and this was their way of keeping allergies down. Can you imagine Texans doing this when Cedar Fever hits? Everyone would think you were about to rob them.

Salarymen relaxing in Ueno Park at an office cherry blossom watching party. Not exactly Casual Friday.

Pedestrian Scramble at Shibuya Crossing
My husband wanted to know why I just had to go to Shibuya Crossing. "Because it was in Lost in Translation," was my reply. That didn't really seem to be a compelling enough reason for anyone else in my family, but it was good enough for me. After months living in Malaysia where jaywalking and crossing lanes in a Frogger-like way is the norm, Shibuya was simply amazing. Everyone, both cars and pedestrians, followed the rules! Crowds of people built up on the sidewalks waiting until the crosswalk lights turned green. As soon as the cars came to a halt, they flooded onto the streets in the busiest, all-directions, pedestrian scramble crossing I have ever seen. For a whole minute, it's sheer madness. Then, the crosswalk lights turn back to red, and the walkers actually stop entering the street. It's really something to behold. Our vantage point was the Starbucks overlooking the intersection. It's rumored to be among the busiest in the world, and the staff doesn't seem too keen on people taking pictures out the window. (Just sayin'.)

Pedestrians and cars take their turn at Shibuya Crossing.

Youth Culture in Harajuku
In Harajuku, you'll find a bold contrast to somber attire of the white collar workers. Youth culture rules here, especially on Sunday afternoon at Jingu Bridge. This is when the Cosplay (short for Costume Play) subculture comes out in droves to see and be seen. Looking at these kids in their truly elaborate get ups, I wondered how many years would go by until they morph into one of the black suited, toe-the-line salarymen I had seen in other parts of Tokyo.

Harajuku girls and boys

Can you guess which ones are the tourists visiting Harajuku?

Kyoto's Style is Flirty and Fun
Kyoto Station is a supposedly a must see for it's modern architecture, plus it's the biggest transportation hub in town. But what I loved most about this place is the vast shopping mall stretching out underground. I almost told my family that they could look at temples without me, and I would just shop my way through the day. (For some reason, hubby was opposed to this plan.) If you're familiar with the American store, Anthropologie, it's pretty much an entire mall based on that style. Everywhere I looked, I saw flirty, fun, romantic fashion. On the subways, I noticed that the women's clothes were much more colorful, flowing and embellished than those in Tokyo.

One day, were were visiting the International Manga Museum where one of the temporary exhibits was on Manga's Influence on Fashion. In walked three of the best dressed ladies around. They put my jeans, sneakers, and zip-up hoodie to shame. If you compare their outfits to the cosplay participants in Tokyo's Harajuku, I'd say that sums up the differences I felt between the two cities.

Sweet cosplay styles in Kyoto

This post is part of Travel Photo Thursday at Budget Travelers Sandbox and Photo Friday at Delicious Baby.  Check them out for more around-the-world travel inspiration.


  1. Great post, Michele! The Japanese are some of the nicest and most polite people we've ever met. We got some help at the train stations too. We didn't see many of the Harajuku kids but were amazed at all the men in black. They work some crazy hours too. I loved Shibuya crossing. We got admonished for taking pictures of the crossing too despite buying a few cups from them. I never understood the big deal about it.

    1. We bought food and drinks from Starbucks, too. One employee was just walking up and down stopping people from taking photos while they sipped their coffee. Oh well, it was still a lot of fun.

  2. I'm yet to visit. Japan continues to be on my "must visit" list.

    1. When you go, I'm sure you'll blog about all the great food there.

  3. That was a very interesting cross section of observations from Japan. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Fun post! and great pictures. The men in black photo looks like it was from a movie. I never would have thought it was real!

  5. How fun! I love this, especially the kimonos.
    I had a good laugh about the cowboy boots and chaps.

  6. I LOVE cosplay, too bad I don't look good in it haha And I would like seeing a Japanese woman in kimono too, never had a chance to go to Japan yet.

    1. I wondered if they had whole closets full of cosplay outfits or is this the one-and-only that they wear every week. I also wanted to know if they made the clothes themselves or is there a great cosplay store in Tokyo.

  7. A fascinating glimpse into life in Tokyo and some fun photos. The culture there varies so much it's great to see everyday snaps. Thanks for answering the question why everyone wears masks!

    1. My hubby suggested that someone needs to start making colorful face masks -- maybe with smiley mouths or something.

  8. I think that "Lost in Translation" is reason enough to go to Shibuya Crossing. :) This is a really interesting post. I would have expected that the Japanese would be helpful. Glad to know that was your experience1

    1. Shibuya was one of the more kid-friendly, affordable "Lost in Translation" places in Tokyo. I couldn't quite pull of the bar at the Park Hyatt. If you ever want to do a complete movie locations tour, see

  9. Michele,

    As a fellow Texan that is living in Japan, perhaps I can help answer some of the questions that are addressed above.
    First though, I will let you know that when I travel, here in Japan and abroad, the first two questions that usually come out of of people's mouths are: Are you a cowboy, and do you have horses?
    It is funny how the ideas of some cultures are taken so seriously.

    The Japanese are very kind and very willing to help a lost foreigner find their way. It is simply amazing the kindness that is displayed in this country.

    As for the Kimonos. These are typically worn for special events or festivals that occur throughout the year. They have different styles and fabrics depending on the time of the year (lighter fabric for the hot summers, and thicker, more layered for the winter). Many woman can be seen wearing them to weddings. The black suits, as you said, is the norm for the Japanese men, as it is often looked down upon to be different than others(the "show off, look at me" mentality is not very popular in the business culture).

    I do not know that much about Cosplay, but I do know that most of the individuals do have more than one outfit, because they typically model their outfits after Japanese characters. Many of them make their own outfits, but they also purchase many items at the stores in Harajuku and Shinjuku(sub areas of Tokyo), which is where you see more of the extreme of the Japanese culture.

    As for your husband's idea about making the masks a little more friendly, they do have some, they are just not typically worn by the business men, as it is à propos. I have seen many children with colored, designed masks, as well as one girl who had an Anpanman(famous Japanese character) face on hers.

    I am glad that your and your family's stay was enjoyable, and thank you for letting people know about how wonderful this culture is over here.

    1. Thanks for all the information. It must be fascinating to live in Japan -- so different from Texas. We had such a wonderful time during our visit.

  10. How nice that they are kind to lost travellers. New Yorkers in NYC were also kind to us. There are many misconceptions about different places in the world, and it is nice to dispel them. The flirty fun and romantic fashion in Kyoto sounds adorable.


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