A map that doesn’t point north

Found in Toyota City near the train station: a map where the north is at the bottom of the map. I think it was my first time ever to see a map where north wasn’t at the top of the map. It was very confusing trying to orient myself with this map, since I was used to seeing maps of Toyota City oriented the usual way (i.e. north facing up).

Is this random map orientation a common Japanese thing, or was this map just a one time thing? I wonder who made it and why they decided on this orientation. Any thoughts, anyone?

a map that doesn't point north

A map of Toyota City that doesn’t point north, at the train station

I’ve just had an epiphany, shortly after writing this post: what if the map orientation is chosen to correspond with the direction you are facing when you are standing in front of this map? This would also explain why maps outside stations seem to be oriented in different directions in a seemingly random fashion, as someone mentioned in the comments section.

Maybe some person in charge of maps thought it would be more convenient if the person using the map wouldn’t have to perform a mental rotation of the map in order to see where they needed to go. It is certainly possible. The Japanese are all about convenience.

So here’s another question: is this actually more convenient or less convenient than having maps always oriented with the north above?

On terraces in Japan, or the lack thereof

The weather in Belgium is beautiful at the moment. The sun is shining and the temperature is finally going over 20°C. Having long, dark winters, Belgians tend to go a little crazy when the weather becomes nice like this. One of the symptoms is the mass migration to pub terraces everywhere, to sit in the sun and enjoy a beer with friends. We even have an expression for it: ‘een terrasje doen’, which literally means ‘to do a little terrace’.

terrace_belgium

Belgian summer habits: sitting outside in the sun, enjoying a beer with friends. A side-effect of this is lots of people with bright red sunburn after exposing their delicate winter skin to the direct sunlight for several hours.

Despite my love for Japan and my efforts to adjust to Japanese culture as much as possible during my stay, my Belgian background stirred itself from time to time. So come March or April of my year in Japan, when the weather in Nagoya started getting really nice after a relatively cold winter, I started to get serious ‘terrace withdrawal’. It was so hard to find a pub terrace in Japan! The Japanese seem to have no inclination whatsoever to sit in the sun with friends to enjoy a drink. In fact, rather the opposite is the case: they try to avoid the sun as much as possible, to protect their skin from UV damage. Another contributing factor may be the hot humid summers in Japan. From the middle of June to roughly the middle of september, outside temperatures can be unbearable and air-conditioned spaces are preferred. But still, spring and autumn are very nice in Japan and would lend themselves perfectly to sitting outside. Might the lack of terraces also be related to the Japanese notion that it isn’t polite to eat or drink when you are walking around? And therefore also not polite when sitting outside? Or is this notion dated and doesn’t apply to Japanese culture anymore? I’m sorry to say I am not very well informed about this point.

I found the lack of outside sitting space in Japan so noticeable, that I took pictures whenever I did find a terrace. You will notice below that I have exactly two pictures. Apart from one terrace in front of a big building in Nagoya, where nobody was sitting, Starbucks seemed to be the only place that offered outside seating. But it looked far from inviting. The cozy Belgian terraces were one of the few things that I really missed from Belgium.

Japanese terrace in Nagoya

A Japanese terrace in Nagoya, that actually looks quite inviting, apart from the fact that nobody is sitting there! Might it be connected to the Tully’s Coffee in the background? I’m sorry to say I did not investigate further due to time constraints at the time.

starbucks terrace in Toyota City, Japan

The Starbucks in Toyota City, located on the walkway between the two train stations in the city. It was one of the few times that I saw the possibility for outside seating in Japan.

starbucks terrace in Toyota City, Japan

Another view of the Starbucks terrace in Toyota City. It doesn’t look very inviting, does it?

I wonder, do other countries also have this terrace culture, or is it specific to Belgium? How did you experience these things in Japan? Please share your stories in the comments!

 

The abundance of automated defibrillators in Japan

The first time I saw an Automated External Defibrillator, AED for short, was in Japan. An AED is a machine designed to help people who are suffering from a heart attack. While waiting for an ambulance, bystanders can fetch the machine, connect the electrodes to the patient and the machine will automatically determine if it is necessary to administer an electric shock. It is important to note though, that CPR (resuscitation) remains vital. AEDs are designed to be used together with CPR.

philips heartstart AED

The Philips Heartstart AED

philips heartstart AED placement of electrodes

Electrodes are placed on the patient and the machine determines if an electric shock should be administered

While we have AEDs in Belgium as well, they seem to be few and well hidden. In Japan on the other hand, AEDs are everywhere. And there are clear signs indicating where the AEDs are. Have a look at this map, giving an overview of all AEDs in Atsuta Jingu park in Nagoya:

a map of all available AEDs in Atsuta jingu in Nagoya, Japan

A map of all available AEDs in Atsuta shrine in Nagoya, Japan. The hearts indicate the location of the AEDs. I count four AEDs in this park alone. Amazing!

AED in Japan

A clearly visible AED near the entrance of the toilets in a shopping centre in Japan. There is a flashlight on top of it. I wonder how it is activated. Are there buttons throughout the shopping centre that activate the flashlight and thus guide you to the AED?

One might argue that this abundance of AEDs is due to Japan’s ageing population. Belgium however also has an ageing population, yet AEDs are not omnipresent. Personally, I attribute the availability of AEDs in Japan to Japan’s concern with safety (安全 anzen). The lengths that Japanese people and authorities go through to ensure safety in all possible situation is impressive. Japan is covered with signs warning you about all possible dangers. ‘Anzen’ (safety) is a word that I quickly learned while living in Japan!

What do you think about AEDs in Japan? Do you also find there are so many of them? Why do you think that is?

The next best thing to IKEA

IKEA, the famous furniture retailer, is not quite as ubiquitous in Japan as it is in Western Europe. Being an avid IKEA fan, I went through some withdrawal when I was living in Japan. Living in the Nagoya area, the nearest IKEAs were in Tokyo and Osaka. That is very far away to just buy a set of bookshelves.

My IKEA withdrawal became very apparent when, early on in my stay, I found an IKEA catalogue on sale in a local convenience store. I was completely over the moon.

japanese ikea catalogue

Japanese IKEA catalogue in a convenience store

But of course finding the catalogue that didn’t solve the problem of having no IKEA near where I lived. I was therefore forced to look for alternatives. Fortunately I found two very good alternatives in my area. The first one is NITORI. Their furniture is clearly inspired by IKEA, but they also offer a lot of typically Japanese items like futon and Japanese cooking utensils. Although the quality of NITORI isn’t always that great, the prices are low so their price-quality ratio is actually pretty good.

nitori in toyota city

NITORI in Toyota City with a beautiful moon in the sky above

nitori showroom duvet

Duvets in a NITORI showroom

nitori showroom cabinet

Cabinet in a NITORI showroom

The other alternative to IKEA that I found in Japan is MUJI. MUJI is a great shop with furniture, things for the home and even clothing, stationary and food. I have come to love MUJI almost as much as IKEA. Who would have thought?! MUJI has a very natural style which appeals to me a lot. In fact, the word ‘muji’ means ‘plain, without pattern’ in Japanese. I find their simple style to be very ‘wabi’ (wabi means ‘the beauty to be found in simplicity, quiet refinement’) and therefore very Japanese. The quality of items at MUJI is a lot better than NITORI, and even better than IKEA, but prices are according.

muji logo

The MUJI logo, with both romaji and Japanese writing. Both writings are used in both Japanese stores and abroad.

Muji Japan furniture

MUJI furniture. All very clean and organic looking. I love it!

muji japan purse inserts

Cute and convenient purse inserts at MUJI

Muji Japan stationary and storage

MUJI stationary and storage

Now that I am back in Belgium, where the IKEAs are plentiful, I am going through MUJI withdrawal. How ironic! There used to be a MUJI in Belgium at one point, but for reasons unknown to me, it is no longer here. There are MUJIs in the UK, France and Germany, but again, that is a long way to go just to visit a shop. I do hope MUJI opens a store in Belgium again in the near future!

Japanese toilet roadmap

Japan is all about convenience and customer service. These principles are even applied in the most lowly aspects of life, like for example using the toilet. Of course everyone knows the high-tech Japanese toilets with all the buttons, but what I saw in a roadside rest stop between Toyota City and Ise Jingu took things to a whole other level. This place had a ‘toilet roadmap’, which gave an overview of all the available toilets. It also included information about the facilities available in each particular stall, like the presence of a baby seat or if the toilet was high-tech or a traditional toilet where you have to squat. Amazing! And so convenient! I miss things like that from Japan.

japanese toilet directions

The information screen was conveniently located at the entrance of the restroom

japanese toilet directions

The board provides detailed information about all the facilities. The occupied stalls turn red.

Japanese women don’t put their purse on the ground

Have you ever noticed that Japanese women never put their purse on the ground? It seems like a pretty straightforward thing but it really drew my attention in Japan. When Japanese women are in a café or restaurant, they will sit a bit forward on their chair and place their purse behind them on the chair, rather than placing it on the ground. The give up the comfort of resting against the back of the chair, to ensure their purse keeps clean. Taking into account this preference, many establishments provide special baskets for women to place their purse in. Very considerate and an excellent example of Japanese customer service.

Japanese purse baskets

The woman on the left has placed her purse behind her on the chair. Below the chairs are suspended baskets, intended as a place to keep your purse.

japanese purse basket

Another café where they offer a convenient basket to keep your purse off the ground.

Only when I started noticing the Japanese habit of never putting their purse on the ground, did I start thinking about how Belgian women do put their purse on the ground sometimes and how dirty that actually is. Since then, I take care to never place my own purse on the ground.

This Japanese purse etiquette is a good illustration of the importance of cleanliness and purity in Japanese culture. When it comes to daily habits, I find the Japanese often have very sensible views on cleanliness. After I left Japan, it took some getting used to a few ‘dirty’ Belgian habits again, like wearing shoes inside the house and shaking hands with strangers.

 

Different types of sushi

Japan has a type of sushi for every occasion. In the West, we often have a very limited view on sushi. When Belgian people think of sushi, they generally think of sushi rolls, as pictured below:

Japanese sushi rolls makizushi

Sushi rolls as we know them in the West.

This type of rolled sushi, wrapped in nori seaweed, is called makizushi (which literally means ‘sushi roll’). In my experience however, this is not the most common kind of sushi in Japan. When you go to a sushi restaurant, you will mostly eat nigirizushi (meaning ‘hand pressed sushi’). Nigirizushi is a rectangular piece of rice with a large sliver of raw fish or seafood on top.

types of sushi: nigirizushi

Delicious nigirizushi. When you eat this kind of sushi in Japan, it is not unusual for the piece of fish to be twice the size of the piece of rice. Yummy!

There is also a particular kind of nigirizushi that is quite common in sushi restaurants, called gunkanmaki. Gunkanmaki means ‘warship roll’. It is the same oblong base of rice as nigirizushi, with a fish or shellfish topping, but wrapped in a piece of nori. The nori serves to keep the topping of the gunkanmaki in place. It is usually prepared with softer toppings or some kind of fish eggs, which benefit from the structural support of the nori. In the picture below you see a gunkanmaki with sea urchin roe, but the most common kind is with salmon roe.

types of sushi: nigirizushi and gunkanmaki

A nigirizushi with shrimp and a gunkanmaki with sea urchin roe

types of sushi: nigirizushi in a Japanese sushi restaurant

A snapshot of one of our sushi fests in a local sushi restaurant. You see lots of nigirizushi with one of my favourites: toro salmon. There is also a gunkanmaki with what I think is meat. That is by no means a common or typical type of sushi, but I think we were feeling adventurous when we chose that one.

But despite the dominance of the nigirizushi, you do encounter makizushi (sushi rolls) in Japan. It is possible for a meal at a sushi restaurant to include a few pieces of makizushi, but they are mostly very plain and meant to top off your meal with something cheap and neutral tasting to fill up on, rather than being the focus of the meal. They are also quite thin. This kind of thin, plain makizushi is called hosomaki, which means ‘thin rolls’.

types of sushi: makizushi in a Japanese sushi restaurant

This is the makizushi that I got at the end of my meal at a more high-end sushi restaurant. They are a lot more simple and narrow than the makizushi served in Belgian sushi restaurants. These narrow makizushi are called hosomaki.

The variety of makizushi that we see most often in the West is called futomaki. This means ‘thick rolls’. In the West, these sushi rolls are filled with a variety of ingredients, usually some kind of raw fish with several other ingredients in one roll. Sometimes they are fried as well. In Japan, futomaki are usually vegetarian. Futomaki is popular during the Setsubun holiday, when it is considered good luck to eat an entire, uncut futomaki roll while facing that year’s lucky direction, as determined by the zodiac symbol of that year.

futomaki sushi roll for setsubun

Futomaki sushi rolls for Setsubun. Eating one of those babies in one go seems like a daunting task. I guess you have to make a bit of an effort if you want to have good luck.

There are some other types of sushi that I mostly came across outside of sushi restaurants. One of those is temaki. This literally means ‘hand roll’. I saw this kind of sushi at sushi parties at people’s homes. At a sushi party, people put all the ingredients for sushi out on the table, the guests compose their own sushi cone to their liking and eat it at once. The procedure is repeated until everyone has had their fill.

sushi party with temaki in Japan

The table setting for a sushi party at my neighbour’s house. You take a piece of nori, put some rice on it, add the ingredients of your choice, roll it up in a cone and eat it directly to avoid the nori getting soggy.

Sushi party in Japan

Another sushi party. On the left, you can see the start of a temaki, with the rice on the nori. Too bad I didn’t take any pictures of the finished cone. The cone usually looks quite messy, but since you eat it right away, that doesn’t matter at all. And the taste is delicious!

Inarizushi is another type of sushi that is fairly unknown in the West. Inarizushi does not contain any fish. It is an oval rice ball, wrapped in a pouch of fried tofu. It is one of the cheapest kinds of sushi. Inarizushi is a popular ingredient of homemade bento lunch boxes.

types of sushi: inarizushi

Making a big bowl of inarizushi. On the top right, you can see the fried tofu pouches soaking, and they are being filled with sushi rice.

Another lesser known form of sushi is chirashizushi, which means ‘scattered sushi’. This is a bowl of sushi rice (i.e. rice seasoned with vinegar), topped off with raw fish. It is typical of Hinamatsuri, the doll festival on March 3rd, but it is also eaten the year round.

types of sushi: chirashizushi

A big bowl of chirashizushi for dinner at a friend’s house. Underneath all that delicious raw fish is sushi rice.

Finally we might consider sashimi, which is raw fish and shellfish. By many Westerners, sashimi is mistakenly considered to be a form of sushi. While sushi and sashimi are often served in the same restaurant, they are not the same thing. The main difference is that sushi always involves rice while sashimi is raw fish without rice. Sashimi must always be eaten with chopsticks while sushi may be eaten with the hands if one so chooses.

sashimi at an izakaya in japan

A plate of delicious sashimi at an izakaya in  Toyota City. As you can see, there is no rice in sight.

What is your favourite type of sushi?