Toilet slippers

Purity and cleanliness are important values in Japanese culture. For example, in Japan people remove their shoes before entering a house. I believe this practice to be rooted in the focus on purity in the Shinto religion. If you come to think about it, it makes sense from a practical viewpoint as well. You leave all the dirt, both visible and invisible, at the doorstep.

Japanese homes have a special area to make the transition from outside to inside, called a genkan. Located at the front door, it is slightly lower than the rest of the house. Shoes are left in the genkan and usually there are slippers for residents and guests alike. Or else people just wear socks indoors.

genkan in a japanese home

Our messy genkan in our Japanese apartment. You can clearly see the height difference with the rest of the house, which helps to keep the dirt out.

But the quest for purity doesn’t stop at the genkan. The Japanese take it even further with special toilet slippers. These are slippers to be worn in the toilet only. They are placed at the toilet entrance and whenever you want to use the toilet, you change from your regular indoor slippers to the special toilet slippers. Again it makes sense when you think about it. Why would you go through all that trouble to keep your floors clean and pure, to then spread all the (invisible) toilet nastiness all over the house by walking around.

toilet slippers in japan

Toilet slippers for men in blue and for women in pink at a hostel in Takayama, Japan

toilet slippers in japan

Toilet slippers outside the men’s bathroom

toilet slippers in japan

Toilet slippers lined up outside the toilet in a Japanese hostel in Kyoto

A few extra things to note about the use of slippers:

Do not forget to leave your toilet slippers at the toilet door after you are done. Stories of forgetful foreigners walking all over the house in toilet slippers are ubiquitous.

When you remove your shoes at the genkan, make sure you don’t step on the elevated part and take them off there, but actually remove them in lower area of the genkan. It is something I used to do a lot in the beginning, but it kind of defeats the purpose of the genkan.

Taking off your shoes before entering a house applies to traditional Japanese homes, restaurants and hostels. In a Western style hotel, for example, people keep their shoes on, even in their room. In some restaurants, you should also keep your shoes on. So the rules about where to take off your shoes may differ a little according to the situation. But no need to panic. If you just try to keep the shoe issue in mind and pay attention to what other people are doing, you should be fine.

slippers in a Japanese restaurant

In this restaurant, which is an izakaya, you keep your shoes on, except when you are with a group and use a private booth. The slippers in this picture are for people who would like to use the toilet, so they don’t have to put their shoes back on every time.

private nomikai booth in a Japanese restaurant

This is one of the private booths, usually reserved for nomikai (corporate parties).

Do not step on tatami wearing slippers. I discovered this rule the hard way, after having been severely scolded for stepping on tatami with slippers when I was visiting a temple. I imagine tatami are delicate and the slippers might damage them. You may only step on tatami barefoot or with socks. Socks are preferred because it is more hygienic.

no slippers on tatami

Many things are happening in this picture, but I would like to draw your attention to the indoor slippers that are left outside the tatami. The polite Japanese ladies are standing on the tatami in socks, the KY gaijin is barefoot.

Finally, if you do mess up the slipper thing and someone gets angry at you, try a sincere and humble apology to defuse the situation. Depending on how angry they are, you might try a bow and sumimasen deshita. If they are positively fuming, whip out your deepest bow, hold it for a while and say mōshiwake gozaimasen deshita. Good luck!

 

Chicory Village

In Japan you never know what you’ll see next. It is one of the many things that I love about living in Japan. The strangest thing you will ever see might be just around the corner.

Like that one time we were visiting the towns of Magome (in Gifu) and Tsumago (in Nagano). These picturesque little mountain towns are a popular tourist destination. They are connected by a beautiful walking trail that used to be part of the Nakasendo and at only 1h30min from Toyota City by car, it is the perfect day trip.

My story, however, pertains to the remarkable sight we had on our way back from Magome to Toyota City. All of a sudden we saw a building with a giant chicory plant (also known as Belgian endive) on the roof. Since chicory is a typical Belgian product, we were very excited. I managed to snap a few shots as we drove by.

chicory villagechicory villageThe only thing I could make out from the sign on the roof was ちこり村, which reads Chicori Mura, meaning Chicory Village. So with only that information to go on, I still had no idea if this was a factory or a tourist facility. Fortunately the internet is there to help mankind solve such mysteries. A little research revealed that this is in fact a tourist recreation park dedicated entirely to the humble chicory.

chicory village website and mascot

They have a website (unfortunately Japanese only) and of course there is a chicory themed mascot

It seems amazing to find a place in Japan that is exclusively dedicated to chicory. Perhaps the bitter taste makes it a popular vegetable in Japan? I do believe that Japanese people living in Belgium are generally quite fond of chicory.

Since I don’t read Japanese well enough to understand the website, I am still not entirely sure what one is supposed to do at Chicory Village. In any case there is the opportunity to eat chicory in the restaurant and drink some chicory shochu or grappa. I would love to find out what other kind of chicory fun can be had there.

Be sure to check out the videos on the Chicory Village website if you want to get a feel for the place. The enthusiastic employees with their big smiles are so typical of Japan and really make me miss living there even more!

chicory village smiling employees

Smiling Chicory Village employees

Are you excited to visit Chicory Village for yourself? It is right off the Nakatsugawa intersection on the Chuo expressway. The address is 1-15 Sendanbayashi, Nakatsugawa, Gifu Prefecture 509-9131, Japan. If you have a Japanese navi system, you can probably insert the phone number: +81 573-62-1545. There are detailed directions on the website, but they are Japanese only: http://chicory.saladcosmo.co.jp/access.html

My writing process

Today is a milestone in my blogging adventure: I will deviate from the topic ‘Japan’ and dedicate a post to the topic of blogging itself. The reason? I was invited by Buri-chan from San’in Monogatari to participate in the Writing Process Blog Tour. The San’in Monogatari blog is a nice mix of traditional Japanese culture (e.g. folk tales, tea ceremony), anecdotes about life in Japan and information about the San’in region. What makes San’in Monogatari extra special is the addition of cute manga drawings, done by the author Buri-chan.

While I was a bit hesitant to deviate from my topic of choice, the writing process is something that I find so interesting that I decided to give the Writing Process Blog Tour a go. So here goes:

What am I working on?

Currently my only project is this blog, The Japans. I try to give people an idea of what it was like for me to live in Japan. I focus on the little differences and single out things that might seem plain at first sight but are actually quite interesting. Although it has been two years now since I left Japan, I still have plenty of inspiration for posts to come. I found life in Japan to be endlessly fascinating and I hope that I can keep sharing my fascination through this blog.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I think my focus on daily life, while at the same time keeping things informative (rather than a personal journal), is something that I haven’t seen very often. I try to steer clear of stories about ‘weird Japan’ or strange subcultures. I also avoid writing travel stories or posts focusing on tourist information, since there are already so many bloggers who do that, and do it well.

Why do I write what I do?

When I was researching information about Japan during my many years as a Japan fanatic, before having lived in Japan, I really felt the need for a blog that focused more on the ‘plain’ aspects of life in Japan. So when I got the chance to spend a year in Japan, I decided to start a blog doing just that. I try to write articles that I would have enjoyed reading myself when I first got interested in Japan. I also wanted to create a platform with information about Toyota City, to help future expats that are building a new life in Toyota City (admittedly that part still needs some work). And of course I just enjoy the writing in itself, and it’s a great way to get in touch with people from all over the world.

How does my writing process work?

Usually I start thinking about a post a few days before I write it. Ideas pop in and out of my head at different times during the day. By the time I start writing, I have a pretty good idea of the point that I want to bring across. Sometimes I already have the first few lines made up in my head and go from there. If I don’t have any inspiration before hand, I flick through my photographs or notebook from the time I spent in Japan and use that as a starting point. The structure of the post usually develops while writing. I reread everything several times and change quite a bit, both in wording and structure, before publishing.

I have a few guidelines that I follow when writing:

  • Write for your audience, not for yourself. I always try to imagine if I would be interested to read my own post, had someone else written it.
  • Ask yourself what someone needs to know in order to understand the point you are making. Information should be presented in the clearest and most accessible way possible.
  • I try to limit myself to one idea or topic per post.
  • Less is more. Is everything I am saying essential to the point I am making? If it’s not essential, it has to go. I also try to limit the length of my posts.
  • Always include a picture.
  • I try to write with a sense of humour and an open mind.
  • Quality over quantity. I prefer to blog less frequently but really polish my posts and only publish things that I am 100% happy with.
  • Every once in a while, I remind myself of the original concept of my blog. As time goes by, it is easy to gradually deviate from the original idea. But I believe that sticking to a well outlined concept is beneficial both to the audience (they know what they are getting) and the blogger (helps to stay focused and inspired).

Upcoming Blog on the Writing Process Blog Tour:

Nippaku is a blog by 20-year old Belgian student Ann-Sofie, currently in her third year of Japanese Studies at the University of Leuven. She started her blog around two years ago, because she wanted to research different aspects of Japan a bit more in-depth. She also wanted to broaden her knowledge about Japan by reading other blogs. Up untill now, writing has been a lot of fun for her. Next year she is planning to study in Japan, so she hopes she can share her experiences through her blog. I really enjoy her blog because of the quality of the information and the more unusual topics. Her academic approach to blogging about Japan is a nice addition to the current Japan blogs that I know.

How to take a bath in Japan

One of the many things that I love about Japan is the bathing culture. Of course the onsen (volcanic hot water baths) are famous, but I also love the way Japanese people bathe at home. The key difference with bathing in the West is that Japanese people wash themselves at a faucet before getting in the bath. When Western people take a bath, they wash themselves in the bath and then soak in the soapy, dirty water. Even before travelling to Japan, I had never been a fan of Western baths. It goes without saying that I was delighted to discover the Japanese way of bathing.

Japanese bathrooms have a particular layout to facilitate the Japanese style of bathing. In a typical Japanese bathroom, the sink area and the shower/ bath area are completely separated. Usually the bath area is in a small, separate room with a bath tub and a low faucet next to the tub. The faucet has a shower head attached to it, which also provides the option of taking a shower for those who prefer it.

traditional japanese bathroom

A typical Japanese bathroom, with the (covered) tub on the left and a faucet with shower head on the right

If you travel in Japan, you will see this style of (communal) bathroom in many small hotels and ryokan. How to take a bath in such a typical Japanese bathroom? You undress in the dressing area right outside the bathroom. Leave your slippers outside as well. Then you enter the bathroom and sit on the stool in front of the faucet. The hotel usually provides soap, shampoo and conditioner, or you can use your own. Use the shower head to hose yourself down and then clean your body thoroughly with a wash cloth and soap, while sitting on the stool. Wash your hair if you like. Make sure to rinse off all the soap when you are done. Sometimes you also get a small plastic wash basin. This is used to hold water to soak your wash cloth, and it is used to pour water over one’s head. But the introduction of shower heads has made the wash basin mostly obsolete.

Now it is time to soak in the warm water and relax. Because everyone enters the water after a thorough wash, all the guests share the same water. There are a few etiquette rules when it comes to the bath water:

  • No soap should enter the bath water. Rinse thoroughly before entering the bath.
  • Don’t soak your wash cloth in the bath water. The cloth is considered dirty since you have used it to wash yourself. You may rest the cloth on your head if you like.
  • Don’t immerse your head in the bath water (not 100% sure on this rule though).
  • In hotels, most baths will have a cover to keep the water warm. You are of course allowed to remove the cover by yourself when you want to enter the bath. Make sure to put the cover back on the bath after you are done. It is considered very rude towards the other guests to let the water cool off.
typical japanese bathroom

Communal bathroom in a Japanese low-budget hostel. Faucets for washing on the right, a bath tub for soaking on the left.

typical japanese bathroom

Put the covers back on the bath when you are done!

Families also use a cover to keep the water warm, as different family members take their turn in the bath. So in terms of water and energy usage, the Japanese way makes a lot of sense. In the West, everyone who takes a bath has to fill an entire tub just for themselves.

In traditional Japanese culture, the order in which people of the same family or household use the bath is determined by their social status, with higher ranking individuals entering the bath first and thus having the freshest water. For example, if a guest is visiting the house, the guest usually gets first dibs on the bath.

Another thing that I love about Japanese baths, is the dimensions of the tub. In the West, bathtubs are lower and longer. But if a tall person like me tries to lie down in a Western bath, either my knees or my feet will stick out and be cold. I also tend to get a sore neck in Western baths, because you have to rest your neck on the porcelain edge of the bath if you want to lie down (sitting up, your torso sticks out above the water line and again, gets cold).

typical western bath

A typical western bath

Japanese baths are shorter and higher, so that you sit upright in the bath with your legs pulled in. This way, the whole body is under water and I also find this posture more comfortable.

typical japanese bath

Our typical Japanese bath at home. It is a lot deeper than a Western bath. The size is perfect for me!

One final advantage of Japanese baths, is that they are, like so many things in Japan, high-tech. Look at the control panel for our bath at home: so many buttons! I especially love that it is possible to keep the bath water at a constant temperature. The ‘auto bath water fill up’ function is also very convenient. You don’t have to keep an eye on your bath while it is filling up. Convenient really is a good word to describe Japan!

control panel for a japanese bath

Control panel for our Japanese bath at home

Buddha and Jesus side by side

Many Western hotels have a Bible in every room. I never quite understood why that was the case, so today I looked it up. Apparently the Bibles in hotel rooms are the work of an American society called ‘Gideons International’. Their main objective is to provide Bibles free of charge. They are best known for placing Bibles in hotel rooms, but they also distribute Bibles to hospitals and jails.

When I was in Japan, I noticed something interesting in our hotel room: it held not one but two religious books. Our Western style room contained a Bible (The New Testament to be exact) and a copy of The Teaching of Buddha.

bible and buddhist teachings in a hotel room in japan

The New Testament and The Teaching of Buddha side by side in our Japanese hotel room. Also notice the emergency flash light next to the books, in case of an earthquake.

I have no idea if The Gideons are responsible for the Bible in the room. Do they operate outside of the US as well? Or is The New Testament just an attempt of the hotel to emulate an American style and make foreign guests feel welcome? It seems odd that a country where less than 1% of the population is Christian would offer a Bible in hotel rooms. But then again, our hotel was clearly oriented towards foreigners.

I also wonder who placed The Teaching of Buddha in the room. Surely that can’t be the work of The Gideons. Is there a similar society for spreading the word of Buddha? Or is it just an initiative of the hotel business in Japan to make Japanese guests feel equally welcome?

bible and buddhist teachings in a japanese hotel room

The Teaching of Buddha, in English and Japanese

In any case it felt really typical of Japan that they would offer multiple options, thus attempting to please all guests and to avoid any possible offence. It also felt a bit exotic to see The Teaching of Buddha in our Western style room. It’s little differences like these that make life in Japan so fascinating to me!

I later found out that The Teaching of Buddha is provided by The Society for the Promotion of Buddhism (Bukkyo Dendo Kyokai). The Society is Japanese in origin and was founded by Mr. Numata in 1965. Meanwhile it has offices all over the world. They compiled the book The Teaching of Buddha and have distributed over 8 million copies to hotels in over 50 countries. You can order a free copy of The Teaching of Buddha from your nearest local branch.

The art of cat-napping in Japan

The Japanese are masters of cat-napping. They are able to sleep anywhere, anytime. Their ability to squeeze in a quick nap is truly amazing. In Belgium I hardly ever see people sleeping in public, except for the occasional cat-nap on the train. But in Japan, I have seen people taking a nap in restaurants, while standing up on the train and even on the ground in the street!

cat-nap in japanese restaurant

This lady decided to have a quick nap after her lunch in a Toyota City restaurant.

cat-nap in japanese restaurant

Five minutes later, she reached an even more advanced state of relaxation.

If you want to see what the highest possible state of relaxation looks like, have a look at the post I wrote about school kids sleeping on the train.

But the most impressive example I saw of Japanese people being to sleep anywhere, anytime, is someone just taking a nap on the ground. And no, they were clearly not homeless people. Amazing!