The Cat Café

Keeping a pet is quite a challenge in Japan. Living space is limited and the rules about keeping pets are very strict. But the Japanese wouldn’t be the Japanese if they hadn’t found a very interesting solution to that problem. I present to you: The Cat Café.

Cat cafés are places where one can go to spend time with cats. I use the term café loosely, because cat cafés do not always serve beverages. I had heard about cat cafés before coming to Japan and I was very excited at the prospect of finally visiting such a magical place myself. When I took a trip to Tokyo in the summer of 2012, I had my chance. My brother took me to Nekobukuro. Neko means cat and the name Nekobukuro is play on words referring to the district of Tokyo in which the café is located, which is Ikebukuro.

cat café in japan: nekobukuro entrance

Nekobukuro is located inside a department store, conveniently situated next to a pet shop.

caf café in japan: paw marks

Paw marks show the way to the cat café.

A substantial entrance fee of 1000 yen is charged, but they do have a couples discount for people who come on a date. Upon paying the fee, you are ushered into the magic kingdom that is Nekobukuro. I’d say there were about 20 cats inside, half of which were locked away behind glass. I imagine this is done to give the cats some relief from the ceaseless petting. All the cats have a name and the ones that are out on that particular day, are introduced at the entrance.

nekobukuro entrance

Nekobukuro entrance in the pet store and the sign with all the cats that are out for the day and available to play with.

I will now take you on a journey through the sliding doors and into Nekobukuro.

Notice the little girl with the squeaky shoes at the one minute mark. Personally I would never ever buy my kid something that makes noise with every step they take, but in Japan these squeaky shoes seem popular for children. Of course the sound does make it easier to keep track of your child. Maybe that’s the reason?

Anyway, back to the cat café. As you can see, the entire cafe is full of colourful and cute stuff, to serve as a decor for the cats. Every word in which the terms ‘neko’ (cat), ‘nya’ (miaow) and ‘nyanko’ (kitty cat) can be inserted, is thus transformed into a feline version. Some examples:

cat café in japan: play on words

All these movie and book titles have been changed to contain the words ‘neko’ or ‘nyan’

cat café in Japan: play on words

These are some famous train stations in Tokyo that have been changed to make them sound more cat-like. For example Shibuya is changed to Shibu-nya (nya means miaow).

cat café in japan: cute decor

A cute and colourful decor.

cat café in japan: cute decor

This cat is resting behind glass, in a cute imitation kitchen.

cat café in japan: camera

I was not the only one there with a camera. His is bigger though…

As you can see in the video above, most of the cats are pretty lethargic. They do their best to ignore the people as best they can. Some of the cats even seemed to be in a downright foul mood, glaring at me as I tried to pet them. I guess I can’t really blame them. It must be tough living in a place like Nekobukuro where they are approached by strangers all day long. Or maybe they just don’t like gaijin? Every once in a while, an employee comes out and tries to bring the cats back to life by giving them some food or by luring them out with a toy.

If I’d have to sum up my experience at the cat café, I’d say that it was very interesting but I do not feel the need to repeat it. In terms of cat interaction, it was downright disappointing. I also had some trouble with the lingering smell of litter box in the café. But in terms of cultural phenomena, it was very rewarding. Maybe I was there to observe the people as much as the cats. (=^‥^=)

Japanese gift wrapping

Japan has an elaborate gift culture. Therefore it should come as no surprise that the Japanese are masters of gift wrapping. Their attention to detail, combined with their ancient tradition of beautiful paper makes for some of the most gorgeous gift wrapping I have ever seen.

japanese gift wrapping

An example of Japanese gift wrapping, as seen from the front and the back

You might notice that the Japanese wrapping paper is held in place with a single piece of tape. This style of wrapping is different from the common Western way of gift wrapping, in which at least three pieces of tape are necessary: one for the bottom and one for each side.

western gift wrapping

western gift wrapping – image from beyondcovers.com/how-to-wrap-a-present

The trick to only using one piece of tape is in the way you fold the paper. Not only do you need less tape, the Japanese way of folding the wrapping paper is also very beautiful. The only downside is that you need to use more paper than with Western gift wrapping.

I have often stood watching in fascination as a Japanese store clerk was wrapping a gift. For several months I worked up the courage to ask one of them if I could film their gift wrapping technique. Finally I managed to secure the following footage. Unfortunately the man in the video is not the most skilled gift wrapper that I have ever seen, nor the most speedy one. He even uses a few extra pieces of tape! But it might still prove useful in case you want to have a go at Japanese gift wrapping yourself.

Japanese gift wrapping diagram

In case you’re really serious about trying it yourself, this diagram might also be useful

At the end of the video, the store clerk asks ‘yoroshii desu ka (is this ok?)’ before putting the bow on the package. That is because in many department stores, the customer gets to choose which paper and which kind of bow or decoration is used. The store clerk in the video is confirming that we want, in fact, the blue bow.

In Matsuzakaya, where this video was taken, they have convenient sample cards with all the available options. The customer can choose any combination of these bows and papers. The fact that a choice is offered and the cute little sample card are so Japanese! It’s things like these that I really miss from Japan.

japanese gift wrapping sample

Japanese gift wrapping options card from Matsuzakaya

 

Japan in a word: ‘KY’ – ‘Unable to read the air’

I recently got the idea to do a series of posts titled ‘Japan in a word’. Japanese language is fascinating and holds many clues to cultural phenomena. I found that Japanese is rich in very specific vocabulary, more so than other languages that I have studied. When Japanese students of English attempt to literally translate these expressions and words into English, it leads to the weird and funny English that we often hear in Japan. Usually, the only way to really translate such Japanese words is by using entire sentences in English. The power and depth of meaning that is sometimes packed into a single Japanese word intrigues me. Over the course of these series, I will try to give you some examples and try to explain how they pertain to certain aspects of Japanese culture.

First up is the expression KY. You pronounce it by saying the English letters ‘K’ and ‘Y’ separately. It stands for ‘kuuki yomenai’ (空気読めない), which means ‘can’t read the air’. The expression is used for people who are not able to perceive what is appropriate in a given situation, or who are not able to pick up on subtle social clues. For really bad cases, the expression SKY is used (pronounce like the English word ‘sky’). It stands for ‘super kuuki yomenai’ (スーパー空気読めない).

Japanese sky and pine tree at Korankei gorge in Toyota City

Japanese sky and pine tree at Korankei gorge in Toyota City

The stereotypes about Japan and foreigners dictate that all foreigners are KY and that all Japanese are able to ‘read the air’. Certainly the many unspoken social rules and the indirect communication in Japan have driven many a gaijin  to desperation. But any regular reader of this blog will know that I am not a fan of stereotypes. My opinion is that a foreigner will have trouble understanding implicit social rules and cultural conventions in any foreign culture. The frustrations associated with this are an inherent part of culture shock. I do grant that the shock might be even greater in Japan, since there is no country quite so ‘different’ as Japan and there are therefore more new rules and social conventions to learn. But a Japanese person who moves to a Western country might likewise have a lot of trouble ‘reading the local air’ too.

Moreover, not all Japanese people are able to read the air, even when they are in Japan. Unlike the image that some Western media like to give of Japan, Japanese people are not mind readers and they do not share a psychic connection through which they automatically know what others expect of them. I have heard many Japanese people complain about being expected to ‘read the air’. This can especially be a problem between people of different regions. For example Osaka people are reputedly more outspoken and Kyoto people are supposed to be more indirect in their communication. So a person from Osaka who moves to Kyoto might experience some communication problems.

But all my anti-stereotypical ranting put aside, of course the expression KY does illustrate something about Japanese culture. Generally speaking, Japanese people are more aware of their surroundings and of the people they interact with than Westerners. Attention to detail and thoughtfulness towards others are qualities that are more appreciated and encouraged in Japan than in the West. It is one of the reasons why highly sensitive persons, who naturally gravitate more towards those qualities, tend to feel more comfortable in Japan than in Western cultures.

When I was in Japan, I tried to ‘read the air’ as best as I could. I tried to be considerate and follow social conventions as much as possible. I even had the idea that I wasn’t doing too bad a job of it. But as I continue to learn more about Japanese culture, I remember more and more situations in which it turns that I, inadvertently, was behaving very KY. Fortunately (or unfortunately according to some), foreigners are not held to the same standards as Japanese people and as long as you are clearly doing your best, most of your gaijin KY behaviour will be excused. So don’t let a fear of being KY hold you back from getting to know this wonderful culture!

People watching – Japanese monk

After living in Japan for a while, you kind of get used to all the things that used to excite you so much at first. But every once in a while, you get what I like to call the ‘hello-you’re-in-japan-face-slap’.

Today I will tell you about one of those faceslap moments that stand out in my memory. It happened when I was browsing a local fabric store with a friend. A visit to the fabric store is an event already exciting in itself, because of the multitude of gorgeous Japanese fabrics everywhere. But suddenly, in the midst of the housewives and rolls of fabric, we saw a Zen monk in traditional robes.

The monk was just going about his business, looking at different fabrics. I’m sure he wasn’t expecting to be ambushed by an overly excited gaijin, asking him if she could please be allowed to take his picture because she never saw a monk in a fabric store before. But true to his zen background, he remained unfazed and kindly posed for a picture. The result is one of my favourite images from Japan!

japanese monk in a fabric store

Look how calmly he is standing there amid the colourful fabric. For me, this image says more than a thousand words.

The sushi train

Ask anyone to name something typical of Japan, and it is highly likely that they will say ‘sushi’. After my return to Belgium, I have often been asked if Japanese people really eat sushi every day. The answer is no! Japanese cuisine is incredibly varied and there is so much more to it than just sushi.

Since I am not a fan of these stereotypical ideas about Japan and did not want to encourage them further, I have put off writing about sushi for more than two years. But despite all my ranting, I cannot deny that sushi is in fact a part of Japanese cuisine. Moreover, it is an extremely delicious part of Japanese cuisine. By the end of my stay in Japan, I could be found in a sushi restaurant on a weekly basis. (*´∀`*)

So it seems that the moment has finally come. It is time for a post about sushi.

In Japan, sushi is often enjoyed at a restaurant, rather than at home. There are many different kinds of sushi restaurants, ranging from extremely high-end places where the chef personally prepares each delicacy in front of you, to the more moderately priced conveyor belt restaurants (kaiten zushi 回転寿司 in Japanese). Even in the conveyor belt category, there are different prices and qualities. Today I will talk to you about the lowest of the lowest: Kappa Zushi. Although this is not a great introduction for a restaurant, I assure you that compared to most European (or at least Belgian) sushi restaurants, the quality is still very good.

kappazushi logo

Kappa Zushi logo

kappa_zushi_mascotte

Interior of a Kappa Zushi restaurant. The mascots of Kappa Zushi are these two green creatures. In Japanese, kappa is a water monster from folk tales. But it can also mean a sushi roll with cucumber in the middle. Hence the choice for kappa as mascots I guess. Despite their best efforts to make these kappa seem cute, they still scare me a little – image from the Kappa Zushi website

kappazushi conveyer belt

Kappa Zushi conveyor belt

tuna sushi on the conveyer belt

Tuna nigiri zushi on the conveyor belt

At conveyor belt restaurants, the kitchen prepares a standard selection of different sushi dishes and places them on the conveyor belt. The sushi passes by all the tables and the customers take off whatever they want to eat. Usually the colour of the plate determines how much the sushi costs but at Kappa Zushi, all the sushi costs 105 yen per plate (about 1 euro at the time we were in Japan). At the end of the meal, the plates are counted to determine the price to be paid.

kappa zushi stack of plates

Our stack of plates at the end of the meal

In case you don’t find what you are looking for on the conveyor belt, you can also order  directly from the kitchen (for the full Kappa Zushi menu, click here –  click on each category to see more sushi). Kappa Zushi has a computerized system for those orders. You operate it with a touch screen above your table. Not an easy thing to do if you can’t read kanji. There is one button that summons a waitress. I am afraid we accidentally summoned the poor lady twice before we figured it out. But if you press enough buttons, you will eventually end up in the orders menu.

kappa zushi touch screen

Kappa Zushi orders menu. You might notice some unusual sushi like tonkatsu sushi (fried pork cutlet) and beef sushi. You will definitely not find any meat sushi in a high-end sushi restaurant.

hamburger sushi

Another special sushi: hamburger sushi. I guess you can pretty much slap anything onto a piece of rice and call it sushi.

Now comes the best part: the orders are delivered on a special sushi train! It is shaped like a shinkansen and swishes over to your table in no time. You take off the plates and the train goes back to the kitchen. Never mind sushi quality, that train in itself is a reason to visit Kappa Zushi!

Something else that I love about Japanese conveyor belt sushi restaurants, apart from all the sushi, is the table side tap of hot water. You get a cup, a tin of green tea powder (different from matcha) and you serve yourself from the tap at your table. All you can drink green tea and an endless stream of sushi passing by under your very nose… pure bliss!

kappa zushi tea

Tea can in the bottom left, cup in the middle, and the tap is below the conveyor belt, next to the red box with pickled ginger. The black box holds the chopsticks. Each table also has their own supply of soy sauce and wasabi.

If this post has made you hungry, or you want to see the sushi train for yourself, you can find your nearest Kappa Zushi restaurant on this map (Japanese only). This is the Kappa Zushi in Toyota City:

KappaZushi_ToyotaCity

Kappa Zushi in Toyota City – image from Google Maps Streetview

Flowers and manhole covers

I adore Japanese manhole covers. They are just so beautiful! Here’s the one for Toyota City:

toyota city manhole cover

Toyota City manhole cover

It features the symbol of Aichi prefecture in the middle, surrounded by sun flowers. Toyota City has adopted the sunflower as its symbol flower. Likewise, the manhole cover for Takayama features rhododendron flowers, which are symbolic for the city of Takayama.

takayama manhole cover

Takayama manhole cover with rhododendron flowers

In fact, I think almost every Japanese city has a symbol flower and a symbol tree. Additionally, each province has a symbol flower and even each month of the year has its own typical flower (see hanafuda card game).

hanafuda_cards

Hanafuda card set by Kelsey Cretcher

The importance that the Japanese attach to flowers is further illustrated by the following anecdotes: During my stay in Japan, I have often been asked what the symbol flower of Belgium is. Japanese people seemed quite surprised when I said there is none (as far as I know). I have also heard that during trips abroad, Japanese people will often ask their tour guide about a particular flower. Usually the tour guide doesn’t know anything about flowers and the response will be ‘that’s just a flower’, causing great disappointment to the Japanese tourists.

At first I was quite surprised by the Japanese fascination with flowers. But if you think about it, it shouldn’t be surprising at all, considering that the Japanese elevated flower arrangement to a true art form (ikebana 生け花) and have developed an entire symbolic flower language in which words and codes are assigned to flowers (hanakotoba 花言葉). I guess I can only conclude that the Japanese sure do love their flowers!

Ikebana

Ikebana – image from Wikipedia

Let’s dance!

Today is Obon, an important Japanese holiday. Traditionally it is a day for honouring the spirits of one’s ancestors. But since the Japanese never pass up an opportunity to have a party, it is also an excellent reason to organise a festival and get together with friends and family.

Apart from delicious festival food and lots of people wearing yukata, the Obon festival is characterized by Obon dances, which are called Bon Odori (盆踊り). The dancers gather around a central stage and perform circular dances while moving around the stage. Compared to some Western dances, the Obon dances seem very slow and subdued. But once you give it a try, it is a wonderful feeling to share in the group atmosphere and to do the dances together.

obon nagoya castle

Obon dancing at Nagoya castle. The central stage houses the musicians and from time to time, different people are invited up on stage to dance there.

obon dancing nagoya castle

The colourful crowd in yukata is so beautiful!

Anyone can join in: there are many elderly ladies, but also lots of young people. Even clumsy gaijin like me are welcome to join. In the video below you can see the cutest little boy doing his best to dance along with the adults. There is also an equally cute, but slightly older girl in yukata.

In this next video you get a better look at the crowd and you can really see the circular motion of the dancers. Sometimes you will see ladies in matching yukata. I think they belong to an Obon dance group where they practice all year long and then go to various Obon festivals in their matching yukata.

There are big Obon events like the one at Nagoya Castle where these videos were made but Obon is also celebrated on a smaller scale in local neighbourhoods. When we were wandering around Muroran, a small city in Hokkaido, on an evening in August, we saw this local Obon gathering on a neighbourhood square:

Obon in Muroran, Hokkaido

This was a small, local community celebration in Muroran, Hokkaido. There weren’t any booths with festival food. Instead there were some tables where people placed their homemade food, sharing between everyone.

Missing Japanese summer – crazy, nostalgic, or both?

I really miss living in Japan. I left the country a little over a year ago and at first I didn’t miss it too badly. It was nice to experience all the familiar things in Belgium again. But recently my Japan deprivation has been getting worse. How can I tell that it’s getting really bad? I have started feeling nostalgic about Japanese summer.

Those of you who have experienced summer in Japan will immediately understand why this is a bad sign. If you’re longing to be back in Japanese summer weather, you’re not quite right in the head. The combination of heat and humidity in Japan is brutal. As soon as the summer heat starts, people start counting down to autumn. Heat exhaustion is a common phenomenon and people prefer to stay indoors in air-conditioned spaces as much as possible.

But reason and emotion do not abide by the same rules. Although I realise that I have often cursed Japanese summer while I was living there, I am feeling very nostalgic about it. The sound of the cicada, eating a snow cone (kakigōri かき氷) on a hot day, the evening light over green rice fields, … なつかしいね!

You can hear what a cicada sounds like and read more about typical, nostalgic summer things in ‘Summer in Japan’.

evening light over the rice fields

Evening light over the rice fields – Toyota City, July 2011

riding home from work on a summer evening

Riding home from work on a beautiful summer evening – Toyota City, July 2011

It’s the little differences

I love learning about foreign cultures. It fascinates me to see all the different ways people from all over the world come up with to do the same thing. That is why I am usually more interested in the little differences, rather than the more obvious, big differences.

I think Vincent Vega, in the movie Pulp Fiction, said it best when he said:

Vincent: You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
Jules: What?
Vincent: It’s the little differences. I mean they got the same shit over there that they got here, but it’s just… just there it’s a little different.

pulp fiction europe

Vincent (left) and Jules (right) discussing the little differences, in the movie Pulp Fiction

A good example of one of the little differences is a Japanese taxicab. In Japan, the interior of a taxi is decorated with white, lacy fabric. In Belgium, such fabric is usually only found in the homes of old-fashioned grandmothers. To see it inside a taxi seemed very funny to me. Another remarkable difference is that Japanese taxi drivers sometimes wear a navy-like hat and they always wear white gloves.

Japanese taxi inside

The inside of a Japanese taxi

Japanese taxi driver

A Japanese taxi driver – mind the white gloves

Blogging brings people together

When I first started with this blog, I warned myself not to expect too much of it. Sure, it would be great to attract readers that aren’t just friends and family. In fact, it would be downright wonderful to get a decent number of page views and some comments on my posts. But since I was completely new to blogging, I decided it would be best not to expect too much and just have fun with it.

Now, two years later, I can gladly say that my blogging adventure has exceeded my wildest dreams. People from all over the world find their way to this blog. Some people even comment on my posts! There are regular readers, who I feel I have gotten to know quite well through their comments on my posts and through reading their blogs. This blog has really become a source of joy to me. Therefore I think a thank you is in order. Thank you, dear readers, for coming to this blog and sharing a digital moment with me. I feel like blogging brings people together in a way that I could never have imagined.

This blog has even led to some real-life encounters. In March of last year, I found this darling message on the ‘About’ page of my blog:

I really enjoy reading. I was researching some information because my husband works for Toyota and we will be coming for a visit on March 24th and leaving on the 31st. He has to go into work everyday and I’m on my own at the hotel. I have to admit I’m a little nervous. I’ve never been out of the country. We live in Lexington, KY in the United States. We are staying at the same Hotel, I think it’s called Toyota Castle.

The only language I know is English. If you can help or give me some advice I would really appreciate it. If you live near by the hotel I would love to meet you during the day. Thank you so much for sharing your information. I hope to hear from you and wish you nothing but happiness for you and your husband.

Best Regards,
Bonnie

Not one to pass up an opportunity to infect someone with my passion for Japan, I agreed to meet Bonnie. It turned out to be a wonderful experience. Knowing that Bonnie had never been to another country before, I was very impressed with how open-minded she was towards all the new experiences and impressions coming her way. As I watched her discover Japan, I felt like I was rediscovering everything myself as well. It was a pleasure to show her around.

One of the memories that stand out most to me, is the day we were wandering around the Toyota Municipal Museum grounds and stumbled upon a little tea house. There was an elderly lady tending to the tea house and she invited us inside. The weather was beautiful. Spring was in the air and nature was bustling with new life. The tranquility of the tea house and the hospitality of the elderly lady further contributed to the atmosphere of the moment. Bonnie was moved to tears. It truly was ‘ichigo ichie’ (a once in a lifetime moment).

Thank you Bonnie, for all those wonderful memories!

The tea house near Toyota Municipal Museum of Art

The tea house near Toyota Municipal Museum of Art

view from the tea house

The view from the tea house

Two gals out for a day of fun

Two gals out for a day of fun