Japanese customer service: boxes and bags

The Japanese are masters of customer service. Shops are always thinking of new ways to make things more convenient for their customers. A good example of this is when we bought our rice cooker. It was a heavy machine in a big box. Rather than giving us a giant plastic bag, they attached a handle to the plastic wire around the box, which made it super easy to carry. I’d never seen such a thing in Belgium. Ah, the wonders of Japan!

Japanese box carrying device

Convenient handle for carrying boxes. So much easier and sturdier than a giant plastic bag!

Japanese box carrying device

Here’s a cute couple that happened to stumble into one of my pictures, carrying a box with a similar contraption.

There is something else that almost all shops do: when they give you a plastic bag, they attach a piece of tape below the handle to keep the bag closed. It makes the bag a lot easier to handle, especially when you are carrying several bags and are still trying to shop at the same time. Japanese people are so thoughtful!

taping the bag for convenience in Japan

Closing the shopping bag with a piece of tape makes it easier to carry and prevents object from falling out in case of vigorous movement.

taping the bag for convenience in Japan

Close up of the ingenious little piece of tape. It’s all in the details!

Some attentive readers pointed out that the purpose of the little piece of tape is also to prove that the product was paid for and to prevent theft by making it difficult to add unpaid items to the bag later on. Thank you everyone, for contributing and teaching me new things about Japan! 🙂

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Funny English in Japan

When living in Japan, you are constantly seeing funny English phrases everywhere. Many misunderstandings result from literally translating Japanese into English. Both languages have a totally different structure and many formal Japanese expressions have no English equivalent. If you speak a little Japanese, some of the strange English starts to make a lot more sense. Other examples of funny Japanese English are mix-ups between the letters R and L and phrases that can only be the result of the unedited use of online translation engines. There even exists a special website dedicated to the strange English that you can see in Japan and other Asian countries, called Engrish.com. The pictures below are a small sample of my own experience.

Japanese english or engrish

They probably mean Rice and Liquor, although the R-alliteration does have a nice ring to it.

Japanese english or engrish

We saw this sign in a national park in Hokkaido, where, due to geothermal activity, the water is so hot that it poses a serious risk of burn injuries. While they still get the message across, these words are so jumbled that they most likely just input the Japanese sentence into a translation engine which translated everything word for word into English. I wonder if the Chinese and Korean on this sign are equally jumbled.

After having read this post, my friend Yasu inserted the Japanese on this sign into several translation engines. The results are hilarious!

Google: “Once in the sand, and then burn it to collapse.”
Exite: “It will be caved in and burned if it goes into sands. “
Babylon: “I sink and burn myself when I enter the sandy beach.”

But don’t get me wrong, although this kind of English puts a smile on my face, I am not ridiculing the Japanese for these little mistakes. As someone who has tried (and is still trying) to learn Japanese, I fully realize how different the two languages are and what a monumental task it is to be truly fluent in English when you are a native Japanese speaker (and vice versa). So nothing but respect for the many people in Japan who study English and do their best to speak English. Many of them are very good at it and certainly better than I will probably ever be at Japanese.

But back to the topic at hand: funny Japanese English. While I find these strange translations cute and funny, there is another really endearing way that English is used in Japan. When looking for a brand name or a slogan, the Japanese often throw a seemingly random selection of English words with a positive meaning together, giving wonderful results like ‘Freshness Burger’ as the name for a hamburger franchise and ‘Happiness Life’ as a brand of toilet paper.

freshness burger in Nagoya airport

A Freshness Burger restaurant in Nagoya airport. It was our favourite place for a quick bite to eat before a flight. We were first attracted by the funny and cheerful name but actually their burgers are quite nice.

funny english in japan toiletpaper

This Japanese toilet paper packaging made me smile. Happiness life, what more do you really need? We saw this toilet paper in a small town in Okinawa. The rest of the toilet space matched their choice of toilet paper (see below).

cheerful japanese toilet

The most cheerful and beautiful toilet space I have ever seen!

Cute Japanese roadblocks

When we were driving around Kyoto, we saw the cutest little roadblocks. They were shaped like frogs. While Belgian roadblocks are just functional and boring looking, the Japanese never pass up an opportunity to make something look cute. We were surprised and fascinated to suddenly see these funny frog-roadblocks while entering Kyoto. In Japan you never know what you’ll see next!

 

cute japanese roadblocks frogs

Imagine just driving down the road and suddenly seeing these guys staring at you.

cute japanese roadblocks frogs

A close-up of the frog-roadblocks

Japan is all about ‘cute’, or ‘kawaii’ as they call it. Grown adults, children, elderly people, they all engage in the cult of kawaii. When even the most serious of objects gets a touch of kawaii, it often leads to slightly comical scenes (for the Western beholder at least). But the cult of kawaii it is one the very typical things that make Japan what it is, and I am both fascinated and delighted by it.

cute japanese roadblocks paramedics

Here is another kind of Japanese roadblock that we saw on the same road. I am not sure if they are supposed to be paramedics (a bit ominous, don’t you think?) or just safety workers of some kind, urging us to be safe.

Japanese love hotels

Love hotels are abundant in Japan. This is largely due to the lack of privacy that is part of daily life in Japan. The walls of some appartements are paper-thin, multi-generational living is quite common and many people still pretend that they don’t have sex before marriage.

This implies that love hotels are by no means only for people who are conducting illicit affairs. A lot of people who visit Japanese love hotels are legitimately together, or even married. Many couples just want to enjoy themselves without having to worry about the children or the neighbours overhearing them.

Nevertheless, Japanese love hotels are all about privacy. The one I visited had screens between parking places and wooden signs to cover the license plate of your car, in case someone you know were to visit the same hotel.

Japanese love hotel privacy

Screen partitions between the cars and boards to cover the license plate for privacy

The entrance of the hotel was through the parking garage, to further reduce the chance of anyone seeing you. Everything was very dimly lit, which made taking pictures a bit difficult. I hereby apologize for the quality of the photographs.

Japanese love hotel entrance

The dimly lit entrance to a Japanese love hotel

Once inside, I was surprised by how nice everything looked. Nothing sleazy about it. In fact, it was nicer than some of the ryokan where we sometimes stayed during travelling. I have heard stories about foreigners using love hotels during their touristic travels when all the other hotels in a city were booked full, as can happen for example during golden week, or autumn leaves season in Kyoto.

Japanese love hotel lobby

What a gorgeous lobby! Not at all what I expected from a love hotel.

Inside there is a waiting area, in case you and your lover are arriving in separate cars. Of course the waiting area is nicely partitioned off, again to ensure privacy. Every waiting cubicle has a letter, so you can text your lover to tell them in which cubicle you are waiting. There is also a small ‘bar’, in reality more like a self-service drinks station. Overall, it’s all very nice, anonymous and welcoming. I’ve said it many times, and I’ll say it again: the Japanese are masters of customer service.

Japanese love hotel waiting area

Private waiting area to meet up with your lover, with a letter to indicate each cubicle. Of course the door can be closed, so that nobody sees you.

Japanese love hotel waiting area tv

There is even a tv in the waiting area.

Japanese love hotel bar

A self-service bar. All the drinks are free.

When you have met up with your lover, it’s time to book a room. There is a screen that shows all the rooms. The ones that are available, are lit up. At the time we were there, which was a Tuesday afternoon around 3 p.m., there were not many rooms left. I was amazed to see so many rooms in use on a weekday afternoon. Don’t these people have jobs or something?

Japanese love hotel rooms overview

An overview of the rooms in the hotel. All the dark pictures are occupied rooms. I am not sure what the red lights on some of the rooms mean though. Perhaps that they are freeing up soon?

Japanese love hotel rooms detail

A more detailed image of the room information

Prices differ per room and also depend on how long you want to stay. There are two possibilities: you can just have a ‘rest’, which according to the hotel’s website is 4 to 5 hours during the day or 2 hours at nighttime, which starts after midnight; or you can have a proper ‘stay’, which is roughly from 9 p.m. until 11 a.m the next day, on weekends. Weekdays have several different plans for a ‘stay’.

Judging from the pictures, the rooms look very nice and seem quite spacious as well. Or is that just the camera angle? Unfortunately we didn’t have a chance to go up to the rooms. I was there with a (girl)friend, who took me to the love hotel in a spur of the moment, crazy impulse to satisfy my curiosity about every aspect of life in Japan. And of course we had a good laugh along the way! But unfortunately my curiosity wasn’t strong enough to make me spend 6500 yen just to have a quick look at one of the rooms.

Once you’ve made your choice, you can input the room number of your choice on a computer screen. There is a an elevator in the corner to take you up. Very sleek, efficient and anonymous.

Japanese love hotel front desk

The front desk where you input your room of choice. The telephone connects you to an employee if you have any questions.

I made a little video to give you a tour of the lobby of the love hotel. This particular hotel was ‘Hotel Siesta Togo’ near Toyota City (between Toyota City and Nagoya).

If you want to know more about love hotels in Japan and specifically the Nagoya area, I refer you to this interesting article about love hotels in Nagoya’s Magazine. It provides some general background on the love hotel culture in Japan and recommends some love hotels in the Nagoya area.

 

 

 

How to make Japanese green tea

Green tea is one of the basic elements of life in Japan. I think it is safe to say that most Japanese people drink green tea every day, in one form or another. One of the most famous kinds of Japanese green tea is sencha. It is a fairly good quality of tea leaves, served to guests that visit one’s home. For everyday use, many people drink bancha. Similar to sencha, these are green tea leaves, but of a lesser quality. Other common types of Japanese tea are hōjicha, roasted green tea leaves, and genmaicha, green tea leaves with roasted brown rice. For a more complete overview of the most common types of tea in Japan, I refer you to japan-guide.com and japanesegreenteashops.com.

Japanese green tea sencha

Sencha, good quality Japanese green tea

Japanese green tea bancha

Bancha, lower quality Japanese green tea, a bit coarser and with a less delicate taste than sencha

Japanese green tea hojicha

Hōjicha, roasted Japanese green tea

Japanese green tea genmaicha

Genmaicha, Japanese green tea with roasted brown rice

Today I would like to share with you how to prepare Japanese green tea. More specifically, I will explain how to prepare sencha when receiving a guest at your home. It is possible that there is more than one correct way to do this, but this particular way was taught to me by a Japanese friend from Nagoya.

Start by arranging everything you will need on a tray:

  • A teapot. Most teapots that I have seen at people’s homes were rather small, plain red earthenware teapots. But of course teapots come in all shapes and sizes.
red Japanese teapot kyusu

This type of teapot is called kyusu. Though the Japanese word kyusu itself simply means teapot, it often refers to side-handled clay pots like those made in the Tokoname region of Japan.

Japanese teapot kyusu inside

Japanese teapots include an integrated strainer, allowing the tea to steep freely and thus improving the taste.

  • The tea leaves, in a decorative tea holder.
japanese decorative tea tin

Japanese decorative tea tin

  • Cups for all the guest. Sencha cups are smaller than mugs or even Western teacups.
  • Saucers for the cups. The use of a saucer adds formality. To serve the cup without a saucer could be perceived as a bit rude. Wooden saucers can be used in all seasons. Openwork woven saucers are only for summer. If you serve cold tea, it is also best to use an openwork saucer. Instead of a saucer, you could also use some kind of coaster.
japanese tea saucers

Japanese saucers for sencha tea cups, wooden saucers on the left, openwork woven saucers on the right

  • A small plate with some kind of sweet for each guest, with a small fork or spoon if need be.

The total setup should be something like the image below:

serving sencha final setup

This setup, although not exactly as I described, gives you a general idea of what I mean. Image from everyonestea.blogspot.com.

japanese tea

This is one instance where I was served tea when visiting a friend’s home, on an afternoon in July. What a lovely and welcoming image!

Now on to the actual instructions for making the tea. It is best to make sencha green tea with less than boiling water. Boiling water burns the leaves, ruining the delicate taste of sencha green tea. To reach the desired water temperature, water is first brought to the boil and then passed into several different vessels (like the tea-pot and the cups) to drop the water temperature. Every time water is transferred into a different vessel, the temperature drops by 10° C. There is also the added advantage of preheating the cups with the hot water. Proceed as follows:

  • In the kitchen, pour the boiling water from the kettle into the tea-pot. At this point, there are no tea leaves in the tea-pot yet. The reason you are doing this in the kitchen, is to hide the kettle from your guests. Since it is very hot, your guests might burn themselves. By hiding the kettle, you show concern for your guests safety. Showing great concern for your guest’s comfort at all times is very important in Japan.
  • Then take the tray, with the teapot and everything else on it, to your guests. In front of your guests, pour the water from the teapot into the cups. This way, the water cools further and the cups are preheated.
  • Put the tea leaves into the teapot, about one tablespoon for each guest.
  • Pour the water from the cups back into the tea-pot.
  • Steep the leaves for a few minutes.
  • Pour the tea from the tea-pot into the cups. Start by pouring a little into each cup, then go back to the first cup and pour some more into each cup. The reason you are doing this, is because the first tea out of the pot is the weakest. The tea at the bottom of the pot is stronger. It is believed that the last drop from the teapot is the best one, so make sure that the last few drops are divided over all the cups and that the tea-pot is completely emptied.
  • Give each guest a cup and saucer, as well as a small plate with a sweet.
japanese tea

Tea served by my calligraphy teacher when I visited her home in April.

It is possible to use the same tea leaves for a second brew. For the second brew, the water should be slightly hotter. Since you can no longer use the tea-pot or the cups to transfer and cool the water, the boiling water is transferred into an extra tea-pot or water container in the kitchen and then brought to the guests, where it is poured into the tea-pot. Steep the leaves a bit longer than on the first brew, then serve the tea in the same way.

If you want to know how to brew bancha, hōjicha and genmaicha as well, this Japanese video explains it:

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