Manhole covers: Ise in Mie prefecture

One of the things that I love most about Japanese culture, is the sense of aesthetics. Beauty in its broadest sense is greatly appreciated in Japan. This emphasis on beauty is apparent in many aspects of daily life. While in the West, emphasis often lies on functionality only, in Japan an effort is made to combine functionality and beauty when designing mundane items of all kinds.

A perfect example of beauty in mundane items, is the design of manhole covers in Japan. Anywhere you turn in Japan, you can find gorgeous manhole covers. The variety is endless. Over time, I made a sport of photographing as many of them as I could. I hope to share some of them with you from to time.

sewer pit cover ise

A beautiful manhole cover in the city of Ise, Mie prefecture

sewer pit cover ise coloured

Sometimes the manhole covers are even painted

For comparison purposes: below you will find a Belgian manhole cover.

Belgian manhole cover

A typical Belgian manhole cover, very unimaginative as you can see. Although I have heard that Germany and Denmark do have nice covers.

Poor Nyan Cat

Never have I seen tamer cats than during my stay in Japan. I have seen Japanese cats submissively undergo treatments that would have sent any Belgian cat into a hissing, clawing and biting frenzy.

You can imagine my surprise when I came across the following scene in a shopping street in Okinawa:

Cat on a leash in Japan

How often do you see a grown man walk around with a cat dressed in a pink cape decorated with bows, flowers and what have you not? In most cases, the answer to that question will be “not very often”. Unless of course you live in Japan, in which case you will be forced to respond with “occasionally”.

My amazement increased when I saw that the cat would lie down and get up again on command. As the man walked off, the cat meekly followed at his side. Although obedient, the cat looked far from happy. My initial tendency to laugh at the scene soon changed into a feeling of pity for the cat.

Cat walking on a leash in Okinawa, Japan

Cat walking on a leash in Okinawa, Japan

Let’s have a closer look at the cat. Don’t you think it looks a little bit like Nyan Cat? Only Nyan Cat looks a lot happier.

Poor Nyan Cat

Poor Nyan Cat

 

The mask

A typical image that Westerners have of Japan, is a subway car filled with business men and school girls, all wearing white surgical masks.

Mouthmask on the train in Japan

Someone wearing a mouth mask on the train in Japan

In the West it is considered a bit suspicious to cover your face in public. Masks are usually reserved for bank robbers and superheroes. We think that those Japanese people with their white masks look a bit silly and a bit dodgy.

In Japan, the wearing of such masks is completely normal. They are worn for various reasons: for example when the flu is in town or to avoid catching a cold. People with allergies wear them to avoid ingesting pollen.

Mask on the train in Japan

Salaryman wearing a mouth mask

When I had just arrived in Japan, those masks took a bit of getting used to. Especially when I was talking to someone who still had their mask on. It is a bit difficult communicating with someone if you can’t really see their face. But of course I got used to it and after a while I didn’t even notice the masks anymore.

I even went as far as wearing one myself at some point. There was a big cloud of yellow dust, pollution from China, travelling over Japan. I had already been coughing for a few days and I also started getting chest pains from an irritated trachea. “That does it”, I said to myself, “it is time for a mask”. And indeed the mask made a big difference. The irritation to my throat and trachea were greatly reduced.

The first time venturing out in public with the mask I felt quite self-conscious. Don’t I look very silly with this thing on my face? But no Japanese looked any different at me. Even my husband didn’t poke fun at me. Wearing such a mask is just very normal in Japan, and I am beginning to understand why!

Mask on the train in Japan

Cute mask with pink bows on it. Sorry for the blurry picture. It was a sneak photograph on the train.

Funny car

When walking down the street in Japan, you never know what you’re going to see next. Like this oddly shaped car for example. I have never seen this shape in Europe. Although the design is striking, it hardly seems efficient (in terms of luggage space). Does anyone know what kind of car it is and if it is sold only in Japan?

Oddly shaped Japanese car

Oddly shaped Japanese car

Thanks to a comment by ‘RDS’ (see below), I found out that this model is called ‘Toyota WiLL Vi’. It was only produced for one year, from 2000 to 2001 and was only sold in Japan (as far as I know). It was targeted at young women in their 20’s and 30’s. In addition to this car, WiLL-branded computers, phones, and perfumes were sold on the internet. Toyota experimented with this new branding strategy to attract a new generation of buyers. It was a huge success; the demand exceeded the supply.

Click here to read more about the WiLL-Vi.

The hopeful sale

Last year around Christmas time, the pictures of an Osaka department store advertising a ‘fuckin’ sale’ went across the globe.

Fucking sale Osaka Japan

Fuckin’ sale in Osaka

I recently came across another funny sales advertisement in Tokyo, although this one had a more positive message: the hopeful sale (or rather, bargain).

Hopeful bargain in Tokyo, Japan

Hopeful bargain in Tokyo

The Japanese have a habit of combining English adjectives and nouns in ways that can seem funny to foreigners. But it can be a little tricky to explain clearly why the concept of a ‘hopeful bargain’ would seem funny to us. Anyone care to have a go at it?

The birds

The rainy season has started in Japan and with it, huge flocks of birds have arrived in Toyota City. These birds gather in groups that easily count several hundreds of birds and make a noise like you wouldn’t believe. Every night around dusk they gather on the power lines or in the trees next to the station. It makes for an impressive sight.

Muku birds

The birds, lined up on the power lines

Birds as far as the eye can see

Birds as far as the eye can see

They never seem to sit still. Individual birds constantly come and go, while whole flocks move through the air at an amazing speed, twisting and turning as if they were one.

Muku birds coming and going

Birds coming and going

In this video you can see them moving about and you can even get an idea of the sound they make (if you manage to mentally filter out the poor sound quality of the video).

The birds have arrived in Toyota City about one or two weeks ago and they stay here all through summer. When the weather gets colder again, around October or November, they disappear. I wonder where they go.

I was told that these birds are called ‘muku’ but I was unable to find any information about such birds on the internet. Does anyone know what their English or their scientific name is? The one thing that I did discover, is that ‘mukubird’ (ムクバード in Japanese) is a Pokemon.

A pokemon

This pokemon is called ‘mukubird’ in Japanese. His English name is Staravia.

Bunny alert!

When driving along the highway in Japan, one often comes across signs warning drivers about animals that could possibly cross the road. While in Belgium such signs almost always depict a deer, in Japan the sign can show all sorts of animals. The Japanese love to be specific!

The sign that surprised me most was the one with a bunny on it. It’s especially funny because the sign is bigger than the actual animal. I almost feel as if I should beware of giant bunnies, attacking the cars in Godzilla-like fashion. Fortunately we have had no such encounter yet!

Bunny alert sign Japan

Bunny alert sign in Japan

Ridiculously clean cars

One thing that’s typically Japanese are the ridiculously clean cars. I have no idea how they manage to keep their cars that clean. It’s not like all the Japanese are collectively washing their cars on Sunday. In fact I hardly catch anyone cleaning their car ever. But somehow all the cars in Japan are sparkly clean.

Maybe there are some car-cleaning-fairies that secretly clean all the Japanese cars at night and refuse to clean the gaijin cars. Whatever the reason, our car makes for a grim contrast with the Japanese cars. It’s almost getting to the point where it’s a little embarrassing (and yes, we have tried washing it but it just gets dirty very quickly again).

dirty gaijin car

Dirty Gaijin car

You might think the above picture is not so bad. Indeed in Belgium there are lot’s of cars that are worse than that. But it’s the contrast that does us in. Have a look at the next picture. It is a very good example of a typical Japanese car. In fact this was just the car standing next to ours in the parking lot. It is so incredibly clean! And almost all the cars look like that in Japan. Amazing!

clean Japanese car

Clean Japanese car

It’s a real-life geisha! Right?

When walking around in Kyoto, foreign tourists will often be very excited when they spot ‘a real-life Japanese geisha’! Indeed when walking around the area near Kiyomizu-dera temple, one often sees groups of young girls dressed in bright kimonos.

Maiko group in Kyoto, Japan

A group of girls dressed in beautiful kimonos

Maiko-san tourists in front of temple

Tourists dressed as maiko-san posing in front of temple

What most tourists probably don’t know is that these girls are not geisha, but dressed-up tourists themselves. There are many studios in Kyoto where one can undergo the transformation into an apprentice geisha, called maiko. Maiko are young girls, usually aged 15 to 20 years old, who are training to become geisha. Their hairstyle and kimono differ from geisha. Typical elements are the long ‘obi’ (sash) and the hairstyle where red fabric is showing in between the hair (which traditionally was considered to be very erotic).

The ‘maiko-experience’ is very popular with young and not so young girls. For the ‘small price’ of roughly 15000 yen (about 150 euro), a professional team sets to work: applying make-up, doing your hair (a wig is used) and dressing you in colourful kimono. The experience usually also includes a photo shoot by a professional photographer.

maikosan professional photographer

A group of maiko-san with a professional photographer

To see a real geisha, several conditions have to be met. One has to a) go to Gion or Pontocho, which are the geisha districts in Kyoto, b) wait until nightfall, c) be very lucky.

Maikosan posing for a picture

Maiko-san posing for a picture

Let’s go Japan!

ganbarou nippon flags at a temole in toyota cityIt’s over a year ago since the big earthquake and the ensuing tsunami took place in Japan. But even now I regularly keep seeing ‘Ganbarou Nippon’ flags en logo’s everywhere.

‘Ganbarou Nippon’ (がんばろう日本) means ‘Do your best, Japan’ or ‘Let’s go, Japan’. Following the March 11th quake and tsunami, the ‘ganbarou nippon’ campaign was launched. Abroad it is more commonly known as ‘Pray for Japan’. I’m not entirely sure on the details but I imagine the campaign was meant to encourage the victims of the disaster and to rally the rest of the nation to donate and volunteer where they could.

ganbarou nippon flags near temple, toyota city

Ganbarou Nippon flags at a temple in Toyota City

Now, one year later, the Japan National Tourism Organization has started a ‘Japan. Thank you.’ campaign. It consists of posters and banners ‘aimed at thanking overseas organizations for their support after the March 11th disaster. It also means to thank tourists who visited Japan and contributed to its economic health following the disaster.’ (Quoting Japan Today).

'Japan. Thank you.' Campaign

'Japan. Thank you.' campaign image

I came across one of the ‘thank you’ posters in  Nagoya Castle. I was elated to recognize artwork by Kimura Hideki, a Japanese artist that I had discovered recently and was proudly considering ‘my secret find’. But maybe he is more famous than I realized.

'Japan. Thank you.' Campaign poster

'Japan, rising again' poster with artwork by Kimura Hideki

Kimura Hideki is based in Gion, the geisha area of Kyoto. He has a shop with textiles, paintings and other items, and he paints murals all over Kyoto. His artwork is a mix of Asian and Western design. I love his graphic style!

Kimura Hideki shop in Gion, Kyoto, Japan

Kimura Hideki shop in Kyoto. Picture taken from his website (click on the picture to go to his website).

Mural by Kimura Hideki in Kyoto

Mural by Kimura Hideki in Kyoto. If you go to his shop in Kyoto, you can get a map with the locations of the murals.