Japanese pedestrian crossings

When I first arrived in Japan, one of the first things that caught my attention were the pedestrian crossings. In Japan, when the pedestrian traffic lights turn green, they turn green for all directions at once. Car traffic from every direction is stopped. This enables the pedestrians to cross the intersection in whatever direction they want, including diagonally. It was such an odd view to see pedestrians walking over the middle of an intersection.

Japanese pedestrian crossing Toyota City

I took this picture of a pedestrian crossing in Toyota City on the very first day of my stay in Japan. From the hotel I had an excellent view of this crossing and I was amazed to see everyone crossing at once and walking over the middle of the intersection.

A little research taught me that this kind of intersection is called a ‘scramble crossing’ in Japan (スクランブル交差点 sukuranburu-kōsaten). I also learned that it is not unique to Japan and is also known as an ‘x crossing’ or a ‘diagonal crossing’. They are, however, ubiquitous in Japan. I have never seen one in Belgium.

I took me some time to get used to these Japanese scramble crossings. Walking over the middle of an intersection, I kept feeling apprehensive about oncoming cars. But once I got used it, it gave a real sense of freedom!

After I had gotten used to the pedestrian crossings in Toyota City (a small provincial city), and even those in Nagoya (Japan’s fourth largest city), I had another shock when I visited Tokyo and saw the Shibuya pedestrian crossing. That intersection takes scramble crossings to a whole other level. Shibuya pedestrian crossing is the busiest scramble crossing in Japan.

shibuya pedestrian crossing

People waiting to cross at Shibuya pedestrian crossing

shibuya pedestrian crossing

The crossing in full swing at Shibuya pedestrian crossing

Please take a look at this video I shot looking out over Shibuya pedestrian crossing. I took it from inside the Shibuya Starbucks and it really shows how impressive this crossing is. At the end of the video, you might also notice some people hurriedly crossing while the light is already red. This blatant rule breaking once again shows that Japanese people are human too, contrary to popular belief in the West.

People watching: Giraffe costume

Japan is full of surprises. For example, here I was strolling around a department store, when suddenly I saw someone dressed in what I believe to be a giraffe costume. It seems this person was just hanging out with friends and I could see no apparent reason to be wearing a giraffe costume. Although one could wonder if there ever is a good reason to wear a giraffe costume. The scene did put a smile on my face so maybe that is reason enough.

P1110517

Hanging out with friends in a quiet department store in Toyota City, casually dressed in a giraffe costume

 

Docile Japanese cats

Are Japanese cats more docile than other cats? Before having lived in Japan, I would have thought this to be a ridiculous question. Surely cats are the same everywhere? Cats are not subject to cultural differences, are they? But living in Japan, surprises are never far off. I have seen Japanese cats tolerate things from their owners that most Belgian cats would never stand for. There was that one time when I saw someone walking a cat on a leash in Okinawa. And then there was the time when I was walking through crowded Asuke village in Toyota City at the start of autumn leaves season and saw a guy having a walk while holding his cat. Can you imagine visiting a festival and bringing your cat along? I am not sure how the cat felt about it, but in any case it wasn’t trying to escape, which is saying something.

docile Japanese cats

Never mind me, just having a walk with my cat during a crowded festival

docile Japanese cats

The cat looks slightly dubious but remains calm nonetheless

docile Japanese cats

If you ask nicely, most people in Japan are more than willing to pose for a picture. Too bad my Japanese wasn’t good enough to ask him why he was carrying this cat around.

I am not sure why these Japanese cats are so docile. Are these just exceptions and are most Japanese cats in fact as ferocious as Belgian ones? Or were these particular cats treated like that from when they were kittens and have grown used to it? Or, the far more interesting possibility, are these cats somehow influenced by the calm personal energy that, in my opinion and compared to Belgium, is typical for Japanese culture? I would love to hear other people’s thoughts in the comments section!

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?

New: The calendar page

Dear readers, I proudly present the latest addition to this blog: the calendar page. I created the calendar to give an overview of festivals and events specific to the Toyota City region. It is the kind of thing that I wished I had when I lived in Toyota City. It is by no means exhaustive. I listed the events that seemed most interesting or relevant. For the events that are listed, I attempted to gather all the relevant information in one place. There is a focus on ‘how to get there’ and ‘when does the event start’, information that is often hard to come by if you don’t read Japanese. I hope the calendar will be of much use to current and future expats. Enjoy!

 

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!

 

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

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

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