the intersection between bathtime and dinner

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit: I’m more of a shower person. Bathing takes a lot more water, time, and of course, money.

That said, I do take baths sometimes, and Japan has an extensive bathing culture to accompany this. The hot springs are well-known, but many forget about the amusement park in Hakone where you can bathe in wine, green tea and coffee. I don’t know how it compares to the normal bathing experience, but I know a few people who wouldn’t mind bathing in the former. Certainly not the latter.

Onsen trips aside, the average person here will take a long soak at night to stay relaxed and clean. I think it’s a really nice idea, in practice: in reality, it’s just more difficult for me, since I focus more on not dropping my book or whatever electronic device I have in the water.

Today was also a holiday–Showa no Hi—an honor to commemorate the previous Emperor. As far as I know, no one does much to celebrate, but it’s a whole day off, and in a hectic month, l’ll take it with no complaints. But instead of going into the main hub of Sannomiya, I wanted to spend some time someplace a little off the beaten path. With that in mind, two of the most lively areas in Kobe—Harborland and Motomachi—were out, as was Osaka. So, I decided to go to Rokkomichi.

Rokkomichi is a station close to the Mt. Rokko range in Kobe; the peak is known for the beautiful night view, one of the most lovely in Japan. The station itself is convenient since it’s close by, and also rather close to Kobe College, noted for its high national ranking.

Those things are fine and well, but I personally like Rokkomichi for something a little more simple: the food. In the Parco shopping center near the station, there are plenty of coffee shops and stores. This isn’t unusual, but the variety is greater than you might expect: Tully’s Coffee, Jupiter (for foreign products), an extensive supermarket with well-stocked everything, and Sakana, a cross between a Japanese cafe and a store. They sell bentou, oranges, jumbo riceballs, miso soup, and a bunch of other mouthwatering foods prepared daily. I like this place. This is also a bit sad, since there are only two locations in all of Kobe, neither of which are close to me.

So that was my main motive in going there, but while I was looking around Parco, I found something else.

Namely, Olympia: a stationery store with odd knickknacks and collectibles, including a number of bathtime products. They were a little different from the norm, though, and when food is on your mind, the eye can easily be fooled.

I doubt any one could blame me for wondering about this.

photo 3photo 4photo 2image

And this.

Probably not what you think it is.

Probably not what you think it is.

I may have caved thanks to the fun packaging, but at any rate, I decided to try them out and took home my spoils of war. Then today, I put Holiday Bathroom in my bathtub. At first, there was no change. I wondered, was this thing really effective, or had I wasted my yen? I looked at the pouch again—before sliding it into the water, it had been full of sand-colored powder. Now it was heavy and smelled of chamomile. Was this even a bathroom product?

What do you mean, it's not tea?

What do you mean, it’s not tea?

I reread the label. Hmm. Something titled Holiday Bathroom was most likely intended for the bathroom, assuming no one had made a grievous error. Then I reread the instructions: “keep it in the water without tearing the pack.” Strange. The pouch kept floating there, independent of my concerns. So I squeezed the pouch to see if any change occured. Slowly, the water began to mimic the light milky color of the powder. It still smelled nothing like the pouch, though, a rather nice mix of ginger, honey, cinnamon, and rosehips. If there were no bath salts, it would have made for an awesome tea.

It took about half-an-hour for most of the pouch to diffuse. By then, the water had gone lukewarm. I ignored it and tried not to get the pages of my book damp as I turned the cover. I probably would buy it again, even though it—like a bathtime equivalent to milk candy or ginger-honey tea—wasn’t quite what I expected.

a letter to the past

Three years ago, a terrible disaster happened in Tohoku, the upper northeastern area of Japan. It devastated the region, killed over 15,000 people, and led to a transnational nuclear crisis. It was called the Great East Japan Earthquake.

But you know that already. Or should, at least.

That happened three years and one day ago, on the very same day when the upperclassmen were set to graduate. Many of them never got to enjoy that success. I’m not sure if it was coincidence, or just bitter irony, that led to this synchrony. Thanks to it, every graduation is steeped in this regret, in addition to the significance of growing up and heading on to a new school. 

This year was no exception: at the start of graduation, a moment of silence was held for the Great East Japan Earthquake. 

My school is small, but as you can see, the Japanese flag features prominently on the stage.

My school is small, but as you can see, the Japanese flag features prominently on the stage.

I’m not sure what each student thought, but here in Hyogo, that remembrance of loss hits even closer to home. Although the students now are too young to remember, Kobe also has a history that makes one wince to recall. At one point in time, Kobe was the biggest port city in Japan, eclipsing even Nagasaki and Yokohama. Then in 1995—less than twenty years ago—the center was hit by a 6.5 earthquake. 

The damage is still fresh in everyone’s minds. In December, an event called Luminarie commemorates it, brightening up Motomachi with technicolor lights.  Though the event is beautiful, the meaning behind it is too pertinent to ignore.

And from 2011 onwards, these graduation ceremonies have been the same way, amplified by the Tohoku earthquake. I find them solemn, emotional affairs. 

Yesterday, despite the sunny weather, I couldn’t help but notice how students begin to cry, their faces red and teary. The measured formality as they received diplomas from the principal, and the long speeches from faculty heads, the PTA, and the student leaders. It’s the same every year, and it would be a stuffy, ponderous thing, except that everyone involved is very sincere, perhaps to a fault.

In order: the graduation pamphlet, a bookmark made with pressed flowers from when the students first entered junior high, a pin of fresh flowers, and a box of sweets.

In order: the graduation pamphlet, a bookmark made with pressed flowers from when the students first entered junior high, a pin of fresh flowers, and a box of sweets.

After all is said and done, there’s a hanamichi. The graduating class and their teachers walk in a line down the middle, while parents, staff, and friends surround them, cheering them on and yelling congratulations. They get flowers. They give each other presents. They take a heap of pictures together. And the tension is dispelled. 

The manjuu that graduating students and teachers receive; they're pink and white and kind of remind me of spring snow.

The manjuu graduating students and teachers receive; they’re pink and white and kind of remind me of spring snow.

But the whole is more than each part, and I don’t think the sum is that joyous. Unlike the U.S., graduation here is more about parting and farewells, rather than new beginnings. The students are expected to try hard and look to the future, but the weight of hindsight anchors them deep. And now with March 2011 in mind, more than ever. 

This isn’t a bad thing. Not at all. Nonetheless, it does recall mono no aware in the truest sense of the word: nothing is permanent, and nothing exists in the same state forever. Yes, it’s a pessimistic line of thought. But it’s also an undeniable truth influenced by the course life takes, and not hard to imagine in disaster-prone regions like Japan.

Even if we aren’t involved in any incidents like this, good luck be willing, there is insight to be gained. Most of all, we can take a leaf out of that book by treasuring—no, celebrating—what we have while it lasts. 


an ideal husband

Today, I had a conversation with two of my students in the hallway during cleaning time. Both of them have told me, more times than I can count, that they want to go to a foreign country and marry someone like Justin Bieber or Harry Styles. I’m not scoffing at their dreams. Really. Truly, I’m not. It’s fine to dream big. However, most of their questions revolve around this topic.

I’ve questioned them on this point before, but they say they don’t particularly mind which country it is, so long as they can find someone they think is cool. Still, I’ve noticed that their definition of cool gravitates to Anglo-Saxon boyband member, so I can’t help but think that their criteria is a little picky. 

This afternoon, they asked me for a second time, “Do gaijin like Japanese girls?” 

I gave them the most serious answer I could think of at the time. “Well, first of all, you shouldn’t refer to foreigners as gaijin. It ticks off a lot of people.” 

Yes, a lot of people. Like me. 

“Anyway, I’m sure there are people who do, and people who don’t. After all, everyone is different, right?” This is tact at the junior high level.

“But as long as you have confidence, I think you’ll be fine. Besides, if you go to another country, your English will get better! So for now, just do your best.” 

“But sensei…” 


“The guys who like Japanese girls…does that include otaku?” 

“Well, yes, probably.” 

Their eyes lost that curious glimmer. “Ah.” They don’t want to date a foreigner who comes off as a geek.

So I tried to change the topic. 

Truth be told, I’m a little apprehensive of how they’re going to react when the English event at my school takes place next week. In the end, I guess only time will tell.

a mexican standoff at the train station

A few months ago, I was on my way to a work party in Sannomiya, trying to weave my way through the crowds on a Friday night. At the station platform, there’s a long stretch of ground before you reach the stairs. Within that area, there are two poles: if you walk on the inner side of one, you have less chance of being caught in the masses. So I always do.

But this time, there was another girl walking through in the opposite direction: she had long hair and a short skirt. Her face was set in a line too arrogant to be mistaken for neutrality. Even when she saw me, her pace stayed the same. If anything, it quickened. 

If you don’t know me, this is akin to waving a crimson square in front of a bull’s eyes. I am a Taurus, after all. 

So while normally I would have been willing to step aside, this time, I decided to charge through. She must have been thinking the same thing, and predictably, we collided. 

Her side hit my bag, and for a moment, I had nothing to say. Then I heard it: a loud guttural roar from her, resembling nothing so much of human speech as much as an animal’s war cry. A picture can be worth a thousand words, but at that moment, the look on her face was worth about a million.

In a confrontation, there are fight, freeze, and flight reactions. I’m not sure what mine would have been filed under, because in retrospect, it reminded me of a Pokemon battle:


After a brief second:


Which by the way, was a loud  “You—!” before I yanked my bag back to my side and walked off.  For a bilingual bonus, I used “Anta,” which is the first time I have ever had the chance to address someone so rudely here before.

So perhaps my reaction would fit under all three, since I paused, retorted, and then we both ambled away.

Not sure if I'm the Totodile or the Hoothoot in this scenario.

Not sure if I’m the Totodile or the Hoothoot in this scenario.

But incidents like this are unusual. 

Japan has the reputation for being an unaggressive society. If you do something unacceptable in public, chances are people will give you the side eye and then look the other way. This is pretty different from New York, where if someone is grouchy at you about something, they’re likely to say it to your face. This isn’t always the case, but the pattern holds true. 

Still, the one place where this can change is the train station. Overseas reporting likes to talk about the rows of neatly lined up salarymen at Shinjuku, but the fact of the matter is, that’s Tokyo, and not everyone in Kansai is so polite. 
In particular, the Three City Trifecta of Kobe, Osaka, and Kyoto have the distinction of 1)  being major cities in Kansai, all with their own regional character and 2) being almost as hectic as Tokyo, but with varying degrees of courtesy.

On the whole, Kansai is thought to be more easygoing than Kantou, but also more brash and inconsiderate. The flipside to this is that when people say “Kansai,” they often just mean “Osaka.” The local stereotypes for this city are prominent in Japan, and when Kyoto is brought up, the context is completely different.

I’ll offer a quick sketch of the two: Kyoto is refined and old world; Osaka is boisterous and rough. Both are cosmopolitan,  and have more in common than stereotypes would care to admit, but these generalizations do hold true when it comes to transportation manners. 

In Osaka, passengers will often board a train without waiting for everyone to get off. While I rarely see shoving, it’s not unusual to see people jumping ahead in line instead of patiently waiting, or ignoring others to get inside. It happens often enough that others don’t seem to consider it a big deal. 

On the other hand, that’s a definite no-no in Kyoto, and there are other unspoken taboos: taking too long to pay fare, being unaware of the space around you, and most of all, sitting in the section reserved for the elderly. 

So where does Kobe fit into the picture? 

From my experience, Kobe has a train culture that aims to be like Kyoto, but in practice is more like Osaka. I was a little disappointed to find that like New York, people still shove you, but that unlike New York, this abruptness isn’t really acknowledged. People seem to think that space is theirs, and while they won’t get hostile about it, they won’t apologize if they think you’re in the way, either. 

Nor am I the only one to notice this. When I make trips outside of Kansai, I notice that jostling is pretty uncommon. Kobe is an elegant place to live and everything, but for all that, people could be a bit nicer when it comes to personal space. 

what’s wrong with lost in translation?

This isn’t about Sofia Coppola’s movie. Not directly, at least.

Rather, it’s about tired, Orientalist writing that we should know to avoid by now, but shows up all over the place anyway. (Caution: some content is NSFW.) I don’t care much about Lena Dunham either way: she’s divisive on the internet, but most of the people I know in real life have never heard of her. Her views on Japan, though—they’re typical of people who have rarely traveled outside their birth countries, yet think they speak for everyone nonetheless.

This article is a few years old, but not old enough to make it irrelevant. At first, I was convinced it was a parody.

She writes about a trip to Japan, one where the first woman she meets “weighs about seventy-three pounds and has hands like paper cranes.” Where attempts to communicate with her in English are laughable, and everything Is So Inexplicably Foreign. Her writing, whether she intends it to or not, perpetuates the belief that Japan is populated by a country of Others, who in turn are only capable of looking at us as Others as well.

And as anyone trying to live in another country can tell you, this is exactly the kind of stereotype that many of us hope to tear down.

motomachi, kobe: mon loire

While I’m on the topic of chocolate, I have to mention that Kobe has a reputation for having the most bakeries and sweet shops in all of Japan. When I looked it up, I found out that it’s apparently #2 to Kyoto, but as far as numbers go, it doesn’t change a great deal. 

This weekend, I stopped by a place named Mon Loire in Motomachi, right off the intersection near Daimaru. I’m not much of a chocolate person—sure, I enjoy it, but I don’t miss its absense either. But the chocolates here, perhaps by virtue of presentation, made me want to buy a bagful of everything in the store. 

Currently, what’s popular is the Leaf Memories set: each bonbon wrapper opens to show a number of tiny leaf-shaped chocolates inside. There are also the apple chocolates—dark or milk coating on the outside, with a jellied apple-like filling in the center. Orange peel, pistachio, nougat. Small cubes of fresh chocolate in every flavor, and thin breakable wafers filled with more nuts and fruit inside. They even have drinking chocolate.

Leaf Memory set (リーフメモリー)

Leaf Memory set (リーフメモリー)

Leaf Memory set, take two

Leaf Memory set, take two

Cubed Chocolate (生チョコ)

Cubed Chocolate (生チョコ)

It’s a little too good to believe, and maybe I’m not the only one who thinks so: there’s a nut-brown sculpture there with the sign NOT EDIBLE written on it. I can’t justify buying the chocolate here just for myself, but if an occasion comes up and I’m floundering for places, I now know exactly where to go. 

the work ethic of fantasy japan

I’ve been watching a drama called Shitsuren Chocolatier, and it struck me yet again how convincing the fantasy of ideal Japan is.

An “ideal” Japan has been touted for years. In aiming for a global market, the phrase “cool Japan” is often pulled up. This includes anime, video games, and music; thanks to expanding beyond its borders, even a clothing retailer like Uniqlo might count. The concept has its share of fans and detractors, like Murakami Haruki, who disbelieves it altogether:

No one talks about “Cool Japan” overseas. That’s totally false: just a rumor. It’s a term that Japanese people made to satisfy their own narcissism, little more than a catchphrase for advertisers trying to get public money.

In this respect, Japan is no different from the majority of other countries: every place paints a nicer image of its society. Many of my students who want to go abroad are interested because the fantasy of that country appeals to them, not because they have a passion for the language. My students learning English want to see Glee and One Direction, not unfold their textbooks the day before a test.

All in all, it makes sense. Nobody really wants to see the mundane. in general, popular shows are glossy, focus on the top economic bracket, show daily pleasantries, and polish up looks as much as possible. It’s escapism, plain and simple. 

This would all be fine and well, except that some of the things that bother me so much about Japan—like the insane work & life balance—are shown with a positive spin. How do they do this? I never would have thought it possible, but Japanese media alters the truth just by shifting the lens a little:  here, people all work toward achieving a dream, with money as only a minor consideration. Close friends are part of the package, and in general, drudgery becomes something inspiring and fulfilling, instead of a reality of day-to-day life. Everyone has some passion or calling, or belongs to a famous company—no one is ever just ordinary. (Even the people who think they are.) 

It’s a very appealing picture.

And completely different from the reality. In the real world, people work long hours because their superiors expect them to do, and work often comes before love or family. Japan is known for its emphasis on the company above all else; often, your coworkers are the faces you see most often, whether you want to or not. Japanese TV doesn’t hide the reality of long hours, but by idealizing the rationale behind this, it seems like a less heavy blow.

In fantasy!Japan, Matsumoto Jun works at the nearby chocolate shop.

In fantasy!Japan, Matsumoto Jun works at the nearby chocolate shop.

the rocky trek of language learning

A couple of weeks ago, I found out that I passed the N1 of the JLPT.

Was I incredibly happy? You bet. I put up a note on my Facebook account, which I rarely use otherwise, and sent enthusiastic messages to my friends and family. After all, as I had known from a long time ago, the N1 is a Big Deal. The top of the standardized testing levels, the one used to identify complete proficiency to employers and colleagues, the one to separate the lesser (wo)men from the great.

But is it really?

Anything I say right now will sound like humblebragging—that peculiar habit of people who like to put themselves down in order to make other people realize how wonderful they are. So I will say this: I’ve spent time with Japanese for a good number of years. I read articles on the internet, buy books, write a ton of keigo on auction sites, and often put myself in places where you can’t do much of anything with English. (Or where it would be very awkward to try, at least.) And I did review for the test, even if it wasn’t every day.

But even after passing the test (with a solid mark), I don’t feel as though I’ve stepped over a threshold of proficiency that I previously lacked before. It certainly bolstered my confidence, which can lack depending on who I deal with on a given day. However, it really is true that tests that measure passive competency only go so far, even if the bar for that passive competency is pretty high. Rather, getting past the N1 is a sign that you can now study Japanese the way you want to, instead of simply reviewing grammar points and jouyou kanji.

From here, the path splits in several directions. If you’re interested in pre-Meiji Era diction, you can look at that. If you like four-word compounds or Kansai-ben, both of which get my enthusiastic approval, you can go for that instead. It grants you a kind of freedom, which is nice.

As a college student, though, I was convinced that a test like this was sort of like making it to the top of a cliff after a hefty climb, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s more like three-fourths of the way there—if you’re kind to yourself—and just over half if you’re critical. There’s a long way to go for people who pursue higher levels of skill: the proof is in how you use it after that.

Nonetheless, I’m proud of my N1 pass, even if I’m still climbing that mountain of savvy rather than being quite at the summit instead.