Posted by: Menzie | December 9, 2009

‘Tis the Season

Christmas and the New Year are drawing close, so this would be a good time to talk about how they differ in that land known as Japan. I’m certain that these are two holidays every reader is familiar with. Exchanging presents under the Christmas tree with family, going out and getting drunk on New Year’s Eve with the hope of a midnight kiss. For many Christmas also holds religious significance as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and special Christmas services are held. Safe to say in the Western world Christmas is a religious holiday meant to be spent with the family, while New Year’s is a secular holiday usually spent with friends or even a date. In Japan, these roles are reversed.

Christmas is a wholly Western holiday, and was imported into Japan as such. Being as the Christian population in Japan is so small (about 1%) the holiday doesn’t hold any religious significance for most. The commercial aspect is observed, and many families will set up a Christmas tree (usually artificial) and talk about Santa. Presents are not left under the tree, however. Parents usually leave only one present, and put that at the head of their child’s bed.

For the single population, Christmas is a very big dating holiday. Much like Valentine’s Day in the United States (another holiday which is celebrated much differently in Japan) many people are in a rush to find a date for Christmas. I have heard stories of girls getting into relationships just before Christmas, only to break up with the guy right afterward. If you are in a relationship an extravagant and usually expensive date is expected. They may go out to a fancy restaurant or even stay at a nice hotel, and an exchange of presents is must. The man is expected to buy the woman something very nice, usually jewelery. Wonderful if you are in love, but otherwise a lucrative scheme for those who would exploit it. Real or not, Christmas in Japan is for lovers.

There’s one slightly unusual tradition that is part of Christmas in Japan that I can’t quite explain. Somehow cake has become a necessity on Christmas in Japan. That’s right, Christmas cake. Additionally, Kentucky Fried Chicken is the meal of choice for many on Christmas. For many Japanese people, Christmas means KFC and cake. I cannnot tell you why.

New Year’s- unlike Christmas- has existed and been celebrated in Japan long before Western influence, and remains largely unaffected by such. In Japan it is called Oshogatsu, and focuses more on the three days following the beginning of the New Year rather than the night prior. People beginning pouring into their local temples and Shinto shrines as early as the stroke of midnight, with assistance from the trains that run for twenty four hours on this day only. They aim to make their first prayers of the year in hopes to curry the favor of the local dieties and have a successful year. Lines to enter shrines can be as long as three hours long, noting the significance of this religious holiday. After visiting the shrines people gather with their families and have a large meal, often an array of sushi or something equally upscale. A special type of mochi, slightly different than the dessert type, is eaten as well, to promote good fortune.

This is also an excellent time for TV lovers, as networks run marathons of their most popular programs over the three days of Oshogatsu. For tourists, the holiday may be a bit disappointing. Almost all shops and restaurants are closed, though the Imperial Palace does open its grounds to visitors on January 2nd, one of only two times that happens every year. Yet there is no ball drop, no count down and no partying in the street unless you seek out the specific places that cater to foreigners or the party crowd. In Japan, New Year’s is a time for families.

Posted by: Menzie | November 14, 2009

I’m bringing It Back

Sadly, I am not Justin Timberlake and “it” isn’t sexy. I’ve neglected the blog for quite a while. Writing in general to be honest. I’m only halfway through typing up the travel journal. The neglect ends here. Expect more articles on a more regular basis.

Posted by: Menzie | July 4, 2009

The travel blog

Now that I’m in Japan and started writing my travel blog, you can find it at

Posted by: Menzie | June 19, 2009

Ablogology (a blog apology)

For anyone who is still reading this (and I hope that there are a number of you,) apologies that I’ve been lacking posts lately. I’ve had a few major events taking up my time lately: breaking up with my girlfriend, chaos at work, a family medical emergency and getting laid off at the end of this month. In addition, I’m planning a trip to Japan in July so that has been taking up a lot of time as well. Now that most of these things are under wraps, I should be able to get back to putting up posts. I have a number I’ve written on paper and just need to get in front of my computer and type up.

While my trip to Japan is good news for the blog as I can will get more material for it, I will probably take something of a hiatus from it to work on a travel blog related to my journey. The link will be posted once I have it all set up.

So essentially this is a notice and apology that until August the blog will be a little light. I’ll do the best I can to get some small posts up once a week while I’m gone, and before I leave.

Posted by: Menzie | June 10, 2009

Where is my mind?

This is a note on personal safety more than anything else. Smaller cities and suburban areas often have open gutters along many of the roads. Sometimes they are covered by specially fitted concrete tiles, but more often they are not. Given the sheer amount of rain in Japan, these gutters are necessary to keep streets from flooding. These gutters are molded out of concrete, about a foot across and three and a half feet deep. And very easy to miss.

The trouble comes from both the placement and design of these gutters. They line the edges of the road, and fit into them so well you don’t even notice they are there. There’s simply a gap, a place where the road doesn’t exist between the sidewalk, with both sides still being perfectly even and flat. Further more, covered and uncovered sections seem to be disturbed almost arbitrarily at times. Allowing one tire to drift into one of these gutters could easily break one of the axles. If you’re not aware of them, or aren’t focused due to consumption of, let’s say alcohol, you could stumble over and make one poorly placed step. You’ll be in the gutter up to your while still half on the side walk. Flip a coin to see which of your legs ends up breaking from the fall. So keep your eyes peeled.

Posted by: Menzie | May 20, 2009

Where do I sign?

Let’s be honest, how much cursive do you know outside of how to sign your name? Really the only time most of us use it is to sign formal documents or checks.This act of signing your name is a very powerful and important part of western culture, but you’ll never sign anything in Japan. You’ll stamp it.


For any important documentation the Japanese use a hanko. The hanko is a personalized wooden stamp that bears a person’s name and is essentially their personal seal. The hanko is dipped in red ink (always red ink) and then pressed upon a document to denote approval, compliance or verification in the same way most people use their signature.

Most businesses in Japan won’t accept a signature because they don’t consider it legitimate or permanent. If you want to buy a cellphone, you’ll need to use your hanko. If you’re opening a bank account, you’ll need to use your hanko. When you sign your time sheet, you will need to use your hanko. The only time you won’t need to use your hanko is for a check. That is because no one in Japan uses or accepts personal checks, but that’s a topic for another day.


Posted by: Menzie | May 13, 2009

Feed Me

sumimasenGiven the polite and generally demure nature and customs of the Japanese people, parts of restaurant etiquette are sure to put you for a loop. I’m not talking about how you’re not supposed to tip, which you probably already know. If you didn’t already know, you’re not supposed to tip. The Japanese don’t do that, and it’s kind of taken as an insult. It’s like you’re pitying them and giving them charity, but in a patronizing fashion. What I’m talking about is calling for your waitress.

In restaurants in western society, after being seated by the hostess a waitress will eventually come around to take your order. That doesn’t happen in Japanese restaurants. If you wait for a waitress to come by, you’ll be waiting a very, very long time. This is because in restaurants in Japan you are supposed to call for your waitress when ready. You have to stick your hand in the air and shout (or say loudly) “Sumimasen!” (Excuse me!) A waitress will then hurry over to take your order or bring the check or what have you. While this sort of thing would be rather rude in western culture, it’s perfectly acceptable in Japan. Acceptable and necessary if you want to eat. Just remember to be polite when the waitress comes over.

Of course there are some slight exceptions to the rule. Some restaurants now have buttons to press rather than calling out for your waitress. They look like a tap light, and when you press it a little bell will chime and light up a table number back by the hostess area, sending someone over. And some more western style restaurants and upscale places may have the waitress come to you. Use your best judgement and understand it as a general rule. Consider it practicing the art of polite yelling.

We really need more of that.

Posted by: Menzie | May 5, 2009

Oh, so you’re not a doctor


Not a modern day ninja, either

All around Japan, in cities and on subways especially, you may occasionally see someone wearing a medical mask. These are not surgeons on the way to the operating room. Nor are these people germaphobes terrified of disease from the microscopic jungle around them. Usually it’s quite the opposite.

The Japanese generally wear these masks as a point of courtesy. They have a cold, and wearing the mask is meant to help keep the germs from spreading. The mask doesn’t do much to improve the health of the wearer, but it allows them to go about their day without considering themselves a biohazard.

Very few working adults, or students for that matter, will take a day to rest if they are sick. Generally it is discouraged unless a person is terribly ill. If a person does take a sick day, they can expect questions of concern when they return. So small colds tend to linger and extra day or two, and the masks become a social necessity. Have to keep that T-virus under wraps.

Posted by: Menzie | April 27, 2009

How to refuse a Prostitute (or other services)

12My first visit to Tokyo was in August, during Oubon. The combination of the intense heat and exodus of city dwellers to their hometowns for the holiday left the city rather empty. Many shops were closed, and it was obvious that business was slow overall.

I took to Shinjuku in jeans and a t-shirt, wandering aimlessly and eventually making my way into Kabuki-cho. I passed a group of  eleven or so well dressed men and women hanging around outside of an ornate building. One of them, a beautiful woman of about 5’9″, in high heels and a simple yet seductive black cocktail dress, and dark brown hair down just past her shoulders, said something to me in Japanese. I replied in Japanese that I didn’t understand (as at this point my Japanese was very poor) and continued walking.

She followed.

She said something else and I apologized, repeating that I didn’t understand. her response was a single word. “Seksu.” Phonetisize that if you have trouble understanding.

At this point I was still in a committed relationship with a girl back in San Francisco. I have a habit of being faithful to a fault. I also hadn’t started my job, so my income was limited. Wanting to say no to her, I replied “Ie, daijoubu.”

What I meant this to mean was  “No, I’m okay.” As in no thank you. There were two problems with this. The first problem was I said ie instead of iie. Iie means “no.” Ie means “my house.” The second problem was I misunderstood the use of daijoubu. While it’s generally translated as “okay” in English, its meaning is closer to “it is mutually agreed upon.” So what I ended up saying was “My house, it’s agreed.” This lead to a bit of confusion, and the woman following me two more blocks.

A conversation with a coworker later brought to light my misuse of the language. He explained to me that if you want to refuse something, it’s best to say “kekko desu,” similar to no thanks. He was more of the opinion that  I should have asked “Ikura?” (How much?)

Posted by: Menzie | April 25, 2009

Domo when in Doubt

Even if you speak the language, knowing exactly what to say can sometimes be tricky. Different situations have different cultural expectations, and what is expected plays a large part in the Japanese culture. This can be a little confusing at first. As always, foreigners have a level of leeway. But being able to respond like a Japanese person, or a very polite foreigner, will improve the reactions of those you meet.

Hopefully some of you get this

Hopefully some of you get this

Until you pick up on what is expected, default to being very polite. Japan’s culture is traditionally one of politeness and humility. In turn it can be beneficial to be polite and humble. So, when in doubt of how to respond to someone, say “domo.” This literally means “I humbly accept,” but it’s applicable to almost any situation. It’s also almost impossible to offend anyone with it, making it a safe response to anything from a greeting to being given directions to a thumbs up.

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