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Ōedo Line: Shiodome

In Japanese History on June 29, 2015 at 2:54 am

汐留
Shiodome (wave break)

The landfills that created calm pools near the residences of the daimyo families and later the shogun family fueled the fires for future destruction of the classical beauty of Edo Bay.

The landfills that created calm pools near the residences of the daimyo families and later the shogun family fueled the fires for future destruction of the classical beauty of Edo Bay.

The true origin of this place name is a bit complex. But the kanji refer to a spot that broke the waves hitting Edo Bay. While the name may pre-date the Edo Period, it’s generally assumed that this is a reference to man-made structures that broke the encroachment of the sea against the seaside palaces of the daimyō and the Tokugawa themselves.

In the Edo Period, the area was home to sprawling seaside mansions of the Tōhoku-based lords of Sendai Domain (descendents of Date Masamune[i]) and Aizu Domain (sponsors of the Shinsengumi[ii]). The Date clan had been loyal to the first shōgun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, before he was made shōgun. The Matsudaira clan of Aizu were related to the Tokugawa shōgun family by blood and marriage. If you look at the massive size of the city blocks in the area, you’re looking at vestiges of the daimyō palaces and samurai mansions that once stood in the area.

“Heat Island Tokyo”
Cutting off the seabreeze or global warming (or both?).
At any rate, Shiodome bears the brunt of this discussion usually.

The area is resplendent in so many contradictory ways. A crazy wall of skyscrapers block cool air from Tōkyō Bay, but at the same time offers customers, residents, and workers an insanely beautiful view of the bay. In this area, you can find the remains of 浜御殿 Hama Goten the Seaside Palace of the Tokugawa shōguns. Today the palace is called 浜離宮庭園 Hama Rikyū Tei’en Hama Detached Palace Park and features some magnificent stone walls, gorgeous gardens, duck/goose hunting grounds, and a beautiful teahouse in the middle of a lake in which you can relax with a hot cup of maccha and eat Japanese sweets on tatami mats. It’s considered one of the best preserved daimyō gardens in Tōkyō.

Hama Rikkyu Garden as viewed from the wall buildings in Shiodome. It looks small here, but it goes on for acres.  That was the Tokugawa seaside palace.  You MUST go.

Hama Rikkyu Garden as viewed from the wall buildings in Shiodome.
It looks small here, but it goes on for acres.
That was the Tokugawa seaside palace.
You MUST go.

A short distance from Hama Rikyū is 芝離宮 Shiba Rikyū Tei’en Shiba Detached Palace. The garden has a long history going back to the Sengoku Period[iii], but it’s an easy shoe in for top 5 traditional gardens in Tōkyō. It’s noticeably smaller than Hama Rikyū, but absolutely worth the visit, especially if you don’t have time for Hama Rikyū. That said, if you like Japanese gardens like your truly does, you could easily spend half a day at both, before you move on to your next activity.

The original (rebuilt) Shibashi Station. Click the photo for more of my original photos)

The original (rebuilt) Shibashi Station.
Click the photo for more of my original photos)

Near all of this is an often overlooked spot, the rebuilt Shinbashi Depot. This was the original location the starting point of the main 東海道線 Tōkaidō-sen Tōkaidō Line, the first train to follow the Tōkaidō Highway and unite Tōkyō with Kyōto & Ōsaka. Japan and trains have a long and colorful history, but this is pretty much where it started. If you like trains or are interested in how the Meiji Period began building up modern infrastructure, the museum inside the station building is a must see. You could walk from here to modern Shinbashi Station (formerly Karasumori Station) and find a Shōwa Era party town. The name Shinbashi means “New Bridge” and the remains of the original are a short walk from here as well.

Kachidoki Bridge crossing the mouth of the Sumida River. (Click the picture to read more about this photo.)

Kachidoki Bridge crossing the mouth of the Sumida River.
(Click the picture to read more about this photo.)

You’ll have to walk to Hamamatsu-chō Station if you want to go, but from there you have a straight shot to 竹芝桟橋 Takeshiba Sankyō Takeshiba Pier. Here you have a view of Kachidoki Bridge and the mouth of the Sumida River as well as a great deal of Tōkyō Port, including Tsukishima, none of which existed in the Edo Period. Boats come and go, but you’ll probably see more helicopters than anything. If you have a good zoom lens and want to take pictures of all kinds of Japanese helicopters, you’ll love this pier. If I have time to kill, I like to get a simple bentō lunch and chill on the pier and bask in the awe of the importance the bay played in the history of Edo-Tōkyō.

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This article is part of an ongoing series that starts here.

_________________________________
[i] Date Masamune is one of the most famous daimyō of the closing days of the Sengoku Period.
[ii] The Shinsengumi were an elite samurai peace keeping troop during the final days of the Tokugawa shōgunate.
[iii] It was a former 後北条 Go-Hōjō Late Hōjō seaside fort. The ruins of the Hōjō Era tea house are still preserved.
[iv] Do so at your own peril.

What does Asakusa mean?

In Japanese History, Travel in Japan on November 13, 2013 at 3:06 am

浅草
Asakusa (Low Grass)

Senso-ji at night

Senso-ji at night

I was going to keep this one short, but since Asakusa is one of those spots that comes up not just as one of the top tourist attractions of Tōkyō but all of Japan[i], I figured I’d spend a little extra time on this one and do it right the first time. So today we’ll look at an overall history of Asakusa and then take a quick look at the etymology of the name.

As far as I know, this place name only occurs in Edo-Tōkyō. The areas that preserve this place name today are:

浅草 Asakusa Asakusa
浅草橋 Asakusabashi Asakusa Bridge
西浅草 Nishi-Asakusa West Asakusa
元浅草 Moto-Asakusa Old Asakusa

However, it should be noted that an 浅草区 Asakusa-ku Asakusa Ward existed from 1878-1947. At that time, the places called Asakusa increased. After 1947, the number of Asakusa place names decreased dramatically until what is today considered is Asakusa is defined by little more than a train station here or there and a few vestigial postal addresses. But some 江戸っ子 Edokko 3rd generation Tōkyōites might consider some nearby neighborhoods as Asakusa, when technically they are not.

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

Senso-ji is crowded all year long.

The Asakusa Station area is teeming with tourists from all over the world. I first visited Asakusa in 2002 and I loved the shitamachi flavor, but I really didn’t have any sort of appreciation for what I was seeing. But the more I learn about the Edo and the Meiji Periods, the more I feel I can really sink my teeth into the area. But to be honest, except for the temple precinct, most of the charm of the area is its lingering Shōwa Era past.  And that’s all fine and good. Just know what you’re looking at.

Most Tōkyōites would put Asakusa in their top 3 places to visit in Tōkyō[ii].

The nakamise - a row of roughly 89 small shops selling everything from chopsticks, to dolls, to

The nakamise – a row of roughly 89 small shops selling everything from chopsticks, to dolls, to “ichiban” t-shirts, to yukata and kimono, to beer.
This shot is great because you can see the Kaminari Mon, the first gate, and the nakamise. Then at the end of the nakamise you can see the massive Hozomon Gate (also called Niomon) which was built in 942 by Taira no Kinmasa. Beyond that is the main hall (honden or Kan’non-do) which was built under the auspices of Tokugawa Iemitsu. The honden was destroyed in the firebombing of Tokyo. The current structure was rebuilt in the 1950’s.

The Story So Far…

The beginnings are purely mythical. In 628, some brothers were fishing in the 宮戸側川 Miyato-gawa Miyato River[iii] and – surprise, surprise – they caught a statue of 観音 Kan’non the goddess of mercy in their fishing nets[iv]. The brothers enshrined the statue in their home and kept it for private worship. It’s interesting to note, that this year, 628, just happened to be the same year as the death of 推古天皇 Suiko Tennō Empress Suiko, whose reign had seen great encouragement of Buddhism. This time in general is seen as a tipping point for the broader acceptance of Buddhism in Japan.

In 645, having been shared with the local villagers from time to time, the statue was made into a  hibutsu, image of Buddha hidden from the public. Then a proper temple was established.

Both dates, 628 and 645, are considered the founding of Asakusa-dera or Sensō-ji (we don’t know which pronunciation was prevalent at the time[v]). Also both dates would still earn it the title of the oldest temple in Edo-Tōkyō. It seems that by 942, the first 雷門 kaminari mon thunder gate[vi] had been established, although in a different location.

From here on out we will see a dichotomy between Asakusa (the area) and Sensō-ji (the temple).

Remember, all of this is preserved in the legends and records of the temple itself. There doesn’t seem to be any corroborating evidence elsewhere. In fact, the area isn’t recorded by non-temple sources until around 1266. At that time it is mentioned in a Kamakura Period text called the 吾妻鏡 Azuma Kagami Mirror of the West.

The Kaminari mon is where most people enter the temple precinct. It's located next to Asakusa Station and is one of the most famous landmark's in all of Japan.

The Kaminari mon is where most people enter the temple precinct. It’s located next to Asakusa Station and is one of the most famous landmark’s in all of Japan.

The common understanding is that the temple was founded on a small plateau on the west bank of the Sumida River. A 門前町 monzenchō[vii]  formed around the temple precinct and continued growing from that time. Because of the town’s location on the Sumida River, which was good for trading, the town not only prospered, but attracted the best craftsmen of the region. Temple records indicate thriving trade between the Kamakura area and this region.

Legend has it that when 源頼朝 Minamoto no Yoritomo Minamoto Yoritomo chose Kamakura as his capital (thus establishing the first of the 3 great shōgunates), he couldn’t find sufficiently skilled craftsmen in the area. On one occasion, he camped along the Sumida River near Asakusa. He visited the temple, as one does, and was so impressed with the builders that he hired them to come to Kamakura to build 鶴岡八幡宮 Tsuru-ga-oka Hachiman-gū which is still one of Kamakura’s grandest shrines[viii]. It’s said that trade between Asakusa and Kamakura was so intense that by the time the shōgunate collapsed, many of Kamakura’s merchants and artisans had relocated to Asakusa[ix].

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

Minamoto no Yoritomo visiting Senso-ji in the 1180.

Temple and shrine building wasn’t a big deal in the Sengoku Period, but carpentry and building skills were definitely in demand. It’s not hard to imagine some of the craftsmen of Asakusa being hired to help the Toshima, the Hōjō, the Edo Clan, or even crazy ol’ Ōta Dōkan in their building efforts[x].

Prior to the Edo Period, Asakusa was just a prosperous temple town on the river. But with the coming of the Tokugawa, everything changed. Urban sprawl from nearby by Chiyoda/Edo soon brought the area under the influence of the shōgun’s capital at such an early stage that Edo Period people and modern Tōkyōites generally just considered the area to have been part of Edo since time immemorial – even though for most of its existence, Asakusa was a separate town from the hamlet of Edo.

This

This “shinkyo” or sacred bridge is all that remains of Asakusa Tosho-gu.

The temple came under a particularly special patronage by the shōgun family because the head priest of Zōjō-ji had claimed that Asakusa Kan’non was the strongest deity in the Kantō area and that she had served Minamoto Yoritomo well[xi]. Tokugawa Ieyasu believed this deity helped him achieve total victory at the Battle of Sekigahara and as such it received great honors from the shōgunal family. While the temple was endowed by Edo’s most elite, its main mission was catering to the common people – a brilliant PR move on both Ieyasu and the temple’s parts[xii]. The temple has always been important to the commoners of Edo-Tōkyō.

In 1657, after the Meireki Fire[xiii] burned Edo down to the fucking ground, the licensed pleasure quarters called Yoshiwara was relocated from Nihonbashi to the area north of Asakusa because this was just a northern suburb at the time. Remember, we’re only 57 years into the Edo Period, son. Anyways, this transformed the area from just a pilgrimage spot to a proper tourist destination. And not just any old tourist destination; a tourist destination with a happy ending – if you know what I mean.

As lively as the area had become, its fame was only getting greater. In the 1840’s, after some crack downs on unlicensed kabuki theaters[xiv], the three prominent licensed kabuki theaters were forced to relocated to the Asakusa area. The area’s reputation as a center of nightlife was already secured, but adding popular theater to the area guaranteed this legacy for several more generations[xv].

By the way, if you’re curious about kabuki, Samurai Archives has a 2 part podcast crash course that you can listen to here.

Kabuki

Kabuki

In the Meiji Era, kabuki received imperial patronage and the underground kabuki theaters were as legit as the formerly licensed ones. Soon cinemas opened up in the area which showcased a foreign art form that the Japanese immediately became infatuated with. The area was now a bigger destination than ever; home to one of Tōkyō’s grandest temples and a vibrant theater district. Nearby Yoshiwara was still going off like crazy. Until WWII, Asakusa and Yoshiwara defined nightlife Japanese style.

It should be noted that in the Meiji Period, the temple lands were made into a park, naturally called 浅草公園 Asakusa Kōen Asakusa Park. The area was not unlike modern 上野公園 Ueno Kōen Ueno Park. The centerpiece of the park was Sensō-ji, but the real attractions were the theaters, cinemas, izakaya, and pleasure quarter overflow.

Postcard depicting Asakusa Park before the Great Kanto Earthquake. The tower in the back was Japan's first skyscraper, the Ryōunkaku.

Postcard depicting Asakusa Park before the Great Kanto Earthquake. The tower in the back was Japan’s first skyscraper, the Ryōunkaku.

Yoshiwara

Yoshiwara

Then WWII happened.

I’m sad to say that most of Sensō-ji and the Asakusa area were destroyed in the firebombing of March 1945. In a pattern similar to the other major temples of Edo-Tōkyō – Kan’ei-ji, Zōjō-ji – Sensō-ji found itself one of the biggest landholders but without a single yen to rebuild. They basically had no choice but to sell off their lands to get the money to rebuild the temple. The look of Asakusa changed dramatically. Today, the area retains nothing of its Asakusa Park halcyon days and even less of its Edo Period look.

During the Occupation, places like Yoshiwara came under the puritanical eye of the Americans at GHQ. The Yoshiwara was mostly burnt to the ground and so under General MacArthur’s orders it was not to be rebuilt. Plans were made for the moats to be filled in and the area was to be normalized into the reconstructed Tōkyō. While Asakusa and Yoshiwara were not the same place, keep in mind that their histories were intertwined since the Edo Period.

I mentioned this briefly in my series on the graves of the Tokugawa shōguns, so I should mention it here again because very few people know about this. If you turn towards the east of the 本殿 honden the main temple of Sensō-ji (ie; if you’re facing the honden, turn right and walk toward the bay), you’ll walk out of the east entrance which is called 二天文 Niten Mon[xvi].

The Niten mon was recently restored to glorious condition and it's now illuminated at night. The two statues were brought in from Kan'ei-ji.

The Niten mon was recently restored to glorious condition and it’s now illuminated at night. The two statues were brought in from Kan’ei-ji.

This gate didn’t survive the firebombing, but when it was rebuilt, Kan’ei-ji and the Tokugawa family made a special donation. Gen’yūin, Tokugawa Ietsuna’s mausoleum in Ueno[xvii], was also destroyed in the firebombing. Apparently, the gate itself was destroyed beyond repair, but the statues inside survived. The statues were moved here to Sensō-ji to remind the people of Tōkyō that the spirits of the Tokugawa shōguns were still protecting them.

So That’s The Story
What’s the Etymology?

Sorry, that’s the only reason come here anyways, lol.

OK, let’s get down to the biz nasty.

The etymology of Asakusa has been researched by people since the Kamakura Period[xviii] and people have been coming across the same roadblock every time.

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

浅草寺 Sensō-ji
浅草寺 Sensō-ji

浅草寺 Asakusa-dera

Same Kanji, Different Readings

Asakusa-dera is the native Japanese reading. This reading is plainer than the Chinese reading, Sensō-ji. As most of the major Buddhist teachings came to Japan via China, the Chinese reading would be more prestigious – more in touch with this new foreign and exotic religion.

There are no written records to support this but common sense would lead one to the conclusion that the name Asakusa is the older name – it most likely predates the temple. Once a proper temple was built and Chinese learning was imported, the temple assumed the local name but used the Chinese reading. So 浅草 asa kusa became 浅草 sen sō in the Chinese reading.  The village continued to use its native Japanese name. Today the area is still called Asakusa, even though the temple is called Sensō-ji.

Aerial shot of Senso-ji before WWII. Note the 5-story pagoda is to the right of the main hall. Today it stands on the left side.

Aerial shot of Senso-ji before WWII. Note the 5-story pagoda is to the right of the main hall. Today it stands on the left side.

Look at the Kanji

This is the least reliable way to look at ancient place names, including Asakusa. However, in this case, I think we can trust these kanji because a temple would require reading and writing of its priests. The temple’s history pre-dates any attempted at standardization of kanji, but what they present is fairly solid.

asa ain’t nuthin’ goin’ on
kusa grass

OK, so what do the kanji tell us?

There are many theories, but the most popular one is this:

浅草 asa kusa shameful/bald grass

The idea being, the Musashi Plain was famous for its untamed and tall grasses[xix]. This area had no grass. Long time readers of Japan This! will know that the grasses of the Musashi Plain were famous and appear time and time again in etymologies. Another interpretation is that the grasses were short, not tall as in other untamed areas.
Some other etymologies have been suggested.

麻草 asa kusa hemp grass[xx]
藜草 akazakusa goosefoot or lamb’s quarter


These are references to other types of vegetation in the area

After the firebombing in March 1945.
This isn’t Senso-ji. It’s Higashi Hongan-ji, located in the former Asakusa Ward.
But you can see how utterly complete the destruction was.
The wooden city was burned to the ground and thousands of lives were lost.

Two other etymologies are circulating.

Ainu

アツアクサ atsu akusa cross over the sea

Asakusa isn’t really next to the sea today. Edo Bay (Tōkyō Bay) is located a bit south of the area). But it’s located on the west bank of the Sumida River, one of the largest inlets that lined the area in ancient times. While it’s hard to consider it “crossing the sea” today, maybe 1500 years ago it was more like crossing the sea. While we can use imagination and give it a little head nod, we can never know if this is true.

Tibetan

アーシャクシャ aashakusha place where a Buddhist holy man lived

Not to be an asshole, but c’mon… this is the most contrived etymology EVER.

But as I said, the first theory, the literal one (low grass) is the predominant theory. The Ainu language theory carries a certain amount of weight, but can’t really be proven. I think we can dismiss the others.

So that’s Asakusa, bitches.

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[i] Asakusa as a tourist destination goes back all the way to the Edo Period when the area truly began to flourish under the patronage of the Tokugawa shōgun family.
[ii] I wouldn’t put it on my Top 5 list, though it would make my Top 10. Asakusa doesn’t really make sense unless you understand Edo-Tōkyō history well. So Tōkyōites hold it up as something awesome, but I feel it’s a massive let down for outsiders. But I suppose it depends what you’re looking for…
[iii] Today this is the  隅田川 Sumida-gawa Sumida River.
[iv] Where have we heard this before? (too many times to count by now…)
[v] But we have a good idea. More about this later!
[vi] Or lightning gate. The kanji are the same.
[vii] Please don’t make me explain what monzenchō were again…
[viii] The name nicely translates to “Great Shrine to Hachiman on the Hill of Cranes.” Hachiman was the war god.
[ix] Presumably the Sumida River made for better trading/business.
[x] Purely conjecture on my part.
[xi] Ieyasu used a contrived genealogy to link his family to the Minamoto clan as a familial claim to the rank of shōgun.
[xii] There used to be a Tōshō-gū on the premises but it was destroyed in WWII.
[xiii] Read more about fires in Edo here.
[xiv] The Tokugawa shōgunate always had a bug up its butt about sexual impropriety. The glorified martial virtues of the Sengoku Period were often in conflict with the arts and the “looser living” of the non-martial classes. In short, they felt that artists and actors and commoners made for a “loose morals ticking time bomb.”
[xv] As I’ve often gone on about 山手 yamanote high city and 下町 shitamachi low city, the lower classes and upper classes of Tokugawa society weren’t often legally allowed to mix – although they did. Asakusa was quite unique in the fact that they received patronage from the shōgunate but were always allowed to keep their humble mission of serving the common people intact. It might be said that Asakusa is where samurai and commoner were equal. Some of this might also be due to the proximity of Yoshiwara in which, in theory at least, all customers were to be treated as equals.
[xvi] Here’s a quick explanation of what Niten means.
[xvii] Tokugawa Ietsuna was the 4th Tokugawa shōgun, my article on his mausoleum is here.
[xviii] Well, at least that’s the first time we see it recorded.
[xix] The word is 草深い kusabukai verdant grass, literally deep grass.
[xx] The Japanese varieties seem to never have been cultivated for their psychoactive qualities, so these were plant cultivated firstly for building and cloth making and occasionally for medicine making in the form of 漢方 kanpō fake herbal medicine from China.

Japanese Manners (part 3)

In Japanese Manners on February 11, 2013 at 12:10 pm

In my commute back from work today, I thought of some more Japanese manners that I hadn’t mentioned before.

If you haven’t seen parts 1 and 2 yet, please take a look:

PART ONE – 4 manners that you absolutely must know when visiting Japan.
PART TWO – 4 more manners that will help you enjoy the culture experience of Japan more.

Today’s manners are little things that you may or may not know, some might seem trivial to non-Japanese.

Using Chopsticks

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chopsticks may be kawaii, but only if you have good manners.

I’m going to assume you know how to use these already, if not, get 2 pencils and check out some videos on YouTube.
However, there is some etiquette which may or may not be self-evident.

1Don’t play air drums with your chopsticks
2Don’t tap your chopsticks together to make noise
3Don’t hover your chopsticks over food while deciding what to choose. Choose what you want first, and then pick it up.

Those three are all considered childish and uncouth. These next 2 manners are actually taboos relating to the dead and can be extremely offensive or off-putting and as such you should avoid them at all costs.

1Two people shouldn’t touch the same item at the same time with chopsticks. (At a Japanese funeral, after cremation, the small bone fragments are gathered from the ashes in this manner. The bones are then brought to the family grave. If you do this people will be aghast!)
2Don’t stick your chopsticks into the rice. Always set them on the side of the bowl or dish. (In Japanese cemeteries, rice bowls with chopsticks stuck in them are left as ceremonial offerings for the dead.)

011

pleeeease don’t be THAT guy!

 

Visiting Shrines and Temples

Japan has a kind of syncretic polytheistic religious history. The native religion of the Japanese isles is Shintō. It’s polytheistic in that there are many 神 (kami – usually translated as “gods” or “spirits”) who reside in various special spots all over the country. See a beautiful mountain? There is a special kami there. See a funky looking tree? There is probably a kami there too. A nice vista from the side of a hill? Most like there’s a kami living there too. And so on.

Kami are enshrined in… um, shrines. A shrine can be identified by a torī (you can think of it as the entrance to the sacred space), relatively plain, wooden architecture and a fountain for purifying your hands.

Shinto_Shrine_at_Sanju-sangen-do_Temple_Kyoto

shrine on you crazy diamond!

Early in Japanese history, Buddhism was imported to Japan. Buddhism doesn’t have kami, rather it focuses on the examples of real people who have reached enlightenment. Before the Meiji Period (let’s say industrialized Japan), there was a syncretism (blending) of Shintō and Buddhism. Nikkō Tōshōgū is a prime example of this mixed style. It’s essentially a shrine, but it houses the enlightened spirit of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was very much a real person.

A temple can be identified by a large wooden gate (or sometimes just a fence), “heavy” architecture, usually with much more decoration than a shrine. There is often a large incense burner in front of the building.

b0105138_21152277

note there’s no torii, there is an lamp-like looking incense burner. you can’t see the main gate, but this temple has one, but it blocks the main hall’s view.

 

SO HOW DO I DO IT?

Visiting a Shrine

1Walk through the torī.
2 From here on in, be respectful. No shouting, no smoking. Taking pictures is probably OK, but be aware that some particularly important shrines may have no flash/picture rules in some areas, keep your eyes open.
3Go to the fountain. (I think it’s usually on the left side of the entrance… but maybe they have in other places).  Pick up the ladle.  Pour the water over your left hand. Make sure your hands are outside of the fountain, don’t put “dirty” water back into the pool. Then repeat with the other hand. Put the ladle away. (Just a quick note, on cold days, most people totally skip this part because… it’s cold. Know what I mean?)
4Go up the stairs to the main hall.
5If there is a hanging bell or gong thingy, ring it a few times to get the kami’s attention.
5Throw a coin into the offering box (10 yen is the norm, but you can do whatever).
6Bow 45° twice.
7Clap your hands twice.
8Bow deeply again once and when you come up, put your hands together, palm-to-palm and pray… or if you’re an atheist like me, stand there silently and pretend.
9You’re done!

Visiting a Temples

Much easier than a shrine – cuz it’s not Japanese. lol

0 – After entering the temple grounds, be respectful and quiet.
1If there is a large incense burner, go up to it and with cupped hands, pull some of the smoke on your body (in particular, the parts you think need a little “help”).  If there isn’t much smoke coming out of there, go buy some first from the temple girls and light it and put it in the burner before trying to hog all the smoke for yourself.
2Go up the stairs to view the temple treasures and sacred objects.
3Toss a coin or two into the offering box.
4 – There are no kami in Buddhism, so it would be stupid to bow at a bunch of stuff, however Japan is pretty much an atheistic country and a lot of people don’t actually know the difference between shrine etiquette and temple etiquette, so you WILL see people bowing and doing shrine stuff. Normal. But basically, the correct etiquette is to throw the coin and, without bowing, pray with your palms together, then leave.

As always, thanks for reading. Also, if there are any topics you’d like me to cover in the future, please let me know. I’m all ears.

More to come soon!

Japanese Manners (part 2)

In Japanese Manners on February 7, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Are you ready for a few more Japanese manner tips that will let you travel in Japan like a pro?

More Manners That Will Make You Look Like a Pro:

Saying Please
Even you can’t speak any other Japanese, when you order or ask for something; you might want to say onegai shimasu (please) to score some “super cool foreigner” points.
If you want to get someone’s attention, say sumimasen (excuse me/I’m sorry).
If you bump someone in the station or realize you made a mistake or did something careless or stupid, you can also say sumimasen.

Pro-tip 1: After your food has arrived, before you start eating say itadakimasu (a humble way to say “thanks for the food”).

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A Ramen Shop Is Not a Hangout
After you finish your ramen, get the hell out. Most shops are small, with limited seating so customer turnover is important. Even if the shop is pretty much empty, hanging out there ordering more beers and chatting just looks weird – like you have no idea what you’re doing.

Pro-tip: Slurp your noodles to show how much you like them. This applies to all noodles in Japan. Slurp away.

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Don’t Stop In Front Of The Ticket Gate in Train Stations
This is just freaking common sense, people. And I see Japanese people do it too. When a Japanese person does it, they’re just a dumbass. When a foreigner does, you’re a fucking gaijin and we all look bad.
If you have to stop to put away your train pass or look around for something, walk to an out of the way spot and do what you gotta do, don’t block the ticket gate and scratch your balls.

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Sneezing, Coughing and Generally Being Sick
Most Japanese are kireizuki (clean freaks), so if you’re on a train or something, cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough. This should be common sense… unless your mom was born in a barn.

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Pro-tip: Wear a mask to keep your nasty germs away from other people.

If you liked this, please visit the much more important Japanese Manners Part One!

UPDATE: There’s more!  So if you want to learn more Japanese manners, check out Japanese Manners Part Three.

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Japanese Manners (part 1)

In Japanese Holidays, Japanese Manners, Travel in Japan on February 7, 2013 at 4:38 pm

Going to Japan for the first time? There are a lot of manners and commonsensical behaviors that people do here and just take for granted that everyone knows. But the fact is that if you’re visiting Japan for the first time, you probably don’t know most (or maybe any) of the local customs.

If I had a 1 yen coin for every time I saw a foreigner doing something “wrong,” I’d have a fuckload of 1 yen coins. They get in the way, mess up everyone’s routine, or just do things that will annoy everyone around them. None of these things is the end of the world; you can be oblivious and still have a great time. After all, ignorance is bliss.

But if you take the time to learn a few basics, you’ll look like a pro, people will think “what an urbane and polite foreigner,” and in my honest opinion, you’ll have a lot more fun because of the insight into the culture. I really believe the proverb “When in Rome, do as the Romans” is some of the best advice ever. You’ll experience Japan more deeply and you’ll come away with a so much more profound experience.

As I said, there are a lot of “rules” (or “manners,” if you will). But they’re not hard to learn. After a few basics, you’ll start to see patterns and probably be able to figure out the rest for yourself. I’m going to start my list with the big mistakes that I see tourists make all the time, then I’ll go into the smaller things.

4 Manners You Must Know In Japan

Walking & Using Escalators
Walk on the left side of the streets and hallways.
Stand on the left side of elevators; the right side is for people in a hurry to walk.
I see foreigners standing side by side relaxing on the handrails blocking the flow of traffic all the time. There’s a long line of people standing behind them looking irritated about being slowed down.

Pro-tip: In Osaka, for some strange reason, the elevator rule is reversed. People stand on the right side and pass on the left. Often you’ll see Tokyo people doing it wrong here – sometimes intentionally as a snub – so if you do it correctly, you’ll be doing better than even some Japanese!
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Getting On Trains
Make a line. Japanese trains stop at the same spots, the doors are marked on the platforms or across on the facing wall.
Stand to the right or left of the door, so you don’t block people getting off the trains.
People exit the doors in the middle of the left & right lines first. After everyone has gotten off the train, the people waiting will board the train.
The Japanese like lines and order. It’s this sort of behavior that keeps people calm when there are typhoons, earthquakes, etc.
It’s really just common sense. Let people off first, then get on yourself. Stand to the sides so you don’t block people. You can parlay this skill to every other situation in Japan.

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Silence is Golden
Don’t talk loudly anywhere (but especially on trains).
Don’t sit across from your friend on the subways and have a loud conversation. Sit next to each other and talk at a reasonable volume.
People are generally quiet in elevators when unknown people get in with them.
Always keep your phone in silent mode (vibrate), called “Manner Mode” in Japanese, especially in public places.
Don’t talk on your phone on the train. They even make announcements saying this. If you have to take a phone call, get off the train and talk on the platform. The next train will come soon anyways.

Pro-tip: Don’t take phone calls at the table, step outside. You’ll score lots of “cool foreigner” points for this one.

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Saying Thank You
Don’t say arigato to staff. They are not your friends. You say arigatō gozaimasu (polite) or dōmo arigatō gozaimasu (super polite).

Pro-tip 1: After a meal, instead of saying arigatō gozaimasu, you can say go-chisō-sama desu, which means something like “Thank you for the bad ass feast.”

Pro-tip 2: The Japanese bow a lot. You don’t have to do a 45 degree bow or anything, but whenever you feel appreciation for someone, give a little bow or at least a nod.

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There they are.

4 rules that will help you enjoy Japan while the Japanese enjoy you too.

If you wanna go the extra distance, I have a few more rules that will help you!
Here: Japanese Manners 2

 

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