A Travellerspoint blog

Japan

Christmas and New Year in Japan

What's new and how to appreciate it

rain 5 °C

Christmas: During my entire existence on this planet, my belief was that Christmas must be celebrated with people who you consider family, and to enjoy this day with festive food, drinks and presents. Because I was brought up in France and the UK, Christmas was a national holiday, an important day for most people and also a good reason to meet up with relatives to catch up on each others' lives. Now, I'm not saying that Christmas ISN'T celebrated in Japan, it's merely seen as less important and not historically or culturally relevant enough to make it a national holiday. Therefore, Christmas day is celebrated differently compared to western countries and cultures, and here's how:

1) The 25th of December is not a holiday, therefore Japanese citizens go to work, school or university like any other day. This is the first time that I've been faced with this dilemma. Although, last year some of my colleagues did work on Christmas day at a pub in the UK, which I too could have volunteered for, I've never been to a country where it's "normal" to not celebrate Christmas. Therefore, I woke up early in the morning to go to my philosophy class, which was uneventful, but necessary. As this was an international class, so not many students showed up, which was to be expected.

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2) Japanese Christmas food is completely different to western Christmas food. If you're looking to roast a whole turkey in Japan, you'll have to look very hard to find one. Probably better luck on Amazon. There are some supermarkets which sell (for example) a whole chicken, but this will be quite a small chicken and the price will not be reasonable (maybe 2000 yen). Usually, people get KFC for Christmas in Japan. However, if you look in the sweet section, they do sell a variety of Christmas logs and Christmas cakes at supermarkets. Although, these won't be the type of Christmas cakes you're used to in the UK. The Japanese Christmas cake (which I have made myself), is composed of a sweet light cream, strawberries (which are also very expensive in Japan!) and a light fluffy sponge. Some may also have custard in them. In my dorm we organised a Christmas pot luck, with Christmas dishes based on different cultures, which turned out to be educational and delicious!

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3) Christmas day is treated like Valentines day in Japan. Meaning, that if you're in a relationship, it would be normal to ask them out for a date on Christmas day and either go to Disneyland, to a restaurant, maybe a bar, or a Christmas market. This was not my case, but you will see the some couples out and about in Tokyo (which also means that most places will be open for business, as they will make a lot of profit during this time of the year).

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So, even though I felt, for the first time since I arrived in Japan, a little homesick for Christmas, I still got to spend it with good friends who I met through university by drinking, eating, playing games and enjoying each others company.

New Year: Obviously the most important holiday in Japan, which for me lasted 7 days, has many deep rooted traditions and is taken quite seriously by Japanese citizens. I suppose that in France we do have some traditions to celebrate for New Year, but if you're in Japan, they are unavoidable. And by unavoidable, I mean it's impossible not to notice all of the traditional New Year decorations, sending of cards, the amount of people going to shrines to pray and the famous tv shows which run only during this time of year. So, let me explain some of these important rituals:

1) New Year decorations are everywhere. If you enter any supermarket in December, the first thing you'll see are these interesting looking ornaments. Some look like bamboo, some look like dried grass tied into an intricate not, and some will look like sculpted mochi (rice cake). The one that caught my eye the most, was this mochi décor. I was very confused when I first saw it a shop near where I live, many different white balls with something orange on top in different sizes and placed on differing platforms. These are called kagami-mochi, which are offerings to the god in the New Year and are often placed at the entrances of all types of buildings.

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2) Praying at a shrine (hatsumode). Most people go to a shrine on New Years day onwards to pray for the up coming year. This could be for anything you desire I suppose. However, there's a ritual that you must follow to do so: first, enter the shrine through the big gates, then go to a small fountain to purify yourself with cold water, first clean the right hand, then the left hand, then pour water into your left hand to put in your mouth and spit out again, clean your left hand again, and finally clean the tool you were using. Then you may go up to the shrine, put money into the box (usually 5 yen), jingle the bells, bow twice deeply, pray and clap your hands twice, finally bow once more deeply. Sometimes people wait for hours to pray at shrines, and extremely long queues can be seen outside these places of worship.

3) FOOD! Is extremely important during this time of year, families usually spend New Year's Eve at home eating traditional foods and watching tv shows. One of these foods is soba, which are buckwheat noodles eaten cold with hot dashi sauce with soy, mirin and ginger. Really simple and delicious. Interestingly, watching tv is a popular past time for New Year, with shows such as Gaki no Tsukai and Kouhaku Uta Gassen which are super entertaining even if you're not Japanese, mainly because it's just bunch of famous people doing crazy things and turn out to be funny.

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4) Sending cards to greet the New Year (nengajou). These are small postcards which friends and families send to each other to wish them Happy New Year, something personal and extremely common in Japan.

And that was my experience during this festive time of the year in Japan! Very different from what I'm used to, but was an extremely interesting and cultural experience.

Thank you for reading

明けましておめでとうございます

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Posted by Louise - ルイーズ 06:48 Archived in Japan Tagged christmas new_year Comments (0)

2 nights in Beppu

First time travelling in Japan for the rugby world cup 2019

overcast 15 °C

The first time I went travelling in Japan was to go watch the Australia - England rugby world cup match in Oita, which is located in the southernmost island of Japan called Kyushu. It was one of the best traveling experiences of my life, as I haven't had many opportunities in the past to travel on my own. Because this was for an international sporting event, I met many different people who were extremely friendly and easy to talk to, so much so that some of us are still in touch. I have lots to talk about in this blog entry, so I apologise in advance if it drags out too long, but I will do my best to keep it interesting.

I left my dorm on the 17th of October to get to Haneda airport for midnight, as my flight was at 6:30am. I had to stay there overnight (which I had nerver done before), because trains in Tokyo stop at 1am and don't start again until 5am. It was quite a stressful experience, as I nearly got on the wrong train (since Tokyo has a diverse and complicated train systems), which meant I would have missed my flight. Even if I could have gotten a taxi, they are extremely expensive here. Either way, I got to the domestic terminal, where the entrance was closed and a security guard was explaining something in Japanese which I couldn't understand. Luckily, two guys who were in the same situation, knew how to speak English and told me that we had to go to the international terminal to sleep for the night. I got chatting to them, one was Italian, the other one was Japanese from Kyushu, we talked a lot during the night, they were extremely helpful and informative about Japan.

I only managed to sleep about 2 hours that night by sitting in an airport lobby chair, which was to be expected. The queue to get the 4am airport shuttle bus for the domestic terminal was huge, but we still got on the second bus and I arrived in time for my flight. I was exhausted and was craving sleep. However, for some unknown reason, I started talking to the English person next to me on the plane. We got chatting, once again about Japan, and I discovered latter that he was the father of Brad Shields, one of the official English rugby union players. He did not play in the world cup due to an injury, but I enjoyed talking to his father despite the lack of sleep.

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I arrived at the airport, hopped on a bus for a few hours, enjoyed the scenery, got off the bus just before the center of Beppu, and proceeded to walk for 2 hours in the humide climate (which I did not prepare for) to go to one of the most famous onsens (bath houses). It was quite a trek, but definitely worth it. I got to experience some beautiful sceneries of Beppu, especially as I was climbing uphill. It did start raining as I was walking, but it was a pleasant feeling against the heat. I finally got to the onsen after trying to direct myself with Google maps and felt it was well deserved after a long walk. Onsens (温泉) are natural hot springs in Japan which can be public or private, mixed or gender separated and indoors or outdoors. Some don't accept people who have tattoos and some are specifically for families or couples. I had already experienced sento (セント) baths before coming to Beppu, as I have one in my dorm, but unlike onsens, they are baths filled with heated tap water. The onsen I experienced in Beppu was called Yuya Ebisu, it was quite cheap at ¥1,200 (around £8) for the day per adult, I had an amazing time there, the receptionist was patient with my poor Japanese, the baths were extremely relaxing and there were many types to chose from. I got talking to a French lady who was there at the same time as me, we chatted about the rugby world cup and she told me that her fiance was working in the tournament. I had a delicious ice cream and cold coffee before I had to departed to walk to my hostel to check in. I had spent nearly 4 hours at the onsen, mainly to regain some energy.

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Next, I had to walk 2 hours downhill to arrive at the hostel called Guest House Sunline Beppu. However, when I left the onsen, the fog was extremely thick and I couldn't see what was in front of me. I was worried about the cars, so I thought about getting a bus but decided against it in the end. When I got under the fog or cloud, I once again saw some beautiful scenes of Beppu, such as steam coming from a river, more steam oozing from every manhole and chimney which resembled mini clouds in the sky. There was also an abundance of vegetation, with fruit trees bearing massive apples and plenty of rice fields.

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I arrived at the hostel, it cost me ¥3,060 (around £22) for the night which included breakfast and an onsen bath (although this one was so hot that it felt like I was being boiled alive and could only stay in it for a few minutes). The receptionist was very kind and I managed to understand everything she told me in Japanese and she even understood my Japanese, which I was very proud of. I was exhausted, so I proceeded to collapse on the bed, but I was also starving, so in the end I had to force myself up and find somewhere to eat. I decided to go to the cheapest ramen shop in town after walking around a bit. The place was called ramen tei ichiban, and their cheapest bowl was at ¥300 (around £2), but I decided to go for their most expensive which was still under the average price in Tokyo (I will be talking about ramen in more detail in future blog entries).

After I got back from my meal I had a two hour long nap, but was woken up by someone dropping off their stuff in the shared room. I started talking to this person who was also a French woman, and I mixed her up with the other person I met at the onsen (probably because I was so tired). She left, someone else arrived who was a woman called Katie from Bath in the UK. We got along really well and I joined her for a smoke outside with some beers, where we both met Alex. He was from the Netherlands, married to a Japanese woman, and interestingly was the personal driver for the prime minister of the Netherlands, who is currently Mark Rutte. Alex was on a 3 month extended holiday for the rugby world cup, he said that he loved his job and that he also loved to drink. All three of us got along extremely well and talked about pretty much everything.

The next day, I woke up early to have breakfast and check out. I then walked to the Takasakiyama Natural Zoological Garden, to visit and take pictures of Japanese Macaques which are native to that area, the park was very cheap at ¥500 (around £3.50). Later, I went to take a shuttle bus to the rugby stadium and started talking to some Japanese rugby fans during the ride.

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Once I got off the bus, I started drinking some Strong Zero which is a type of cheap alcoholic beverage at 9% abv based off of sochu and costs only ¥146 (around £1) for a big can. Once I got inside, I bought some food and beer, and decided to get some face paint. I was quite merry at this point and I enjoyed watching the match which had a great atmosphere. On the way back to Beppu, to watch the Ireland - New Zealand match, I met some drunk French people on the bus, who didn't realise I could understand French and started commenting about my hair and how his mate likes redheads. I found this amusing as I'm quite used to this already and they looked slightly embarrassed once they realised I knew what they were saying.

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I arrived back in Beppu to join Alex and Katie in an Irish pub to watch the next rugby match. They kindly had a pint and a seat waiting for me in this overcrowded bar. I met some new people and soon realised that hardly anyone was concentrating on the game, probably because of how drunk everyone was and because Ireland was loosing. The spirits were high and everyone was singing popular English songs, strangers were buying me beer and we continued chatting and drinking throughout the night. At one point, we got to a karaoke bar and ordered nomi-hodai, which is all you can drink for a set amount of time. We got very drunk, especially me. Alex generously let me sleep at his place, even though I was planning to sleep at the karaoke bar.

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The next day, very early in the morning at 7am, with hardly any sleep and still feeling very drunk and hungover at the same time, I unenthusiastically got on a bus for Oita airport. The journey back felt horrendous in every single way, I slept for most of the trip, but even with painkillers, nothing could stop this headache. Even so, I stayed up to watch the two other matches that day (Wales - France and Japan - South Africa).

Great fun overall, I would definitely do that again. I'm also planning on visiting Hokkaido (Sapporo) and Kyoto during my stay.

Next blog entry will be about my cultural experience of Japan starting off with toilets (it will be shorter than this and yes this topic will be interesting).

Thank you for reading.
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Posted by Louise - ルイーズ 00:55 Archived in Japan Tagged rugby onsen beppu Comments (0)

From Nice to Narita - Part 2

The most stressful trip so far this year

overcast 22 °C

(This will be slightly longer than last time, you have been warned)
Continuing from where I left off in my last entry, after all we went through with airport and flight hold ups including almost missing a flight, we were finally on the plane to Narita. Well almost, we still had a stop in Abu Dhabi to transfer flights. On the first flight, which was 7 hours and 20 minutes long, I decided to play minigames which were available on the entertainment system onboard. This included classics such as bejeweled, luxor and others, whiles Antonia was going through an array of films.

The flights themselves were fine, we got to flight over the desert which was cool and we had plenty to do. The only thing which slightly ruined our enjoyment was the food. Unfortunately this was my mistake, as I was booking the flights, I saw an option to choose meals, which I assumed everyone had to do as this would reduce waste, when actually it was just an option. I proceeded to select the Hindu meal as this one included meat and looked fairly normal in the description. When the first meal arrived, we received our food before everyone else on the plane as we chose "special meals", this might seem as an advantage, but instead it was quite embarrassing especially as we weren't Hindu. Also, the meals did not look as nice as the normal meals and were quite spicy which we weren't a fan of. This proved to be a huge error on my part, which hopefully I won't be making in the future.

We got to Abu Dhabi airport to transfer flights, everything went fine, no problems there. Got on the next flight which took 10 hours to arrive at Narita for 13:00 in UTC +9 (Japan time), I attempted to sleep on the plane, but only managed 1 or 2 hours of sleep. Antonia also tried to sleep, but kept on getting woken up either by food being served, people giving out landing cards or announcements. Therefore in 3 days I had a total of 10 to 11 hours of sleep.

When we finally arrived in Narita, we had a maximum of 5 hours to get to the student dorm, before the check-in time closed, which was located 2 hours away from the airport via public transport. So in theory, this sounds doable. In practice, we discovered a completely different outcome. First of all, the queue for foreigners to enter Japan was huge, as all the exchange students were arriving on the same day. Once we got to the end of this queue, we were informed that we were in the wrong queue and had to wait in another queue from the start, again. Afterwards we finally got to the check point where passport control would look at our visas and let us though. Well one of us at least, I was help up because I didn't have a certain piece of paper which was in my luggage on the plane and not in my hand luggage because of a certain event which I explained in my first entry. The passport control team tried to describe my situation in Japanese, which I didn't understand a word of. Instead I waited 30 minutes to be told to send my Certificate of Eligibility by post to a Japanese address, and gave me my residence card. This whole process took 2 hours and 30 minutes.

Then, we got tickets for the train, but we had to wait 30 minutes for the train to arrive. The train journey took 1 hour and 30 minutes to arrive in Musashi-Kosugi station, the time was 17:30, we had half an hour to arrive at the dorm, which takes 20 minutes from this station by taking another train and walking. We didn't make it, mainly because we had no idea how to buy a train ticket in the center of Tokyo. I called my mum, whiles Antonia looked for a hotel to stay the night in. We were completely exhausted. All we wanted to do was eat and sleep. We found a cheap room in Kamata, at a hotel called Red Rooftop Inn, took a train to get there and it starts raining. The storms in Tokyo are quite impressive, massive clouds envelope the city and you can see them light up every time there's a lightning strike. Once we got to our room, we collapsed, rested for a few minutes and then went out to get bento from a convenience store (conbini).

The next day we got up early to arrive at our dorm. Finally! What a massive relief. We got here safe and sound with quite a few bumps in the road, but we got there. Everything from here on out couldn't be as bad as what we experienced. At Okurayama Dormitory, around 70 people were staying here all from different backgrounds to study at Keio University and of course one of the first things we did that night was play drinking games, go out for dinner and get to know each other.

From now on, each entry will have different themes on Japanese culture, lifestyles and quirks. Thank you for reading, and here are a few photos from our trip:
Abu Dhabi airport:
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On the plane:
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Waiting for the train:
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The hotel:
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The dorm:
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Lunch:
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Posted by Louise - ルイーズ 14:56 Archived in Japan Tagged planes trains Comments (0)

From Nice to Narita - Part 1

The most stressful trip so far this year

overcast 26 °C

I've traveled to several different places since I was born with family, friends and on my own. Therefore, I managed to acquire essential travel information, guidance and precautions to take whiles flighting. This is especially true for long distance flights.

The worst experience I had with traveling, before going to Tokyo, was when I accidently missed my flight going to Nice from Hong Kong whiles visiting family. As I was having such a good time in Hong Kong, I only briefly checked my departure time, which happened to be my arrival time, therefore I was off by one day. I received a text message from my mum wishing me good luck on my flight back, to which I replied "thanks, but it's not until tomorrow", to which she said "no, your flight was two hours ago", or something similar. After realising my mistake, I felt worried, embarrassed and sad, but the next day relieved to find out I'll be staying a few more days in Hong Kong and that my parents had arranged a new flight (I was 16 at the time).

Usually everything turns out fine, and that was the worst episode I had with flights and traveling, before I ventured to Tokyo. The initial plan was to take a flight from Nice to Manchester, which would land at 12:10 UK time, then travel to Narita the next day. On the 1st of September I arrived in Nice at 8:30, checked-in my luggage, where the lady at the counter informed us that my flight was delayed by 1 hour and 30 minutes due to problems with the air traffic control system. In the end I had to wait 6 hours at the airport with no lunch, boarded at 15:00, landed in Manchester at 16:16 UK time. I met Antonia's family who kindly let me stay in their wonderful cottage like house, eat plenty of Chinese food and set off to Manchester airport the next day at around 7:00. Antonia and I are from the same university and we both chose to do a year abroad in Tokyo, so we decided to travel together.
The next hurdle we encountered was with luggage allowance. Upon arriving at Manchester airport, before even entering the queue to go to check-in, a person who works for Etihad took our hand luggage to check the size. They inserted my small suitcase into an ever so slightly smaller measuring compartment, and announced it was too big to take as hand luggage, even though I had no problems with British Airways. If I was to check it in as baggage, I would have to pay £300 extra, which was out of the question. In the end, we waisted 20 minutes fiddling around with our luggage trying to match the correct weightage. Luckily, Antonia's dad took 20kg of our stuff and promised to return it to us as he was coming to visit Tokyo in a few weeks.
After that, we had an hour before the plane was to depart. Security took a very long time and the queues were endless. Of course, my blue rucksack had to be checked as I forgot to put my lip balm in a plastic bag and I forgot to take out my empty water bottle (which I never had to do before). After waiting and getting increasingly anxious by the minute, we had only 20 minutes to get to our gate number. We ran, it had probably been 3 months since I had done any running, but this was the time to do it. It took around 5 to 10 minutes to get past all of the unnecessary and strong smelling duty free items, which I had come to detest during this ordeal. Of course, our gate number had to be at one of the extremities of the airport and with 5 or so minutes to spare, we finally made it on the plane.
This was not the end of our worries, and the rest will be explained later.

Meanwhile, here are some pictures:

Nice Airport
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Antonia and I finally on the plane
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Antonia's house 1
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Antonia's house 2
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Antonia's house 3
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Up early in the morning
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Plane view from Nice
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Posted by Louise - ルイーズ 14:59 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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