February 28, 2013

The Only Blonde in Osaka: Where I've Been

Where I've been: 2012 Japan Trips
Today marks the one year anniversary of this blog! It began as a way of documenting my semester-long exchange at Kansai University in Osaka, Japan. I never thought anyone would actually read it. But along the way I developed a passion for travel blogging. I started putting effort into my posts, hoping they may come in useful for anyone with an interest in Japan. I began reading other people's travel blogs, and was inspired by their style, tone, and all the fascinating places they were blogging about.

In the past year I have had 106,000 views, which I can't get my head around. A lot of these are because I mention Sailor Moon so much that unwitting searchers probably think this is some sort of Sailor Moon fan site. Many views also come from the Japanese news website Searchina, which has a section reporting what foreign blogs are saying about Japan. Three of my posts have been translated and featured here. The views that make me happiest are from people who search 'Osaka blog' or 'things to do in Osaka'. I hope that they came to love Osaka as much as I did.

Glico Man: A symbol of Osaka
I think the best part about writing this blog has been that it encouraged me to do things I might not usually have done. I visited dodgy areas of Osaka. I ate and drank weird things. I used bizarre toilets. I even went to a bloody baseball game. I would do anything for the sake of a good story to put on my blog.

In December I was lucky enough to have another opportunity to go back to Japan, as part of the Kizuna Project. I spent 10 days in Japan examining the aftermath of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis. Visiting the Fukushima region gave me a whole new perspective of Japan, and an appreciation for the strength and resilience of the country. It was one of the best things I've ever done.
Kizuna Project: Asakusa on our last night in Tokyo
Where to now? I don't have any plans to go back to Japan in the immediate future. If I can save up enough money by the end of the year, I would love to go back - this time as a proper tourist, JR Rail pass and everything. I want to do the whole country, Okinawa to Hokkaido. Until then, I'm not entirely sure what to do with this blog. I may post every once in a while. For now, thank you to everyone for reading. Thank you to all my friends and fellow exchange students in Japan who made the experiences so special. Osaka - thank you for having me. お世話になりました.

Friends: A trip to Nara Park
I'll leave you with a motto that Ryan and I came up with after getting lost in Tokyo so many times during our first week in Japan. It stuck with us for the whole trip: "Even if it's the wrong way, it's an adventure.'
Ryan and Siobhan: Lost in Tokyo

February 16, 2013

Japan Toilet Tales

I've spent a while internally debating whether this post was appropriate for publication, and have decided it must be done. One of the most common questions Japanese people would ask me was 'what was your biggest culture shock when you first came to Japan?' The answer was always 'toilets'. It's not a particularly sophisticated response, but I think most foreigners in Japan would agree. Everyone has a 'Japan toilet story'. And for the uninitiated, using a Japanese toilet may well end up being one of the most memorable/traumatizing experiences of your time in Japan. I will tell you why.
The Asakusa Asahi Flame statue in Tokyo. I'll let you decide why this image is relevant. (Image source)
1. The Seat Heating

Let's assume your first time is on a conventional Japanese 'throne' as opposed to the notorious squat toilets (more on them to come). You approach the shiny white beast, trou-down, and sit. You let out an incredulous yelp, as your cheeks experience a sudden - but not unpleasant - glow of warmth radiating from the seat. In your own country, the temperature of a toilet seat is usually proportional to the amount of time the previous user has spent sitting on it, the knowledge of which is highly undesirable. In Japan, this same sensation is recreated artificially - but it may become a guilty pleasure. Forget walking on sunshine, you are sitting on it! And don't it feel good?

2. The Slippery Situation

In Japanese households, the commonly known etiquette is to remove your shoes before entering the house, and put on a pair of slippers. But did you know that there are also a pair of slippers especially for use in the toilet? This is so you don't contaminate the rest of the house with your nasty toilet-foot germs. Unfortunately, after experiencing the joy that is the heated toilet seat, you are likely to be in a state of euphoria that causes you to forget your footwear. Many foreigners have had to perform the shuffle of shame back to the bog after being caught out wearing the toilet slippers somewhere other than the toilet. Don't let that be you.

3. The Spray Buttons

When using a Japanese toilet, one will likely come across an intimidating array of buttons, each of which has a different purpose depending on the gender and sanitary needs of the user. The most common buttons are marked 'oshiri' and 'bidet', for a bum and ladypart shower respectively. More advanced models allow you to adjust the heat, angle, and strength of the spray. These buttons can be problematic for the curious foreigner who dares to test them. Many don't seem to realize that you do actually need to be seated for it to work properly. For some reason it comes as a shock when, upon pressing the button, a jet of toilet water shoots out and blasts the hapless victim in the face.

Useful English instructions next to the toilet in a hotel.
4.  The Sound Princess

On the wall beside some Japanese toilets are ominous, Big Brother type speakers. These are the aptly named otohime or 'Sound Princess', a machine designed to drown out the embarrassing tinkling tones of female urination. I remember when this was introduced to me. I was a guest at an English Speaking Club meeting, held at the teacher's house. I mentioned my bewilderment at Japanese toilets, and she decided I should be bestowed with the honour of a demonstration of her brand new 'Sound Princess'. The whole class followed us into the bathroom. The teacher pressed a button, and a loud 'GURRRRRRRRRR' reverberated around the room. I laughed. My hostess looked at me with cool disapproval, and said, 'maybe in your country you do not care, but we Japanese women like to go to the toilet in secret.' Because a roaring Sound Princess is so discreet.

5. The Squat

Nothing incites fear in a foreigner's heart more than entering a train station or old building and finding that the only toileting facilities available are traditional squat toilets. First of all, it seems you need the thighs of a rugby player and the balance of a gymnast to even think about attempting this. Then there is the issue of what to do with your clothes: for the novice squatter, there is nothing more precarious than a pair of tights tangled around your ankles while in this position. I heard a story about a girl who was so baffled by the squat toilet that she thought it would be best to just take all her clothes off for safekeeping while she did her business. By all accounts it was going well, until she dropped one of her socks in.

Documentation of the squat toilets at my high school in Hiroshima - there were no western-style toilets.
6. The Flush

You've navigated your way through the wonderful world of seat heaters, slippers, Sound Princesses, spray buttons and squats. Just when you thought it was all over, the Japanese toilet deals you another low blow - by hiding the flush in the least conspicuous place possible. If there is one valuable piece of advice I can offer, it it is that you should ensure you can locate the toilet's flush before you proceed to do anything else. This small act could save you from potentially mortifying situations. To share another story from a source who prefers to remain anonymous, one time this person had to use a disabled toilet, as it was the only one available. Unfortunately, after finishing up he realized he couldn't distinguish the 'call assistance' button from the flush. This user decided it wasn't worth risking it, and all he could do was put down the lid and run out of there, leaving his 'problem' for the next person to solve.

7. The Future

Recently, reports of new smartphone-controlled toilets have been circulating the internet. The toilets, which are supposedly available in Japan this month, can be connected to Android phones via bluetooth. The user downloads an app that allows all the functions of the toilet to be operated with a touch of the phone. The toilets also have inbuilt speakers, so you can ditch the 'Sound Princess' and play your own sweet beats. The app even contains a 'toilet diary' to record all of your bowel movements!

When it comes to your Japanese toilet experience, as the saying goes, you can't polish a turd - but in Japan you probably can roll it in glitter. If you know which button to push.


January 29, 2013

(More) Kit Kats in Japan

I came, I saw, I bought Kit Kats.

As I have mentioned before, I like to collect Kit Kats from different regions in Japan. It started out innocently, but has sort of developed into an obsessive and nerdy hobby. I'm not even living in Japan at the moment, but I still occasionally check the Nestle Japan website for Kit Kat updates. FYI, there's a new thing where you can order custom-made Kit Kat packaging, complete with your own photo and message. How bloody cool is that? I'll have my face on a Kit Kat wrapper, thanks.

On my recent visit, I was able to tick off several items on my Kit Kat bucket list. First, I came across the special edition Tohoku region Kit Kat in a souvenir shop at Aizu Tajima station in Fukushima. This was a Zunda-fumi, or Edamame Soybean flavoured Kit Kat. It was created by Nestle to support Tohoku after the earthquake, and 10 yen of each chocolate bar sold went to the relief fund.



A few days later we were riding the Tokaido Shinkansen line to get to Nagoya. At Nagoya Station, I picked up a cool box of Kit Kats designed to represent the four major stations on the Tokaido line: Shin-Osaka, Tokyo, Kyoto and Nagoya. Each individual chocolate bar even has a little picture of the different types of bullet trains! Although the flavour of this variety is a simple milk chocolate, I like to imagine people buying these so they can eat a Kit Kat at each stop on the line. At least, that's what I would do.



To my immense excitement, in a souvenir store at a shopping mall in Odaiba, Tokyo, was a whole stand of Kit Kats. Although I had found many notorious flavours on my last trip to Japan, there was one that I had missed out on - the crowning glory of Japanese Kit Kats: Wasabi. And it was here. The Shizuoka-Kanto regional edition, Tamaruya-Honten Wasabi. I laughed like a maniac and purchased it immediately, knowing it was destined for some poor, unsuspecting victim's Christmas stocking.


All too soon, the trip came to an end, and I found myself at Narita Airport, with 800 yen to my name. In what is becoming a slightly embarrassing tradition on each of my Japan trips, I ended up spending my very last yen on a box of Tokyo Rum and Raisin flavoured Kit Kats. Because I'm classy like that.

January 25, 2013

Aizu-wakamatsu: Tsuruga Castle and Aizu Sake Museum

As simple as it sounds, one of the most important parts of our stay in Fukushima was to spend time enjoying the region from a tourist's perspective. Since the nuclear disaster, tourism has been slow to recover - both domestic and foreign tourists have been hesitant to spend time in the region. The uncertainty has snowballed into harmful rumours and hearsay. Even on the flight over to Japan, when we told the flight attendants that we were going to Fukushima, they warned us not to eat the rice or drink the water.

We spent a day checking out the sights in Aizu-wakamatsu, a city with a rich samurai history. To learn about the wars and warriors of the past, we visited Tsuruga Castle, one of the most famous tourist attractions in Tohoku. The castle that stands today is actually a reconstruction - the original castle was damaged by an earthquake in 1611, then destroyed by the Meiji government after incessant warfare in 1868. It was completely rebuilt in 1965, and now contains a museum detailing the history of the Aizu region.
Tsuruga Castle: a treasure of the Aizu region
View from the top of the castle grounds, covered in snow
View of Aizu-wakamatsu city, tucked beneath the hills
A 'samurai' at the castle. He let me try on his hat.
Another important part of Aizu's history is its long tradition of rice wine or sake brewing - the cold climate, pure spring water and rice are ideal for sake production. In Aizu-wakamatsu there are numerous local sake breweries, and we were able to visit the Miyaizumi brewery, which also contains a museum - the Aizu Sake Museum. Our tour guide was a jolly man who taught us drinking games and sang the praises of the sake, advising us to sample everything but to try not to get drunk! He also told us about the Miyaizumi brewery's struggles after the disaster - people had been warned not to eat or drink anything within a 100km zone of the condemned nuclear plant; unfortunately the brewery is located 97.8km away. Almost all of the brewery's orders were cancelled in the year following the disaster, however, they remain hopeful for this season's brew.
Students entering the Aizu Sake Museum
With my Australian friend Emilee: sampling the sake!


The brewery's spring water tap
Sake production is done in the Winter, as cold temperatures are necessary for best results
If you're thinking about going to Japan, put Fukushima on your itinerary. Places like Aizu-wakamatsu are unique hotspots of Japan's natural beauty, history and culture. If you've already been to Japan's larger, more well-known cities, Fukushima's cities and towns can offer a completely different experience, and one that I found enriching. By spending money on accommodation, tourist attractions, and souvenirs in Fukushima, you can make a small but significant contribution to the local economy, which so desperately needs boosting. More than anything, visiting Fukushima as a tourist helps to give the people hope, that someday the region might be able to return back to the way it was before the disaster.

January 10, 2013

Story of a Fukushima Evacuee

In Aizuwakamatsu city a speaker from Tomioka town described her experience following the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster. Yoshiko Aoki was the principal of Tomioka High School. As the town is located within a 20km radius of the nuclear plant, all residents were evacuated. They will most likely never return. This is an excerpt from her talk, taken from my notes.

Tomioka town in the Futaba district of Fukushima had a population of 15,839. It was a small town, but famous for having some of the most beautiful cherry blossoms in Japan. Every year Spring was celebrated with the Yonomori Sakura festival. The cherry blossoms trees were lit up on the nights of the festival, and there was a free market, yosakoi dancing and karaoke contests. Volunteers worked hard to plant new cherry blossom trees each year, ensuring that the festival could be enjoyed for generations to come.
Cherry blossom picture from Tomioka Town website (here)
On March 11, 2011 Tomioka town was hit by a shindo 7 earthquake and 22 metre high tsunami. It took the lives of 109 residents.

The next day, all remaining residents were ordered to evacuate. We didn't understand why - not all houses were badly damaged. We had survived the earthquake and tsunami, why did we have to leave now?

The reason was that less than 20km away, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant had exploded - but no one was told this at the time.

People didn't know what to bring, or how long they would be gone, so many didn't bring anything with them. There was only one route to evacuate from, as a main highway was damaged. The only place to go was a nearby village, Kawauchi. Usually it would take 20 minutes to get there; following the disaster it took 8 hours. The Tomioka evacuees were supported by the village for a little while, but soon Kawauchi was also told that its residents must evacuate.

After that 3000 people went to the Big Palette convention centre in Koriyama, Fukushima, which had been turned into an evacuation centre. Upon arrival, residents underwent a screening inspection for radiation.

Initially evacuees had nothing but cardboard boxes to protect their privacy. Messages were written on bulletin boards, for families who had been separated in the confusion of the evacuation. Emergency plans were put in place, in case there were more aftershocks.
An evacuee at Big Palette in her cardboard box (AP Photographer David Guttenfelder, source)
When it became clear that we would be staying there for a while, we did things to improve life in the evacuation centre. A 'women only' space was planned for privacy. People set up an FM radio station, to communicate the latest information. Residents could watch the broadcasts taking place in front of them, and this became a sort of social gathering.

The most difficult part was that there were no prospects, no jobs - everyday was just eating and sleeping. It was often stressful and irritating sharing the same space with 3,000 people. Of course, flu and infections spread easily - but these could be treated by a doctor. It was the mental diseases that were not so easily treated.

Residents created a 'help each other' centre. Students volunteered to give foot baths and massages, and lent an ear to those who wanted to talk. As people began to talk more, faces began to brighten.

By August 2011, the evacuation centre had closed. Evacuees were now scattered all over Fukushima, and even Japan. The community that was once so strong had been destroyed, giving rise to a new challenge - how to reconnect the Tomioka town residents?

The solution was relatively simple. We created a phonebook, tracking down and listing the present addresses and numbers of Tomioka residents throughout Japan.

With the future so uncertain, it has been important to create something for the people to live for - something to encourage them to live for tomorrow.

What happened in Fukushima during the disaster was different to other areas in Tohoku who only experienced the earthquake and tsunami. In Fukushima, we had been told the nuclear plants were safe. We felt shocked and betrayed. A natural disaster you can forget, but the nuclear disaster was a human error.

Despite this, it is necessary to remember we may be the victims of a disaster, but we are also the heroes and heroines of the reconstruction. I want people to love Fukushima.
A year after the diaster, visitors in radiation proof suits admire the cherry blossoms in Tomioka (source)

January 02, 2013

Temporary Housing for Disaster Victims in Aizu-wakamatsu

After the nuclear disaster, the city of Aizu-wakamatsu in Fukushima became home to thousands of evacuees from Okuma town, the location of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. All 11,515 residents had to be hastily evacuated, eventually placed in temporary housing complexes. These temporary housing complexes are an example of lessons learned from the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake: after this disaster many elderly people were left isolated and alone, and died as a result. To avoid this situation happening again, this time whole communities of temporary housing have been set up around Japan, in an effort to keep both the people and the spirit of their former towns alive.

As Okuma was a farming town, a sense of community is particularly important for its residents. A representative of the town spoke to us about what happened on that day in March 2011. Most of the town were in the process of preparing the rice paddies for spring. When the earthquake hit, it caused the paddies to move 'like a wave'. The residents gathered at the local shrine, and were told by firefighters that a nuclear plant explosion had occurred, and they would need to evacuate immediately. They were taken by buses to evacuation centres such as schools and hotels, where they would stay for the next few months. By July 2011, the temporary housing complex at Aizu-wakamatsu was ready - a block of 80 houses, to hold about 170 people.


The accommodation is far from ideal. Standing in austere rows, each unit is identical. People's whole lives have been reduced to a number in a housing block - A3, C1. Small attempts to personalize each unit are visible; some pot plants outside doors, a hanging flower basket. Particularly poignant is the mural of hearts that has been painted on the wall surrounding the complex, in an attempt to brighten the place up.


It is a new environment for the people. The Aizu climate is harsh, and Okuma residents, who used to live on the coast, have to contend with the heavy snow. Work is difficult to find. The majority of those of a working age commute long distances, spending the weeknights in their town of employment, returning to the temporary housing complex for the weekends. It is a disruptive lifestyle, transient and uncertain. While 'safe zones' in Okuma are being uncovered, it will be at least a decade before the majority of residents can return; maybe longer until the soil is decontaminated and able to be farmed again. For many residents, they will never return home in their lifetime.

On the day we visited the Aizu-wakamatsu temporary housing complex, residents were involved in a meeting with TEPCO, undergoing negotiations about their current situation and compensation. Currently, they receive ¥100,000 a month (NZD1372) from the government for psychological damage. Considering all these residents have lost, it is a small price for the government to pay. The fight for their future will surely continue for years to come.

December 31, 2012

Minami-aizu, Fukushima

Located in the mountains of Fukushima is a small town called Minami-aizu, with a population of just over 20,000. It is a place like no other I have ever been to in Japan. Blanketed with a metre of fresh snow that had fallen overnight, the streets looked as though they had gingerbread houses lining them, and you could almost be tricked into thinking you were somewhere in Europe... if it weren't for the incongruous presence of torii gates and pachinko parlours.
A torii gate in the middle of Minami-aizu town
The snowfall is so heavy residents need special pop-up garages for their cars
A pachinko parlour lights up the snowy darkness
Minami-aizu is surrounded by ski slopes, and we spent three nights staying at a ski resort called Resort Inn Daikura. It has essentially been out of action since March 2011. Although the town is located more than 100km from the condemned Fukushima Daiichi plant, after the nuclear accident, visitors stopped coming. Harmful rumours created by media sensationalism and hearsay painted the entire area as unsafe. The owner of the resort told us that there have been 22,000 cancellations since the disaster. As the ski season approaches this year, they hope that the fears have diminished, and there will be more visitors.
Ski slopes at Resort Inn Daikura
The Aizu region is known for its produce, in particular, rice, persimmons and tomatoes. Since the disaster, it has taken numerous campaigns and efforts to convince the Japanese public that these products are still safe to consume. This year, the Japanese government made radiation inspection of all rice in the region compulsory, using expensive machines that check the contamination levels of each bag of rice. Minami-aizu town has seven of these machines, which we got to witness in action. Each bag of rice gets fed through the machine, and if levels of contamination are over 50 becquerel, it must be inspected closely - 100 becquerel is the standard for contamination. So far no bags of Minami-aizu rice have exceeded the contamination limit, and sales figures are returning to pre-March 11 levels.

Watching radiation inspection machine in action
Bag of Fukushima rice: customers can scan the barcode with cellphones for more information on radiation levels
Minami-aizu is a beautiful, but difficult place to live. It endures hardship every year: the winters are long and harsh. The people must work themselves to the bone, tending to the land. And now, in the face of the nuclear disaster, they have had to completely rebuild the town's economy, following the effects of harmful rumours on tourism and agriculture. It is fitting that a symbol of the region is a traditional toy called okiagari-koboshi, a little doll that is so resilient that no matter how many times you push it over, it will always return to an upright position.
Okiagari-koboshi doll, a symbol of the Aizu region