Japan

Things That Define Japan

Japan is a wonderful country, filled with beautiful things to see on every street corner. Whether it be the blazing neon lights in Akihabara, or rows upon rows of rice fields, Japanese culture is a perfect blend of all things modern and ancient. In this post, I want to define things that, in my opinion, contribute greatly to the shaping of Japanese culture.

#1 TRAINS

Trains in Japan are not “just trains”, they are a way of life and the greatest commodity that the Japanese have to offer. When it comes to travelling within the country, nothing makes it simpler than using the train lines.

There are 6 passengers lines crisscross the country at all times of the day, enabling you to travel from Hokkaido to Kyushu in no time. Although it might seem unnerving at first to try to find your way among the thousands of stations, once you get your route planned out there is no mistaking it: the trains in Japan are efficient and always on time.

JR East train in Kyoto

The JR company comprises of local trains (like the one picture above), the famous Shinkansen (Bullet Train) as well as a host of buses all around the country.

To talk of the Shinkansen is like talking about the Holy Grail of trains. This is definitely the fastest mode of transportation in Japan, and in the top 3 fastest trains in the world.

Trains are a necessity all around the world however, in Japan they represent a lifestyle. Everybody uses this system either to go to work, to school or to visit relatives that live in other prefectures. Trains are unavoidable when visiting Japan, and they are a pleasure to travel on. Extremely clean and silent, nothing beats zooming by landscapes with this system.

#2 TEMPLES & SHRINES

No matter where you go in Japan, you are sure to find a temple snug on the side of a busy street or way up high on the side of a mountain. Where there are temples, you are also guaranteed to find a small plots of land designed for eternal peace. As much as trains are a staple of Japanese life, temples and shrines define Japan.

There are two types of religious buildings that can be found in Japan:

神社 Jinja is a Shinto shrine worshipping various 神 kami (Gods) of Japanese origin.

Tera is a Buddhist temple that worships the Buddha and all things related to him.

Small jinja dedicated to a kitsune (God of harvest) in Chiba-ken

Famous Buddhist temples like 金閣寺 Kinkakuji and 浅草寺 Sensoji are sprawled all over Japan, While these beautifully ornate complexes offer visitors a view into a world of splendours, jinja give a more down-to-earth feeling as these shrines are often surrounded by natural trees and plants, and become a part of the landscape as opposed to standing in contrast to it.

#3 RICE

Do not underestimate the power of rice.

Rice has been a dietary staple of Asian cultures for thousands of years. It has maintained the lives of soldiers during war, poor families who could not afford culinary luxuries such as meat, and even modern-day high school students who can snack on it during lunch break. Rice is in every child and adult’s bento (lunch box), and every family has a sac of uncooked rice at home.

Japanese rice gohan is used in thousands of different dishes and is fermented to make sake. Famous rice-centric foods are:

  • お握り onigiri: rice balls stuffed with various secondary ingredients, traditionally with umeboshi (pickled plum)
  • もち mochi: soft, glutinous rice cakes. Can be filled with anko (red bean paste)
  • オムライス omuraisu: omelette stuffed with rice
  • カレーライス kareraisu: curried rice

千枚田 Senmaida rice field in Noto, Ishikawa

Rice remains an important cultural artefact to the Japanese people and should be treated with the utmost respect that its history deserves (this means, no leftovers, no wasting of food, no picking at it and definitely not planting chopsticks upright in your bowl (as this is interpreted as being an offering to the dead)).

#4 MANHOLE COVERINGS

Have you ever seen such a pretty sight in your life as highly decorated manhole covers? Probably not, unless you’ve been to Japan. Japanese society prides itself on being extremely neat and clean in all aspects of life, and beautifies even the ugliest things like sewage coverings.

Each city has a different intricate design set in cast iron which makes for beautiful things to look at when tying your shoelaces.

Manhole cover featuring a taiko drummer in Noto, Ishikawa

#5 GAME CENTERS

For a collector, these places are treasure troves of anime memorabilia, on the condition that you have enough patience (and money) to catch your desired prize. The machines, known as UFO Catchers (not unidentified flying objects, but rather pronounced as “U-fo”) can provide you with hours of fun but beware, they are highly addictive. You can see hanging around these Game Centres a lot of high school students, of course, but you might be surprised to see all the salarymen popping in a few coins after a hard day at the office.

UFO Catcher at a Game Center in Kanazawa, Ishikawa

If crane games are not your thing then worry not! Usually a Game Centre has a basement or upper level filled with arcade games like car racing, shooting range and taiko drumming! There is something for every one in these places where no gambling arcades can be found. It’s a good place to unwind and lose a few hours to a clean and fun environment.

Keep reading about Japan in part II!

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One thought on “Things That Define Japan

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