Warning: This is something of a rant and contains personal opinions based on personal observations from living many years in Japan, half of the time with kids. You may find that it makes sense or not. I do not usually write like this, so check out the blog again next week for more ordinary tips on bringing your kids to Japan and having a great time.
Japanese people can be awful racist. Usually this is not noticeable, and most of the time they are extremely friendly. But then, you come across a sign saying "no foreigners allowed", usually in badly spelled English. They are rare, and actually illegal.
This usually means the owner does not speak English (or any other foreign languages) and would be embarrassed to try. But there are darker sides, and Arturo Debito, an American turned Japanese citizen, famously fought a long court battle to end discrimination at a local bathhouse.
He won, and in the process became friends with the proprietor. So discrimination based on race is illegal. That is easy to say in a country which has hundreds of years of tradition discriminating against the "casteless", who would handle dirty things like dead animals. To say nothing of how Koreans and Chinese were treated during the time both Taiwan and Korea were part of the Japanese empire.
Korean and Chinese look pretty much like the Japanese, especially if they get their dresses from a Japanese store and go to a beauty parlor to have their hair made. So racism in Japan is not a matter of looks only. Or probably at all. It is more a matter of being different.
You are equally likely to be discriminated against if you are colored, Indian, or blond and blue-eyed. You are not them. If you are different - look differently, then talk differently - you are likely to be discriminated against. This could be a simple thing like not getting a tissue outside the station. But you may also be the wrong sex. Many of the tissue packs, especially outside certain stations, are handed out to women only. The tissue packs contain advertising for beauty salons and other places where men are typically not customers.
If you have been discriminated against, you are more likely to be thin-skinned. The cause may not be racism, it may just be ”foreigners will go away and so are not worth investing time in”. You do not know. But one thing you do know is that in Tokyo, where the percentage of non-Japanese living there is more than 10%, the discrimination has decreased. It is just a personal observation, and I do not think that the people who are racist are less racist now. But the discrimination has decreased, so if that is true, then it had other causes than racism.
There is another type of discrimination that famlies is more likely to be subjected to, which has nothing to do with race but everything to do with family. That is when you enter a restaurant and they are ”full” despite your being able to see that there are free seats.
You can of course not prove that the restaurant has taken reservations for the tables and that the customers will come 10 minutes after you have left. You do not want to eat in a restaurant that does not want to serve you anyway. But the reason they do it are your children. First, they do not have any tableare or high chairs for children. Second, they are worried about your kids disturbing other customers.
So how does mesh with the famous omotenashi concept, that arguably won Tokyo the 2020 olympics. Here is my attempt at explaining, but first let me explain what ”omotenashi” is.
Omotenashi means ”without front” - i.e. Something that is transparent and honest. The Japanese culture has two concepts that do not exist, at least not to this extent, in other cultures: Honne and tatemae. Tatemae is what you say because you think the person listening will like it. Think white lies and flattery rolled into one. Honne is what you actually think, but traditionally you do not express it to anyone except in your closest family.
Harmony, making everyone get along, is more important in Japan than anywhere else, and even though people are the same everywhere, Japanese try to hide their feelings to make things flow smoothly. If someone throws a racial slur at you they are intentionally being disruptive, which probably means they are drunk. Or anyway idiots. Other people will look aside and not try to be involved.
This is also why the police will not go out and knock on the door of business owners who put up discriminatory signs. They want to preserve the harmony in their in-group. The tourist will be gone in a few weeks, the business owner is there forever. But this suddenly changes when the foreigner is going to stay and live there. The policemans contract changes and he will go to talk to the business owner.
It helps to think about Japanese hospitality, and actually any relation in Japan, as a contract. When you make a contract with a ryokan to stay there, they also contract to give you the best experience possible. And that is not all. You become a member of their inner group. When Japan was still a mysterious and hard to access place, there were books and books written, and academic studies done, on what made the Japanese so different. One of the theories had to do with social organization. The thinking was that Japanese tend to organize their relation in terms of the social distance from themselves. If you were a member of a group close to a person, you were entitled to a much better treatment than someone who is not a member of their in-group. Since racism is more a fear of threat to somebodys status quo than an automatic hatred of people with different eye color (or other perceived group characteristics), this means the outgroup automatically overlaps racism.
The policeman, in our example, wants to preserve harmony. If the foreigner is going to be a bigger pain in his behind than the owner of the place not letting foreigners in, then he will act. If the foreigner complains. Change does not happen by itself, in Japan or anywhere else.
So what was it about omotenashi again? Omotenashi is being honestly delighted at being able to host you. It is being helpful and delighting in it. Kind of hard to say ”this guy looks like a German so I will not help him”. Delighting in being helpful does not mesh with being a racist. Even saying ”I want to help everyone but people who look German” grates. You will not find many racists in service industries, it does not go well together. There will be other reasons they refuse you service, if they do.
The basis of racism is objectification, that you see the other person as a thing. You will find it happening to you if you have blond and blue-eyed kids. The in-group consists of real people whom you have relations with, the out-group is everyone else. They are not people in this way of reasoning.
In Japan, children have a strange position. They are cuddled and sheltered but they are somehow the property of their parents. older Japanese may reach out and pet your children, Japanese children too, but especially blonde and blue-eyed children. They remind these older Japanese of the dolls they had as children, which were sent from the US as support for the bombed out country. Even today, Licca, the homegrown Barbie alternative that is much chubbier and shorter, outsells the American doll toys. They just do not look Japanese enough.
Did you hate this post? Check out some other pieces on my blog to see how I write when I am not emotionally annoyed but try to be helpful. I am writing guidebooks to Tokyo, and I can tell you they are much more fun to read and much more helpful than the above.
One more thing: If you write trollish comments below, and do not try to help the conversation, I will delete them. I want us to have a helpful discussion.
Summer is the scariest time in Japan, because that is when the ghosts come out. Lafcadio Hearn bacame famous with his retellings of classical ghost stories. Because ghosts in Japan are not comical, they can hurt you. Badly. Ripping off your ears, or your face, or some other body part.
The reason ghosts come out in summer is not just that it is warmer (so warm the living can have a heatstroke). It is also the traditional Buddhist holiday for cleaning the graves of your relatives. It is when the dead come home for a few days. That is the foundation for the Obon festival (or just bon).
Three different celebrations
The celebration of Obon is spread out over July and August, even though most people still take their holidays in August. Many shops and small businesses close for a few days, usually half a week, around the Obon holiday. The dates for the celebration are determined by the Buddhist calendar and the Obon testival is very much a Buddhist festival, using the temple grounds for the festival.
Welcoming chocolate bananas
The Obon celebration is not just a celebration for the dead, it is also a celebration by the living. The people of the village dance to welcome the spirits of the dead back to their old homes.
And have a party around the dance platform. There are stands selling standards like octupus balls, pound cake, fried noodles, and shaved ice. And candied fruts, chocolate-covered bananas, and steamed Hokkaido potatoes.
This is not too different from the local festivals, except that it takes place in the temples and not the shrines. And there is no omikoshi, or portable altar.
Dancing for everyone
Your children will love it, not just because they love shaved ice and chocolate bananas, but also because of the dancing. This is more like a procession than a pair dance, with moves representing the dance. And everyone is welcome, including your children. And you, since as long as your kids are small they will appreciate your being there.
No website advertising
Since the Obon celebrations are local, there is no special advertising in newspapers or on TV, and no mention of the very local festivals on the tourism websites. You have to go look around the city streets until you find advertising for it, note down the times and dates, and figure out in which of the neighboring temples the dance will take place. There is a huge Bon-Odori in Hibya Park every yesr in August, but that is more of a media event than a religious festival (which takes place in July in Tokyo). If you can not find a local bon-odori, go there, but since it happens after dark it may be late for your kids.
Scary without ghosts
So if you are in Tokyo in July, or most of the rest of Japan in August, should you go looking for an Obon dance? Yes, absolutely. Your kids will love it, especially if they are school age or over. For smaller children, even around five, it may be a bit scary to go dancing on your own. Even if they can not actually see any ghosts. But if they do not like the dancing, they are sure to appreciate the chocolate bananas.
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The Shinkansen trains - known as ”bullet trains” outside Japan - is an amazing way of traveling. Japan is a physically small country with a lot of mountains and forest, so despite the country being the size of California, the population is very concentrated in the cities. And while there are slow trains that stop almost wherever there are two houses together, those do not go on the Shinkansen tracks.
I have written before about how much better the Shinkansen is for almost every destination in Japan except Okinawa, which does not even have a railway. Actually, I have written twice about the convenience and efficiency of Japanese trains. I have written about how much easier it is to take the train than driving in Japan. I have even written about our best travel hack so far, getting a platform ticket to see the Shinkansen trains. But I have not written about what it is like to take the Shinkansen itself.
Separate Elevated Tracks
The first thing to remember about the Shinkansen is that part of the reason the trains are so fast is that the tracks are physically separated from other train tracks. The trains run in a straight line (well, as straight as they could make it in a country full of mountains and rivers). And most of the way they run on elevated tracks, so there are no crossings to worry about.
Stations Outside The Centers
This means the second thing to remember about traveling on the Shinkansen is a consequence of the first, and it is much more noticeable for travelers. The stations are way outside the city centers, otherwise they would not be on the straight line. So this is why the Osaka station is in Shin-Osaka, and the Yokohama station in Shin-Yokohama. “Shin” means new, except in Shinagawa, where it has to do with goods being transported on a river.
Kyoto Station Controversy
The Shin-Osaka station is quite far from Osaka city center - not like the Tokyo or Kyoto stations, which are smack in the middle of the city. The Tokyo station was placed there because the powers that be wanted to make travel convenient for the emperor. Originally, trains terminated in Ueno and Shinbashi. Kyoto is somewhat different. The station is in the middle of the city, but it was created with great controversy, family homes being torn down in the process and the winner of the architectural competition being somewhat less than a public favorite, to put it mildly.
Taking Additional Trains
For travelers this means your trip is not over when you arrive at the central station. That is a third thing to remember. There will be additional trains you have to take, except in Kyoto. You will have to transport the family through a huge complex like the Tokyo and Osaka stations, and get on the right train for your destination - which is one of those trains that stop at every two houses, since these are local commuter trains. And then you may have to change to another train to go where you are finally going. Or a bus.
Planning In Advance
This is the part of your trip that you need to plan out carefully. That is the fourth thing to remember. Getting to a different place in Japan is as simple as jumping on a train, but to jump on - or off - that train and get it right you need to plan your trip. Sure, stopping in the middle of Tokyo station with three toddlers and a ton of luggage (and no baggage carts) to look up your destination in Google map may work. There is free wifi and your kids will enjoy the snack or lunch. But knowing in advance where you are going and how will make things so much more expedient.
No Luggage Space
That is related to the fifth thing you should remember: There is no luggage storage space on Shinkansen trains. Well, there is a small space behind the seats at the end of each car, and there are overhead shelves. But even if the train is roomier than a low-cost carrier flight, like with Peach Air or Vanilla Air (which I have personal experience from), there is no hold where the train crew could store your luggage. Even if you paid extra.
Send Your Luggage Ahead
The Japanese send their luggage ahead. You can have the courier company come to your place and pick up the luggage the day before your trip, and it will be waiting for you when you get there (unless you are going to Hokkaido). You only need to bring the stroller (or strollers), and a small going-out bag with change and diapers.
Very Short Stops
The sixth thing to remember about the Shinkansen is that it is fast. It takes less than six hours to go to Hakata in Kyushu, and less than 2.5 hours to go to Osaka from Tokyo. If you were to take a regular train, a day may be enough to go to Osaka, but you would have to either take an overnight train or stay on the way if you took the regular trains from Tokyo to Hakata. This of course makes it more convenient for you as a traveler, but there is one thing you have to look out for, and that is that the stops in the stations are really short. The Shinkansen is fast not just because it travels in a straight line, but also because it has fewer stations, and because it stops for a shorter time in those stations. You have to be careful to get everything together in good time before you need to get off. Including your kids and their toys. It is like getting ready to deplane but only have a few seconds to do it.
Be Prepared To Get Onboard
The seventh thing to remember is that unless you are entering the train at the end station, you have only that short time to get onboard. Here, too, you really have to be prepared if you board in Odawara, Nagoya or Atami. Make sure you are ready to get your kids and luggage (and/or husband/wife) on the train as soon as you can. In a country where the train company is investing hundreds of millions of yen on shaving one minute off the travel time, causing a delay because your toddler is having a tantrum will not be appreciated.
Bring Snacks And Drinks
Thing number eight is to bring snacks and drinks. For your kids. There is a vending machine on the train, and a cart who goes around and sells coffee and sandwiches (and more things). And there are hostesses (I have yet to see a train host (although I am sure they exist). But the trains are long and at lunchtime or around breakfast they will be really busy. And you do not have to be a very seasoned family traveler to know that your kids are no fun to others when they are hungry or tired. Or hungry and tired.
Let Them Sleep
Number nine: Let them sleep. Fuji will not go away. Because one of the great things to do from the train is see the view of Mt Fuji. But if you are traveling early in the morning or around naptime, then you know that it is going to be hard work to keep them awake, and ultimately futile. Let them sleep and have a beer while you watch Mt Fuji. You have probably earned it.
Since I live in Japan, I write a lot about it here on the blog. Check back regularly - I try to update it every week.
But I also write books and travel guides about Tokyo and travel in other Asian countries, so if you are interested in that, feel free to sign up.
If you think about going to Tokyo, take advantage of this offer now.
The Bebe Voyage guide is a great resource for anyone planning to go to Tokyo. Get it now while it is free (until Monday July 16, 2018).
It is actually a great resource. I wrote most of it but the BebeVoyage community is really the co-author. It is a community of and for traveling parents who want to explore the world with their children.
And now we have written a book about Tokyo, with tips on what to see, what to do, and how to get around - with your kids in a stroller. If you have followed this blog you know that our kids can walk now, but when I were on parental leave I spent lots of time taking long walks with the kids. Two in the stroller and wearing the third. Later, we got a board the third could stand on, when they outhrew the Baby Björn.
You probably know that you need a special ticket to ride on the Shinkansen trains. It can be quite expensive if you want to ride a short distance, and if you do, getting back can be a major hassle - if you go to Shin-Yokohama, the easiest way is to ride the Shinkansen back. Which means you have to buy a second ticket.
There is a cheaper alternative to get tickets to the Shinkansen, but you can not ride them anywhere. Going to Oomiya or Shin-Yokohama not only costs money, it also takes time. And taking that extra time might mean changing your itinerary.
The Shinkansen Platform Ticket
But you can get a ticket which allows you to make your children happy, at least if they are boys. It may be gender stereotyping, but my girls are much less interested in trains than their brother. And the way to make him happy this weekend was to go to Tokyo Station and show him the Shinkansen trains. Yes, he was extatic, but a bit shy about talking to the train staff. His sisters had to do it for him.
We bought platform tickets. They allow you to go on the platform and see the trains. You can not ride the trains, not even get on them. But you can look in through the windows. And you can talk to the train staff. And best of all, the ticket only costs 140 yen for grownups. And children under 6 do not need any tickets.
How To Get The Ticket
Not only was the ticket cheap, it was also easy to get. You just go to one of the automatic ticketing machines, switch to English guidance, select ”platform tickets” and then the number. When you enter the Shinkansen area, you just push the ticket into the slot, and you are in. Since your kids are short, they enter with you without having to pay.
The Local Speciality Bento Box
The Shinkansen trains go to destinations all actoss Japan, and when trains were new, they stopped at local stations long enough for them to buy a bento with local specialities.
There are occasional stations where trains stop long enough for passengers to buy a bento, but mostly trains today are so effective that you have to buy the bento before you board the train. In particular if you are boarding the Shinkansen.
Get Your Shinkansen Bento Early
You do not even have to go to far-off train stations to get the local specialities. They are readily available at Tokyo station. There is a special store that only sells ”ekiben”, the local speciality bento boxes.
Your kids are likely to be less than interested in high-quality Japanese meat or fish, however. The bento box you need to buy for your kids is the Shinkansen bento box. The contents are nothing special (grownups may find convenience store bento more tasty), but the plastic box in the shape of a Shinkansen train may be the most loved souvenir your kids will get in Japan.
Did you know that I am working on several guide books for Tokyo right now? I am trying to adapt them to different reading styles. To find out how it goes and when they will be ready, sign up below!
I am Wisterian Watertree, recently moved from Bangkok to Tokyo, with a brief visit to Honolulu on the way. I write about travel, especially with our three beautiful kids (two girls and one boy, soon turning six - yes. they are triplets). Travel is education and fun rolled into one, and if you are like me, that is something you want to give to your kids. If you want more tips and want to find out when I will publish something, get it from my email list. If you want to be personal, drop me a note on email@example.com, or if you want general tips, follow me on Twitter @wisterianw.