My thoughts after coming back from Europe for the first time: 5 little reasons why living in Tokyo is awesome.

Long time no update! It has been a very busy last few weeks, partly because I was traveling across Europe. I actually went outside, lived life, and didn’t touch a computer or watch TV the whole time. I’m basically a whole new Johanna.

It's the little things in life.

It’s the little things in life.

Anyway, spending time outside of Japan is always good for reminding you of the reasons why you like living here despite it’s various foibles. I’m feeling pretty refreshed, so here is my quick list of why Tokyo is an awesome place to call home.

1. Trains are on time and easy to understand. (Germany, I’m looking at you when I’m writing this.) Most places in Tokyo will have coloured AND numbered diagrams for the subway and train lines, so figuring out how to get from A to B is not a huge ordeal. There are also usually station employees around to ask questions, and they will probably give you the right answer. (Again, Germany I’m looking at you.) If a train is cancelled, then expect to be showered in apologies. (Hi Germany, remember me?)

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The red face in distress needs to have a more exasperated look in order to be more accurate, in my humble opinion.

2. 24 hour convince stores. Want 200 mL of milk at 2am, BAM. No big deal. Need to withdraw cash, buy a specific flavour of green tea, then pay your water bill? DONE. The more places I go to, the more I realise how unique these 24 hour beacons of convenience truly are.

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Not a Family Mart for miles. Sure, maintaining several hundred years of beauty is fine and all, but can you truly call that living?!

3. FREE toilets. I was prepared to pay for the bathrooms, but you have to drop .50 to 1.00 euro to use the facilities even in department stores and some bars (and that is just asking for trouble.) The toilets in Japan still reign an unwavering first place in my heart.

Toilets are one of the main reasons we can have civilization people.

Toilets are one of the main reasons we can have civilization people.

4. Very specific portion sizes. We tried to cook at home a few times when we were traveling, but it is hard to buy groceries for just 1 meal. Japanese supermarkets usually sell 食べ切り (tabekiri, eat up in one go) size selections of cheese, vegetables, meat, etc, so I was faced with figuring out how to deal with leftovers. I cannot eat 300 grams of cheese in one sitting. Total first world problem, but if you are just cooking for 2 people who only eat at home half of the time, excess food tends to go to waste more often than not. **Nerd Alert** I understand that the unit price will increase with the purchase of smaller portions, but I really hate wasting food and am willing to pay a “premium” just for the portion I need in most circumstances.

If you have excess cheese then you should pair it with excess wine.

If you have excess cheese then you should pair it with excess wine.

5. Your stuff will almost never be outright stolen, and lost items are highly likely to be returned in the condition it was found.

Everyone and everyTHING is apparently out to get your wallet. Stay on your toes.

Outside of Japan everyONE and everyTHING is apparently out to get your wallet. Stay on your toes.

Why do Japanese people wear cold masks all the time? The reason is probably deeper than you ever expected.

It's a sign of the times.

It’s a sign of the times.


I have had several friends that have come to visit me in Tokyo ask me why they keep seeing people are wearing cold masks .

“What’s going on…Is it the SARS?”

NO! Not at all!

You would never see anyone in the US wear cold masks unless they were doing something directly related to a medical procedure or cleaning up some sort of nasty chemical. I think it sparks a sense of uneasiness in Americans- it feels like there is some invisible, unknown danger lurking about.

However, cold masks are incredibly commonplace year round. Here are the main reasons you will find Japanese people running around wearing cold masks:

1. You have a cold or allergies:
Imagine you wake up with a nasty case of the sniffles. You aren’t quite sick enough to take time off work, so you mask up on your way out the door in order to prevent coughing and sneezing on the people around you. Remember that many people ride crowded trains and buses to and from work, so how embarrassing and rude would it be if you sneezed on the face of the person that you are crammed next to? It is just a form of consideration to help keep your bodily fluids to yourself.

2. You don’t want to have a cold:
Imagine you are in a train full of snifflers and germs, and when you get to your office it too is also full of coughers and sneezers. While there are some considerate people out there regarding coughing and sneezing, it can’t hurt to have a mask on when a bug is going around. Big offices and schools can a breeding ground for something nasty. Some people will argue that it won’t really prevent catching anything because people don’t wear them correctly* for communicable disease prevention, but it still is widely regarded as a good type of preventive measure.

3. UV protection:
Some people use masks as a way to block their face from direct sunlight to prevent damage from UV rays. The mask and sunglass combination is a hit among both famous and regular people( and doubles as an easy way to go incognito mode I guess).

4. To protect from cold or dry skin:
When it is cold outside, a mask can help keep your face warm and comfortable while walking around. It can also help to prevent your skin from drying out and getting chapped from the wind. (I actually wear a mask long flights since it is so dry in the airplane cabin. It helps!)

…now here is one of the harder to explain reasons for so many masked people in Tokyo:

5.  You just don’t want to show your face:
In recent years some people have developed a dependency on their masks and wear them for no particular functional or sanitary reason. Their mask act like a sort of security blanket, and is the de facto symbol of “leave me alone”. Fashion masks with different prints and colors are becoming hot sellers as some people describe the cold mask as the “underwear of their face”. They just don’t feel comfortable going outside without it.

I think the last reason is probably the hardest to grasp if you haven’t lived in Japan before. People here are really protective of their privacy and much more self-conscious of how they look than their Western counterparts. They also are concerned about running into people that they might know, so if they are not in the mood to interact with other people they will hide their face while outside.

This reason for wearing a mask that involves nothing related to hygiene or functionality is called datemasuku (伊達マスク, literally a mask just for appearance sake).

A survey performed in Shibuya found that 30% of mask wearers in that area were actually datemasuku. Here are a few reasons brought up to explain why they are wearing a mask**:

– Makes them feel more relaxed
– They hate their face
– It’s hard to tell where they are looking, and they can feel at ease
– They will probably not be recognised by people they know speaking.
– They don’t have to talk to anyone
– If they have to talk to someone, then they can feel more confident
– They will look more attractive with the mask on
– They can go out without makeup on.
– They can go out without shaving/have a 5 o’clock shadow

So new travellers to Tokyo, people are just being careful. There is nothing going around… other than some possible self-esteem issues. No need to be alarmed.

The overlooked pitfalls of hanami: part 2

Hanami, the tradition of having picnics and drinking under cherry trees while they are in bloom, is something you will be invited to with a 99% certainty if you are in Japan during the springtime. It’s an institution. Part 1 was just the tip of the iceberg, so I’d like to share some more things that people tend to forget about hanami.

Cherry blossoms are only in bloom for around 2 weeks, so before the petals fall everyone will be out taking pictures.Everything just look so different compared with the rest of the year, it’s almost the trees are made of pink popcorn. Feels like Candy Land really happened.

From the serious photography enthusiast to the run-of-the-mill smart phone instagramer will be snapping dozens of photos trying to get their own best shot. The sheer amount of photography going around you can be pretty distracting if you happen to be sitting directly under a tea that is in full bloom. Some random guy you don’t know will come by to take pictures of the totally innocuous tree you all happen to be sitting under. 5 minutes later a completely different person will stop by and take more photos. It won’t stop.

What are all these close up photos of the tree for exactly? I don’t want to sound completely jaded, but the flowers usually look exactly the same as the previous year. I went through my person photo collection, and this is more or less what my album looks like:
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As for the picnic part of hanami, a casual get together means that each person will bring 3-4 drinks and a variety of snacks to last the afternoon. However, after the first or second beer you will probably realise that you don’t have the combination of “enough” or “the right” snacks. This problem is something that I call dunger, drunk hunger.

That feeling where you want to eat, but you don’t know what you want to eat, especially when you are drinking. The snacks you brought with you? No. That isn’t going to fill that pit in your stomach. No matter how well you think you prepared your food, you didn’t. You will need something… more.

Dunger in the park is dangerous. There are several food carts of questionable legitimacy set up in the area during this season, and you will 100% lose out to temptation. Usually you have the choice of doughy or noodle things that are cooked on a griddle like takoyaki or okonomiyaki, or meat things on a stick like jumbo franks and yakitori.

Normal dunger is something I can deal with, but this hanami dunger is its own animal. It digs at you, and you can’t ignore it. You eventually have to buy questionable food on a stick because it starts to look enchantingly delicious. You feel a bit self-conscious after buying it because no one can feel attractive eating greasy things on a stick while squatting in the middle of the park. However, it is best to embrace this feeling and empower yourself in this moment of triumph over dunger.
I will never not be doing this during hanami.

I will never not be doing this.

Hanami all takes place around the end of March or beginning of April, so while the afternoons are warm and pleasant, it still gets a bit chilly near the end of the day. This is especially true if you are just sitting around and drinking. You will start to feel pretty cold around 4pm.

“Why didn’t you plan ahead and bring a warmer jacket?” You will think to yourself, but it’s already too late. We all lie to ourselves and say that we’ll  be done by 3pm. But nah… You never leave before it starts to get dark out. Time flows differently during hanami. You get caught up talking with your friends or watching the group next to you get drunk and dance to reggae music blasting from an iPhone. Time just simply slips away from you.
This is me by 5pm.

This is me by 5pm.

Just bring an extra jacket or a blanket. Once hypothermia sets in you chances of survival decrease substantially.

I’m totally planning to do hanami this year. Don’t get me wrong- I love going outside and doing the whole rigmarole, but it seems that no one really gets ready for the hardships of hanami. This year will be different. This year I’m finally ready.

The somewhat macabre warning signs in the streets of Tokyo

If you ever go out exploring around Tokyo, you will have the chance to see various cartoony warning signs that highlight some sort potentially dangerous situation. They can range in style from formal to cute, but the ones that stand out are a strange mix of whimsy and horror.

The Japanese word for danger is abunai, but it almost feels like it has a vaguer meaning in Japanese than in English considering how it is thrown about in conversation and writing. In situations in English where native speakers would use phrasing like “be cautious” or “take care”, Japanese speakers are more likely to say “danger (abunai)!”. In other words, it feels like there is a higher danger frequency in Japanese.

Here are 3 of my favourite warnings I have seen around the city:

Literal translation "That crossing forgets the speed of the car"

Literal translation “That crossing forgets the speed of the car”

This is a warning mural in the middle of a long pedestrian crossing between Shinjuku and Takadanobaba on Meiji-douri. Is this 10 meter drawing warning the consequences of not briskly crossing the crosswalk, or is it painting the tragic story of a grandpa who’s tired old body couldn’t bring him across the road in time?

The thing is that on the other side of that mural is drawing done in the same style, but it shows a man without a helmet on a motorcycle with death riding in the rear. I could kick myself for not getting a photo of that last time I was over there. It is just as morbid as grandpa getting mowed over by a speeding car.

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Literal translation “Grandpa, Grandma, that’s dangerous!”

This one gets me too… the child obviously does not want to walk right into traffic, but the grandpa/grandma is pulling her out in front of the cars. The text on the right says “A request to my grandma and grandpa who I love very much…” Is this based off of something that actually happened? Are old people remorseless jaywalkers? Does grandma have a death wish? This just opens up a whole can of worms.

Literal translation "DANGER!  DEFINITELY DO NOT GO IN."

Literal translation “DANGER! DEFINITELY DO NOT GO IN.”

This warning sign is pretty good in my opinion. The assertion of danger is clear. The lion obviously means business. I know that I should not go inside. Are there lions inside? I don’t know, and I’m not going to go find out.

If you go down smaller streets in Tokyo I’m sure you can find some amazing ones of your own. It is totally worth it to keep your eyes open. Be careful out there, because apparently danger is everywhere.