Wednesday, 14 October 2009

3 things that I love about Japan, #1

Things that I love #1

This one's a combination of things that's hard to give a name to. It'd probably be easier in Japanese, where you'd say something like 便利な日本 (convenient Japan) or 日本の便利さ (the convenience of Japan), as the word 便利/convenient has a broader meaning in Japanese. Basically, Japan is a very easy country to live in because everything is so... convenient.

Like I said, there are many reasons that contribute to this. A big one is that Japanese public transport is always on time, which is very important for a country which relies on trains so much. Japan is also very clean and pleasing to the eye for the most part - you'll rarely see litter in the streets. You're often never very far away from a convenience store, which is useful when you're hungry or thirsty, and you can also do things like pay all your bills or pay for concert or airplane tickets at convenience stores, which is genius. And convenience stores are EVERYWHERE. If you were to walk down any of the main roads on Port Island (where I used to live) you would literally see a Family Mart, Seven Eleven or Lawson every 5 minutes. The same is even truer for vending machines.

Another thing I was extremely impressed with, and used a lot during my time in Japan, was rehearsal studios. I had never had the need to use a rehearsal studio in the UK, as the bands I've been in have always found school rooms, or bedrooms to practise in. Plus, rehearsal studios are pretty expensive to rent over here. However, in Japan, there isn't space in the average house for a band to practise, and the houses are so close together with paper thin walls, so the whole neighbourhood would be able to hear you. Therefore just about every band uses rehearsal studios.

I joined a music society at Kobe Uni, and ended up in 4 different bands, so I used rehearsal studios a lot, and I was impressed with the quality of the equipment and the cheapness of the price. It would generally cost about 4,000 yen to rent a room for 2 hours, but when you split that between a 5 member band, it's only about 800 yen each, which is about £6, which is great value to say you're practising with top of the range equipment. You even get a points card, which you can use to claim back more studio time, or new guitar strings or drumsticks. And although I never tried this out myself, you can also record in these places for a relatively cheap price when compared to the UK.

There are also these things called manga cafes all over too, which are places you can go to and rent out a small cubicle with an internet-enabled PC, a big comfy chair and shelves and shelves of manga for you to read. You can also take showers here too, and the cheap hourly rate means that manga cafes make a cheap alternative to hotels if you're stuck in the city overnight.

If you stay in Japan for an extended period of time, you'll come to realise for yourself just how well organised Japan and its people are. It's unlike anything you'll experience elsewhere. Everything just seems to work without any hitches or delays, and it makes living there very easy and comfortable.

And that concludes my series of the things I love and the things I hate about Japan. Who knows when I'll next write something on here. I'm super busy with uni right now, and have my dissertation coming up, so we'll see.

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Sunday, 4 October 2009

3 things that I love about Japan, #2

Things that I love #2 - Karaoke

Although a lot of people don't know it, karaoke was invented by the Japanese. However, Japanese karaoke is quite different to the kind of thing you'll find in a typical British pub on a Saturday night, and much more enjoyable.

It's the most popular evening entertainment in Japan, comparable to going clubbing at the end of a night in Britain. If you've been out for a meal or been out drinking in Japan, it's highly likely that the night will end in karaoke. You usually go with a group of 7 or 8 friends, but it's not uncommon for couples to go by themselves either. In urban areas there are karaoke venues absolutely all over the place, but you'll also find at least one in small towns and villages too. There are the big karaoke chains, which provide higher quality machines, and nicer karaoke rooms, and there are also the smaller karaoke places, which are a bit more out of the way and dirty, but you can often barter with the staff to get a cheaper deal.

Once you've decided upon your karaoke venue for the evening, you battle your way through groups of drunk businessmen and their partners and head over to the front desk. The staff will ask how many people is in your group, and how long you want to sing for, although you can often extend this time if you decide you want to sing some more later on. You then have the option of whether to include nomihoudai (all-you-can-drink) or not. This means that your overall price will be a bit higher, but you can order as many drinks as you want while you're singing. You're then given a room number, and you take the stairs or lift up through the countless floors of karaoke boxes to find yours.

When you arrive, you'll find a dark, smallish room with a sofa running all the way round the outside, a big table in the middle and a TV in the corner. There is also usually some kind of crazy disco light on the ceiling flashing away. You can then pick up the touch screen and mic, and start choosing songs and singing them. At first it can be quite daunting, singing in front of a bunch of people, even if they are all your friends, but I found even the most shy in our group enjoyed karaoke once they got used to the idea.

I also found that the way Japanese people do karaoke and the way foreigners do karaoke is quite different. Japanese people tend to pick a song and then sing that song on their own while everyone listens. Foreigners tend to pick songs and then everyone will sing along if they know it, either passing the 2 mics around the room during the song, or singing along without one.

I really grew to like karaoke when I was in Japan. As one of my friends once put it, "It's not often in life you get a chance to just sing". It's quite cathartic, and can end up being a lot of fun, especially when you have certain songs you always sing. Songs me and my mates would often sing included Man In The Mirror by Michael Jackson, Under The Sea from The Little Mermaid and I Want It That Way by Backstreet Boys. By the end of my year in Japan, we had become experts at certain songs like these, and had even incorporated harmonies and added our own little extra words and chants.

In each room there's a telephone attached to the wall, and you use this telephone to order drinks, or tambourines to play along to the music with, which are then brought to your room by the staff. You also always get a call on the telephone 10 minutes before your time is up, asking whether you want to extend your session.

When you're done, you head down to the front desk again and pay. Karaoke is a fairly cheap night out, a 2 hour nomihoudai session usually costing you no more than 10 pounds. It's even cheaper if you go in the daytime too, and we would often do this on Sunday afternoons.

Much like the public baths, if you're in Japan, karaoke is something I would definitely recommend. It seems this style of karaoke is spreading to other countries as well, as I hear there's a Japanese-style karaoke place open in Sheffield now.

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