Receiving a few curious looks from other Japanese women that lasted merely a few seconds (after realizing that I had the same exact body parts as they did), I went safely unnoticed as I submerged myself into a near boiling pool of water at the foot of a Roman statue. The Japanese were pretty tough when it came to hot water, taking plenty of time to simmer themselves while catching up on local gossip with their friends. 

I had also grown accustomed to the high temperatures of the hot baths and after a couple of minutes, my body would adjust and my muscles would relax. It was only several minutes later that I would realize that my skin had turned a splotchy red color, which took a couple of hours to disappear. 

This time was no different and I decided to head for the sauna to give my skin a break from the water. The sauna of course, was also extremely hot, but in a different way. In America, warnings on sauna walls always suggested staying inside for no more than 10 minutes, as saunas make you release buckets of sweat and you can easily become dehydrated and faint, where some hours later somebody finds you dead and shriveled like a prune inside. I was always painting lovely pictures such as these in my head. 

In Japan however, I couldn’t read the signs so I had no idea if there were any warnings or not. However, I often saw women stay inside for 30 minutes or more. Heading inside and greeted by a sudden gust of pure dry heat, I saw that it was only myself and another woman in the sauna. The other women, was laying on her back, with a towel over her face. I wondered how long she had been in there. 

I laid down, allowing the heat to penetrate my body and instantly, little beads of sweat poured out of my pores. I think that my ears were even sweating. After a good ten minutes had passed, I sat up. The woman was still there. 

Was she breathing??

Tiptoeing gently over to her to make sure she was still alive, I was relieved to see her chest still moving up and down with each breath. Reaching out my hand to tap her on the shoulder to make sure she was okay, she suddenly shifted, grunting, and pulled her towel off her face in one sudden movement. Looking a bit shocked to see me, her eyes widened. 

“Anata wa daijobu desuka?” I asked her. 

“Hai, daijobu des”, she answered, breaking into a slow smile.

At least she had sensed my concern. 
 
 

On my way through Osaka Castle park, I passed many tents, where homeless people had set up little homes for themselves. One tent home, was actually quite nice, the tenant himself sitting out on his homemade porch, reading a magazine and eating some noodles, all the while looking quite content. His home, right on the water of the moat surrounding the castle, had view that couldn’t be beat. With the rapidly rising costs of real estate in Japan, I’m sure he could have charged a bundle for his waterfront property. 

Of course, setting up a home on the grounds of a national monument would never fly in America. I had heard that the Japanese government tried to kick out the homeless out of these parks and monuments but the homeless had quite a resolve. They would pack up and leave, only to relocate to another park or even come back. So if it wasn’t one set of bums, it was the other. I suppose the term would be “bum circulation”. 

Some of the bums however, do not have nice tents like these ones in Osaka castle park. The ones I have passed in the subway sometimes sleep in long cardboard boxes or on top of newspapers. Many times, they are dressed in business attire, looking as though they were just taking a short nap before heading to work. 

Many of the homeless had once been salary men, working for various companies and making a lot of money. In the 90’s, Japan’s economy dipped slightly, resulting in many people losing their jobs due to budget cuts. With the shame of losing one’s job, one could not return home to the family. Many of these people chose to be homeless instead. With the choice between getting a low skilled job and becoming homeless, many of these people chose the homeless route because they refused to go from working for a company and making lots of money to cleaning the subway station toilets. Today, many of them pick up cans for a living, turning just enough profit to get by; just enough to buy a couple of bowls of noodles a day. 

Sometimes I wonder if these people ever even want to go back to real society. The bum with his waterfront property looked pretty content. 
 
 
“Why do you want to come here?” my Japanese friend asked me as we arrived at Yasukuni shrine, a curious look in his eyes.

I wasn’t sure if I really had an answer for him. Yasukuni Shrine, if you don’t already know, is a shrine dedicated to the war dead who served Japan from 1867-1951. When enshrinement occurs, it is believed that all negative acts committed on Earth are absolved. Enshrinement is permanent and irreversible, according to the current priesthood at the shrine. The criticism that Yasukuni shrine faces comes from the fact that Class A war criminals (as convicted by the IMTEF in post WWII trials) are enshrined here. The war museum next to the shrine has also been accused of having a nationalistic approach and the Japanese government (whose officials sometimes honor the enshrined here) has been indicted by the Chinese, Koreans, and Taiwanese as being “revisionist and unapologetic” about World War II.

However (in the spirit of objectivity here), the trials by the IMTEF (which was comprised of the victors of WWII including Australia, Canada, China, France, India, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, the UK, the USA, and Russia) have been criticized “for using a method of information collection called "Best Evidence Rule" that allowed simple hearsay with no secondary support to be entered against the accused.” The criminals were therefore all released in 1958, giving many Japanese people a reason to believe they were not war criminals. Note also that “none of the victors faced trials for mass civilian killings in fire bombings of major cities, the mass deaths of non-repatriated Japanese soldiers, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” Simply put, the trials by the IMTEF were considered biased. However, no one disagreed that there were many terrible atrocities committed during the war.

Controversy surrounding Yasukuni shrine also revolves around the Yushukan War Museum sitting beside it. Yushukan shows a documentary to museum visitors that shows Japan’s conquest of East Asia before WWII as “an effort to save the region from the imperial advances of the colonial Western powers. Displays portray Japan as a victim of foreign influence, especially Western undermining of trade. Critics say the museum fails to portray any atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army. On the invasion of Nanking, the museum omits any mention of the massacre and states that "General Iwane Matsui observed military rules to the letter. The Japanese established a safety zone for Chinese civilians and made a special effort to protect historical and cultural sites. Inside the city, residents were once again able to live their lives in peace.”

I had been to an exhibition on the Nanking Massacre in London a couple of years and the information about it was night and day from what I had seen at Yushukan. Of course, bias occurs everywhere and history has certainly been rewritten before. However, knowing the truth about history is important; it helps prevent misunderstandings and prejudices, and it inspires us to prevent our past mistakes. Isn’t that worth more than pride?


 
 
“The nail that sticks up must be hammered down.”

(Japanese proverb)

     In Japanese society, where conformity is valued, there is only one group that refuses to go along with the rules. This is the proud group of yakuza, who unlike organized crime groups in other countries, don’t like keeping a low profile. In Japan there are 110,000 active members divided into 2,500 families.  By contrast, the United States has more than double the population of Japan but only 20,000 organized crime members total, and that number includes all criminal organizations, not just the Italian-American Mafia.

     The yakuza are quite powerful in Japan and have many political alliances, especially with right-wing groups. They also operate in the corporate world in Japan. It is well known that weddings and funerals of yakuza members are attended by politicians of high ranking and corporate bosses. The yakuza however, do not only operate in Japan. They have extended into America as well, in Hawaii of all places.

     Lots of people, especially Japanese people, head to Hawaii to relax and forget about the stresses of home. Playing in the surf, laying by the hotel pool, or enjoying a lomi-lomi massage, they have no idea that the other Japanese “tourist” sitting across from them at the bar just might be their local yakuza member. Although most of us see Hawaii as a vacation destination known for its lush flora and fauna, beautiful beaches, and the home of surfing, the yakuza see Hawaii not as a vacation destination, but as a perfect place to smuggle goods to and from Japan and America.

     Hawaii, as a midway point between Japan and America, is a perfect place for the yakuza to hide out, blend in easily with the other Asian tourists or residents. Its location also makes it the perfect place to smuggle guns from America to Japan and crystal methamphetamine from Japan to America. According to a publicized report of the National Police Agency of Japan, the yakuza, in 1988, grossed almost 10 billion U.S. dollars in revenue, one-third from crystal methamphetamine, known on the street as ‘ice.’ In fact, the yakuza control an estimated 90 percent of the 'ice' flow into Hawaii. They also work with local gangs to direct Asian tourists to gambling parlors and strip clubs and receive a commission for this.

     So if you happen to be on the back streets of Honolulu and are asked if you would like to enjoy some fun by a stranger, just say no. Politely.


 
 
*names have been changed

“I hope you will come. The temple is such a wonderful place and there are so many nice people there. All your stress will go away if you visit there,” my friend Akiko said to me one day, as we were eating lunch together.

Akiko was my language-exchange partner and we often studied together over lunch, at a café near my apartment. From the beginning, Akiko had been so nice and sweet to me. However, over time, Akiko began talking more and more about her religion and had begun to ask me to visit her religious group’s center in Osaka. Almost every time we met, Akiko gave me a new book, magazine, or brochure for me to read, in order for me to learn more about her religion. I was starting to feel a little bit of pressure from Akiko, but to preserve our friendship and language-exchange, I finally agreed to go to the temple center with her.

All I really knew about Akiko’s religious group was that it was led by a middle-aged man who called himself El Cantare, who had achieved Enlightenment in 1981. El Cantare’s mission was to spread happiness through the world. I guessed that any guy who wanted to do that couldn’t be too bad, but I couldn’t help but feel a little skeptical. Having been chased by the Jehovah Witnesses for years, I was not exactly thrilled at being pressured into a religion.

Arriving at the temple center on a Sunday to meet Akiko, I was impressed by the interior of the building. Everything was lacquered in glimmering gold and several shiny marble statues of playful-looking angels were placed around the lobby, which had a domed ceiling painted to look like the heavens. I wondered where the group got the money to pay for such extravagant furnishings.

“Actually, I have a surprise for you,” Akiko confessed, as we went inside. “The Master, El Cantare, is here today and is giving a talk. It doesn’t start for another hour so I would like you to meet the temple’s Head Advisor before the speech,” she said, leading me up a set of stairs.

Arriving upstairs, I was led to a table where a small, bright-eyed old man was sitting. He was wearing a suit and looked very professional. On the table were several books.

“Hello, nice to meet you,” he said, shaking my hand. “You must be so excited about hearing Master’s speech today,” he said, smiling.

“Um, yes, very excited. Nice to meet you too,” I replied, sitting down.

“First, I want to explain a little bit about our center here and about our religion. Our religion aims to spread Truth in the world and is open to people of all backgrounds. It is based on faith in our Master and living leader, El Cantare, who is Buddha, God, and the great consciousness of the universe.”

“Wait a minute; did you say that your Master, who will be speaking today, is both God and Buddha?” I asked, surprised.

“Yes, Master is the reincarnation of both Jesus Christ and Buddha. That is why he has been able to write over 500 books about the Truth,” the old man explained. “There is one large tree in this world and the name of this huge tree is El Cantare. The tree has many large branches, and we are all connected by these branches. The 21st century will usher in The Golden Age, a utopia, or what El Cantare calls “The El Cantare Civilization.”

I was beginning to feel nervous. I wasn’t sure if I could believe in a man who claimed he was a reincarnation of both Jesus Christ and Buddha. Akiko smiled, patting me on the hand.

“Would you like to become a member of our group?” the old man asked. “You only have to fill out a small application form and there will be a short welcoming ceremony in which you will be asked, “Do you believe in the Lord?”

“Actually, Master will be giving a welcoming ceremony after his speech to all new members. I signed you up because I hope you will join us,” Akiko said, looking at me with a face full of hope.

“You signed me up?” I asked, surprised and a little angry. “But, I never agreed to become a member.”

“Yes, but I hoped you would be,” Akiko said.

“Well, I will listen to Master’s speech first and then I will decide what I should do,” I replied firmly.

I had the full intention of saying no.

“We hope that you will join us,” the old man said, smiling.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *         

An hour later, I was sitting in the back of a crowded room and listening to Master’s speech. Master was a clean-cut guy in his forties, who looked nothing like Jesus Christ or Buddha. He stood at the front in front of a podium, wearing a religious cloak covered with jewels and symbols which I could not understand. He explained that he had awoken to the hidden part of his consciousness, El Cantare, sometime in the 80s. He had been born mouth first so that he needed no manuscript or preparation when giving speeches and therefore, he could speak well.

After Master had explained a little bit about himself and his speaking abilities, a woman came to the front of the room, to give her personal testimony. She had experienced a lot of difficulties in her life and had turned to Master’s religion when things had reached the bottom. Now, she had changed her life and vowed to live the rest of her life believing and trusting in El Cantare’s teachings.

After the woman’s testimony, Master stood up to give his closing comments.

“I, who stand before you, am the rebirth of Buddha,” he said. “I have written 500 books of Truth. That is my proof. My disciples, and my future disciples, be good to all people and cleanse their minds. There is only one thing you must do and that is believe. That is the starting point. I am one lighthouse. You too can become lighthouses. Please save the people who are living in darkness. The world is in need of your light. Right at this moment, you have met the rebirth of Buddha. That is why you hold a great chance in your hands. Today is the day of beginning. Together, let us save the people suffering from evil. Now, would all new disciples please come forward?”

“That’s you!” Akiko exclaimed in a loud whisper, pulling on my arm to stand up.

“No, no, no. I need more time to think about it,” I protested, trying to resist her rather strong pull on my arm.

“Oh, come on,” she said loudly, causing several people to turn and stare.

“Please come forward, don’t be shy,” Master said, noticing what was happening and looking directly at me. “Come on, please come to the front,” he said, smiling and gesturing for me to come forward.

With Akiko literally dragging me forward to the front, I stood glumly in front of Master, along with two other middle-aged Japanese women, who stared at me as though I were an alien from another planet. Akiko stood beside me, holding my hand. There was no escape.

“If you believe in higher beings, spiritual beings, that are merciful and more powerful than human kind in this world, you can be courageous, you can overcome every suffering, and you can do all things. You must save the people in your country and all the people of the world,” Master said, touching the tops of all of our heads.

“Do you believe in the Lord?” he asked me.

“Um, yes?” I replied, hesitatingly.

How did I get myself into this? How had it come that I was standing here being inducted into some kind of religion that I didn’t believe in? I was starting to panic, to feel sick.

Sweat droplets began to form in beads on my forehead and I knew I needed to get out of there.

“I’m sorry,” I muttered, and turned to leave, pushing past Akiko, past the two middle-aged Japanese women, past Master, past all the staring faces.

Without looking back, I left, running out of the front entrance and back into the real world, where cars honked, bicycle brakes squealed annoyingly, and old women chatted loudly outside of a coffee shop. Gulping in the air, I ran down the street, away from the temple. Only one question remained in my mind though. Was I a member or not? I guess I would never know. 

 
 
“Wow, you have a lot of pictures of food,” my friend commented in a rather confused way as she was looking through my pictures of Japan on a recent trip back home.

“Umm, yeah, I do,” I replied sheepishly, all too aware that the fact that Japan has turned me into a self-confessed foodaholic.

If there is one thing that all Japanese people are obsessed with, it’s food. And when I say that, I mean mostly Japanese food. When Japanese people travel abroad or within Japan, sightseeing is almost always secondary or equal to what’s on the dinner menu. Travel itineraries are carefully planned out around eating times. Restaurants serving some famous dish are carefully marked on the map. Travel books aimed at giving information only about food and restaurants are sold by the millions.

I mean, everyone knows that the real reason to go to Taiwan is to wait for hours in a long line at the most famous xiao lum bao restaurant in Taipei or the biggest kick out of going to South Korea is the cheap but delicious yakiniku or a hot chijimi pancake from a street vendor.

In fact, entire vacations can be ruined if no delicious restaurant can be found to a Japanese person’s liking. Like a woman I know, who declared to her husband when they moved to an American suburb that she wouldn’t stay unless he built a Japanese supermarket. Guess what? He never did (the poor guy was in the IT business) and she moved back to Japan and left him in America. Why? Because she would only eat Japanese food.

Food has become a national obsession in Japan. Whether it’s fresh fish in Hokkaido or the newest version of udon or soba, Japanese people will do anything to try another prefecture’s famous local specialty. You can always bet that there will be a famous noodle dish coming out of most prefectures and that the noodles are nearly the same, but one ingredient is altered. In Mie prefecture, they add soy sauce to the udon broth and suddenly, Ise Udon is born and people traveling from all over Japan come to try it. In Hokkaido, they add sashimi to the top of their soba and then, Sashimi Soba is created. In Tokyo, they dip their soba in a soy sauce base and voila`, Edo-Style Zaru-Soba comes into the world.  

When the season changes, the food changes and this is as exciting to a Japanese person as the World Cup is to some Europeans or the Superbowl is to some Americans. Spring is no exception, unveiling an array of sakura-themed products ranging from tea to wine to sweet pink mochi wrapped with salted sakura leaves.

Another spring food that can be seen is takenoko-gohan which are bamboo shoots cooked with rice. There are two types of bamboo shoots, winter and spring shoots. Some benefits of eating bamboo shoots are that it lowers cholesterol and helps prevent high blood pressure.

And do you remember those tiny, round green vegetables you hated as a kid? They are back and very delicious as pea-gohan. So be prepared to bring a book if you are planning on going to any restaurants serving this food for spring. It’s going to be a long wait. 

 
 
“I’ve never even been to Tokyo,” he confessed to me. “I hate Tokyo. Osaka people and Tokyo people are different. I am an Osaka person so I don’t like Tokyo people.”

“But you’ve never even been to Tokyo. How do you know that you hate it?” I asked.

“Because I just know. Tokyo people are cold.”

I didn’t push the subject further. It wasn’t the first time I had heard an Osakan speak badly about its rival up north. I have met so many Osakans that have strong, negative feelings about Tokyo. The same can also be said about Tokyoites regarding Osakans, although it seems that their feelings aren’t as strong as vice-versa. Some Tokyoites like Osaka, others don’t. The ones who dislike Osaka seem surprised that anyone would come to Japan and live in Osaka. “Why not come to Tokyo and live there? We have everything you could want in Tokyo. Why are you living here?” they ask me.

Of course, this rivalry between domestic cities can be found in any other country in the world, not just in Japan.

Despite Osakans’ tendency to be louder than the rest of Japan and more raucous, I guess I can finally say that I appreciate Osakans’ honesty. They, as opposed to people from other parts of Japan, seem much less shy about expressing their opinions. In this regard, it is often said by non-Osakans that Osaka is “like another country.”

Sometimes, it can be hard for foreigners to understand the vague way in which some Japanese communicate. Living in Osaka, it seems, makes this a little easier. 

 
 

“This large island {Hokkaido} was once a land of freedom for our ancestors.”

(From the preface of “Ainu Mythology” by Yukie Chiri)

 

            Last week, I was lucky enough to be able to dig a little deeper into Ainu culture by visiting Shiraoi (meaning “a place with many horseflies” in the Ainu language), a town about an hour by train away from Sapporo, in Hokkaido (despite the name, I saw no horseflies there). The attraction of Shiraoi is that it has a great reconstructed Ainu village, Poroto Kotan, which is nestled beside Lake Poroto, hence the name Poroto Kotan (which means “large lakeside village” in the Ainu language).

            Ainu tradition typically features songs and dances which include iyomante rimse (a ceremonial dance for sending bears’ spirits back to heaven), upopo (a song performance by seated singers), saroruncikap rimse (a crane dance), and emus rimse (an epic sword dance). They also use a mouth harp called a mukkuri while singing lullabies (infunke). One benefit of visiting Poroto Kotan is that you can see some traditional Ainu dances and songs. Some words in the Ainu language are wakka (water), hapo (mother), ni (tree), tanto (today), iyairaikere (thank you), and irankarapte (hello).

            Unfortunately, the Ainu, like other indigenous peoples of many other countries in the world, has had a similar history of being forced off of their own land. The Ainu are a rapidly disappearing race and it’s estimated that there are only about 200 pure blood Ainu left. The Ainu were thought to have arrived in Japan about 5,000 to 10,000 years ago and were hunters and gatherers, who believed that God existed in everything; plants, animals, and water.

            In the 15th and 16th centuries, the Ainu were exploited through trade, forced to adapt to Japanese culture, and pushed off their land. In 1868, the Japanese government prohibited the Ainu from speaking their own language and banned woman from having religious tattoos. Men were also banned from wearing traditional Ainu costume, which included wearing earrings. Even today, some of their rituals are banned by the Japanese government (for example, killing a bear which has been raised from a cub to fully grown in order to send the bear back to the land of the gods. The Ainu believe that bears are earthly forms of deities.) I am not really sure how many modern-day Ainu are still interested in this ritual, but even if they were, they are not allowed.

            Sadly, there is still discrimination against the Ainu these days. In 1986, Japan declared itself proudly to be a “mono-ethnic” nation; however, when an Ainu representative gave a speech for the United Nationals Year of Indigenous People’s event in 1992, other countries pressured Japan to stop discriminating against their indigenous people. Finally, in 1997, a new law was passed that gave the Ainu permission to promote their culture and traditions. Before 1997 (shock!), the Ainu were denied land ownership and the governor of Hokkaido was given authority of Ainu social funds, making Ainu dependable on the government. The law’s title even went so far as to describe the Ainu people as “dirt people,” which naturally angered and insulted many Ainu.

            Most people cannot tell the difference between Ainu people and Japanese people, although Ainu people tend to have slightly lighter skin color. Many Ainu people today even choose not to identify themselves as Ainu out of fear of continuing social discrimination. Clearly, Japan still has a long way to go when it comes to racial discrimination. However, now that places like Shiraoi have opened, perhaps it will start to open people’s eyes a little more and people will become more educated about the Ainu culture and history. Only time will tell but we can always hope for the best, that racial discrimination will disappear from every corner of the Earth and we can learn to celebrate our similarities as humans, not focus on our differences regarding race, religion, or sex. 

 
 
Toka Ebisu.

The mere mention of this word sends over a million people rushing to Imamiya Shrine near the notorious Shin-Imamiya district in Osaka every year in January. Why all this madness just after the peaceful New Year’s holidays with the family? Money, of course. Since the 6th century, people have been coming here to pray to Ebisu, the god of business and wealth. And with 40-50 beautiful shrine maidens selling charms for your bamboo branch, it certainly doesn’t hurt the turnout.  

            Starting from 10,000 yen and upwards, you can adorn your bamboo branch with charms meant to bring wealth and good fortune, such as small rice bales, old oval coins, and wooden ornaments covered in kanji. After returning home, these adorned branches must be put in a prominent place in order to bring on the good fortune. What’s the use of a 20,000 yen adorned bamboo branch if you can’t even see it?

            Some men, more interested in the shrine maidens or “good luck girls” than the charms, often take great care in choosing which shrine maiden he will purchase his charms from. Some shrine maidens have long lines of men waiting patiently with their bamboo branches ready to be adorned, while other shrine maidens who are not so popular try to catch the attention of people passing by in order to sell them charms.

            “The shrine maidens at the entrance of the shrine are the most beautiful. The quality goes down as you go further down the line, especially towards the back of the shrine,” observed one man, who religiously attends the festival every year.

            Regardless of looks, these 40-50 shrine maidens are chosen from more than 3,000 candidates, in a series of auditions meant to find the best of the best. Not only do these women receive the title of “shrine maiden”, but being a “shrine maiden” also comes with a significant status and many of these women are approached with marriage proposals by a number of interested potential mates. Sure takes the stress out of dating. 

 
 
Most people who come to Japan know about Setsubun, the bean-throwing holiday which comes on the 3rd of February, but most of them do not know about another very special tradition that only happens in Osaka during the same time. Well, if you haven’t already guessed from the title, it’s Japanese Halloween. On the 2nd and 3rd of every February, everything from Snow White to sexy nurses to Geisha costumes can be seen after dark on the brightly lit streets of Kitashinchi in Umeda. If one is unaware of this tradition which is only celebrated in Osaka, one might be very confused if “accidentally” stumbling into Kitashinchi after dark. Much like Halloween, wearing “scary” costumes during this time is meant to ward off evil spirits.

Another interesting and fun part of this holiday is that some costumed men, wearing oni (demon or ogre) masks, go around scaring everyone by sneaking up on them from behind and shouting “aaarrgghh” loudly into their ears. Some of these men are actually hired by the owners of many bars, restaurants, and clubs to go in and scare the customers. This is a way to “scare the living demons” out of people. In addition, while the men in demon masks set to the task of scaring people, an older man usually accompanies them, and plays music out of a conch shell (he’s usually standing somewhere in the background). After everyone is properly shocked, the men in demon masks throw a few handfuls of roasted soybeans, shouting, “Oni wa soto! Fuku wa uchi!” which translates as “Demon’s out! Luck in!” It is also a custom to eat the roasted soybeans (yes, the ones that have been on the floor), one for each year of your life and sometimes, one more to bring good luck in the future.

            Another significant tradition during this time to eat uncut maki-zushi (basically a very big sushi roll usually containing egg and vegetables) while facing in a particular direction. This year it was North-East. One more thing, you can’t talk while eating it. So, if you manage to face in the right direction and silently eat your large sushi roll, you should be lucky for the next year.

            And for those of you who thought that Osakans didn’t celebrate Halloween, guess again.