Tag Archives: Japanese Culture

The San Francisco J-Pop Summit 2015

When I first heard of the J-Pop Summit, I wasn’t sure if it would be my thing. I’ve never really gotten into the J-Pop genre of music (for whatever reason I find K-Pop to be much more enjoyable—maybe because it’s so similar to American pop).

But it turns out that the J-Pop Summit was about much more than just music. This weekend-long event (which took place August 8 and 9 in San Francisco) celebrated several aspects of Japanese pop culture, including food, fashion, and anime.

The events took place at two main locations: Fort Mason and Union Square. Fort Mason featured a half a dozen food trucks and a large hall with musicians, dance performances, and booths promoting various aspects of Japanese culture.

The main draw at Union Square was a sake tasting area. (Fun fact: In Japanese, “sake” is a general term that means “alcohol.” The specific type of alcohol that we call “sake” in English is actually called “nihonshu” in Japanese.) There were also a handful of vendors selling food and a few vendors whose food and drinks featured matcha (green tea powder).

Here are a few of the highlights from my visit to the Fort Mason event. Many thanks to the talented Eva Vargas for the photos!hello kitty cafe foodtruck

When we arrived at Fort Mason on Saturday afternoon, I was thrilled to see the Hello Kitty Café. This adorable pink food truck sells donuts, cakes, macarons, and other confections that are adorned with Hello Kitty-inspired decorations.

I had tried to visit the Hello Kitty Café when they were stationed at a festival in Japantown a few months ago, but after seeing how many people were waiting in line, I decided to skip it. Luckily the line was short at the J-Pop Summit, so we got our treats right away!

hello kitty donutsA close-up of the Hello Kitty donuts. So kawaii!! 

One of the parts I was really looking forward to was the recreated ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) where we could watch videos about different regions in Japan. It turned out to be a not-so-subtle commercial for each of the ryokan, so it was a little disappointing in that respect.

But they did have yukata (light cotton kimono) that we got to put on—they even had several staff members on hand to make sure we were wearing them properly. Wearing a yukata and going to a matsuri (festival) is a typical summertime activity in Japan, so it was fun to get to experience that here in San Francisco!

eva and melissa in yukata

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We also had the opportunity to meet two Japanese pop stars, Yana and Kiku, whose celebrity was unfortunately a little lost on us. They were really cute, though!

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Wandering around the large hall in Fort Mason was a bit disorienting. There were all sorts of unusual sights and sounds, like this giant head, a woman in a bathtub with a lot of cash, and various people doing cosplay.

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It was a colorful, fun way to spend the day, and I look forward to attending again next year!

How Easy Is It to Get Around Tokyo If You Don’t Speak Japanese?

Planning a visit to Tokyo? Lucky you! It’s one of the most exciting, bustling, non-stop cities I’ve had the pleasure of living in. It’s also astounding that for such a large city (about 12 million people in Tokyo proper), it’s so easy to navigate, clean, and super safe.

People often wonder about what it will be like to get around Tokyo if you don’t speak Japanese. In some ways, it can be a challenge. I mean, have you SEEN the Tokyo subway map?

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But seriously, the public transportation system is great (once you get used to it).

I highly recommend using a site like Jorudan to help you plan your routes. There are often multiple ways to get from point A to point B, but not all routes are created equal. Some stations are HUGE and you’d be much better off taking the train another stop or two and transferring at a smaller station instead.

Most stations have signs in English, and many of the major lines also provide verbal and visual announcements in English, too.

The only slight problem you might encounter is that sometimes the station maps are only in Japanese. (Especially at smaller stations on non-major lines.) This can make it a challenge if you don’t know the kanji (Chinese characters) for the station you’re trying to get to. Luckily you can usually find small paper maps that have the station names in English. Once you find one of those, I highly recommend treating it like a prized possession and guarding it with your life!

Another issue that I encountered in my early days in Tokyo was wrapping my head around all the different transportation lines. In addition to the Tokyo Metro (subway) and the JR lines, there are private lines like the Tokyu line, Odakyu line, and the Keio line (to name just a few!).

The good news is that if you’re staying in a central neighborhood and visiting well-known tourist destinations, you probably won’t need to worry about this too much. And if you get a Suica or Pasmo card, you can just load it with money and go between most of the lines without buying a separate ticket.

I’ve talked a lot about transportation so far, but what if you’re walking around and trying to find a particular restaurant, shop, or museum?

In my experience, this is one of the most challenging aspects of finding your way around Tokyo. Written addresses are really not that helpful, mainly because most streets don’t have names and the numbers don’t follow a sequential pattern. So you might see building 2 next to building 101 next to building 58—all on a street with no name!

Why is everything so confusing? My favorite theory is that this is done intentionally.

Japan is a notoriously crowded country, and people’s personal space is constantly invaded on the train, in elevators, and in public. So people find whatever ways they can to create solace and privacy.

This is why, for example, many people conceal whatever book they’re reading with a paper cover, place reflective stickers over their cell phone screens, and use the “otohime” (sound princess) feature in public toilets (I’ll definitely need to come back to that in a future post!).

Basically, the only way you can find a Japanese residence is if someone escorts you there. Many businesses have detailed maps which they’ll send to customers once they make an appointment.

One of my first memories of Tokyo was when I was attempting to find the Cyberdog store in Harajuku (which has since closed). I wandered around those back streets in Harajuku for hours trying to find the store. I had the address, which I’d show to anyone I could find, and none of the other shoppers had any idea where it was. Finally, one of the shop assistants at another store called them for me and was able to point me most of the way there. When I finally found the store, it was SUCH an accomplishment!

I learned that the best way to find things in Tokyo is to just wander around and make spontaneous discoveries (rather than to try to find specific places).

When I left Japan in 2011, Google Maps was not really prevalent (or comprehensive) but in the years since then, it’s become much more common. This means that the days of wandering around forever and relying on detailed maps from your host may be coming to a close.

I hope that you won’t rely exclusively on Google maps, though. Let yourself wander around a bit and get lost. You never know what you’ll discover.

So will you be able to get around Tokyo if you don’t speak Japanese? Yes. And you will most likely find much more than you ever imagined.