Shopping and shop clerks in Japan

(Edit: I hate it when posts decide to delete everything I say.)

The shopping culture I’m familiar with in the United States is fairly laid-back in terms of customer service. On an average day when you walk into a shop, particularly a small one, you get greeted like this:

Staff: Hi, how you doing today?
You: Fine!
Staff: Great, well if ya need anything just let us know.
You: Okay!
Staff: *Promptly disappears until you need to buy something*

So imagine my surprise the first time I walked into a clothing shop here in Japan and was greeted like this:

Staff: Welcome to our store!
Me: Uh, thanks? *Starts browsing*
Staff: *Sidles up to me* Are you looking for this season’s t-shirts?
Me: I’m just browsing, thanks.
Staff: Well, that shirt you’re holding now would look cute on you! Want to try it on?
Me: Um.
Staff: Just come this way, please. *Drags me to a fitting room, all smiles*
Me: *Goes along with it* I’m not sure if-
Staff: *Shoves me in, closes curtain, promptly three seconds later* How is it? Does it fit?
Me: Hold your horses-
Staff: Let me get you another shirt with a similar style you’d like!

And so on.

Being followed around a shop is something that I am very unused to. I associate it with one of two things: classy shops, or staff thinking I’m about to rob their store.

It’s not only clothing stores that do this, however; as you walk through Japan you’ll be surrounded by shop clerks determined to encourage you to buy something from them. Restaurants will make their staff stand outside and call out to couples and families who walk past. Contact lenses shops will hand out free packets of tissues with little advertisements in them showing you how to get to their store.

Neither style of running a store is bad; the former is nice for those who like to browse in peace. The latter is convenient if you have something specific in mind to buy that day. The casual feeling of the first style can make you feel ignored if the staff member in question goes off to play on their phone rather than help you; the second style can make you feel overwhelmed and for some of us, that can mean being guilted into buying something we didn’t want or need.

So to those who are coming to Japan who are used to a more relaxed means of sales in stores, keep in mind when you go to your souvenir shops or restaurants that you may well be pushed out of your comfort zone. Even a well-timed, “I’m fine, just browsing,” might be ignored.

But why? Why so pushy in the first place?

There’s a concept in Japan known as omotenashi (おもてなし). It loosely translates to “Japanese hospitality”. The basic idea is to be able to read between the lines of any given interaction with the hope that it will lead you to providing better service to a guest or customer. This often is shown in the way that hair salon workers will follow you out after you’ve had your hair cut to thank you, bowing all the way. Another example would be how visiting someone’s home will end up with them insisting they have nothing special to offer you while pouring a cup of expensive tea reserved just for guests.

But omotenashi goes deeper than merely providing thorough customer care; indeed, many times the provider of this hospitality is determined to give it before the guest or customer realizes they want it. So staff will alert you to deals on clothing the instant you show the slightest interest in their products. If you’re a foreigner, you may be asked to show your passport in some shops in order to get a discount on goods before you even have any goods in hand to purchase.

It can all be a little overwhelming; sometimes I have to brace myself when walking into a shop because I know the staff will try to push additional things on me and I only want to buy one particular item. Keep this in mind, and take your time when going through stores; the smarter shops will take the hint after a while. And if any of it makes you uncomfortable like it does me, you always have the option to turn heel and find another place to buy your stuff.

One thing I’ve noticed is that bigger places like AEON Mall tends to be better about leaving you to shop in peace, so look around and find a shopping experience that suits you.

What’s with Japan and flowers?

Who here is familiar with cherry blossoms? Everyone? And we’re all aware of which country often gets associated with cherry blossoms, right? Cool.

Yes, cherry blossoms are a big thing here in Japan–scientists dedicate their time to figuring out when, exactly, the flowers will bloom in every specific part of Japan. They will also work out peak viewing times, so you can enjoy the blossoms/crowds at your discretion. People not only have parties underneath them but also splurge on seasonal goods– sakura flavored lattes from certain brand-name coffee shops, sakura flavored sodas, Japanese sweets shaped like flower petals, the whole nine yards.

Did you know that this doesn’t only happen with cherry blossoms, however?

Flowers are a big deal in Japan; up in Hokkaido, lavender is a huge hit in summer, drawing crowds galore to view fields of them. There are tulip festivals in the spring, and spider lily festivals in the fall.

Despite the fact that I know very little about flora (except that some of them are pretty and “I like the purple ones”), I’ve been drawn into this craze. Every spring, a friend and I make the trek out around Kansai to find the best spot to view wisteria, or in Japanese, fuji (ふじ).

Wisteria 2016 small
Spotted in Nara Park near Kasuga Shrine.

So what gives? Why do so many people rush all over Japan to get a glimpse of these flowers for the week or so they’re in peak bloom–fighting crowds, buying seasonal souvenirs and novelty items, attempting to snap selfies with these plants in the background? What’s wrong with going to a local botanical garden at your leisure and avoiding all the hassle?

…Well, nothing really, but keep this in mind:

With cherry blossoms, the flowers are seen as very transient. They bloom so briefly and are so susceptible to the lightest rain showers. People often view them as a symbol of a type of philosophy–life is short and bittersweet. Better to enjoy it while you can or, if you wish to go a more spiritual route on the matter, it’s better to learn that attachments to earthly things like this will only bring you suffering.

If you ask the average Japanese person why, of course, you’ll get a variety of much more mundane answers. “The flowers are beautiful!” “I go every year with my mom, so it’s kind of like a family tradition.” Then there’s my least favorite: “Well, Japan has four seasons.”

Siiiiiigh. Yes, yes it does.

At any rate, even if you’re not in Japan for cherry blossom season, keep an eye out for what flowers are blooming wherever you’re at. For example, during May, wisteria and roses are all over the place. If you google “Japan Rose Festival” you’ll find several sites in English offering various events, from Tokyo to Fukuyama.

Have you been to a flower festival in Japan? Or are you interested in checking any out?

Golden Week Highlights

Hello, internet,

The 29th 0f April to the 5th of May was my Golden Week this year. I opted to stay in town for the majority of it this time and enjoy the weather–it was gorgeous, going up into the 70s most days, and it was only rainy once! However, I did take a couple of day trips to get out of the city.

My first stop was a place called Amanohashidate (天橋立), a place up along the Tango Peninsula of Kyoto Prefecture. It takes about 2 to 2.5 hours by bus or train from Kyoto Station.

Amanohashidate Bridge small file
Shot of the Amanohashidate land bridge

Despite going up there on a holiday, I was pleasantly surprised to discover very few people were there! I was able to take my time wandering around. You arrive on one end of the land bridge shown above. The walk along it takes about an hour if you stop for pictures, longer if you decide to have a picnic (like I did). On either side of it, you can go up the mountain via cable car or chair lift (or I guess by hiking if you’re into that) to get a better view of the area.

Like many places in Japan, Amanohashidate has souvenir foods and drinks available in their shops available to try. In this case, they offer kuromame (黒豆) or Japanese black bean goods, including… tea. Yeah I will admit I passed on that one. I still think some fruit teas are strange, so can you blame me?

The one odd thing about the whole experience was while riding the chair lifts up one of the mountains. My friends and I were sitting back, enjoying the slow ascent to the top of the mountain, when we realized that the bird chirping we were hearing sounded… repetitive. And very regular. Yes, for whatever reason the local tourist companies had opted to include artificial bird chirps for our chair lift experience.

Drop your stuff amano small
This sign helpfully says “DON’T JUMP IF YOU DROP YOUR STUFF.”

I will offer a word of advice to those of you who opt to go to Amanohashidate on a hot day and notice the lovely little beaches on the land bridge or around it–yes, it’s beautiful, and yes, you will want to stick your feet in the water. I beg you not to because Here There Be Jellyfish, and they will sting you.

Moving on from that, my next big adventure was something that I’ve been waiting to do for several years: visit Himeji Castle (姫路城) in Hyogo Prefecture.

I arrived in Japan to work at my current job shortly after the castle renovations went underway, and while it was available to visit during that time, some parts of it were off-limits to visitors. I told myself that I would wait to see if I could go when everything was complete. This was the year, and so I kidnapped a friend and off we went to have a look at it.

Himeji castle head on small

The outside was impressive in the bright sunlight, and I was told that the appearance is very different from before–the roof tiles were once black, and the castle is now that much lighter in appearance for the renovations.

Now, unlike Amanohashidate, there were indeed crowds to endure for the castle, but we were  herded along at a fairly reasonable pace. One downside of Himeji was that while the outside was impressive, the inside was pretty empty. I thought it could use some exhibits, but the most we saw were some signs and a few posters put up that suggested we download an app on our phones to use around the castle that would explain what we were looking at. If anyone goes and tries this app, let me know if it’s any good–we didn’t think it would be worth it.

Now, what was worth it?

Himeji castle garden small

The Himeji castle gardens.

The castle itself costs about 1,000 yen to enter; if you opt to pay an additional 40 yen, you also get access to the nearby gardens. They were much less busy, much more green, and there were lots of neat flora to look at. Some fauna, as well, including a duck that kept hiding his face whenever my friend tried to take a picture of him.

Was it worth the wait? I think so. I got to see the castle and gardens in their entirety on a gorgeous day, after all. One word of advice though: do not expect garbage bins anywhere. Not even on the streets leading up to the castle. My friend and I both got bento lunch boxes to-go and had an awful time trying to get rid of them after we’d eaten!

The final “big” thing I did during my Golden Week was to see wisteria flowers in the botanical gardens, but I think that’s worth another post on its own, especially if you’re a flower fan.

If you had a Golden Week, how did you spend it? If you didn’t, how would you spend it?