Theatrics of Japanese Noh, Kabuki, and the mixed-bathing Onsen

January 11, 2012 § 22 Comments

Elusive, enigmatic, and paradoxical, the Japanese konyoku onsen (混浴温泉), or nude mixed-bathing hot springs, is forbidding enough of access as to retain a quasi-mythical status – somewhere between the zebra and the unicorn – not only for foreigners but for Japanese as well. Information about mixed-bathing onsen is spotty even in the Internet age and often requires word-of-mouth or a personal guide (I presume the literature in Japanese is more extensive). Places that are said to allow mixed-sex bathing turn out not to when you arrive, while rumors swirl of countless onsen which do allow it but don’t advertise the fact; there are even onsen that allow guests to set the bathing rules during their stay. You may succeed in getting to one only to discover you are the sole patron, and by then what’s the point? If you’re traveling without Japanese help, you need to master the complicated travel routes and times, as most hot springs are located in rustic or mountainous retreats. If you want or need to stay the night in the onsen’s ryokan (tatami inn – there may not be any other accommodation nearby), you need to establish beforehand whether there are any vacancies. All this makes konyoku onsen hunting one of the more challenging of travel experiences, more akin to trekking in the Third World than in one of the world’s most developed countries. « Read the rest of this entry »

The Chinese-Japanese cultural chasm on display at Starbucks

January 1, 2012 § 12 Comments

Like street-side Parisian cafes, the Starbucks pictured above at Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, with its long counter and individual stools, is designed for people watching (photo courtesy of Yoshikazu Takada)

Apart from obvious differences in size and layout, all Starbucks are basically the same. On the surface this appears to be the case with the shops in China and Japan as well. The signature decor in various coffee tones, the blond-wood furniture, the usual line of mugs, thermoses and other paraphernalia – though the Japanese Starbucks offer a wider array of coffee-making devices, about which more later. Some shops come with national or ethnic flavors. The memorable Beijing Starbucks that opened across from People’s University in 1998 (one of the earliest Starbucks in China) featured Ming Dynasty-style hardwood furniture, until the busy shop was shut down ten years later when the space was bought out under shady circumstances. Local architects are designing some stunning new Starbucks in both China and Japan. These differences are “top-down” in that they are determined or encouraged by the corporation. But then on closer inspection the “bottom-up” differences start proliferating: the culturally contrasting styles of service and the highly varied purposes that bring customers to the store.

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