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Seijin-shiki Part 1: Gaijin in Hakama


January 11th was 成人式 (seijin-shiki, Coming of Age Day) in Japan – to honor and celebrate everyone who has become an adult (turned 20) in the previous year. This is a holiday and event of epic proportions in Japan – probably the biggest milestone in your life aside from your wedding day.

Girls dress up in full kimonos, get their hair and makeup done, take professional photographs, and go to the ceremony itself – held locally, and packed full of fresh new adults only.

The amount of money, energy, and general stress devoted to this day is astounding.

But it seems roughly equivalent to prom.

I never thought I’d attend my own seijin-shiki. But when emailing my host mom about my Japan trip plans, she mentioned that if I stayed until the 11th I would be able to participate in seijin-shiki, and go to the first high school reunion my class in Japan would have. As an exchange student, I was put in a class with students about a year younger than me. So although I am actually 21 and thus missed my own Coming of Age Day by a year, my Japan trip happened to line up exactly with the seijin-shiki of every single person I know in Japan. Pretty lucky, huh?

But what the hell was I going to wear?!

Girls wear furisode, a kind of kimono with really long sleeves, that their mom or some other relative happens to have lying around – not really an option for me. The popular alternative for kimono-less families is to rent one. This costs upwards of ¥30,000, or $350+. Also, since all the upcoming 20-year-olds know this day is on its way, people reserve their kimonos up to a year in advance. 2 weeks ahead of time is really pushing it for a kimono rental, and even if we found one it would probably cost an arm and a leg.


However, when I showed up to Yuka’s house on my first day in Japan, we started talking about the festival and what I would wear. It turns out Yuka’s mom purchased a hakama she found on sale a while back, for her two daughters’ future college graduation ceremonies (hakama are worn at graduation, apparently). She said I could borrow it, if I was cool with showing up in a hakama instead of a kimono.


We discussed briefly whether the hakama would be too weird and that I’d stick out, but guess what — I’m already a gaijin, so I already stick out. Plus, I’m not actually the correct age for seijin-shiki (since I’m no longer 20), so effectively I am more like a graduate of this whole seijin business anyway. Also, the hakama was purple. Totally fabulous!

So I took the hakama with me when I moved from Yuka’s house to my previous host family.

Now the only problem is, who’s gonna dress me up in said hakama on January 11?

Most girls go to a salon to get their hair and makeup done and kimono put on. This, like the kimono rental itself, gets pricey. Noriko, my host sister, was getting hers done at the hotel where the high school reunion would be held, and she was getting her professional pictures taken there too. But again, most salons were totally booked at this point, and asking a week beforehand whether a salon had an opening at 10 am on seijin day was laughable.

My host mom, however, used her host mom superpowers and called up a bunch of local places. A little old shop by the name of Midori-san had an opening! And they would do my hair, makeup, and dress me up for the reasonable price of ¥10,000 (just over $100). And I’m not kidding, this is a good deal. Also, Midori-san was not fazed by the idea of putting on a hakama instead of a kimono.

The day before seijin-shiki, right after I got my haircut, host mom took me to Midori-san to do a sort of pre-seijin-shiki consultation. We brought the hakama and all the relevant hair accessories. The lady at Midori-san who would be dressing me checked to make sure we had all the necessary pieces, and talk about when I would come by tomorrow. She did the obligatory “oh it’s so cool you know Japanese and are here and can go to seijin-shiki” conversation with me, and remarked about how nice the hakama was with host mom. At some point, Midori-san kinda looked at me and was like “your eyebrows. We need to fix them.”

“Um okay then, go for it,” I said.

At this point, host mom was alarmed that I was so quick to entrust the shape of my eyebrows to this lady I’d met less than 10 minutes before, and I think she didn’t quite know whether I understood what was going on. But actually, I was fully aware of what was going on, and told host mom it was cool. She had to go pick up obaachan from badminton practice, and she left me alone with the lady who was after my eyebrows.

I was expecting some waxing or plucking or something… instead, she whipped out a razor and started scraping away at the tops and bottoms of my eyebrows. It was mildly terrifying, but I said nothing, rolled with it, and 10 minutes later came out with eyebrows that were for once, a reasonable thickness.

Host mom showed up with obaachan and seemed a little too shocked that my eyebrows turned out okay. Obaachan approved too, and we went on our way.

The next day, I showed up at 10 am to get dressed up and dolled up for the big day. Noriko was off at the hotel getting dressed, and host mom managed to schedule this day so that everyone’s appointments lined up perfectly.

I brought hairstyle photos I’d copied from a kimono-hairstyle magazine I’d seen at Noriko’s pre-seijin-shiki consultation (does this thing have a name??) the week before. Make-up, then hair, then sticking a bunch of hair ornaments in hair plus an unhealthy amount of hairspray, then hakama time. The result of an hour’s worth of beautifying work (photo taken in Midori-san’s shop).


Here’s the obasan responsible for my hair, hakama, and eyebrows

The girl who did my makeup

And detailed hair shots (taken later, at the reunion):

From the back

Right side – about 3 hair ornaments are visible

Left side – the other 2 ornaments visible

Alright, now I was dressed and ready for action. The day had only begun. Festivals and reunions to attend, and I had to meet up with Noriko. I handed Midori-san a crispy ¥10,000 bill, said my arigatous, and jumped into the car (very gracefully and ladylike, of course) with host mom, ojiichan and obaachan, and headed towards the hotel in Kobe to meet Noriko, who was just about to emerge from her similar (but more extensive) beautification process, a beautiful, breathing-and-walking-impaired-by-kimono, butterfly.

To be continued…


College and Revenge in Kyoto


My host sister Noriko goes to college in Kyoto. This is a whopping 2.5 hour each way commute from home, so she spents 5 hours a school day going to/from class. Some days, like last Friday, she only has a single, 1.5 hour lecture.

Makes me feel pretty guilty for sometimes skipping class when it’s a 5 minute walk away from my apartment.

Luckily, she’ll move to Kyoto in the spring so all this commuting can stop and she doesn’t have to leave parties at 8 pm in order to make the last train home.

Anyway, I got to go with her to school on Friday, and since she only had one class, I would sit in on it, eat lunch with her and her friends, and then spend the day with Noriko in Kyoto. Woo!

We left the house around 8 am. Bus to the train station, a long train ride involving one changing-of-trains (so you can’t sleep the whole way), and an easy walk up a hill at the very end. We made it to class with 10 minutes to spare and I met Noriko’s friend Aya, who was in the same class, some Greek/Roman Mythology lecture. Eventually class started and I recognized a lot of katakana-ized names like Romulus & Remus and Agamemnon. But I didn’t really have the patience or interest in the subject matter to pay attention, so instead I looked around the room, and wrote notes on what blog posts I needed to write still (I kid you not!)

I noticed that this lecture was about 95% girls — exactly the opposite demographic of CS classes I am used to (woo humanities!)

I also spent a lot of the class period being tired and wishing that the hot cafe-au-lait-in-a-can I had bought from the vending machine 10 minutes earlier was much bigger. Sleep deprivation + already being exhausted from the journey to school left me sleepy. And really really thankful for my utter lack of commute to school.

At last the class ended, and Noriko, Aya and I met up with their other friends in the cafeteria/store where everyone bought random lunch items like instant cup noodle soup or an-pan, etc. I bought some soup and also ate this satsuma-imo (sweet potato) Noriko’s mom had given me that morning. I do love imo, but I felt a little overly rustic eating a whole potato in the middle of this very rural school on the outskirts of Kyoto.

Once we had bought our items, we went to this other building that had a sort of stadium seating area with no tables, and an upstairs, where Noriko’s friends were all sitting on the floor. I’m not sure what the intended purpose of the room was, because it wasn’t quite an auditorium, but it didn’t seem like it was to be used for eating either.

This is where i discovered that Noriko’s friends are awesome. I was actually able to follow most of the 1000-miles-a-minute-dirty-talking-Kansai-ben conversations (hooray!) Of course, dudes acting stupid yet hilarious really needs no translation anyway.

Acchan and Chi-kun showing off their socks

Acchan 近い!!

Aya and Acchan


Nao-chan & more friends

Afterwards, Noriko and I left for Kyoto shopping! On the way we looked through a guidebook to figure out what temple/famous traditional Kyoto thing we wanted to go see. I decided on Byoudouin, which is apparently the place on the back of the 10-yen coin, and also a place I haven’t been yet (kinkakuji: check, Kiyomi: check… needed something new) First we shopped for a few things I needed from Kyoto (a great place to buy tsugegushi, or boxwood combs, in case you were wondering. Also tons of traditional Japanese-looking stuff is sold for decent prices). Then we headed to Uji to see Byoudouin, which took a while because it’s pretty far away from the part of Kyoto we were in.

Scenery leaving school

Big staircase in the inaka

When we arrived, I wanted to have the all-too-necessary matcha parfait (Kyoto is pretty well known for these, and they’re DELICIOUS). We went to one store and they were closing. CLOSING!? It was barely 4:30 pm. Then we looked in the guidebook and found out that Byoudouin also closes at 4:30 pm during the winter. FAIL.

So now we were effectively in the middle of podunk Kyoto with nothing to do and all the parfait places closing. We found one that had JUST closed but conveniently turns into a bar at night, so we begged a bit and they decided to make parfaits for us. HOORAY! We were also the only customers.

Parfait of yumminess

Lotsa pretty sake bottles at the bar

Still feeling rather stupid, we went back to Kyoto station, shopped a bit, bought some pickles and Yatsuhashi (Japanese sweets local to Kyoto), and had some okonomiyaki and takoyaki before starting the 2.5 hour journey home.

Still, note to self: don’t go sightseeing in Kyoto in the winter late in the afternoon. Or better yet, check the hours of the place you are going! I wasn’t too torn up about it because I still had a fun day and got to meet her friends and eat my long-awaited parfait, but Noriko promised me that next time I come visit we’ll go and we’ll do it RIGHT this time. She calls this “Kyoto revenge.”

I am totally looking forward to getting revenge on Kyoto. *shakes fist*


There’s a first time for everything in Osaka


With all the girly hangouts in Sannomiya, enough was enough with Kobe. By January 7th, I was ready for some hardcore Osaka-ing. I told my friend Takashi to leave the whole day open, since I know he is also of the opinion that Osaka is rockin’. He’s actually studying abroad in America this year, but my plans to meet him in the states fell through and it ended up being easier to align my trip to Japan with his.

Of course, now that I had moved to the Uetani household, Osaka was a good two hours away. So we made plans to meet at noon, which meant I left the house at 10. Really only an hour and a half is really necessary, but it depends on how the trains line up etc. and since Takashi lost his cell phone, if he didn’t show I would have no way of contacting him. This meant that me being late would be kinda problematic.

I also wanted to arrive early because while in Japan, I reverted back to super-on-time-all-the-time Japan mode. Those of you who know me in America probably know I regularly show up minutes or hours late to things I intend on going to (meetings, classes, movies, parties, etc.) But here, being even two minutes late is still considered a HUGE DEAL and I’d actually rather just be early than deal with the two-minutes-late consequences. Heads roll.


So I stood there at our designated meeting spot in the train station, listening to This American Life for a while (I have had so much bonding time with Ira Glass on this trip) until Takashi showed up and we went and grabbed some Ramen at a nearby restaurant. Then we hopped on a train since I said I wanted to go shopping in Shinsaibashi (since I had been there once before and had great shopping success). I found a skirt. and some warm (and fuzzy) items at uni-qlo.

We walked aimlessly for a bit, and found Namba, where we consumed some delicious takoyaki and took a picture with that famous clown dude…





Then Takashi wanted to go to Nihon-bashi to look at cameras (Nihon-bashi is the Akihabara of Osaka) so we walked over.

I had forgotten how close everything is in Osaka.

Yes, iPhones really do cost 0 yen in Japan.

After camera inspection was done in Nihon-bashi, we were mid-conversation about maid cafes (which are rather plentiful in Nihon-bashi, as in Akiba). I said I’d never actually been inside one. Takashi was far too surprised at this fact (who the hell was I going to go with?? If I’d been to one before, he would have been there!!) So we toyed with the idea of going to one until I somewhat insisted that we did, and that I’d buy him his coffee or whatever (maid cafes are expensive).

With a random maid cafe worker

Maids & yellow submarine

We picked a maid cafe that was somewhat visible from the street, which may have been part of our problem — this maid cafe was NOT hardcore at all. Yeah, the waitresses were dressed up in maid outfits and there were little bells on the table and lace everywhere, but they didn’t do anything special (Takashi spoke of song & dance routines, and much more lavish vocabulary when the waitresses take your order in a Tokyo one he went to with his friends). In fact, most of the clientele were rather normal at all. The lonely おっさん (creepy old men) demographic was a little high I guess, but there were also high schoolers, and other relatively normal people. I was a bit underwhelmed.

I was surprised to see how clean the whole cafe was. Duh, maid cafes are totally clean, said Takashi.

He had cheesecake, I had ice coffee (at which point I surprised HIM by pointing out that we don’t really have iced coffee in America, which he had not noticed). We paid the ridiculous prices for our food, and then left.

This was the first of many adventures that day in Osaka that were firsts, despite the fact that a lot of time was spent in places where I have been one or more times before. I shall label them with 初, the Japanese word for “first.” And that was:

初 Maid Cafe!

At this point we realized that we hadn’t yet been to Ame-mura today! So we walked over there and first stopped by the Apple store at the corner leading into Ame-mura.

I’d never been in that Apple store, but as many Apple stores are, it was a happy magical wonderland. I found an iPod and cranked up the MGMT as I watched the slightly-hipster Japanese Apple dudes talk to customers. I had a long-ish conversation with one of the dudes at the genius bar (or whatever it’s called) about macbook airline chargers. I did not buy one, as it cost even more there than in America (jeez). On the one hand, I don’t think it’s really worth the $50 unless I make this America/Japan commute a regular thing, especially since I am not convinced charging is possible on enough different airlines. On the other hand, I spent more than that amount on socks alone on this trip to Japan. (But socks are important.)

After leaving the Apple store we finally arrived at the other, more magical playground: Ame-Mura. We shopped for some hip dude-clothing (which covers about 80% of stores in Ame-mura) and then Takashi insisted we stop for an ice hot dog. Three years ago, I was somewhat disgusted by this idea and stood there skeptically while he consumed this seemingly-bogus snack. This time though, I decided to give it a shot, and we entered the tiny, cramped shop that was roughly the size of a college apartment living room, and just as dirty. The walls were lined with hundreds of photos of celebrities who stopped here to eat ice-dogs — I guess this is the only place in Japan that does this, so it’s quite a delicacy when you’re in Osaka (???) Despite the grungy American-city-replica vibe of Ame-mura, our ice dogs were served on adorable little trays you would expect to receive green tea and some mochi-like snack on and a little toothpick/mini-knife which with to eat it.

But instead, it was my…

初 Ice Dog!


And it was AMAZING.

The ice cream is just your classic vanilla soft-serve. But the secret is the bun. It’s fluffy and extremely sweet, not too soft or chewy but not at all crunchy, and warm. The contrast with the cold/sweet ice cream is perfect and whoever thought this up is a GENIUS.


I wanted to go to a particular store I’d been to 3 years ago where I bought a ton of socks (and everything costs 300 yen or less). However, we went to the same spot and it appeared to be closing down, or a different store that was also closing down. All old crappy things, and no socks.

At this point we had to decide whether to stay in Osaka or to go to this awesome spot Takashi knew of that had good views, etc. of the Kansai area. However, that required a car, and to go drive and come back to Sannomiya before 10:30 when the last bus I could take home was. It was gonna be tight, so we just stayed in Umeda instead.

Let’s go to HEP! We said (although I’d been there just days before… HEP is still fun). We walked over to HEP. And we saw… it was CLOSED!!

初 HEP being closed!

How the hell can HEP be closed??? I guess since they had sales going on all through new years (the normal days off) that they were taking a day off now. But it was so sad.

Earlier we had passed by a pachinko place and it was revealed that I had never done pachinko. Again, like with maid cafes, Takashi was in shock and awe. Find then, let’s go.

初 Pachinko!

We found a pachinko place (really not a difficult task if you’re in…Japan). I spent 1000 yen to see little metal balls fall down and that’s about it. Wow, I really don’t get what the fun part of pachinko is. Plus, the whole incredibly noisy atmosphere of pachiko places makes it completely impossible to whine at my friend that I don’t get why this would be fun. Whatever, pachinko.

I was ready for something that I knew would be fun: purikura. Yes I had taken it like 6 other times so far on this trip, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need to do purikura. We wandered for a while, looking for a purikura place, but found none. NO PURIKURA!? Could this be possible?! Normally when hanging out with people you can’t AVOID the purikura places left and right. This was:

初 difficulty finding purikura!

It was incredibly disappointing. We went to Yodobashi camera so Takashi could look at yet more cameras. I whipped out my rental cell phone and did some internet research on purikura places in Umeda. I found a place that someone claimed to have taken purikura as recently as 12/19/09, so I figured this place still existed. Takashi knew vaguely where that would be, so we headed over and saw several arcades that had signs out saying specifically there WAS NO PURIKURA.

Could this be the END OF PURIKURA?!

Finally we found a place, but it barely had 3 machines, and no scissors. Ummm… fail? I’m not claiming to be an expert on purikura economics, but as far as I can tell the only cost involved would be the purchasing cost of the machine, and then power to leave the damn thing on, while you collect 400 yen a pop from groups of girls all day and all night long. What gives, Osaka?



With 2 hours or so to kill before I needed to go home, Takashi was yet again disappointed in my lack of experience in potential places-to-spend-money in Japan; not only had I never gone to Maid Cafes or Pachinko before today, but I’d never been to an izakaya (a Japanese bar). OH MY GOD!! This doesn’t seem that surprising… as I don’t think most nanjo girls were going bar-hopping in high school (since we weren’t even allowed to take purikura in our uniforms or go to KARAOKE, period). Actually, scratch that — I’m sure some girls were, but I was not friends with those kids. The orchestra kids are not really the rowdy type.

初 Izakaya!

The izakaya we stopped in was near the purikura place. We ordered a few random foods including the ever-chewy cheese-mochi, and some squid thing. The best thing about this place was the drink menu:


When I pointed this out, Takashi insisted that we needed to tell the izakaya that it’s wrong. In fact, that’s the usual response to Engrish, that *someone needs to tell them*. But I’m not sure it’s worth it even for them to change their menus, since I am really the only demographic who would notice. Takashi’s english is on the better end of people in Osaka, and I doubt the 4 other foreigners who may potentially ever visit that bar will care either.

Also, Engrish is funny.

Had my 初 yogurt-drink (which was quite good), then said goodbye to Takashi and headed west, where I bought my 初 coffee-pan (like an-pan but coffee-related sweet things are inside… delicious) and hopped on the fastest train back to Kobe I could find. Arrived home like 2 hours later.

Some final impressions on Osaka: it’s changing. The lack of purikura was kind of astounding, and even some of the shoutengai (shopping streets) were kinda lonely. On the other hand, there’s tons of construction going on around Umeda station, with several new (large) buildings and hotels. Osaka is just kinda different from how I remember in a way Kobe is not.

But at least the ice dog business seems to be relatively stable! It’s a snack I plan to count on for years to come.