From fake food to furry friends, you might be sur­prised at what the Ja­panese get up to in their spare time. Read on for in­ven­tive and in­no­va­tive ways to have fun, Tokyo style.

Schon! - - Big In Japan - Words / Ann Rus­sell

Shrouded in mys­tery, yet em­i­nently ac­ces­si­ble, Ja­pan is full of in­trigue and cul­tural wealth. An­cient cus­toms co-ex­ist hap­pily with the mod­ern tech­nol­ogy that has fa­cil­i­tated the na­tion’s growth into an eco­nomic and com­mer­cial su­per­power. A rich and var­ied pop cul­ture has evolved from the coun­try’s fu­tur­is­tic and tra­di­tional di­ver­sity, with young pro­fes­sion­als spend­ing week­ends at cat cafés or lo­cal karaoke par­ties. Free time is a limited com­mod­ity in Ja­pan and the lo­cals have be­come ex­perts at spot­ting new trends. Get ahead of the rest with Schön!’s guide to popular Ja­panese pas­times.

Cat Cafés

In Ja­pan cats are treated like roy­alty. The highly val­ued do­mes­tic pets are in­grained within Ja­panese popular cul­ture, in­flu­enc­ing ev­ery­thing from fash­ion to video games. This fas­ci­na­tion with fe­lines led to the launch of Ja­pan’s first cat café in 2004 to cater for cat lovers who couldn’t keep pets of their own, as most Ja­panese land­lords pro­hibit four-legged com­pan­ions. Nori­masa Hanada opened Tokyo’s first cat café to al­low city-dwellers to meet and care for home­less cats. Hanada’s Neko No Mise (Shop of Cats) was an im­me­di­ate hit with young women and 40 more cat cafés have since opened across Tokyo, where cus­tomers flock to en­joy a cup of tea and the com­pany of cats in com­fort­able sur­round­ings. Like most Ja­panese crazes, cat cafés have made their way to the UK, so it won’t be long be­fore we’re all re­lax­ing in the com­pany of a fe­line friend.

Karaoke

Karaoke (mean­ing ‘empty orches­tra’) is one of our favourite im­ports from the Land of the Ris­ing Sun, and syn­ony­mous with Ja­panese pop cul­ture. We all en­joy a good week­end sing-along, but for Ja­panese busi­ness­men this is a se­ri­ous and com­pet­i­tive sport. The prospect of em­bar­ras­ment fu­els hours of prac­tice, of­ten with a pro­fes­sional voice coach who pro­vides in­struc­tion on tone, pitch and per­for­mance. Karaoke clubs are a popular af­ter-hours hang­out where the ma­chines are much more ad­vanced than those in Europe. Singers are given points and scores based on the strength of their per­for­mance and even told how many calo­ries they’ve burned. In­ter­ac­tive karaoke rooms al­low groups of friends to sing to­gether and even rate each other’s skills. This is com­pet­i­tive singing at its best.

Ar­cade Gam­ing

Gam­ing is big busi­ness in Ja­pan, with soft­ware gi­ants like Nin­tendo and Sony us­ing their in­flu­ence to bankroll mul­ti­ple storey gam­ing cen­tres across the coun­try. Each floor is ded­i­cated to a spe­cific game genre, from fight­ing games to mu­si­cal games. It’s not un­com­mon for busi­ness men to visit ar­cades on their lunch break or in­dulge in an hour of gam­ing in be­tween meet­ings. Since it’s il­le­gal to gam­ble for money in Ja­pan, ar­cades of­ten set up ma­chines where vouch­ers and prizes can be won. A ver­sion of pin­ball gam­bling called Pachinko is so popular that many ar­cades across Tokyo are known as Pachinko Par­lours.

Ike­bana

A dis­ci­plined art form that re­flects Ja­panese at­ten­tion to min­i­mal­ism and con­struc­tion, Ike­bana is so much more than sim­ple flower ar­rang­ing. With a fo­cus on stems and leaves, it looks at the whole con­struc­tion of a flower, fo­cus­ing on line and shape to cre­ate a har­mo­nious ar­range­ment. Prac­ti­tion­ers fol­low cer­tain stan­dards and guide­lines within each project, build­ing around a tri­an­gle shape which is be­lieved to rep­re­sent heaven, earth and man and, in other ar­range­ments, sun, moon, and earth. Even the con­tainer it­self is im­por­tant, with artists cre­at­ing their own vases from clay or wood. The Ja­panese cel­e­brate their love for per­fectly formed plant life on midori no hi (Green­ery Day) on 4th May ev­ery year.

Fake Food Craft­ing

Fash­ion­ing fake food sounds less than ap­petis­ing, but this un­usual craze is a popular pas­time in Ja­pan. Most Ja­panese restau­rants dis­play fake food in their shop win­dows to mimic spe­cial­ties within that estab­lish­ment. Ev­ery­thing from udon noodles to fruit and ice cream can be faked and the craft it­self has gained a sig­nif­i­cant fol­low­ing. Across Tokyo, ‘faux food’ classes are over­sub­scribed as at­ten­dees find new and cre­ative ways to play with food­stuffs. One com­pany, Fake Food Hatanaka, has even turned fake food into jew­ellery, from ba­con rasher head­bands to chip ear­rings and pizza neck­laces. We’re off to fash­ion a ba­nana bracelet.

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