First Impressions of Japan

First Impressions of Japan

Below are some observations of what I found unusual or interesting about Japan from my visit there. I hope they entertain you and give you a glimpse of my experience in this wacky and wonderful country! If you’ve been to Japan and want to add anything to this list or share your own stories, please do in the comments section, I’d love to hear about it.

 
• People are really polite and go out of their way to be helpful, to the point where it can even become inconvenient, such as showing you how to get on a train you don’t want or directing you how to take the best photograph.
• If you ask for directions, you will probably be led in person right to your destination.
• Most people are very petite and it is rare to see someone slightly overweight, making it impossible to fit in as large westerners!
• There are vending machines absolutely everywhere, selling every kind of soft drink imaginable as well as beer, cigarettes, chocolate and even cooked food.
• The main train stations are massive, and we got lost more than once whilst trying to find the right exit.
• Each train station has its own little jingle which plays when a train arrives. Lots of these are from well known songs, and some can be quite majestic.
• In rural areas especially, there are lots of cyclists who never use the bike paths and choose to disturb pedestrian walkways. Instead of ringing the bell to ask you to move, they artfully weave in and out of the people who are walking.
• There is matcha tea flavoured everything!
• The toilets range from being very high tech (with self-opening, self-flushing, music playing and rinsing capabilities) to basic squat toilets. Sometimes in one bathroom there is a choice of both to suit what people are most comfortable with.
• Every street is lined with loads of cables and power lines, which make quite impressive silhouettes in the evening.
• Most things, such as shrines, shops and museums, close early around 4 or 5pm outside the city centre, making lazy lay-ins impossible.
• Except for in certain night-life areas, in the evenings the streets are completely silent and barely anyone is around.
• Women dress very fashionably – mostly in loose, plain clothing – and have immaculately clear skin.
• People can smoke in bars and drink on the street, which takes a while getting used to.
• People rarely talk on the train, but often have a nap instead. I also didn’t see anyone eat or drink at the station or on the trains.
• Of all the Japanese manners I learnt before arriving, very few were followed by modern Japanese people, such as not displaying public affection or ordering the same drink in the first round.
• If in doubt, nodding and smiling gets positive feedback in all social interactions even if you can’t say anything other than “sorry”, “please” and “thank you”.
• Despite there being no rubbish bins to be found, the streets are very clean and tidy. Our hosts were strict on waste disposal and it seems to be taken very seriously here.
• The rural landscape consists mainly of forested areas instead of the meadows, farmland and shrubbery of the UK countryside. It is very beautiful.
• People are obsessed with cute animals here since pet ownership isn’t as commonplace – meaning cat, hedgehog and owl cafes are common! However animal welfare for both pets and livestock is questionable…
• Every single temple and castle we visited had been burnt down due to lightning or war and rebuilt.
• Food is either soft, sticky or slimy. Finding hard food in a meal is a rare treasure!
• The Japanese diet relies heavily on rice, which constitutes for the bulk of both savoury and sweet food.
• Zebra crossings alert you that you may walk by playing various bird noises.
• Ponds often have thriving communities of terrapin and koi fish who beg for food by gathering under bridges and opening their mouths.
• You can buy a decent meal out for £7.
• As a hobby or treat, Japanese people hire traditional kimonos and accompanying outfits, and walk around pretty parks and temples in them taking selfies.
• Animals are huge, especially butterflies, wasps, fish, crows and ants. Strangely the cats are still skinny though.
• People seem to be quite pious and often visit shrines and temples to pray. There are all sorts of good luck charms you can buy from shrines to help with love, study, wealth, family and health.
• Nothing is done by halves in Japan, and everything from adverts to shop signs to themed cafes are taken to the extreme by being loud, bold and obvious at all times!

 

Read more about my travel experiences such as what you come to appreciate living in Cambodia, or Misa’s story of starting a business as a young Cambodian woman in rural Battambang.

 

Thanks for reading!

Business and Art Working as One: the Echo Exhibition

Business and Art Working as One: the Echo Exhibition

Experiencing the Echo Exhibition opening night really showed me how businesses of any specialty can support and progress the artistic world, and I think that it is a fantastic blueprint for the future of commercial fine art. Here is my experience of the fantastic Echo Exhibition that opened last night…

About the exhibition

The exhibition is homed in, and supported by, Prettys – a solicitor firm in Ipswich ran by people with genuine enthusiasm towards the arts. Prettys host a biannual exhibition, where they basically deck out their lovely office space with artwork from University of Suffolk artists and invite lots of people from the local area to see it on the opening night.

Luckily for us, this year the work featured in the exhibition was exclusively from the Waterfront Studios – which is a space for artist alumni of the University of Suffolk to rent inexpensive studio spaces within the university.

Each year the role of curator changes, and this time the Echo Exhibtion was curated by the lovely Sarah Bale and Julie Dodds, who share a studio space at Waterfront Studios. They were responsible for selecting and collecting work and installing the two story labyrinth of Prettys’ office with 24 artworks – a mammoth task which they managed to accomplish with tireless enthusiasm and energy.

Where do I come in?

Although I don’t personally rent a studio space (although I’m looking forward to that point in the future!) I happily fell into the exhibition since I work for a creative company called Pop My Mind which is based in the Waterfront Studios. We work in a shared office space in the middle of the artists, meaning we are constantly met with the hammering and drilling noises of Carlos’ jewelry making (the ‘Mad Dentist’ as we like to call him), the cheerful conversations of Sarah and Julie from the corner, and the smell of turps from Adam’s paintings in progress. It’s a really awesome space to work in (even though I can get easily distracted from all the exciting things happening around us) and since my co-workers and I are also artists, the curators kindly included our work!

I entered four artworks into the exhibition which were included: three portraiture ink paintings and one illustrative piece. Plus I also snuck in another ink painting when Sarah and Julie were scavenging for more artwork on the day of the opening night, since Prettys opened up another room for them to fill!

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Me and one of my pieces which was included in the exhibition, called Empty Tension

The private view

The opening night drew in loads of interesting people from the local area, including Prettys staff and contacts, friends and family of the artists, creative people from around Ipswich, and even the Major of Ipswich! There was a lovely buzzing atmosphere as people discussed the artwork and their connection to the event, and despite the amount of rooms which the work was spread between, there were many tight squeezes through doorways and quite a queue at the buffet table.

It was lovely to see my pieces integrated into the exhibition among some outstanding work from the Waterfront Studios artists. There was such varied and high quality work throughout the exhibition, and I found it especially nice to see people’s artwork which I had seen in-the-making now finished and out of the studio context. Having them displayed on walls around the office really brought them to life: Sarah and Julie did an amazing job of matching complementing artworks together and arranging the exhibition so that it seemed both professional and homely.

Ten pieces of works were sold that evening alone, the first one being a stunning portrait of Frida Kahlo by portrait artist Adam Riches (see it on Twitter here). My co-workers and I actually bet on Adam that he would be the first to win – which obviously means we have excellent taste! A few artists also got commissioned that night from visitors of the exhibition looking to furnish their lobbies with some fine art.

A huge congratulations to my boss Oliver Squirrell too, who won the ‘Best in Show’ award for his photographic print (below). This is an award with a paid prize, given out twice a year by Prettys Solicitors to the favourite piece of artwork as selected by their staff.

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Oliver aside his winning piece

How this benefits the artists

As an artist, one of the key things to grow (both in terms of developing your practice and your creative career) is through exhibition exposure. Being involved in exhibitions like the Echo Exhibition is a really valuable experience which connects you to people in the community who you might not have the excuse to talk to much before – as well as a means to meet loads of other art lovers who may be interested in your work and want to support your progress. The biannual opening event by Prettys is looked forward to by lots of people in Ipswich – after all, who doesn’t want to spend an evening drinking wine and looking at artwork?

This valuable exposure of your pieces to like-minded people, and space to mingle and chat, is really what makes exhibiting work in professional ground exhibitions so exciting! The award from Prettys is also a lovely added touch since it is a great way of rewarding an artist for their merit whether their piece is sold or not.

A win-win situation

In my opinion, getting the art world and the business world talking is very important. Being an artist is a not an easy profession or hobby – especially when trying to make a worthwhile living out of your creativity – and it can be difficult to get on the first stepping stone of your creative career without support from the community.

No matter what we do as our day jobs, we should all support the things we are passionate about wherever possible, which is just what Prettys has done. The office has now been furninshed with some diverse and skilful artwork for half a year, and the artists have had their work seen by loads of people and even sold due to this. This win-win situation is a fantastic way of making art relevant and commercially viable; I definitely think that other companies should follow their lead and bring the arts as a significant aspect to their business to improve their own workplace and the creative industries too.

To see some of my artwork, please see my Instagram, Facebook or Twitter for my current work!

Thanks for reading.

 

 

A Guide to Modern British Manners

A Guide to Modern British Manners

British etiquette is often difficult to understand and put into practise for people who have not spent long in Britain (and for a good portion of the British population too). However, being polite is important in any culture to communicate properly and to be able to get what you want without hassle. Although these manners are flexible and do not apply in more informal situations, they are still worth knowing for this reason.

I have written what I consider to be the important rules of politeness below. Hope you enjoy and feel free to give me your take on what British manners are in the comments below!

The Three Golden Rules

• Say the magic words. If you ask for anything, say “please”. If anyone gives you anything at all, whether it is your change, a cup of tea or a car, you must always say “thank you”. In British culture, you cannot say thank you too many times. Ideally you should be saying it before, during and after someone gives you something in order for the message to fully get across.
• Apologise. British people will apologise for the smallest thing, including for apologising too much. Sometimes, you say sorry not to acknowledge your own mistakes, but to acknowledge that someone else’s mistake is okay. For example if someone treads on your foot, you should say “sorry” to communicate “I acknowledge that you didn’t mean to hurt my toe, and I’m fine with that”.
• Don’t make a scene. Staying respectful and calm is an important part of fitting into British culture. People often comment that British people are more reserved than other cultures, and that’s mainly because talking loudly, squealing with laughter or arguing in public is seen as inconsiderate in the UK since it can bother other people around you.

Out and About

• Do not stare at people…unless you are having a conversation with them, in which case you should make eye contact when they are speaking.
• It is considered extremely rude to spit on the street, cough up phlegm, cough or sneeze on someone, and otherwise do something which could create mess or spread germs in public. Overall, personal hygiene is considered very important in Britain and being clean and presentable in public is essential to fit in.
• When on public transport with few seats left, it is polite to offer your seat to elderly people, or people with wheelchairs or babies, who would benefit from the seat more.
• It is polite to make room for other people. Being aware of your surroundings, and allowing for people to get passed you, is key to being the perfectly mannered person. For example, it is considered kind to hold the door for someone, to let other cars waiting at a junction onto the road, and to allow people to queue in front of you if their needs are greater than yours. Even the most subtle of movements to give other people more room will be noticed and appreciated by most British people!

How to treat strangers differs in different places in Britain – for example in the south strangers will rarely strike up a conversation with each other, whereas in the north chatting to people you don’t know on public transport is quite common. People in the countryside are also much friendlier than in cities. If you’re unsure, smile at someone and say hello, and allow them to make the next move.

Eating

Often these rules aren’t followed, especially when eating with peers. However if you’re in a fancy restaurant or with people you want to impress, sticking to these guidelines means you can’t go wrong:
• Use a knife in your right hand and a fork in your left for main meals, and a spoon in your right hand for pudding.
• Make as little noise as possible whilst eating, because is extremely annoying to British people when they can hear someone chew!
• Eat with your mouth closed. No-one wants to see your food after it has left your plate.
• Keep your elbows off the table (quite an old fashioned rule, but some people still follow it).
• When eating out, always try and pay for your meal. If someone offers to pay for your food, it is customary to have some back and forth conversation saying “I’ll pay”, “no don’t be silly”, “no I insist”, “well I am happy to contribute” etc. before someone submits. This is because often British people will offer to pay for someone else’s meal out of instinct when they don’t actually want to – this dialogue is essential for figuring out whether they are making a genuine offer or not.
• Get the waiters’ attention my making eye contact – not by waving your hand around. In Britain it is polite and expected to treat restaurant staff as equals, not as servants.
• Tipping. It is not essential to tip in the UK, although if you’re eating in a nice restaurant it is polite to give the waiter / waitress 10% of your meal price, which is usually a pound or two per person. If you are eating out around the Christmas period, it is nice to tip more, since these people are giving up their holidays to earn money.

Visiting Someone’s Home

Adults in Britain will often socialise by going to each others’ houses during an evening and having a meal there. I’m pretty sure that this kind of thing will apply to most cultures, but here’s a few tips for what to do in this situation in Britain:
• Bring something to the table. It is customary to bring a small gift for the host when visiting someone’s house. A good gift is food or drink that you can share around during the event, for example a bottle of wine or a box of chocolates. Note: the host will probably have cooked a dinner, so don’t bring something which would affect the main course.
• Take your shoes off when you’ve entered the house.
• Compliment their home – this is a natural kind thing to do when entering someone’s home, although the compliment obviously has to be genuine.
• Engage in conversation (don’t look at your phone for long periods of time).
• Help to clear the table, and if you’re feeling particularly polite offer to do the dishes.
• Don’t overstay your welcome. You have to realise that the host can’t go to bed before you leave! Don’t stay too late, and look out for clues that the host is tired or is hinting for you to leave.

General last pointers

• Never insult anyone. It is extremely rude and inconsiderate to point out someone’s flaws both to their face or behind their back in Britain. For example, you should never call someone fat, ugly, annoying or boring. British people are quite sensitive and will take these things very personally. Of course people still do insult others, but it is generally considered petty.
• Don’t ask personal questions. If you don’t know someone very well, don’t ask things such as what their age is, how much they weigh, how much they earn, or their opinions on politics. When you’re friends with someone, naturally the closer you are the more you share this kind of information.
• Listen during conversations. Don’t interrupt what someone’s saying, and ask the person you’re talking to questions, or as some people call it “passing the ball in conversation”. To talk about yourself for long periods of time if considered bad etiquette in British culture.

British manners, like in most cultures, comes from a combination of tradition, old superstitions and consideration for other people around you. They are not set in stone and are adapting all the time.

Please comment below if you think of any more manners to add to the list!

If you like learning about my take on manners, read the article I made on Cambodian Table Manners! If you want to read more about my thoughts on culture, I have written a few articles including one discussing selfie culture and its roots in Are Selfies Bad? and about cultural stereotyping in Susceptibility to Single Stories.

Thanks for reading.

Misa’s Story: Starting a Business in Rural Cambodia

Keo Misa is a charismatic 27 year old woman who has grown up in rural Banan and set up a professional shoe making business in her home town, Phnom Sampov, with her family. After meeting her in a cafe, she invited us to her house to see her shop and to have a chat about how she achieved success at such a young age.

 

The Road to Success

From childhood, right up until high school, Misa would help her mother prepare and sell soy milk at the market everyday in between her studies. It was essential for Misa to help her mother to generate income for the family: usually in Cambodia it is the head of the household, i.e. the father, who is mainly responsible for earning money. However due to various unfortunate circumstances, including neglect from Misa’s father, it was left to her, her mother Keo Kim, and her sister Tach Sarey, to support the family and each other.

Misa has mastered the English language despite limitations within the education system in rural areas of Cambodia, including Banan. She studied everyday for three hours at Phnom Sampov High School in order to get into her desired University course: Business Administration at Pannasastra University, from which she graduated in 2007. She continued her English studies throughout, and after, her degree. Misa recounted that her happiest memory was when she got a job at the University shortly after volunteering for the position. She continued to work there for another four years after graduating in various roles, before resining to begin her business.

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Some of the shoe designs in progress

The Tools of the Trade

It was Sarey, Misa’s sister who inspired the project when she returned from Thailand, having worked at a shoe factory there. They combined their knowledge of shoe making and business strategies to kick-start their business plan. They hired a professional trainer to show them how to make fashionable styles of shoe, including cowboy boots, despite his expensive commission costs, and imported the material from Thailand, which has superior quality compared to the material from Cambodia or Vietnam. 

Any business suffers from teething pains, however, and Misa’s was no exception. The accumulative cost of material, training, setting up the shop and hiring staff was very expensive, and loans from the bank have limits. For instance it might take 10’000 USD to take your business off the ground, but you might only be able to borrow $3’000 from the bank at a time. Luckily for Misa and her family, her mother Kim already had a successful side-business in alternative medicine. Using the money from that, as well as donations from Kim’s customers, they were able to generate enough income to launch the business.

The family also encountered other obstacles, such as fierce competition from other companies, and staff accepting bribes from customers in order to have quicker service, which Misa resolved by overseaing the transactions of the business.

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Misa outside her shop

Misa’s Advice for Aspiring Business Men and Women

Don’t copy from others – make your own decisions and form your own brand
Do what is good for other people – don’t make money at the expense of others, for instance giving your customers a low quality product for a high price
• Be honest and consider others when you’re competing with other rival businesses
Be honest with the people you work with – admit mistakes, and tell your co-workers if they have made a mistake too
If you want to do something, do it! Take the risk!
You can find Misa’s Shoe Shop, which opened in December 2015, on the road behind the Phnom Sampov Health Centre in Banan District, Battambang Province. Her mother’s alternative medicine business is also open every Wednesday and Thursday to customers. They are extremely hospitable people and welcome interested tourists and customers alike.

Congratulations Misa and good luck for the future!