Travel & Culture

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Japanese culture and lifestyles through the eyes of NHK WORLD personalities

October 8, 2015


Robert Campbell / Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo

Robert specializes in Japanese literature, but he writes and speaks in the media on a wide range of cultural topics. On NHK WORLD, he hosts Booked for Japan and Face To Face.


One good way to spend an afternoon in Tokyo, after dropping by Ginza to shop ahead of the crowds and before dinner at that sushi shop you've marked off down the street from your hotel, is to take a stroll. Walk. Let the taxies flow by; forget your subway map. Put the guide book on the bed, tie up your sneakers, grab some cash and a camera (preferably pole-attached, with gps), leave the credit cards in your safe - and walk out. One of the wonders of this enormous city is how its side streets wind up and down, linked by lush green patches and dotted with old shrines and temples to remind you how the city, for nearly four hundred years, was built and then rebuilt. The best way to see the pale-ochre plastered wood, gray fired-clay roof tiles, and speckled oya tuff stone steps and walls that made up old Tokyo is to stroll around the neighborhoods, back away from the main streets and highways.

There are dozens of slopes called "Mount Fuji-view Hill" here, seven of which have even been designated, along with their neighborhoods, as culturally important landscapes by the Land, Infrastructure and Transportation Ministry. Skyscrapers may block a clear view of Fuji from some of them, but on a clear winter day from a high spot you can still see the tallest peak in Japan, covered in snow, nearly one hundred kilometers southwest from the capital's center. Long ago each of these hills would have a "Fuji-view teashop" somewhere near the top to cater to those who'd made the climb. These days, intrepid Tokyo strollers duck into a coffee shop for fresh-dripped, often house-ground hot or, in the summer, deep-roasted, icy-cold coffee.


Tokyo has upwards of seven thousand kissaten or coffee shops, most of which remain unfranchised and fiercely local (meaning that by the time you've visited one three times, you can order by asking for "itsumo no" ("the usual")) as the waiter/waitress hands you your warm oshibori towel. Small Japanese coffee shops serve great "morning service" breakfasts, a fixed menu consisting of thick white toast with melted butter, a small salad, boiled egg, some yogurt maybe, and of course individually-dripped coffee. Lunch might be curry rice or shrimp pilaf or "napolitan" spaghetti (heavy on the ketchup), followed by home-baked pies or cakes. Many customers choose their kissaten by the background music: jazz, classical, maybe old style Japanese torch songs (enka), always reflecting the taste of the man or woman behind the counter. Almost never are there photos or wax samples at the door: just plunge in and sit down wherever you like.


Back on the street after refreshments or a light meal, you might get lost navigating the far side of a winding hill. Before clicking on your Google Map, do try to ask someone to point in the right direction. People here are extremely kind to strangers, especially off the beaten path, before and after rush hours.

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Robert Campbell / Professor, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo

Robert Campbell, Ph.D., is a professor of Japanese literature in the Department of Comparative Literature and Culture, Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the University of Tokyo, Japan. Born in New York City, he studied in the Departments of Economics and Oriental Languages, University of California, and the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Graduate School of Fine Arts, Harvard University. Campbell moved to Japan to study Edo literature as a research student in Kyushu University, eventually joining that department as assistant professor, then moved on to the National Institute of Japanese Literature, Tokyo. He relocated to the University of Tokyo in 2000 and has taught there since as associate professor and professor.
Robert Campbell's research centers on the sinological literature, art, media and intellectual discourses of late Edo and early Meiji period Japan. Besides editing and contributing to numerous volumes on Japanese literature, art and drama, he is active in the Japanese media as television host, news commentator, newspaper columnist, book reviewer and radio personality.

Question How long have you been in Japan?
30 years
Question What was your original reason for coming to Japan?
In order to study Japanese literature
Question What's your favorite scenic spot in Japan?
The older residential neighborhoods southwest and west of central Tokyo.
Question What's the one thing that's essential to your life in Japan?
My Suica pass and a folding umbrella.
(Suica is a prepaid e-money card for mass transportation and shopping.)
Question What is your favorite Japanese word? Please briefly describe what it means in English.
"Itsumo no" means "the usual".
(When the customer orders their favorites at the café they frequently visit, they use this phrase.)


Booked for Japan

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