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Reinventing 'Work' in Japan through office Design

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The Job

One of my first big job assignments working for Brainlab, a cutting edge software developer improving neurosurgery and radiotherapy, was the creation of an office space in Tokyo, a complete makeover of the current layout. The CEO, Stefan Vilsmeier, laid the foundations for Brainlab when he was 17 and 27 years later is still its CEO. He is one of the most passionate and determined people I have met. "We are an amazing company and I want every aspect of our cooperation to reflect that," Stefan told me.

Left, the CEO of Brainlab Stefan Vilsmeier with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the opening ceremony of the new HQ in 2017

After a few weeks of research and preparation I came back to the HQ in Munich. I was gloomy, because I had to revise my initial estimate for the cost of the project. The idea was to create a jungle-like atmosphere with flexible seating, open space, natural light and large coffee area. It would cost around six times more than I had initially presented. The budget I suggested initially was not big enough for anything satisfactory. I was certain the project would be killed. I went the CEO's office and said: "So Stefan, the cost of what we wanted to do is just too high." Typing on his keyboard, he was like "Is it going to be great?". Not the question I expected. I hesitated and asked "What do you mean?" With the same disengaged tone he rephrased "'What we wanted to do' - is it going to be great?". I needed a second to think and started explaining: "I mean, we wanted to really challenge conventional wisdom about work and work-life in general in Japan, so 'Yes' we have all the-" He interrupted me: "Then get to work." That's the kind of person he is.

The company loves slick and simple design in bright colors - a drastic contrast to other medical companies

The company loves slick and simple design in bright colors - a drastic contrast to other medical companies

I have to admit that I fell in love with this company even before submitting my CV. Not only is it a highly innovative medical tech company, it is also very unique in its sense of style and aesthetics. Every cell and thread of this company screams boldly of 'innovation'. 

The Japanese subsidiary had kind of developed on its own for many years. As I realize today, very typical for Japan-based foreign companies, only the name is foreign, and inside you find ancient hierarchical traditions that date back to feudal Japan. The appearance of the office, we believed, would initiate a radical change and was among other projects one of the major things we wanted to tackle.

Before submitting anything in terms of design, I had spent a lot of time understanding how the software Brainlab produces works. I realized that 'challenge to conventional wisdom' was the soul of the company. The software they develop has revolutionized the way neurosurgeons can remove tumors and oncologists can make radiotherapy treatment plans.

How to Reinvent Work in japan

office-occurrences-3.jpg

Imagine the average boring western-style office and take it several notches down, add tiny spaces, tiny desks, no natural light, no lighting concept whatsoever, clutter, sleeping colleagues, cables, endless meetings, zero discussions. Basically something like this picture on the left (a google search result on "Japanese office")

First, I had to understand the 'conventional wisdom' of working in Japan. It is terrible. Long hours, abusive work relationships, no emphasis on output. The work spaces are a perfect representation of that - unless you work for Google or IDEO. Japan has an infamously brutal work culture. "People work themselves to death" is what we usually associate with the salaryman culture, the modern day necktie-wearing samurai. However, there is another side: It is not unheard of that an 80-year-old company has never fired anybody of its employees, ever. On the other hand, offices are filled with people who mentally retired 20 years ago, creating their safe space and do not want to be bothered. So, I would say that the average employer-employee relationship is like a loveless (sexless!) marriage. You stay together, but you certainly do not make any babies (maybe one for appearances sake). Hence, the conventional Japanese office is as exciting as the bedroom of a couple that last had intercourse 30 years ago. 

Let's get tO work

One of the early models. While the round center remained, the seating became more stringent

One of the early models. While the round center remained, the seating became more stringent

The creation of the concept was great fun. I quickly threw many conventional partners overboard. Most of the suggestions we received were a copy of the same old. In the end we assembled a creative team of which half did not came from traditional office creation business.

In the process we carved out what we  believed to be the office design that would turn the company around: A slick office with plenty of natural light, plants, natural materials and open spaces. Fostering communication in a comfortable environment was important.

An early sketch that outlines 'the first impression'

An early sketch that outlines 'the first impression'

While the CEO had some clear ideas on material, I spent a lot of time with each employee. Precisely 90 minutes with each. It was important to me that the design would reflect their needs. For example, I realized that most informal communication between back office staff happened at the coffee machine. Being next to the printer, it was not really a space you could hang out at for too long. We also realized that sales people were working a lot at the coffee shop next door. So our coffee area needed to be more attractive than the coffee shop, have better coffee and invite people to take a break and chat. A place to share news openly was needed as much as an area to close the door and get things done.

With the final paper model under my arm, I went to Munich to present the idea.

"The office’s interior architecture creates a comfortable and ergonomic atmosphere. Japanese architectural style meets international flair to create a space that has both a traditional and modern feel. A harmonic green oasis, with large personal work spaces, clean and efficient surfaces and cooperative areas allow for collaboration, creativity and productivity to flourish. The jungle concept is harmonic to Brainlab's values, as its “life” the employees seek to protect with their work by selling and manufacturing world-famous, high-end technology in the fight against disease and cancer."

Bingo! The CEO liked it, added a few final touches and then a work-extensive period commenced.

And theN it happened ...

Creating a new appearance became an all-engaging job. Rebuilding the ship we sail in became a job everybody was involved in. For the main construction phase, we had to decide to either temporarily rent a space or to suck it up and work from the warehouse so we could add that money to the construction budget. We chose the latter.

I learned that a cool office is not the solution to all your company problems. Coherent leadership, clarity and vision are very important. However, a physical space needs to reflect the ambitions and values of the people that choose to be inside of it. It is home. It is trust. It caries huge symbolism to the people that work there and to people who think about it.

For us, the creation of the Brainlab Japan office was a transformative experience. Afterwards we found hiring easier, we could use less expensive agencies and had better retaining rates, so the construction cost was a good investment. This process was set off in part by the CEO's simple request: "do something great". 

 

Below is a video of the whole renovation process of the Japan office of Brainlab. Have a look and let me know what you think!

Brainlab commemorated its fifteen years in Japan with a newly designed office. The over 500 m² space is located in a vibrant area between Tokyo Tower and Rainbow Bridge, a few minutes from the Tokyo Bay waterfront.

Getting a Scholarship to Study in Japan

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Many people dream of living abroad. We live in a blessed time where opportunities to travel and even settling in other countries are more abundant than ever. The more 'foreign' the country is in terms of culture and language, the more challenging it is, but it can also be more rewarding. Japan is an exciting cultural challenge. In this article, I want to share my experience of coming here as a student as well as some advice for others who dare follow.

“How did you get to Japan?” I have often been asked this question. I know you do not want to hear "by plane" (actually, a valid answer since I can warmly recommend the ship option; there are daily ferries from Korea’s Busan to Fukuoka and Shanghai to Osaka). The real question is “How did you end up living in Japan?” By now I'm a veteran expat, and I work in a completely different setting than when I first came here in 2004. A good start is very important. So here is my little "How To" guide.

Many foreigners start their time here teaching English, for example in the Jet program. This seems to work really well for people who are from English speaking countries. Not so much if you are not a national of the US, the UK, Australia, etc. The drawback here, however, is that teaching a language full time while trying to learn another is not easy. Another way people choose to finance their Japan adventure is by getting their foreign company to send them over. Compared to the crazy expat life in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Singapore, people who come to Japan are usually those who have always dreamed of living here. Besides these, there are of course many other ways people find their way to Japan. For many nationalities there is the Working Holiday Visa option – a great way to spend a year studying Japanese culture and working various jobs.

Japan: But How?

One of the last days of my 18-month trip was spent in Kyoto, Japan. I had just turned 21.

One of the last days of my 18-month trip was spent in Kyoto, Japan. I had just turned 21.

Now, where do I fit into the above? Perhaps I actually managed to create a fourth way... I was flown to Japan and did not pay anything (I even got paid) for 3 years, and I had plenty of free time. In fact, I even got a Master's degree for it. How did that happen?

Well, I decided that I wanted to experience living in Japan when I was around 20. I had just spent an amazing 1.5 year long ‘gap year' that brought me to Australia, New Zealand, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Japan. Oz had become my second home, but I was fascinated by cultures very different from ours. So I wanted to learn at least one Asian language and Japan seemed strange enough, yet familiar. (My great aunt used to live in Japan in the 1920s, even though I was never a fan of anything Japanese in my youth.)

My plan was to become a teacher so I could live and work anywhere, Japan of course being my prime destination. First, I studied to become an English teacher, taking the Cambridge CELTA at a school in Oxford. I had worked long hours in the Munich Hofbräuhaus as a pretzels sales boy wearing lederhosen, and asked my parents to 'invest' the rest to be able to afford it.

After obtaining the certificate, my first teaching job was in Madrid of all places. This was a horrible gig; I got cheated by my boss and ended up broke. And I also realized that teaching English full time doesn't leave much time to really study. So I quickly moved on to my next plan: somebody had to pay me to go to Japan. By then I had already traveled extensively around the world and realized what the best-kept secret in the world is: many European universities are free of charge, regardless where you come from (one of my best buddies in school was from China). They even offer scholarships. While our American peers and many other countries that follow the fascinatingly perverted “get broke to get a degree” system end up with 100K in debt, universities in most EU countries are free. And as I said, there are additional perks.

Going to Japan as a Student - Can someone pay please?

So I applied to all kinds of universities, mostly looking into what information I could find on their scholarship offers. As fate had it, the best offer for students to get a scholarship in Asia at this time was Munich. As one of the uni officers said: "Basically everybody who wants to go will get some kind of support to go to Japan." Munich, my hometown. The city I had left three years earlier to discover the world. Well then, I was back with a tiny student room and spent every Sunday with my parents and family eating at home. The first two years were a blast.

Sadly, no scholarship for the categories I was a natural in. Hard to focus on medieval Japanese poems when the department is next to a beergarden and you can hear Bavarian polka bands playing drinking songs.

Sadly, no scholarship for the categories I was a natural in. Hard to focus on medieval Japanese poems when the department is next to a beergarden and you can hear Bavarian polka bands playing drinking songs.

As I entered university I was not particularly studious, preferring to learn at home or not at all and taking advantage of the then common non-mandatory attendance schemes, i.e. I was there mostly for the exams. In the first year the rules were changed so that people could only apply for scholarships after their midterms. Damn. In the second year they reduced the number of scholarships. It didn't help that I was not really a 'teacher's pet'. Several attempts to secure a scholarship through the school failed. 

Scholarships: If you can - cut out the middle man

I then realized that the Japanese Ministry of Education offered a scholarship that one could apply for through the Japanese embassy. No need to consult the gatekeepers at your school. “That could be it!”, I thought. It read back to me like a dream: “Full coverage of the school fees regardless of the cost, monthly stipend of 1500 USD, including flights. OMG! I needed to have that.” One drunk summer night, somewhere among a group of students, I met a young man named Holger who told me that he had received this scholarship from the Japanese government. I was electrified. “Holger, how did you do that? There must be so many people applying for this!”

First Step: The right Recommendation

Funny how you sometimes meet a person drunk and he or she says something that changes your life

Funny how you sometimes meet a person drunk and he or she says something that changes your life

“I will tell you the secret,” he said. His private Japanese teacher believed that the trick was to have an informal recommendation letter from a Japanese professor, saying that he/she agrees to be your supervisor should you be accepted. Even though that is not a requirement, this letter included in your application would propel you to the final interview.

Sounded like a plan. I must have written more than 30 emails to random people to introduce professors to me. All dead ends. And Japanese professors do not publish their email addresses. Eventually by chance, I found a research paper that included a professor's email address, exactly from the university and school I wanted to go to.

I sent him an email right away, explaining how much I loved his paper and telling him that it is my dream to study in Japan. He replied a day later, and after another email I asked him if he could write an informal recommendation for me. Reluctantly he agreed, if I could submit a paper to him. So I did that, and he sent me a recommendation. “That’s it! My ticket to Japan.”

The interview process - Relax, you won't be worse than me

After I had sent all my papers off, I did not hear anything for 6 months but was then invited to an interview in the former West German capital Bonn. I was in miserable shape, sick and exhausted, surrounded by a bunch of really bright, fluent Japanese speakers (I could barely introduce myself). I remember sitting next to a tall, smart guy, who mentioned he had just finished reading his first novel in Japanese and was studying a double degree in Physics and Mathematics, fascinated with Japanese architecture and wanted to do his Ph.D. in Tokyo. I thought, "Omg! Who am I? A fraudster!"

We were called in one after another. I was nervous as hell. And unsurprisingly, I really screwed up. I went completely off script. “What do you like about Japan?”, I was suddenly asked. My mind was telling me: “Say something about politics, because that is what you want to study." “Architecture!”, my lips mustered. I started sweating. “Did I just say this? Why, Michel, why? “. The panel woman smiled happily, "Oh great, I am a passionate architect as well!” "I'm going to pass out!", I thought. She enthusiastically started to tell me about famous architectural projects I had never heard of, believing she was speaking to a passionate peer. I must have lost my complexion entirely. I could not answer any of the 10 follow-up questions. At the end she was irritated, urging me on: “Can you at least name one Japanese architect?”. I couldn't. The interview was pretty much finished and so was I.

I had just screwed up the 3-year plan in the making through one freak accident. I felt even sicker. I was notified later that I had indeed screwed up. Of the 15 scholarships that were awarded to the 15 best applicants, I was selected as number 16. It was very frustrating, but at least I was the first reserve should someone ahead of me change their mind.

One quiet Thursday afternoon the phone rang. Somebody canceled, and I was in. I later heard that it was the guy who sat next to me. Apparently he was terrified of the 12-hour flight.

Moral of the story: learn how to suck at an interview and still go on living. Good things will happen as long as you keep trying.

And then it happened

Find me. Hint: Not the guy with the hat

Find me. Hint: Not the guy with the hat

I received a flight ticket to Japan by postal mail and a really colorful, intense time started. But that is another story. During the next three years, I was on the Japanese government payroll at Waseda University, receiving a Master's in International Relations. 

The Japanese Ministry of Education still continues this internationalization scheme where every country gets an annual contingent of scholarships to study in Japan. It is a fantastic way to spend between one year and however long you want; I think the maximum is six years on a scholarship in Japan. To me, it was a great start. Many of my close friends from Japan and around the world stem from my time at the Graduate School of Asian Pacific Studies.

Conclusion

There are many great ways to experience living in another country. I think being a student is one of the best because you have time and you can easily become part of a community. The world is more open than most people believe. Furthermore, there are plenty of scholarships to be claimed. (When I tell that I also studied in China and America on scholarships, people might think I show off. But let me also include that I have written probably 15 scholarship applications to get accepted to 3. It is to a large degree a matter of chance.)

For Japan, I warmly recommend the MEXT scholarship. There are three 'entrances' 1) embassy selection 2) university selection and for those already living in Japan 3) domestic selection. I did it with a direct application to the embassy.

  • Go to the homepage of your country's Japanese Embassy and look for the MEXT scholarship.
  • Find out about the details and which route you want to choose
  • Make a connection with a professor in Japan and get a written recommendation which you include in your application to increase your chances
  • Go for it

 

 

 

 

 

 

Haikyo Exploration - The Coal Mining Ghost Town Yubari

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In our ongoing haikyo series, we are visiting a fascinating ghost town - well, almost ghost town. Yubari used to have 120 000 inhabitants in the 1960s. Today there are less than 8000 souls left and the average age is 65. Yubari is a city in Hokkaido that flourished due to its coal mines, providing people with income and livelihood. After the coal mines closed down in the 1980s, the local government tried to make the city into a tourist destination. Nothing failed immediately, but everything eventually. The large coal mine themed amusement park closed in 2007. The film festival initially drew foreign stars (guess why the killing schoolgirl from Kill Bill is called "Go Go Yubari"?) but has seen its funding be cut. Soon all attempts to pump new life into the city were in vain. Today, Yubari is the only bankrupt city in Japan. It had to let go of half its employees and severely cut services. To some, like the city's young mayor Naomichi Suzuki, Yubari is foreshadowing what is going to happen to Japan, which is piling up debt and sees an ever-increasing average age and declining population. To us, Yubari was a large playground, a window into another time. Enjoy the video with Misa's poem.

I want to thank Michael Ortega for the musical inspiration. Please check him out here.

And special thanks to Richard Hendy, who has documented the city better than anybody else in the English language. Check out his blog here.

Haikyo - The Royal Hotel

MichelComment

My brother Nick and I went to Sagami and found an amazing haikyo with a spectacular view. It was basically a love hotel, but it had a Chinese restaurant on top. It wasn't easy, but we climbed to the top and onto the roof. The view was simply stunning. I always ask myself (even more profoundly this time): "How can such an amazing building with this kind of view be abandoned and left to rot"?

Later, my net research garnered interesting results: The building was until recently set up with an alarm, and others reported security personnel coming. Lucky us. I have read that some one who went after us was surprised by an alarm. So unfortunately, I do recommend not to go there. Please refrain from going and enjoy the video

 

Kimono Experience

MichelComment

As my lovely cousin Sari and her friend Vero were visiting, I wanted them to experience something special. Airbnb has started to offer "experiences", which is a great way of exploring. I gave the 'experience of making your own kimono' as a present. Mio was a great host and I think she was almost satisfied with us. We had great fun creating the kimono and even more fun showing it off at a Japanese summer festival (matsuri). By the way, no matter how long you have lived in Japan, it is hard to keep track of all the festivals that are happening. There are several useful guides for events in Tokyo such as the ones from Metropolis or gotokyo.org

Hiking along the Lost Railway

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A beautiful walk along an abandoned railway in Okutama, west of Tokyo. Tracks, bridges, and tunnels along the road known as "Mukashi Michi", which means the old road, are striking remnants of times gone by. While the Mukashi Michi is a popular hike, the railway is not open to the public, as there are some challenging passages. 

Access: From the train station Okutama, ask for 'Mukashi Michi' or follow the Japanese sign むかしみち. Just as you venture into the wilderness, keep your eyes open for the overgrown train tracks. You can see them here.

Antique Japanese Fabric - It's exciting!

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A short video about a passion I have, that may not have heard about: Antique Japanese textiles, Sounds boring? It's exciting!

A long time ago, abundance was a word of tales but reality was a struggle. Things were dignified by scarcity. In rural Japan around 200 years ago, cotton was precious. For millennia Japanese garments were made of hemp, and northern Japanese needed their garments to be thickly woven. This made clothes unpractical and often uncomfortable. It also did not do well to retain warmth. As centuries passed, traded goods started to flow into the country and cotton was introduced. To the rural folks this was an exotic and precious luxury. Cotton was brought from southern and western districts such as Osaka, Nagasaki or Fukuoka, where people bought fragments instead of a cloth roll as it was more affordable. Once acquired, it was common for these textiles to be passed down through generations, where they would be patched up and mended to reinforce them for the next user. Some items tell stories of usage spanning more than hundreds of years. The love and care of generations of family members who mended and wore them out again has created an unintended art form which reminds today's artisans of a time only familiar from history books, when things were scarce and frugality was a mark of character - and a virtue.

 

Haikyo Inspirations - Michael Gakuran

MichelComment

Another great source of inspiration for haikyo exploration is Michael Gakuran. Like Jordy Meow, he has an eye for beautiful imagery and an extensive library of covered haikyo. A Japan veteran, he is a source for much wisdom about living and working here. Furthermore, he has a rich and lively writing style. Reading his exploration stories combined with the dazzling pictures is almost as exciting as being there.

In research for this post, I was able to find him. We met at Shimbashi and had a coffe. A boy scout by heart, Michael eyes sparkled while I listened to his amazing adventures stories.

To get a taste of Michael Gakuran, read his fascinating account of the Red Villa here. The house is a famous 'myth' among haikyo fans in Japan. The Red Villa is filled with items from long-gone times, including a secret room filled with pre-war pornography.

Michael has a way of writing about his explorations that make videos unnecessary. Super exciting, simply put. Well, in the case of the Red Villa there will never be a video - I was planning to go there but found out the shocking news: It seems that shortly after he wrote his report, to my great dismay, that place was bought and demolished. It is gone.

I do hope that whoever did it has kept the items that were on display inside. On the antique markets around Japan, great things keep showing up. I guess most people who love antiques feel that they want to protect something from fading away too fast. Well, I hope somebody did that with the things from this villa. Either way, I am happy Michael wrote this wonderful exploration report. 

The Red Villa, hidden in a bamboo forest, holding many secrets

Nude pictures found by Gakuranman in one of the rooms in the famous Red Villa.

Nude pictures found by Gakuranman in one of the rooms in the famous Red Villa.

Abandoned Japan - Jordy Meow

MichelComment

Jordy Meow has been one of my biggest inspirations for haikyo exploration. His book Abandoned Japan has been on my coffee table for years, and he is able to show the beauty of haikyo through his amazing photography. You can check out his elaborate blog here.

This guy has put so much time and effort into this and has even created an extensive map for haikyo around Japan. Whenever I feel I cannot explain well enough what the beauty of urban exploration is, I just reach for my coffee table. That usually conveys my point.

Abandoned Japan
¥ 3,577
By Jordy Meow
A photo o the 'Royal Hotel' by Jordy Meow. We made an amazing tour right up to the top. Sta tuned, it will be posted soon on this blog

A photo o the 'Royal Hotel' by Jordy Meow. We made an amazing tour right up to the top. Sta tuned, it will be posted soon on this blog

Jordy also does artistic photo shoots with bands and models in haikyos. Here, he is with Mana in a long abandoned Strip Club. I love this shop, as you can see that trees peeking through the now removed wall.

Haikyo - The Last Strike

MichelComment

A very special haikyo exploration with my brother. After it was abandoned, this bowling alley / pachinko parlor / game center has been heavily frequented and unusually vandalized. Check out the video below and you'll be as mesmerised as we were - what a place!

The video captured many aspects, but of course not all. It was amazing to see what pachinko parlours looks 'behind the scenes'. For those not living in Japan: Pachinko is a Japanese addictive console game that is something between one-armed-bandit games and vertical pinball machine because it has little metal balls. Well addictive to Japanese people, I have never seen a foreigner in there and too me this places look like hell from outside, bright, noisy, filled with empty souls killing time without emotions. Anyway, what I did not know before this haikyo is that backstage there huge tanks the size large phone boxes filled with these balls. Through tunnel and bridge systems they are connected with each machines to refill them with balls. We could not get a good shot as it was too dark backstage. 

Hope you enjoy the video! The handsome man smoking is also the producer of the music in the video. Music credits to soundcloud.com/klasma

Caught in action

MichelComment

Japanese have a curiosity for foreigners that have a curiosity for them. There are many programs on TV about foreigners in Japan, especially those who speak or write Japanese exceptionally well or have mastered a traditional Japanese art. 
This is the third time I was filmed by a TV crew buying antiques. They were like: "A retro sign that says 'Do not smoke' - what the heck do you want with this old junk?" The shop owner, also Japanese, looked slightly upset at the cameraman. I kind of just wanted to get on with my shopping as the place was about to close.
 

When in Tokyo, check this market out

MichelComment

There are tons of fantastic markets all over Japan where you can buy antiques and retro vintage items. My personal gems are either far out in the countryside or buying privately from friends and through their networks. However, there is one market in particular that I check out regularly because it is large and always full of surprises. When in Tokyo, make sure to visit the Oedo Market.

The market is held every other Sunday on the Tokyo International Forum. Do not forget to confirm the dates before you go!

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Mari found something

Shopping with friend Mari and Fabien. Oh, Mari got herself a nice indigo scarf.

What is 'Haikyo'

MichelComment

Haikyo, simply put, is the Japanese word for ruins (廃墟). But its less literal meaning carries much more weight and involves a vibrant subculture. You might know it by its English name, an ever-growing hobby in the industrialized world - 'urban exploration'. This basically means exploration of abandoned man-made structures. Haikyo, or 'Haikyo Mania' as some people call it, thus means urban exploration practiced in Japan.

But why would you climb around some rotten houses, hotels or factories?

"What drives me is the exploration of the abandoned and the rusted-out carcasses of things long gone. There is a unique feeling of excitement, sadness, and consolidation in the experience. On one hand, it’s doom and gloom, broken dreams, childhood memories of strangers. But on the other hand it's the profound beauty of nature's untamable willpower to reclaim whatever mankind once occupied - the blurring of the artificial dividing line of what man thought to be his world and the world of Gaia. Or maybe a forecast on the result of his battle against nature that started around 10.000 BC when he started building structures, some of which he believed to be eternal. The beauty of haikyo is an artistic play on these apocalyptic sentiments. It consoles my heart that after we expire, the planet will incorporate our remains into something beautiful. Gaia will create a beautiful world - just without us. "

Michel from japanborovintage.com

There is a codex to be followed: Do not steal, do not vandalize, and do not get hurt. Read more about it here.