Japan is a country with such a strong and unique culture we wondered how we would fare in our quest to get under its skin. Not speaking the language (despite James’s best efforts, he only mastered half of the simplest of the 3 alphabets which in total comprise 2100 characters) rendered us less able to communicate with locals than we managed in S America. However, we experienced such ubiquitous kindness, generosity and warmth that we learned in many circumstances that common language is not necessary for connection or effectiveness. We also experienced a culture where less structured religion opens the door for a more free yet intense sense of spirituality, and how a focus on respect creates an all encompassing atmosphere of calm and patience, (even in the crazy labyrinth of Tokyo station!).
We also learned that Japan is a country where process is king, and woe betide any breach, or suggested variation. We christened the crossed-arms push-back expression ‘chop chop’, and were on the receiving end probably more often than we should have been. I’m a process girl at heart, but struggled to uphold various predetermined sequences of events when unforeseen circumstances indicated that a logical change to process should prevail.
On a mostly more frivolous note, here are some of the things that we will sorely miss, and some that have found their way to our Japan 101.
LOVE LOVE LOVE
- Charlotte: Auto opening taxi doors (even the cars are polite!).
- Everyone: Everything is even more on time than Switzerland.
- James, Emily and Charlotte: Cleanliness – there is no rubbish ANYWHERE, spills are cleaned immediately, everything is immaculate. This attention to detail is a way of life.
- Charlotte and James: Bowing: we felt self conscious initially, but learned weirdly to love it as a way of showing respect and gratitude, although sometimes the stoop was quite a long way down for us giants.
- James and Charlotte: No tipping (everyone does a great job because its expected of them and they expect it of themselves).
- Bella: being the same height as most of the adults (fair do’s – especially when your younger sister has a few inches on you….)
- James, Bella, Emily:Dog dresses. Nuff said?
- James: The toilets – if you haven’t experienced them, ask James to give you a run-through of the various douching, drying, oscillation, and singing options offered. They provided him an excuse to spend EVEN MORE time in there – who knew that was even possible!
- Charlotte: The baths……now we are talking. You set the temperature, and then they self fill (to the top – infinity style), sing you a song to indicate readiness, and then self-autofill to keep you brimming at your optimum temperature. The best ones are made of aromatic cedar wood, or filled with fresh Onsen spring water full of healing minerals. I could go on……
- Bella: Onigiri triangles (especially Bella who would grab these fellas for breakfast when we were on the road). They beat a mayonnaisy M&S sandwich any day.
- Emily: Everyone being so quiet and polite and respectful
- Bella: cool house designs with all the triangle roofs
- Emily: Everyone dresses neatly, there is no scruffiness
- Everyone: Plastic food outside every restaurant (except the most high end Kaiseki!)
- Charlotte: the trees. It was a treat to enjoy all the silver birch forests of Hokkaido, and the cedar forests off Keihoku
- Charlotte: Queueing at the tube: the Japanese put the even the Brits to shame when it comes to queueing, and unbelievably no elbows appear or shovings ensue even when rush hour hits and the crowds are commensurate or worse than London. For the overground trains there are even queueing ‘lanes’ painted on the platform that fit the configuration of the various train types and are entirely adhered to.
- Bella and Emily: Daisu and Adzuki. Millie and Bella miss them a LOT, and I suspect they might miss Millie and Bella and all their cuddles too!
SEE YA LATER:
- Everyone: Pillows with beaded bases that feel like sleeping on a bed of raw chickpeas
- Everyone (especially Emily): Everything being even more on time than Switzerland….when we are running late!!!
- James and Charlotte: Low tables, wash basins, kitchen surfaces, shop counters etc etc (back breakers…)
- James and Charlotte: Sitting on the floor to eat at traditional restaurants. However atmospheric it may be, our appreciation only lasts about 10 minutes until the aching from inflexible hips fights the desire to be seated in cross-legged zenness.
- Emily: All the tiny alleyways (she found them crowded rather than charming)
- Bella: buying what you think is a chocolate croissant, and finding that its stuffed with sweetened mashed black beans (this happened more times than her sense of humour made allowance for).
- Charlotte: Tokyo Station. I marvel at it. But it made me cry. Twice. And I’ll never go back until they make GPS work underground.
- Everyone: individually packaged EVERYTHING. The packaging in Japan was beautiful, and incredibly effective, but an environmental disaster.
- Bella and Emily: all the smelly fish (to be fair most of it wasn’t smelly, with the possible exception of the breakfast kipper-esk offerings)
- Charlotte: the fact that there is zero flexibility in anything EVER! Now I’m not one to mess much with my food order or expect special favours, but we (mostly I) got the ‘chop chop’ a lot, and for things that I by and large thought were very reasonable requests, but which fell foul of preset policy or process, and where hierarchical obedience precluded the prevailing of common sense. An example: James and I walked into a cafe with about 20 tables in it. 2 of them were occupied. The tables were very small, and our wish was to have a coffee and work on our laptops for a while. We were not allowed to take 2 separate tables next to each other, despite the pervasive lack of existing customers, even though we offered to double up should there be a sudden rush of new clientele. It didn’t help when I suggested James and I walk out and walk in again separately, sit at separate tables, order separately and and pay separate bills….. WHAT?!?!? Rant over (and I won’t get started on women’s empowerment). I still LOVE Japan, but suspect I couldn’t live there for any significant time period.
Now time for the next cultural cartwheel! I am drafting this on the plane to Kuala Lumpa where we touch town for a night, and then head to Medan in the north of Sumatra. From Medan we fly to the small island of Simeulu where we have signed up to volunteer with the community there for a few weeks. If things go well, we will head to the even more remote (in fact uninhabited) island of Bangkaru for a week in the middle to be on turtle patrol. Wish us luck, and don’t be alarmed if we don’t respond to any messages until mid-late May as WiFi will be patchy at best, and non-existent for some of this part of the trip.