Sunday, April 10, 2016

Goodbye Japan. We'll Be Back Soon.

I had grand plans of writing a bunch of short posts about some of the things I found so very different and interesting in Japan. But then the cold from hell struck. I don't think I've ever been more walloped by a cold than I have been by this one. In Tokyo I was laid up for two solid days. I felt terrible and in those two days I only left our small, depressing apartment once. To make matters worse, the cold lingered and gave me a good solid cough while we were in Paris with my sister and her family. I didn't quite cough up a lung, but I felt like I was close. I couldn't even laugh properly because the first sign of a chuckle would bring on a good and long hack.

I'm happy to report that I'm good now. But instead of some short, snappy posts about Japan I'm throwing everything into one in an effort to not lag even further behind life.

Polite and Considerate

Coming from a society where the importance of the individual seems to be taking over without any thought as to what's good for the whole, we were struck more than once how incredibly polite and considerate Japanese people are. 

No one speaks on their phones on the trains. No one is loud or brash. No one pushes you aside to run to catch their train. 

The drivers don't honk their horns wildly, or zoom through narrow streets in an attempt to cut through neighbourhoods. We never saw anyone speed through a red light because they were in such a hurry. In some places the parents aren't allowed to drive their kids to school because the craziness of drop off is too dangerous for the kids. (This almost made us audibly gasp because our school is victim to crazy and dangerous drop offs because of self-entitled parents who view themselves in priority to all others.)

They bow all the time. They have rules for how to use their three depths of bowing, and these rules are followed. Train conductors bow when entering and leaving a train carriage. And, I have to say, it was quite lovely in a shop for the cashier to take a moment at the end of the transaction to give a polite little bow. I viewed it as a way of stopping to smell the flowers - taking moments every day to remind yourself that you're part of the larger whole and that it's ok to connect with real people.

They are the greatest gift givers ever. We'd read that they give gifts for everything, and again, follow the rules for giving gifts. And then we experienced their gift giving first hand. 

The kids playing at Seaport English School in Hiratsuka just before we were showered with gifts. Eamon and his pal are behind the curtain.
A friend from high school has been teaching English just outside of Tokyo for 17 years. We headed out for a visit to see his school where he'd arranged from some of his elementary students to come out for the afternoon. Turned out this was one of the best afternoons we've ever had. Both kids had so very much fun. And then, as the time began to wrap up, gifts began to appear from the children: an origami set with an instruction book and lots of paper, a wooden game where you try to get the ball into the cup, tea towels, bean bags for juggling, Japanese candies. I was quite overwhelmed. None of these gifts came with cards; so sadly, I have no idea who gave us what. It makes our little Canadian pins we brought for the kids look quite pathetic.


On the Metro in Osaka we saw a variety of kids younger than our own riding the subway to and from school. These kids weren't all together in a group. Each one we saw was alone, with a big school backpack in tow. 

At first we were a bit stunned. But then we realized that every stop has a station master at the gates, and almost every line has a conductor either on every train, or on the platform. Hence, if a kid has a problem, there's a (presumably) trustworthy adult nearby who can help. Compare this to other subway systems around the world where there's no certainty at all that you'll ever see an employee who can help throughout your journey, let alone a guarantee of one at every single stop. It's a great example of using the village to keep our kids safe.

Bicycles don't seem to be stolen either. We had three bicycles in our Osaka apartment. Our landlord said to be sure to lock them up, but the lock was a small circular lock that went around the back tire of the bike. And that was it! It wasn't attached to anything, but your back tire isn't able to go around. Upon closer examination of other bikes, that type of lock was on every single bike we saw. No big heavy chains. No u-locks. No big locked cages anywhere to protect the bikes. Quite fantastic.

The bikes...

...the bike's lock

Of course, we felt safe walking around wherever we were, but the small kids on the Metro and the puny bike locks sum up the safety quite nicely.

Clean, Orderly and Efficient

The streets and parks are clean and tidy. There aren't many garbage cans out and about because people take home their trash. The cigarette butts that accumulated in the playground outside our building were cleaned up by someone on a daily basis. The Metro is clean. The Shinkansen (bullet) trains are cleaned at the end of the line.

They know what the rules are and they follow them. This ties into the politeness above, but it also adds to a sense of calm (even in among busy) because you can rely on others and know what to expect. After crossing the streets of Vietnam, it was a welcome relief to back to rules for crossing the streets of Japan without needing to hang onto Eamon's hand.

Even their picnic areas under the cherry blossoms are done in an orderly fashion. The picnic blocks are taped off under the trees, with a variety of rules on the space: your tarp can't exceed the space; no more than 10 people; you must leave by 8 pm etc.

The very orderly picnic sites under the soon-to-blossom cherry trees in Ueno Park, Tokyo.
The efficiency shows itself in so many ways. They live in small spaces and they spend time thinking and designing how to do this best. Why not have life easier, more comfortable, and more beautiful if you can. 

From heated toilet seats with water features, to car parks with elevators for cars:

to a turnstile at the parking garage door to make it easier to get the car in and out on impossibly tight turns:

to making sure that you always face forward on the trains:

These seats swivel around so that you always face forward. At the end of the line someone goes along turning all the seats. On other trains, the back of the seat is on a hinge that you just pull to the other side.

to serving hot canned drinks from vending machines. Good heavens, even the garbage truck is pretty and plays nice music as it drives around. 

Stylish and Cute

Japanese girls and women are stylish. There no way around it. Almost without fail, they are dressed impeccably in quite wonderful clothes. There are no People of Walmart to be found, anywhere. It helps that they are all so small and petite; it's hard to look like a hot mess when you're that size. I ripped my only full length pair of pants in Japan. Forget looking for a replacement. Meaghan bought a pair of pants and she was a Ladies Medium! No way they'd have anything that would fit me.

Meaghan and I rocking the cute Japanese photobooths. Just look how awesome my skin looks thanks to this particular Photobooth.

We spent one day at Universal Studios. We were almost the only ones not dressed up for the day. Every group of people had their own theme going with matching outfits. Some were characters; some were just dressed to match. Many older teens/young women had glitter on their faces. Even young men weren't immune - they wore Elmo hats, big glasses, or dressed to match each other with ease. Unfortunately, we don't have any photos. We must have been too focused on surviving our own visit.

Part of this style is homogeneity. The kids all wear school uniforms. The Metro station masters have a uniform which is a bit different from the conductors' uniform, which is a bit different from the drivers' uniform - but all come with hats (gender specific) and white gloves. Even a group of emergency volunteers gathering for a drill on a Saturday morning have their own uniform.

And finally, the cute can be summed up in just two words: Hello Kitty.

So Much Else

I could write so much more on how different (and some might say inadequate) their cold medicine is; how tough it is to find deodorant; how great the food is; how incredibly complex their writing system is, yet kids master it; how funny their advertising is (does ours look as funny to them); and more on how kind and helpful the people are. It's modern, technologically advanced, and yet not very Western. And that's what makes it so utterly fascinating and fun to visit.

I was disappointed I was so sick at the end of our time in Japan, and that to varying degrees everyone else was not at their best. But that's ok; it means we'll just have to return someday soon.



  1. I knew you would love Japan because -- what's NOT to love about Japan? It's great! Sorry to hear you had to end it with such a bad cold though.

    1. You are so right! The only thing I don't really love is that I suspect airfare to return isn't peanuts.