An invisible sense of efficiency and a non-intrusive level of politeness weaves through the landscape of Japanese society as sinuously and naturally as rivers do. Surgically clean train platforms where people wait in line to board and once in no one talks on the mobile phone. It is hard to describe, but for me these all expressed a deeper message about how perfection can reveal something profound. Japanese culture is so deep that it is unchanging. Japan was never on the top of my list of places to visit, but after ten days in Japan it is at the top of my list of places to live. Japanese call it satori: sudden comprehension. It was and is a serene feeling that certain cultural traditions and values that should underlie every society can remain forever the same. Such an awareness is the longest lasting impression that I brought home from my recent trip to Japan.
It is a long flight to go from the east coast of United States to Japan. Since we took off during the day time (10.45 am), it was difficult to park your body in one place for the entirety of a fourteen-hour flight. You sit, have a drink, snack, eat, have a drink again, watch a bad movie, sleep for a bit, nap again and then peek at your watch and realize that nine more hours of flying is still left. Then you go through the same cycle again. The sun shines through the entire flight and you lose a day when you cross the international date line. However, the flight experience was made memorable by the ever smiling and willing to please Japanese flight attendants.
As you disembark from the plane and wait in line for immigration, we realized that our stereotypical perceptions of what to expect in Japan turns out to be not true. The whole system just works. Things and processes are where they should be and signs will show up when you feel you are starting to get lost. Every little thing has a lot of thought and details put into it. Tokyo and Japan in general are clean, extraordinarily clean, given the number of people in such a tight space. There is no trash or graffiti anywhere, despite the lack of trash cans in many areas. We found it easiest to stuff our wrappers and bottles in our backpacks, when touring around, and dispose them back at the hotel. It all comes down to culture and a sense of civility as to why the Japanese are able to maintain the cleanest streets in the world. We did not see any one J-walking at all, even when clearly no cars were in sight. You cannot think of any place where cleanliness, politeness and order define a country and society as in Japan.
From the blending of Shintoism and Buddhism in the sixth century to today, japan has a long and storied tradition of religious tolerance and freedom. Visiting Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples appears to be more of a cultural tradition than a religious one for the Japanese people. Japan’s mountainous terrain and advanced economy has resulted in a harmonious relationship with geography and space. Tokyo impresses all visitors with its efficiency of design and function. We were able to see firsthand the innovations that Japan has made both in its transportation infrastructure and its production of state-of the-art transportation modes.
The pride of Japanese transport is the bullet train known as the Shinkansen. Roomy and immaculately clean, quiet and fast, and seats as comfortable as business class seats in airplanes. Japanese trains, just not the bullet train, are on time …..I mean it, not a minute earlier or later, may be even not a second later. Trains and subways connect every part of metropolitan Tokyo, and looks easy to navigate on a map. However, buying the right ticket with the correct amount and figuring out the right platform and getting on the train and then exiting out of the correct gate can take a bit of trial and error and test your perseverance. There were countless occasions when total strangers would walk up to us while me and wife will be struggling with a map and guide us to the right train and check on their iPhones to help us with the connecting trains and the correct exits at our destination. Even though Tokyo was a dizzying rush of new sights and sounds near silence is maintained in trains and subways. No one makes phone calls on public transport although almost everyone is on their phone sending messages or surfing – near silence is maintained. Japanese streets are so safe – we saw 7,8 year old children walking on the streets or taking the subways alone.
Automobiles in Japan are different. Cars are small and boxy and trucks are much smaller for the American eye. The roads are full of mostly Japanese cars and a few European ones (few BMWs and Mercedes) and almost invisible American cars. I thought of Donald Trump reminded by the significant number of Japanese cars on American roads and the non-existent number of American cars in Japan. Bicycles were much more ubiquitous in Kyoto than in Tokyo. There are countless vending machines everywhere. Same machine will serve you snacks, hot soups, hot drinks, and cold drinks. This trade-off between efficiency and service within such a courteous society was somewhat strange. You cannot beat the Japanese toilets when you think of efficiency and precision and these are an experience in themselves. In hotels, high end restaurants and museums you will often find these toilets with all sorts of buttons next to the seat. Toilet seats are heated (unbelievable) and the buttons are for clean-up, water spray adjustments with options for men and women. Japanese think about every detail in everything they do.
Japanese hospitality is the stuff of legends, and we can validate this from our multiple experiences. However, the Japanese will not fawn over you and they know the difference between amiable politeness and being intrusive. Japanese society is almost homogeneous, but we felt it is a great place to be a foreigner (Gaijin). We were very keen to dine at the different types of Japanese restaurants – sushi, tempura, sukiyaki, izakaya, ramen, udon, tonkatsu , etc,etc. We would be struggling to locate a restaurant and a helpful Japanese person would come by and walk us to the right spot and talk to restaurant and see whether we could get a seating. If not, they will call a nearby restaurant which serves similar style of cooking and walk us there. This did not happen just once but multiple times – all just to be nice, seeking nothing in return, all for an “arigato”, nothing more. We have never seen this kind of societal elegance and class in any other part of the world.
Japanese dress so well when they are off to work. Men dressed in crisp black business suits, and women in a sea of tailored skirts or pants and crisp blazers swarming on and off the trains every morning and evening. Of course, every region is different-Tokyo reigned with business suits and Kyoto embraced traditions with an abundance of Kimonos. Women always look very elegant and well groomed.
Me and my wife enjoy sushi very much and we obviously had a great exposure to eating sushi in Japan. We were really surprised that Japanese do not make sushi at home and they always eat their sushi in restaurants. We ate sushi in a wide variety of restaurants – very expensive to very affordable – and our observation is that eating sushi in Japan is a different experience than eating in the US. They always serve their sashimi on a bed of ice and sushi is served with many pickles. We were told before we left that “if you are ardent fans of sushi you have to visit the Tsukiji fish market”. We were lucky since the current location of the market is in its last days before being torn down after 80 years and relocated to the city’s outskirts. Ahead of the 2020 Olympics, they are building a new version which probably won’t have the same wonderful vibe. In addition to the wholesale market, there is an outer market which is packed with stalls selling fresh seafood, real wasabi, cutlery, and other specialty items. If you don’t feel like eating sushi after you’ve seen all the fish, Tsukiji also offers lots of other options: sukiyaki, ramen, kare raisu (curry rice), yakitori among others.
I want to end this blog post on a funny note. Some funny translations stem from the difficulty for the Japanese to say the letter ”l” and their tendency to switch “l” and “r”. An Indian restaurant was named SPICY MASARA instead of the correct SPICY MASALA and Cola being spelled as Cora.