We are in the middle of a whistle-stop tour of Japan and there’s not been much time to absorb or reflect on things. So, instead, here is a list of things I have learned so far:
The Japanese people I have encountered have been some of the happiest, friendliest people I have met. Whether it’s strangers on a train, bus drivers or waitresses everyone is really helpful, patient and kind. Even when there is no common language they are happy to chat away at us with a chipperness that is infectious. It may all just be part of a superficial politeness and customer service but I’m choosing to find it sincere and endearing.
However, the level of customer service can tip into madness – for instance ‘Irasshaimase’ – saying ‘welcome’ to any customers. I was browsing the several aisles of toothbrushes in a shop where a young man was also stocking the shelves. He is obliged to say Irasshaimase every time someone is nearby and as I kept walking past him looking at all the toothbrushes he had to keep saying it. After he had repeated it about twenty times I genuinely felt sorry for him and I just left empty handed so he could get some rest!
It’s oh so quiet
The streets in Tokyo are disarmingly quiet. There are lots of people and traffic but it’s hushed and you can hear the birds more loudly than anything. When we arrived Friday night and saught refuge and fuel in macdonalds I was surprised not to find Friday drunks loudly smearing burgers into their faces as in Leeds. Instead, huddles of high school and university students were quietly studying and chatting over coffees.
There are noisy exceptions. Step inside a pachinko parlour and it sounds like the inside of a jet engine with pop music on top. Perhaps the audio onslaught is part of the strange appeal of pachinko for the quiet Japanese?
I knew Japan has a reputation for being safe but it still shocked me to see people casually leave their mobile, wallet and laptop on the cafe table when they went to the bathroom or whatever people still do without mobiles these days. Seeing a phone lying there so vulnerable to prey I had the urge to jump up, wave my hands and shout ‘phone alone! phone alone!’ Not that anyone would have paid much attention.
After a few weeks here we will have to recalibrate our safety awareness before going to South America. Where, from the horror stories I’ve heard, you have to chain up your kidneys never mind your luggage.
For a country supposedly obsessed with technology and gadgets I was surprised that no one seems to have kindles or other ereaders. Everyone has smart phones but from what I’ve seen they’re not used for reading much. Paperbacks rule the commuter metros and book shops seem to be thriving. I’m not sure whether e-readers don’t suit Japanese script and illustrated novels or if it’s a cultural affinity for paper that’s keeping the kindles at bay but it seemed kind of fashionably retro after a while. In fact, all the technology seems pretty retro here – They even have actual record shops here where you can rent out records and CDs.
When I was a kid Japan was the land of the future, complete with monorails, Walkmans and robots. However, it seems Japan zoomed into the future sometime in the early 80s and has been stuck there ever since whilst the rest of the world, fed on the web, has caught up and started 3d printing their own, crowd-sourced robots.
I want a Japanese bedroom
The traditional style of tatami mat and paper screens can seem quite austere but it’s deceptively luxurious and makes so much sense. Paper is an excellent insulator too and the soft light adds to the lux-calm ambience. If only Japanese TV was half as zen.
Heated toilet seats are genius
They may be ridiculous, wasteful and costly but they’re still brilliant. And besides there’s such good recycling here that it probably all balances out. I would deffinately spend more time sorting my plastic from paper if I could have a warm loo.