Sunday, August 2, 2009

Japan is Japan is Japan.

I write this from the island of Oshima, of the pine islands of Matsushima. Legend has it this one one of the favorite places of the Japanese poet, Basho. Basho is most famous for his work with haiku, a Japanese form of poetry famous for how much it can pack into a few words. If I remember my high school writing class correctly, an entire haiku contains three lines: first with five syllables, second with seven, third with five. Maybe the first has seven too instead of five, I forget. What I remember from that class is that Basho managed to snag a place among my favorite poets by cramming one succulent, evocative image into three words: “Watermelon, mud fresh.” (Well, that and also I remember somebody else writing an English haiku that went something like “Haikus are nice. But sometimes they don't make sense. Refrigerator.”)

My point is that I'm sitting on a island that was loved by a man who was famous for being evocative yet brief with his words. I've never been much for channeling the dead, but I'm going to need all the help I can get from him to keep this short, because this last week in Japan has packed enough action for me to easily fill a half dozen full posts or more. If these last two paragraphs are any indication, I'm not off to a good start. Here goes anyway.

Before arriving in Japan, I had been fed more contradictory information about this culture than any I have heard about any place in the world. Since this is (depending on how you count things like Antarctica) the 26th country I've been to this trip, that's saying something. One day I would meet someone who would tell me that the literal translation of the word for thank you meant “what an unpleasant feeling,” (of being indebted to someone, I assume). A week later, someone would tell me that it actually meant “it is good to be alive.” A Frenchman told me over a drink that a Japanese person will never invite someone to their house no matter how close you are, and two days later a Canadian told me confidently that Japanese people will invite you to their house easily, sometimes right after meeting them, and that they will be extremely hospitable. But my favorite piece of advice came from a Kiwi who told me his impressions of the country, back in February:

“Japan is... Japan... is Japan.”
I looked at him oddly and said “Right. Truisms. I know Japan is Japan.
He returned the look. “Have you been to Japan yet?”
“Then you don't really know that yet.”

He had me there. My real introduction was on board the ferry from Shanghai to Osaka when I met a Japanese-born Canadian about my age who was coming back to Japan for the first time since he was six years old. He gave me a rundown on general etiquette, downplaying any real cultural differences (“I mean, no, you shouldn't stick your chopsticks in the rice and leave them there, but come on, how often do you take a fork, stick it in a steak, and then just leave it there back home?”) But the real revelations came for both of us when we got to shore and he started translating some of the things said around us.

Like when we went into a post office and asked for an ATM that worked with international debit cards. “That lady just thanked me about seven times. All I did was ask for directions!”

Or there was the PA announcement we heard in a grocery store that went on for about a full minute. “...all he was saying was thanking the customers for coming in and taking time out of their busy schedules for coming into the store. That was it. That was the only reason they made an announcement over the loudspeakers.”

Then there was what started happening when we got off our first subway. Keep in mind that we'd both just been in Shanghai, where if you want to get anywhere in a subway station, you put your head down, your elbows up, and act like a bowling ball. It seems people there wouldn't even notice if you knocked them flat on their back, or if they knocked you on yours. In Osaka, we got off a subway, passing two businessmen on our right, stopped, looked at each other, and said in unison, “...they waited for us!” It's a new country.

Being courteous here in Japan is a big deal. If you translate some of the simple exchanges you have every day into English word for word, the look ridiculous just because of many times the words “pardon me,” “please,” “sorry,” and “thank you very much” show up in every single sentence. Unlike Mandarin Chinese, Japanese does have a word that translates directly into “no,” but you'd never guess it based on everyday conversation because it's almost never used. It's just not a nice thing to say.

A lot of people I've met have told me that the courtesy feels masked. They think that anybody who makes that big a show of gratitude can't possibly mean it-- that it's all a fake veneer covering a repressed, depressed, highly stressed out and pressurized society that will never allow anyone to actually get close to them as a outsider, or even show any real happiness or kindness to each other, let alone to a foreigner. I don't buy it. Frankly, I think that kind of view is much more a reaction of westerners feeling uncomfortable in the face of people who say thank you so much more often than they do themselves.

There is definitely a strict set of rules you must follow if you want to be polite. Pick up food dishes and bring them close to your mouth when you eat. Always finish your rice if possible. Slurp your food loudly, especially soup (no, it's not a myth, they really do consider it a sign of appreciation here). Don't step over people's outstretched legs. Give and receive things, especially personal items like business cards, with both hands. Deny and downplay all compliments. Those are just the basics, I haven't even touched on how many degrees to bow in different situations or what you're supposed to say when. The list of differences is so long that it can really intimidate people. I think that's where a lot of the talk of a cold, untouchable society comes from. But if you think about it, we come from a culture with something to say when you burp, something to say when someone else sneezes, something to say when you want to get up from a meal, rules about when you can start eating (after how many people have been served), an order about which gender or age yields seats, or opens doors, or carries things, and a lot more besides. Most of these specific rules don't exist in Japan. So I have a hard time calling anything about their system of etiquette rigid or byzantine. It's just different.

As for acceptance, even little gestures make me feel like Japanese people aren't just polite, they're actually quite nice and friendly. Things like when I bought a couple small cakes from a traditional sweet shop, and when I tried to thank the lady in Japanese, she gave me a huge smile and tossed in a pack of cinnamon mochi for free. Or when I bought a prepackaged tempura lunch from a convenience store and pointed to chopsticks instead of a fork, the clerk pumped her fist in the air and said “Gambate!” or “go for it”! I can tell that people are more shy here (there are jokes about how Japanese guys have turned “vegetarian,” because they're too shy to go “hunting” and actually ask a girl out), but I've been spontaneously invited into three people's homes now in about four days. I'm don't think I'm doing anything special to make this happen, it's just what the people here will do.

As long as we're talking about stereotypes, I will tell you about one that's true. First of all, I find this to be true across China as well as Japan, but Japanese people do work very very hard. Officially, most work 9-5 jobs. But from what they've told me the reality is they usually work at least 70 hours a week. They are paid overtime, but because of project deadlines and general culture, they don't have the option to go home at 5:30. They earn enough money this way to deal with the high cost of living, (a simple bowl of plain Udon noodles in Kyoto can cost more than eight times as much as a plate of Chow Mian fried noodles with pork, egg, and veggies in Shanghai). But it comes at the cost of sleep, time with family, and often health.

The work schedule combined with the fact that public transport shuts down after midnight has created some interesting business opportunities. First of all, a bed in a normal hostel dorm costs around US$35. The most I can recall paying for a hostel bed this entire trip comes to around half that. In fact, for much of this trip, I've often been paying one tenth of that or less. However, because so many people end up staying far from home because of work, other cheap places to spend the night are cropping up. The most famous is the “capsule hotel,” which is somewhere between a hostel dorm and a space pod out of the sci-fi channel. But also a whole line of 24 hour businesses have started offering “night packs,” basically the option to rent whatever space they have for the night. Karaoke bars are a popular option, having padded private rooms with lots of space as well as food and drinks. But the one I ended up trying was an internet cafe.

I'd only learned about this on the boat over, and when I found myself next to Kyoto station with my bags around midnight in the pouring rain, I snaked my way through the subway tunnels to get to a 24 hour 2nd story shop called the TopCafe. I bought a membership for 200 yen, chose a space that had a mat like a gym mat instead of a reclining chair for another extra 200yen, paid for a night pack and was told I had seven hours in a cubicle with as much of the free soda, coffee-machine drinks, and soft-serve ice cream I wanted. The short version of the story is: It wasn't comfortable, and I woke up the next morning to the sounds of someone puking their guts out from a bad hangover, but it was cheap nights sleep and of course free internet, games, and DVDs had I felt like using them during my precious seven hours of sleep time. The unlimited access to the soft-serve ice cream machine was a huge bonus, though the closest things I could find to actual food were both in the coffee machine: an “onion soup” that tasted exactly like instant ramen broth, and a thick yellow corn-flavored something that I guess must have been soup. And while seven hours was definitely not enough time, it did get me out bright and early to beat the crowds to Fushimi Inari,one of the most famous temples in the country.

That's the first I've mentioned of the sights, isn't it? That's a shame. Twice I tried to explore the city of Kyoto and was completely sidetracked into hiking the beautiful forested hills to the north and west instead. Dotted with shrines, natural springs, and waterfalls, and just ten minute walk from the heart of the city, the paths are some of the best I've seen in a very long time. Then there's the shrines and temples. Minimalist, but very atmospheric, especially the smaller ones tucked away in quiet corners of the hills.

Then there's the other end of the spectrum: Tokyo. I haven't spent much time in Tokyo yet, but I'm pretty sure I'll feel about it the exact same way one Tokyo native explained about how felt about Shinjuku, one the city's biggest train stations: it's a complete maze-- I'll find one way through it, forget, and find a new way through every time without visiting a single part twice. After Shanghai, the buildings seem short, but they go on for miles in every direction. The typical apartment's size (at least of the two I've seen) is about the size of hallway in an American house. I had room to lie down width-wise with maybe a foot to spare at the widest point. We checked out a fireworks display (a summer tradition in Japan) and found a field several times the size of a football field completely filled with people sitting there to watch. I've seen a lot of people in one spot before, but only once or twice have I seen numbers to compete with that. I believe the greater Tokyo area houses about 30 million people, and they've managed to pack them all in somehow.

Have I not mentioned the food yet? How is that possible? Yes, there are the standards: udon, miso, rice, and beef bowls. Then come the surprises: the curry for example. Or just how creamy and gelatinous real tofu can be. The weirdest though, was definitely nato. Nato is a mixture that looks like half baked beans and half Elmer's glue. It's fermented beans and bacteria that is typically served for breakfast over rice after being mixed with a raw egg and something like mustard. I could get used to the taste, but it would take a few servings. Takoyaki, on the other hand, I've adopted immediately. It's octopus fried in balls of dough with an excellent kind of barbecue sauce over the top.

And that's not even touching on the story of my walk through the roughest neighborhood in Japan, the climb up the best preserved Japanese castle, the night spent in the temple with a priest and his venerated Bose sound system, the afternoon ending in an Onsen communal bath with a bunch of Frenchmen, the men on the streets of tokyo with a bullhorn shouting for the reinstatement of an emperor and standing army, or the evening when I had to explain how to ask for change and tell someone you were looking for a geisha (though not to hire them) and a pay phone. To conclude in a nutshell with a random observations and facts, the Shinkansen bullet trains are amazingly fast and punctual. The toilets really do have half a dozen buttons on them, but they're fairly self explanatory based on placement and sometimes hilarious little cartoons next to them. And yes, the fresh sushi really is every bit as amazing as you've heard.
Check out this entry's Photos.


  1. Common courtesies in the west were recently seen as somewhat unfashionable and unnecessary. Reconsideration of this lately has been heartening. The courtesies are based in ethics of how people should treat one another. Showing appreciation rarely goes amiss.

    I loved the "go for it" arm pump you received! Your ability to try many cuisines and the adventure of your mat on the floor admirable. I confess the latter made my back hurt to read:)

    Looking forward to the pictures. Lv, Anonymom

  2. Joel, you need to make it to a Japanese onsen. Other things to eat in Japan include weirdly flavored ice cream (taro and chestnut, for example) and okonomiyaki (Japanese pancakes/pizza).

  3. Anonymom- I think that's a pretty good illustration of what most japanese people think of foreigners-- their courtesy has died out. I heard one story of a japanese guy asking a foreigner in complete seriousness "so, westerners have no manners, right?"

    Viv- Three steps ahead of you there, I had green bean ice cream recently, an excellent pork and onion okonomiyaki, and finished a good mountain hike with a good mountain onsen. I'm keeping my eyes open for a sento while I'm at it.

  4. Wow. Another place that sounds amazing (although since Japan is entirely first-world economically, $35 a night in the city is actually relatively cheap. Try getting that in London or Paris.). I do wonder if you'll ever get further west than Indonesia though - at the moment it looks like your trajectory heads back to Seattle (if graphed on a map).

    " I'm don't think I'm doing anything special to make this happen, it's just what the people here will do." -- I think it's probably a combination of the culture there and who you are. You seem to have a knack for making people like you (this is good).

  5. Couldn't help postscript Count C. to agree about what is relatively cheap. Would add New York and Seattle to his list. Of course I don't know the customary prices in any these cities of seven hours on a mat in an internet cafe:) Anonymom

  6. Flattering, but I think it's a lot more of a "you're clearly not from around here" thing. You find it in almost any country where you can tell if someone's a citizen or not just by looking at them (ie. not the US, Canada, UK, Australia, or other countries with immigration). People in those kinds of countries recognize a foreigner and want to help them, learn from them, and maybe impress them a little bit.

    Anyway, I'm fully aware that my ten-month budget thus far would have lasted me about a week and two hours in London and Vienna, but I've got tricks up my sleeve to make those places the cheapest for accomodation in the world. Partially it's couchsurfing, but also more than half the travelers I meet who want me to visit them at home are from Europe, and also everyone in the states seems to know or be related to someone in europe I should visit.

    To be honest, the place that worries me the most in terms of accomodation prices isn't Europe. It's Africa. This is a huge generalization but rumor has it that in many African countries there are basically Luxury hotels and lodges, and then sleeping on the street, with not much in between. I'll be learning more when I head in that direction.

    And by the way, yes it does look like I'm making a neat circle to Seattle, but I don't like leading people on. My next scheduled appointment is in Germany, late September. This trip's far from over.

  7. This Seattlite can't see the picture clearly enough to know who that handsome fellow is. Will you be letting us know?