Dispatches from Japan

Recently I spent the better part of 11 days in Japan with my wife and son. The following are some of the thoughts and experiences I had during the trip:

1). Tokyo: the thing that first impressed me about this city, aside from its tremendous size, was its organization; it is a city of over 30 million people but doesn’t have a lot of the problems with traffic much smaller Canadian cities have; they have this elaborate highway system rising above and below the city; and a number of the places where people live and work are built into essentially terrace. Tokyo is a city symbolizing the word up-wards and downwards. The other thing about Tokyo was the sheer number of people. My group traveled downtown to a place called Hachiko Square at night. There were all sorts of neon signs, video screens (like one would find in a Blade Runner film) illuminating one of the streets where hordes of Japanese people criss-crossed and partied.

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The cool thing about Japan, generally speaking, is even around large groups of people you feel perfectly safe. There’s virtually no crime. No one locks up their bikes. My wife sat down in a food court in a Hiroshima mall and two Japanese girls left their purses and smart phones on a table. The girls left their valuables to go to the washroom. Canadians are fairly law abiding; nevertheless, if you did this at a food court in Saskatoon you probably shouldn’t be surprised your purse or phone is gone. In Japan it’s just the opposite. I guess, ultimately, to be a good person or not is just a choice after all. Japan is about as safe a place as you can visit.

Oh, and you can’t tip anyone. I left a tip for a waitress at a Tokyo restaurant. When I started walking away the waitress stopped me and returned the money. Apparently, if you leave a tip it suggests the person helping you is somehow low or needful or not as worthy of respect (or something like that). I didn’t know this. I didn’t tip again; however, some of the people I was traveling with purposely left a tip and ran just to see what would happen; and the waiter ran and caught them returning the money.

2). Politeness: Japanese people are super polite. I think my neck strength increased tenfold from all the head-bowing-in-thanks I returned to everyone. I only ever had one interaction where a Japanese person appeared to lose patience with me, e.g. a man working at the front desk of one of the hotels we stayed at. I was talking to a colleague at breakfast in the hotel’s restaurant. My wife left me to return to our room. I didn’t have a key (really a card) to access my room, i.e. you need a card to even make the elevator work. Plus, I didn’t know what my room number was. So I asked the clerk at the front desk what my room number was and his English was probably as bad as my Japanese. Anyways, he directed me to the wrong room. I should’ve talked to his robot for help (there was a little robot, that also only  spoke Japanese, that stood at the front desk to help visitors).

There are apparently hotels where the font desk is looked after by only a robot. I don’t think the robots are cleaning rooms (yet) but Japan is definitely on the front line when it comes to automation. I have some misgivings about all this automation, in that, as we automate we continue to push people out of jobs (and there’s a limited number of jobs available to people as not everyone is capable or willing to get an advanced education).

3). Shrines & Temples: we visited a ton of holy sites. One thing struck me as odd yet predictable: every single one of these sites–Buddhist or Shinto–required the faithful to drop money into some sort of grate in order to pray or ask for divine favor. I highly doubt God or the gods or Buddha will deny you something important unless you give them some yen. Institutions trading off of the religious feelings of people certainly isn’t unique to Japan. Money corrupts everything it touches in my honest opinion. I’m not anti-capitalist but I would like to see money stay out of certain sacred intellectual, religious and artistic spaces.

My favorite site to visit was a Buddhist temple called Fushimi Inari-taisha. The temple was constructed at the base of a small mountain and had steps–complemented by a series of arches–leading from the bottom all the way to the top over top of a staircase. I left my group in an attempt to visit the top of the mountain but ran out of time before hitting the top.

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The walk was absolutely picturesque, in that, the stairs and path upwards were ensconced in ancient trees and moss. The place, along with many of the gardens we visited, reminded me of something out of a J. R. R. Tolkien novel. The picture below is from a Shinto shrine called Kinkaku-ji; it was home to a golden pagoda and was some sort of haven for samurai during the Edo period.

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4). The Food: if you have an adventurous pallet, and you don’t care if your food is sentient while eating it, then Japan is the place to go.

I’m not such a person.

I confess this was the thing I least liked about Japan. There were a couple highlights, e.g. Hiroshima Pizza (called Okonomiyaki) was pretty good; it’s a pancake, fried egg, cabbage, bacon, and saucy construction. The curried rice I quite liked, as well. However, I did get sick of rice (the Japanese eat rice three times a day) and the raw fish wasn’t attractive to me at all. Many meals literally looked like they went directly from hook to plate. One of the people I was traveling with opened a container and observed, “Oh, a creature is looking at me”; it is a rare meal indeed when something isn’t looking at you accusedly in Japan.

I survived the trip largely by eating chocolate covered almonds. As healthy as the Japanese diet is they don’t eat a whole lot of fruit. I found it hard to find anything other than a banana or apple here and there.

5). Hiroshima: we visited the site of the atomic blast. The thing that struck me most was the extent of the explosion. For example, I saw a display in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum presenting the scale of the explosion. In order to avoid the direct impact of the blast I would have to travel about ten minutes by subway from the epicenter (or hydrocenter) of the blast. The attack on Hiroshima is nothing compared to what current nuclear weapons are capable. If you look at the top of the dome, you’ll notice it is slanting slightly to the left. The force of the atomic blast melted the metal and pushed it sideways. There was another building, not too far away from this site, where a Japanese man in a basement survived the blast. He must’ve been Irish.

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6). Trees, Trees & More Trees: Japan is the most treed country on the planet. The cities and countryside are equally treed and beautiful. I visited Tokyo in July; however, if you visit in Autumn you can see this one street with ginko nut trees lining either side (see below).

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Japan is full of such living pictures and images; it is probably the most singularly beautiful country I’ve ever visited. If you love trees and nature, this is probably one of the best places on earth to visit. I was absolutely enamored of the countryside. I might try to grow some of these ginko trees in my back yard. I regret not bringing home a maple leaf from Japan.

 

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