Thursday, September 10, 2009

Notes from Japan

The Land of the Rising Sun fascinates and mystifies, even after my fourth (5th?) visit, which ended this past Tuesday.

A modern western political and economic system grafted onto the surface of a deeply traditional society, where even the young people, despite the flashy dress and pervasive androgeny, still bow to one another as they head off into the night on their separate adventures. And where I saw a man drive his new Toyota onto the grounds of a shrine, open up all the doors, trunk, and hood, and receive a totem-waving blessing from a Shinto priest in full regalia.

An efficiency nut's (me) dream of a country, where everything is clean and on time, every product is meticulously packaged, and the rules are understood (and mostly obeyed) by all, even if this means waiting for the "don't walk" sign to change at the corner of an empty avenue at 1 in the morning.

Yep, it's all good. Will return for more visits.

This last trip, longer than usual, gave me a chance to roll into the flow of life a bit more, to see a part of Japan far removed from Tokyo, and to observe more of the way the Japanese live their daily lives.

A few thoughts and observations:

1. Language: Being in one country for more than 5-6 days without knowing the language well starts to become frustrating for me. And detracts from some of the reasons why I travel in the first place. You can't really get a feel for a place until you can begin to understand some of the ambient conversation, in the subways, on the streets, and in restaurants. While soaking in some of the onsen during the trip, I had several guys (straight) try to strike up conversations with me, but all I could do was weakly remark, in Japanese, that I couldn't understand very well. This won't happen the next time....

2. Regional differences: Much like our Southwest, theirs is less formal, less hurried, with happier smiling faces. Returning to central Tokyo after the flight back from Hirsohima was like stepping from a soothing hot tub into a meat grinder. Even a New Yorker like me was blown back by the surge of people, movement, action all around.

3. Exhaustion: Theirs, not mine. Though, after a week of moving from city to city, I was starting to feel worn, I noticed a unique quality of Tokyo life---at least 60-70% of the people seated on the subway were falling asleep. At almost any time of day. It may just be a cultural difference, or reflect the fact that the Tokyo metro is so safe and secure that you actually CAN catnap without worring about someone snatching your backpack. However, I think it's more than that--the average person works very long hours, 6 days a week, and often has a long commute out to the more affordable neighborhoods at the fringes of the central city.

4. Diversity: The least culturally diverse country I have ever visited, except for perhaps mainland China. New York, admittedly, has spoiled me, but after a while it felt odd that a country as rich and powerful as Japan has achieved such success while remaining so isolated and uniform from a cultural POV. Wondering whether this can be maintained in a global, digitized, interconnected world. Particularly since Japan's population is shrinking and the ratio of retirees to workers is projected to skyrocket during the next 20 years----where will the workers come from, if the government is unable to goose the birthrate through tax and spending incentives?

5. Rigidity: The predictability that makes Japan work so well can also trip it up in small ways that point to a larger challenge. On our second to last night in Tokyo, Jase and I ate at our fave tonkatsu restaurant in Omotesando Hills. At the end of the meal, I was served a tiny glass bowl with a small scoop of lemon sherbet, which I consumed since Jason was still working on his main course. When he finished, we waited for his sherbet to be served, so we could enjoy our tea and pay the check. No sherbet. I motioned for the waiter and requested his sherbet---in my best sign language. No no, we were informed---his 'set' (a meal combination much richer than mine) did not include the sherbet. OK, small matter, but as we sat there, a bit perplexed, I remarked that, in most other countries, they would have rounded up the sherbet with a wink and a nod. Or indicated that we could have it as an extra if we wanted to pay for it. Not there.

Well, I'm back in NYC now and glad to be home. Hope to see Japan--and Jase--again soon.

I DO miss those toilets, though.....

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