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Shomishuu

Another Japan Trip Log

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On reading Kaikitsune's reflections of his trip to Japan, I remembered I had taken some notes on my own visit last year with my wife, and had done nothing with the notes...so I'll post some of them here, trying to avoid redundancy. This was my first trip back since 1996 and only my fourth since we were married in Tokyo 30 years ago. All but seven of the 35 days were spent in my sister-in-law's home in Kuroiso City in northern Tochigi.

SERVICE

If you ever wanted to experience how the Pope gets treated everywhere he goes, just go shopping anywhere in Japan. Down side: going shopping after returning home. One typical experience: Had to take a number and wait somewhere to get a rail pass validated - had to wait over half an hour but didn't mind a bit because the 10 or so employees in the work area were all actively (almost furiously) engaged in work, only talking to each other to resolve a work issue. Very refreshing!

ON THE ROAD

I didn't know the Japanese cars I saw on the road. There must have been 20 or so models of both Toyotas and Hondas but few Camrys, Corollas, Civics, Accords, etc. They were unrecognizable and had names I had never heard, like Fit, Chaser or whatever. Smaller roads mean they are very compact, have small wheels and come in the oddest shapes you can imagine. Even the occasional SUV is proportionally scaled down.

The most indelible image was the profusion of the Mercedes Benz. BMWs were prevalent too but the Benz was everywhere, especially in Tokyo. In an economy bordering on deflation I was dumfounded. I asked around but no one could tell me why. I do know Japanese professionals are highly image-conscious and I'm guessing that if you're a company president, CEO, etc. and you DON'T have a Mercedes, people probably think your company is suffering because all the other professionals have one. Just a WAG on my part though.

Many foreigners believe that most Japanese get around by train and that's certainly true in the larger cities but in the countryside you quickly discover you need a car. Most smaller towns have just one train station and it may be miles from where you live.

Cars are affordable in Japan but it costs a fortune to register, insure and maintain one. For some reason, buying a car seems to be an ordeal. My sister-in-law and husband bought a car while I was there. It took about a month to get the deal done - the car salesman made four trips to the house and the car insurance guy came three times, taking us all out to lunch one day and later delivered an 8X10 professional glossy portrait he took of us.

The public roadway is one place where the Japanese refined sense of consideration for others evaporates. Every inch of asphalt is prized and guarded as if it were the last drink of water (or beer) on earth. Nobody waits for anybody, nobody lets anybody in, and why they paint the crosswalks on is quite mysterious because drivers totally (yes totally!) ignore them. And red lights - well if it's only been red for five seconds just press on through because that's what the driver behind you expects.

With all of this, road rage is almost non-existent...people just expect it to be this way so they don't get up tight.

There is one peculiar but common situation where the Japanese driver reverts to culture, and that is when two vehicles meet on a road so narrow it is impossible for them to get by each other at the point where they meet. So...one of them must back up and/or one or both of them must twist continuously back and forth until they've together created enough space for them to pass. In this case, almost without exception and without ever exchanging a word or making eye contact, each driver promptly does whatever they must do to make it work, and with such precision it seems as if a third party is directing them. No one argues, gesticulates, grimaces or glares. It may take five minutes or more but they both just get it done and give each other a friendly wave as they finally pass by each other. I saw this over and over but never failed to marvel at how smoothly it worked.

In the U.S. we recognize that the posted speed limit is just a recommended speed for traffic to flow smoothly and that about "five over" is what most other drivers expect you to go. In Japan, if the posted limit is 40 kilos it flows at about 65. If it's 50 it flows at 75-80. In the countryside you rarely see a patrol car and speeding tickets are rare.

Driving on the left was never a problem for me - I just got in line and followed the crowd; but as Kaikitsune pointed out, for the foreigner being a pedestrian is much more dangerous. Crossing the street seems simple because the streets are narrow but it's sooo hard to get used to looking to the right for oncoming cars. I don't know how many times I took two steps out and had to jump back. Also, cars are very small and often parked half on the street, half on the curb, and can get moving into a lane of traffic where you're crossing before you know they're there. On every city block there are probably five or six slivers of space between two buildings where four feet wide cars and scooters can bolt into the street from. And when you're in a crosswalk, just remember you're the ONLY one who knows what it is. All of this means you can't just look in both directions and cross the street - you have to be looking in all four directions all the way across because a car or motorcyle can appear from literally nowhere in one or two seconds.

Oh yeah, the bicycles! Usually sidewalks are only wide enough to accomodate two people walking side by side. If you're on the sidewalk and hear a "ching ching," better move over NOW because a bicycle is about to blow by you from the rear and it is you who is expected to give way. I learned in a hurry to separate the "ching ching" from the abundant ambient racket on a busy Tokyo street. Don't ask me how - just a survival thing. Somehow it all works out.

HEATERS

There was a heat wave in Japan just before we went there on April 22nd and that's what I "dressed" for when we packed, but by the time we got there it had become quite chilly again and stayed that way for most of our stay. I don't know about most households but in my sister-in-law's place I realized right away that when they turn the heaters off in the spring they stay off until the fall, regardless of how things really are. Of course the sliding doors to the outside stay open in the morning to air out the house and my petunias froze and shriveled up every day while everyone else was just hunky dory. After several days of me wearing my only coat in the house they finally loaned me a too-big sweater but the heaters stayed off! My better half "advised" that buying my own sweater would be insulting so I just layered under the sweater in the house and took a lot of walks outside.

HANGING LAUNDRY

Kaiki-kun also mentioned this...it does hang outside just about every residence because very few Japanese have clothes dryers. What's very odd is to see it hanging outside elegant homes, where Mercedes' and BMWs sit parked in painted brick driveways inside iron gates. Happens all the time though.

PACHINKO PARLORS

Had never actually been in one until my brother-in-law took me to one close to their home in Kuroiso City. We just took a 45 second walk-through and it remains my most unforgettable experience of the trip. It was 10 AM, packed like a can of peanuts, and as loud as Fenway Park during a Sox rally against the Yankees. The noise was just from the machines, hundreds, maybe thousands of them in use. It was truly deafening...we couldn't talk to each other, standing face to face. Everyone was smoking and the smoke just smothered me until I couldn't take any more of it and motioned I had to get out of there. When we hit the outside it seemed as if I had been standing next to a series of speakers blaring rock music which had been abruptly turned off. The sudden silence was as jolting as the noise had been. I had more than one reason to shake my head as we walked off.

MYSTERIOUS SIGNS

Seen in a large department store in Kuroiso: A large sign on a wall - in English - that said "INFORMATION." Underneath was a profusion of information - entirely in Japanese! :-S

FOOD

Most of us sumoans already know the Japanese grocery shop every day and it was "expected" that my sister-in-law go get and prepare almost all meals from scratch - no frozen food. Sashimi was part of every evening meal (no cooking time required, you know!). My brother-in-law has a lot in the mountains where he grew almost all the veggies we ate...lotsa yummy stuff I had never heard of and the best asparagus I've ever eaten. And the old myth about fishheads and rice - what myth??

CLOTHING

Clothing is still very conservative. In 35 days I only saw one bare teen-age midriff. Most blue jeans I saw were on guys under 35 or so. Most salary-men still wear dark suits but they've loosened up a bit and wear some colored dress shirts. One thing stood out among older women who wore glasses: almost all had extremely stylish frames...very impressive but not gaudy. I love shopping for clothes in Japan because I'm short and skinny and can spend two months in the U.S. trying to find a long-sleeve shirt to wear; but in Japan I can find one anywhere.

BITS AND PIECES

For non-smokers the only escape from cigarette smoke is in your own home and now the Kokugikan. Even the large department stores and train stations have smoking benches throughout. Cigarettes are cheap, some still about 100 yen a pack so there's little incentive for smokers to quit. One thing still hasn't changed: few public rest rooms have hot water although many have a spigot for one; mostly no towels or soap. Most do have at least one western toilet though. Female attendants in public men's rooms do give one pause (literally) - especially the first time. :-D Baseball on TV still ends when it's time, not when it's over. (Dribbling...) Although most every residence has at the least a tabletop sized religious shrine or other display, religion almost never "drives" the conduct of one's personal life.

AT THE KOKUGIKAN

The four of us did get to squeeze into a B section masuzeki box for day 13 of the Natsu Basho...doubly exciting because Hokutoriki, the homeboy from just 10 miles down the road from Kuroiso, was cleaning up at the time. Barely got through it because of the smoke but still a thrill. Can't wait for a smoke-free experience next time I'm there.

Despite all the oddities, the $10 sixpacks and $30 haircuts, I'd move over there in a heartbeat if I could handle the cigarette smoke...but that's not going to change so I'll just be content to visit once in a while.

Edited by Shomishuu

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