I expected much from Japan; talking robots, heated toilets, sushi. That was there. But what I got was a whole lot more. A feeling of envy; an appreciation of how life could be; and respect for a country, it’s people and culture. But most of all, a warm welcome.
Don’t get me wrong. I was open minded before arriving. I knew the Japanese were hard working achievers who will sacrifice almost everything for their country and employers. But their psyche is much deeper.
Where to start. Something that possibly contradicts the above. I imagined that everyone spoke American English due to the globalisation of information, business and entertainment. I was also of the opine that young people in particular would like to practice and demonstrate their ability as linguists. I was wrong. In many cases, even the young do not speak anything other than words assimilated into everyday language.
But something I learned before traveling also became readily apparent. I had the pleasure of meeting three Japanese students in the UK. Often a solicited response to my question was provided following a confab in Japanese between the three. Such is the desire, nay expectation that it must be correct, they were often unwilling to embarrass themselves, family or education by answering with error. And so it was in Japan. I was assured by a restaurant owner that she did not speak English…in word perfect English!
And this behaviour of not wanting to get it wrong is borne out of respect for others. And respect is everywhere.
Bowing in greeting, thanking, apologising, parting; bowing is big in Japan. The gratefulness of a meal is expressed by the phrase, itadakimasu. The notion that, on a crowded train or bus, someone who is not elderly or disabled would sit in a ‘priority seat’ is one that is not even considered; even with standing space at a premium. I was warmly thanked not only by the recipient but by others also when surrendering a non-priority seat to an elderly lady. Respect travels in all directions ;young to old, old to young, Japanese to foreigners. And this motivates foreigners to reciprocate as they should.
When travelling, I like to eat off piste. Away from the madding crowds of fellow visitors, I seek out local eateries, backstreet diners. This often means going without an accessible menu. In Japan, sitting in any eatery; whether it be next to a businessman, group of ladies doing lunch, whoever; someone will help the confused looking diner.
Tipping, a western plague, is not acceptable in Japan. People are paid to deliver the best possible service without further reward. A simple ‘thank you’ or arigato is received with gratitude. Complimenting the food is a bonus.
Efficiency is something you would expect in Japan. To find this, you need look no further than the public transport system. The world renown Bullet or Shinkansen train system is much wider than I realised. Beyond that it is everything it is hyped up to be; fast, clean, efficient. Similarly, the express train to Narita International Airport has the same attributes though at a lesser speed. Local trains run to time, have both seating, but also plenty of room to stand. With an estimated 20 million commuters travelling in to Tokyo each day, trains are crowded. But there is little of the aggression found on other countries’ transport infrastructures. And this is true of buses also. Oh, and with the exception of the shinkansen, transport is relatively inexpensive.
Another aspect of this culture is a feeling of safety. I am sure if you ventured into the wrong area at night, potential trouble lays in waiting. But like most experienced travellers, you learn where the bad neighbourhoods are and avoid them. And it may well be that Japanese authorities will throw up their arms at the next statement, but I felt able to take the type of liberty with my personal safety and possessions that I would not at home. Everything is, of course relative. But to misquote Orwell, some places are more safer than others.
I knew that Japanese cuisine was more than rare fish. Noodle and rice dishes abound. Soups and stews, barbecued meats, fish other than British staples sushi and sashimi, mochi or ice cream wrapped in a sticky rice cake. Street food to fine dining, its all in Japan. Add in saki and local beer tastings, and a traveller’s palate will have its own vacation.
The physical beauty of the country and it’s people are a whole new story; but based on the above only, this should be enough to go out and buy those tickets.