Thursday 22 October 2015

Don't panic! It's Only Japan.

It's a popular internet meme that strange and Japan are synonymous. But Donald Trump is now President of the United States. So, who are we to judge?

My Japanese wife and I travel to Japan about every four years, and for me, all the important things are similar and only the inconsequential things are different. But, those inconsequential things can be surprising. Though I now have a deeper understanding, a trip to Japan is still as exotic and exciting as it was the first time, and the wonder and strangeness never seem to fade.

 Below, is a list of the differences that I most noticed when I first set foot in Japan. As with every other such list of peculiarities, this one will prepare you for Japan much in the same way that basting prepares the turkey to enjoy a happy Thanksgiving.

 • Perhaps the most obvious thing is that the language is a barrier. What surprised me, and may surprise you, is just how high that barrier is. Not only will you not be able to understand or participate in conversations, but you will be unable to read so that, sometimes, just choosing the right bathroom will be a challenge. This reduces you to the dependency level of a four-year-old.

• There is no “L” section in a Japanese-English dictionary.

My father-in-law's rural home.

• Slippers are a big deal. The entrance way to every home has a tiled area below floor level dedicated to the idea. You are expected to doff your shoes there and then slip into guest slippers to cross the wooden floors of the rest of the home. At the entrance to the bathroom will be yet another pair of special, rubber slippers. You back out of your guest slippers and slip into these while using the toilet. I found it arduous to change upon entering every room and eventually gave up. Being Caucasian gives you some license to ignore tradition and get away with it.

Typical front entrance in Japanese home. Shoes are left on the tile.

• I was not surprised by the automated toilet seats, as their existence is now widely known. However, I was surprised how quickly I got used to it and how badly I wanted one for my own house. Ten years later, I have one and can say with confidence that only a toddler's butt could be more pampered.

(In every sense of the phrase, I have probably written much more than is justified on the Japanese toilet: CLICK HERE to read Navigating the Japanese Bathroom.)

Japanese toilet seat in my home.

Toilet controls—and this is an economy model.

• Japanese toilets have a small faucet and basin above the cistern. After you flush, the incoming water is used for washing your hands.

• Toilet and washing up areas are separated, in most houses. This means some rearranging of daily hygiene rituals.

• The shower and bathtub are together in a waterproof room. You are expected to wash using the shower and relax in the tub. Family and guests all share the same bathwater which is recycled, cleaned and replenished via a computerized system. The bathtub is drained periodically for cleaning, but otherwise stays full and warm, with an insulated cover over top to save energy.

"Dad! There're weeds in the bathtub!" Noah yells, after rolling back the insulating cover. "Hop in!" I call, from the couch, "We're having kid soup for dinner!"  On May 5th (Children's Day) it is tradition to put Iris leaves and roots in the bathwater to promote good health and ward off evil.

• Many of the homes I've visited have both a Western-, as well as a Japanese-style, living room.

The traditional Japanese-style living room (below). The table stands in a square pit that has an electric heater at the bottom. The duvet-like blanket is called a kotatsu and is used to conserve the heat, during colder weather. In most Japanese homes, this is as close to central heating and insulation as you are going to get. Inset: Close up of tatami mats, woven rice straw mats that cover the floor of Japanese living rooms and bedrooms.

• Most Japanese homes have no insulation or central heat. The idea is to heat bodies, not rooms. In cold weather, they wear layers and eat hot foods. A lot of leisure time is spent around the Japanese living room table, your lower body huddled under a special duvet, while an electric heating unit warms your toes.

• You will find only cooking knives in Japanese kitchens. There are few, if any, butter knives, and nothing like a steak knife. The cook is expected to serve the meal with everything pre-sliced and diced, convenient for eating with chopsticks.

• Japanese housewives grocery shop, daily. I'm uncertain whether this is cause or effect, but Japanese households are not built for stockpiling. Fridges and cupboards are about one-third the size of the American equivalent.

Crowded Japanese kitchen with dining room, beyond.

• In Japan, the traditional family culture is very strong and includes a stay-at-home mom. In this arrangement, the women control the purse strings and do the majority of the purchasing, so businesses have found it in their best interest to make shopping as convenient as possible for housewives with toddlers. The most obvious example is the prevalence of large, kid-oriented amusement centers in department stores. Often, they employ an attendant—or, more recently, a robot!—who will supervise the children. The price is always so reasonable that it becomes unreasonable not to utilize the service. This is quite opposite of the western idea of charging parents through the nose for things their kids desire.

Robot child-minder found in some Japanese department stores.

• TV: The language barrier never seems so high as when you watch Japanese television. Almost every program introduces some element that seems bizarre and requires an explanation. After a while, you just go for a walk.

Beyond a clutter of garish type-written comments pasted over just about every show, a small box is often inset in one corner featuring the face of a celebrity guest watching the same thing that you are watching. His/her reaction to the material is meant to help you appreciate, in the proper way, the content; like a laugh-track in an American comedy.

Japanese TV: Inset faces (often celebrities) react to what it on the screen to help set the context for the audience. They laugh when it's supposed to be funny and make appropriate exclamations when something is surprising, horrific, or looks tasty.
Japanese TV:  The long tradition in using paper is still reflected in modern news programs which use paper charts with peel and stick labels as much as they use computer graphics.

• Outdoor banks of vending machines are a common sight. Most dispense juice, coffee, tea and cigarettes, but I've also seen ones that sell comic books, condoms and even, one offering a variety of household objects like brushes, screwdrivers, rubber bands and light bulbs. An urban legend persists that Japanese vending machines sell used panties. This has some basis in fact: For a brief time there were a few such machines, but then new laws were made to address the disturbing practice, and those few machines disappeared.

Outdoor vending machines may be found anywhere there is power and some shelter. They are as common on rural back roads as they are on urban thoroughfares.

A hand-cranked document shredder. Don't know if this is a Japanese thing, but I've never come across one anywhere else.
Door to door milk delivery is still available.
Manhole covers in Japanese cities are usually much more decorative than in Canada.
Though they are years ahead of us in cell phone use and tech, they still have a lot of phone booths.

The  Japanese Giant Hornet; a 3-inch-long wasp! When my father encountered one, his only comment was, "I want to go home!" It is the only logical response.
In no imaginable universe is this me holding any of these nightmarish creatures.
Common Broom Bush selling in a local garden shop.
In Canada, this invasive and almost-indestructible plant is referred to as a weed.

• The Japanese are obsessed with food. They are also obsessively polite. Consequently, “Oishi!” (tasty!) is the most commonly used Japanese word. If you say, "Here, have some three-day-old burnt Kraft Dinner I scraped from a pan I found on the side of the road..." They will take a microscopic nibble, smile and say, "Oishi!"

 • If you ever host a Japanese visitor, you need to know that they are not used to using knives to eat their meals. I realized this the first time my Japanese father-in-law visited Canada and I took him out for dinner with a group of friends and family. He does not speak English and could not read the menu, so I ordered a steak for him. I was almost finished my meal before noticing that he hadn't taken a bite of his steak. And that's when it dawned on me that in Japan, everything is served already cut, suitable for chopsticks. He had no experience wielding a knife in such a precise manner and I guess he felt too self-conscious to take a "stab" at it. I surreptitiously sliced it up for him. We were both slightly embarrassed.

This is a popular type of inexpensive sushi restaurant referred to as kaiten-zushi, literally "rotation sushi." Customers grab whatever they want from the conveyor belts (background) and pay between one and three dollars, for each plate. The prices are indicated by the colour of the plates.

• It is polite to slurp your soup. I'm so well Westernized that I was unable to do this without spraying the room with noodle drippings. The family was surprised that I lacked this basic culinary skill.

• Restaurants—including many fast food places—will give you a wet napkin to wash your hands with before a meal. It's gauche to wash your face with this.

• Generally, restaurants do not supply paper napkins. They assume you carry tissue with you and can use that. When licking my fingers doesn’t cut it, I steal the toilet paper and try to keep it hidden.

• A related observation: There are no paper towels in the bathrooms.

• Japanese ice cream, pizza toppings candy and potato chips include things like wasabi, seaweed, squid, shrimp and corn.

Something more familiar but with unfamiliar flavour: Apple Pie Kit Kat and Matcha Tea Kit Kat. It's worth noting that most potato chips on store shelves are not salt flavour, but sushi or nori (sea weed).
Inago (locust) is a common snack food in many areas. I tried it. It actually tasted good, but I hated picking bug feet out from between my teeth.
• I noticed that corn seems inordinately relished, though it is a common vegetable, in Japan.

• Many things in Japan are about one-third smaller than in North America, but not beer. It’s served in mugs that are about one and a half times larger than what we get here.

• I never saw anyone eating anything while walking—not even a candy bar or a hot dog. They always take their food somewhere, and sit to enjoy it. I have since learned that it is considered rude.

• FINANCE: Cash is still the most common transaction. Credit cards are still not accepted in a lot of places, even where they expect tourists. And banks still verify your identity by a personal family ink stamp, a practice I had never heard of, before I went to Japan.
An Asian girl's fingernail. Also, novelty imitations of family seals. This one represents Yokokawa, my wife's family-name. Official versions of these stamps, called inkan, are still used in Japan to verify identity on important documents.

• REAL ESTATE: In the rural area where I've spent most of my time, houses either look completely dilapidated or brand new. Old houses are mowed down rather than renovated. My father-in-law's 50-year-old house had been constructed from 40-foot spans of clear timber that, these days, only the wealthiest people could afford. Two years ago, that lumber was hauled away and burned before they started construction of his new house. The idea of renovating an existing structure seems to only now be gaining traction, probably due to the extended economic downturn.

• TOURISM: In cosmopolitan areas like Tokyo, the Japanese are making strides in accommodating English speaking tourists. However, their efforts are still rudimentary and unevenly applied; mostly amounting to English signage. You may well follow English signs to a bilingual ticket agent and book a three hour guided tour only to find the guide speaks only Japanese. I would not yet say that Japan is a comfortable destination for English-speakers.

• RELAXATION: The Onsen is a traditional Japanese public bath, designed for relaxation. They are ubiquitous throughout Japan and a very common form of recreation. Onsens feature large, communal hot tubs in which people bathe naked. Men and women usually bathe in separate facilities. If you go, expect to be gawked at by Japanese children.

Mitsui Garden (Chiba, Tokyo) rooftop onsen.

On my last trip, I noticed two strange things that I had never noticed before. The first thing was that, in the change room, the other men tended to cover their private parts with a small towel, even though we were all male, and all soon to be exposed.

Onsen, like all Japanese baths, are exclusively for relaxation, not for cleaning. So, before entering any Japanese bath you are expected to wash and rinse your body. At an Onsen, this is part of the relaxation process and performed both thoroughly and leisurely.

The second thing I noticed was that after sweating in hot water, no one washes, on the way out. I thought this odd, considering the Japanese obsession with cleanliness.

•  Like here, a green light in Japan is green. However, they call it “blue.”

• Cars and streets are about one-third smaller than in North America. Therefore, city maps look more crowded.

• The streets are so narrow and tight that there are a lot of blind corners, so you’ll notice a lot of mirrors mounted at corners... it’s the only way to know if someone is about to enter the intersection.

• Drivers always back into parking spots.

• There are virtually no street signs or house numbers in my in-laws' town. I still have no idea how the mail gets delivered... or a pizza, for that matter. I have read that big cities work on a grid system and that delivering mail involves a lot of training.

• In an emergency, you dial 1-1-9 instead of 9-1-1.

• In Canada, my five foot nine inches (5' 9" = 175 cm) is about average and a lot of men are taller than me, so, the first time I visited Japan, I looked forward to being the tallest one in a crowd and imagined myself being able to see over the all the heads. But, in the very first entirely Japanese crowd I encountered in Tokyo, all of the younger men were at least as tall as me, and most were taller. I did tower over the average woman, though. Turns out, that due to dietary improvements, the younger generations tend to be taller. The average height in Japan is currently five foot eight inches (5' 8" = 178 cm) and increasing, each year.

• As well as increasing their height, a more modern diet, which now includes frozen and fast foods, has resulted in a visible number of overweight people. I have noticed the difference over the fifteen years I've been traveling to Japan. Based on observations made during my last trip, I'd say that about 20% of the people are above their ideal weight.

• Japanese women admire pale-skinned, Western beauty. They try to stay out of the sun to keep their skin youthful, and rely on long gloves, umbrellas or even skin whiteners to emulate the Western look. Their efforts to adhere to this ideal prevent them from being outdoorsy.

• Public displays of affection are frowned upon. Younger people are demonstrative enough to hold hands, but older people—including my wife, while we're in Japan—would be embarrassed by this. I never saw any other form of touching in public.

My nephew and his girl friend are young and in love, but this is as close as I ever saw them get.

• Japanese will praise you highly for the least achievement. Do not let it go to your head. They don't mean it. They are measuring your humility. They like humility.

• The Japanese are masters of understatement and self-deprecation. If a Japanese person says that they have taken a Karate lesson, you may expect that they are, in fact, a first degree black belt. They are constantly amused by foreigners who exaggerate their abilities. So, unless you are fluent, I would not mention that you know a couple of Japanese words. If you always understate your abilities, you will be well received.

• If you are a foreigner, you are exempt from almost every rule: That you behave strangely is a given. However they will appreciate any attempt to learn their language and accommodate to their customs.

• When a toddler loses a tooth they throw it on top or under the house. (lower tooth on the roof so it grows a healthy replacement straight down and upper teeth under the house so it grows a healthy replacement upwards.) Go figure. Not sure what they do when Grandpa loses his teeth.

In the hotel garden. It struck me that so much loose change could never exist in a public space in Canada.

• The Japanese are profoundly practical. When faced with a religious decision between Shinto and Buddhism, they generally choose both. Japanese homes often have two separate shrines. Perhaps frustrating to religions everywhere, the Japanese see no hypocrisy in selecting bits and pieces that they like from each religion. This may be the wisest thing I have ever heard.

East meets West: Some hotels provide both books. The Japanese have a long tradition of taking what they like from many religions and melding them into one, personal philosophy.

The Japanese borrow only those elements from a religion that they feel are valuable. As a result, they assimilate and accommodate many religions, without conflict. In most homes I've visited, you would see both Shinto (above) as well as Buddhist (below) elements, like these two shrines in my father-in-law's home.

There are many familiar products with variations we may never see. This is Coke, but with a natural sugar alternative, so that it's about half as sweet. Wish we had this in Canada.

Examples of weird English is a many.
Especially prevalent, are strange-English T-shirts for toddlers and teens. I think they try to be edgy but often end up inappropriately sexual. One toddler's shirt I saw, read: "Call me, bitch!"

North American churches could learn a lesson in fund raising through "good luck" games, like this coin toss at a Buddhist shrine, in Kyoto.
The traditional kimono is rarely seen outside of tourist areas. Many of these girls are tourists from other Asian countries who have rented kimonos for the day.

Inside a car, parked in a private garage are life-sized cardboard cutouts, presumably of the owners. Neither my wife nor her family or friends can offer any explanation for this one. I thought it might be to discourage thieves or crows.
I wish I'd brought one from home that says "Tom" which I could slip onto the store shelf, to enhance someone's day.

As we walk, a van decorated with signs meanders through the neighbourhood. Some very enthusiastic person inside is babbling, via megaphones affixed to the roof. There is a civic election going on and vehicles like this will visit us about twice a day, for the next week. The first time I saw one of these, I ran after it for three blocks before realizing it wasn't selling ice cream. I just couldn't imagine anyone being so enthusiastic about a thing, if it wasn't ice cream.

On a more serious note... 
check out my time travel action-adventure novel

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