Greetings from Japan,
After 3 days in Tokyo I am now on the Shinkansen train towards Kyoto and I am utterly impressed with the Japanese transportation system. The trains are remarkably clean and nearly always on time (if not, you will receive the information, including an explanation behind the delay, on the live feed available on all public transport vessels), but the best must be the music played when arriving at certain stations. The tune varies depending on the stop but its generally an upbeat bitpop jingle, which always makes me smile. The purpose of these tunes is to ensure that daydreaming travellers, or sleeping commuters, wake up and don’t miss their stop.
Despite knowing about the Japanese appreciation for neat and tidiness prior to my trip, I am thoroughly amazed by the overall cleanliness. The safety of Japan stretch from the overall low crime rate to the extreme safety measures taken when public works are carried out. They usually employ a person, whom’s sole purpose is to guard the publics’ safety. The other day I was walking across the wonderful park located to my place of stay and despite walking several meters away from the park workers, who was trimming the lawn, surrounded by warning signage and blocked off by cones, I was asked by a uniformed man to kindly walk even further away from the works, in case I was going to be hit by grass. Every roadwork usually have such a guard, who simply watches the whole in case someone would remove the blockade and step into the whole. Health and safety measures to the top!
During my stay in Tokyo I have been fortunate to know people who live here, whom have guided me around town and provided answers to all my silly questions, like why people are wearing face masks (which is not, despite what one might think, to protect themselves from polluted air or bacterias, but to protect others from the bacterias oneself carries). My friends work colleague was wearing one the other day, due to a light cold, and he explained that it would be awfully embarrassing if he was to cough in the office. Good manner is also to clean your hands everywhere you go. Disinfection agent, or sanitary towels, is provided at mosts counters, such as at the post office, shop and restaurants. One does not generally eat or drink in public, again in order to show consideration for others, whom might not want to watch you eat. I made the faux pas by eating my Onigiri in public, when I should have gone to a hidden spot or a park. This could be one of the reason behind the absence of public litter. Another reason is the general prohibition to smoke outside, which the odd naughty smoker ignores. This results in no butts on the ground! Same goes for take away cups. Despite serval Starbucks I have yet not seen a single person drinking coffee from a take away cup. This also stems from the tradition of setting time aside for food and drink, it is not meant to be consumed in a rush.
However, the absence of smokers outside does not stop them from smoking inside, in connection with a meal. Whilst dining in the Ebisu area I found most people, and kitchen staff, smoking. It appears that behind the cleanness frenzy facade lies little filthy secrets. Japan is not particularly Eco friendly with little green energy and recycling.
Another backside is of the great organisational machinery, that represents the Japanese society to well. According to some non-Japanese friends it can be very frustrating for foreigners to work in Japanese companies at time. When suggesting new ideas, they are consider to have an attitude problem according to their superior managers, since it is not their place to voice opinions. As a ordinary worker, in contrast with managers higher up in the hierarchy, one is to follow all rules to precision at all times, regardless of whether the rules are efficient or not (many are not since great value is placed on the tradition of how things is to be done, which can be most ineffective at times) and without questioning. This of course results in some very good things as well, like the impeccable service one receives, or the genuine quality of production and food. To carry out ones work with the highest precision and accuracy appears to be equally important at all levels of employment. Nothing is done on a whim.
The consideration taken of others benefits me as a visitor greatly. Everyone is astoundingly polite and possess great manners. In the company of Japanese I feel terribly clumsy and rude. I have yet to learn the difference between the numerous levels of politeness when greeting, depending on to whom you speak to. The only skill I master is Japanese table manners. Despite the difficulty eating a whole fish with chop sticks I managed to wipe all the meat of the bones, for which I received paise from a Japanese friend.
If ever visiting Tokyo, make sure you stay or visit it’s old town, Yanaka, which survived both the great fire of Tokyo in the 30s and the WWII. The neighbourhood is very quaint, with a strong community feel. Before I left my traditional Ryokan, I signed the owners petition for preserving an old local tree, currently in threat of being torn down. The locals also worry a great deal about the widespread housing development in Tokyo, where the tall buildings leaves the elderly stranded on the top floors, unable to go out and about.
In a few short hours I shall join the monks and experience some zen through the daily meditation practises. At the temple I shall abide strict rules for sleeping hours, eating habits and silence. Per request my friend telephoned and organised my stay, and since there is no English spoken or website providing any information, I am somewhat nervous about not following the procedures correctly and offending the monks by doing something wrong (like sticking your chopsticks in the rice bowl is only done at funerals). However, regardless if I do or don’t they probably won’t tell me off since it would be impolite to do so. Despite Tokyo being surprisingly still, at least in comparison to hectic London where people elbow their way forward on the tube and police sirens constantly roaring, I long for the calm of the Myoshinji temple village of Kyoto.
1. Tatami, 2. Tsukiji, 3. Yanaka Cemetary, 4. Okonomiyaki