Recently I had the privilege of visiting Japan — one week in Tokyo, a few days in Itayanagi, a small town up north in the Aomori Prefecture, and a day and a half in beautiful Kyoto. When asked how my trip was, I would respond that Japan is a cool country, one of fascinations and contradictions. In this and coming posts I will lay out some examples.
On first glance, Tokyo seems like any other major developed city, a jungle of glass and concrete for as far as the eye can see. At the shop and street levels, things get a lot more interesting. My first major travel experience occurred last year across western and northern Europe. Of course the architecture and fashion and language were different to that of Australia. But I never felt out of place, things didn’t seem that strange. Japan is truly different.
Here are some of the little things I have observed in Japan that piqued my interest while I was there:
1. Hot towels (apparently they’re called Oshibori — thanks Wikipedia!)
Walk into any decent-sized eating establishment and you will be served with a hot towel, usually of cloth, to wipe your hands with (and if you are like me and don’t care for conventions or sensitivities, your face as well). At nicer places they are served rolled up on a wooden platter. It is especially welcome after you have walked through the cold streets on a winter’s night to get to your culinary destination. After the initial wipe-down, they serve as useful hand and table cleaners throughout the meal. A brilliant idea that every eatery should implement at once.
2. Indoor smoking
From the good to the bad. From my casual observations, smoking is fairly common in Japan, especially among men. There are designated areas outside railway stations and big shopping centres where smokers congregate. Indoors, you will probably not be able to get away from them. At sushi counters, sit-down restaurants, bars, club floors, etc, people are generally free to light up. It is not hard for an overseas visitor used to tougher smoking restrictions to have their experience sullied by the plumes of passive smoke floating about a premises.
3. Applauding during karaoke songs
Kinda random but I noticed this when I visited my aunt’s (smoke-filled) karaoke bar with my Jap cousin and two other locals. During pauses or breaks during a song performance, there will be polite claps and encouraging exhortations directed at the singer. On a related note, based on my hilariously limited sample size of two, I conclude that some Japanese people really like their English golden oldies. They might not know what the heck they are saying, but they sure sing it with gusto and relish. The man in the picture did a pretty mean rendition of ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love‘.
4. Automatic left passenger door in taxis
My aunt took me to her place from Narita Airport and we undertook the last leg of that annoying long journey via taxi. I had my attention diverted as the taxi stopped and lo and behold, the passenger door was already open for me. Discombobulated, I disembarked. I made very sure to pay extra attention the next time around and sure enough, as soon as the taxi approaches kerbside to pick up or set down passengers, the left side passenger door opens automatically. Neat. And yes, all taxi drivers do seem to wear white gloves.
5. Well-groomed dogs
Not much to say here, except that Japanese people seem to really care for their dogs and shower them with love. Every dog that I came across was exceedingly well-groomed. For a more in depth exploration, here is a fellow WordPresser’s take on the topic.
6. People still use old mobile phones
You know, the ones that are small and rectangular with a little screen and built-in keypad. As a Gen Y’er in Sydney, I’m pretty sure 99% of my cohort owns a touchscreen smartphone, either of the Apple or Samsung variety. These were not uncommon in Tokyo, but I was surprised to see the numbers of people (comprising supposedly one of the most technologically advanced countries in the world) wielding ‘legacy’ phones in commute and on the streets. I have two hypotheses for this: (i) Japanese phones are just so damn advanced in their own ways that the market has been (slightly) less receptive of outside trends and (ii) it is easier to type in Japanese with keys rather than on finicky screens.
That’s it for now, more to come shortly…