Nancy's Travelblogue

... there isn't a train I wouldn't take, no matter where it's going. -- Edna St. Vincent Millay

Location: California, United States

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Japan Diary -- 1st reflections

Imperial Palace, Tokyo

Beginning my fifth day in Japan, I've been to Kyoto and back to Tokyo, with enough time time in Japan for some observations: 

THE PEOPLE are wonderful. Every positive stereotype you’ve ever heard about the Japanese people is true. They are friendly, kind, clean, good natured, honest, organized, polite, respectful, and genuinely welcoming of foreigners. In fact, the only reason I’ve been able to navigate my way without knowing the language or even being able to read is that people are willing to go that extra mile in helping me, and to do it with a smile.
Yesterday I was resting in a temple garden when four young students approached me with shy smiles. Without a single word in common, with smiles and gestures they indicated  they wanted to take a photo of me. Their teacher was in the background encouraging them to try out English to strangers. We not only got a photo, but also practiced introductions in English and Japanese and parted with a handshake and a smile.  Later that day I lost my way to the train station and stopped in a café to ask directions via sign language. The proprietress left her café to guide me down the street to find my way.  These are examples of my good experiences that happen many times every day.

SPACE. Everything is just a little smaller in Japan – the interior spaces, the cars, the roads, the food portions , even the people themselves.  Somehow they have it all figured out so that everything is scaled to just the right size so that not a centimeter is wasted but that all needs are filled.  I first noticed it in my hotel room, an understated elegance that fits together perfectly, but just a little smaller than I’m used to. The bed is a little smaller, the ceiling a little lower, the hallway a little narrower, but everything is there.

Conversely, public spaces are also built to scale, but built to accommodate the vast numbers of people that share them, in subways, sidewalks, train stations, and parks. Yesterday I was on the train at rush hour. It was packed when I got on – the standing room space looked full to me. But as we approached the city the people on the train doubled – we were truly squashed like sardines. Everyone was orderly and took it in their stride, as though this happens every day, which it probably does. The people have a instinctive sense for boundaries of personal space, and are and thrive by living closely. Tokyo, for example, is a city of 13 million people, a population density of 16,000 per square mile.

 COMPLEXITY. My friend Vivian tells me her fascination with Japan is the way the old and new, and the spiritual and material co-exist in harmony. Her words keep coming back to me as I travel through Japan. I see this juxtaposition at every turn of the road – Japanese men in business suits praying at the temple, women in kimonos checking their smart phones, a monk on a motor scooter, the Imperial Palace against a backdrop of sky scrapers. These photos were taken just a short distance from each other – one showing the Japanese reverence for cherry blossoms (Tokyo Park) and the other their obsession with gadgets (Akihabara neighborhood, the electronics center of the world).

MY JAPAN CONNECTION. I used to have a photo of my father in Japan. It was taken in the fall of 1945, a few days or weeks after the US bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My father is in the foreground in his navy officer’s uniform, with bones and other human parts in front of him against a backdrop of the remains of buildings. I’m not even sure where it was taken, but somehow Yokohama rings a bell.

Nagasaki 1945
The photo has disappeared and my father has passed away, along with his own Japan story. I know only this: When I was 6 weeks old my father shipped out, a medical officer on a navy mine sweeper. The ship was near Guam when the atom bomb was dropped, and like all navy ships in the Pacific, his went straight to Japan. As a medical doctor, his task was to administer aid and bring what medical supplies were available (sounds ironic to me, first to drop an atomic bomb, then to go in with medical supplies!). I have only my imagination and my US-centric school girl's history of WWII to piece together what he might have seen, heard, smelled, and felt.

 And what Japan might have been half a century ago in the spring of 1945 when I was born, and again so few months later after the dreadful bombing.  How many people on these streets were witness to World War II. Is the war the reason there are so few old people on the streets? How have they integrated that story into their own lives. What of those dreadful years did they pass on to their children – the people in business suits I see in the streets of Tokyo? These are questions I’ll keep asking while I’m here and for a long time after I get home.


Japan Diary -- 1st impressions

View from my hotel at dawn my first morning in Tokyo
I arrived in Tokyo a day late due to a stupid snafu with flights. It turned out fine, so the only casualty was one day less in Japan. It was raining when my plane landed and by the time I got to the train station it was also dark. Completely bewildered I schlepped my luggage around the station looking unsuccessfully for a way out, then once out searched for my hotel in the rainy, dark, busy rush hour of Tokyo.Those first couple of hours were the only hard time I had in Japan. Now that I'm getting the hang of things I want to record my first impressions before they fade away:
Insert key and turn on lights
  • SO MANY PEOPLE. How can they all live so harmoniously, sharing their precious space?
  • Tokyo Station is a terrifying maze. Will  I ever be able to find my way around as well as the Japanese?
  • Found my hotel thanks to a number of kind Japanese along the way. WHEW! What a welcome site! 
  • Hotel room is comfortable, cozy and compact. Has all the essentials -- bed, bath, natural light, phone, Internet, and so on, but scaled down about 15% in size from American hotels. Why do we Americans need so much space?
  • Uh-oh. Got to my room and can’t turn on the lights. Turns out a wooden stick attached to the key must be inserted into a socket to activate the electricity for the room. A place to store the key so it won’t be lost AND assurance that guests will not leave lights on when they go out. How ingenious!!
  • Internet connectivity is excellent.
  • A good night's sleep but, of course, jet lag. I wake up at 4:30 just as dawn breaks over Tokyo. See photo above.
  •  Fewer trash containers around town, not because Japan is so dirty, but because it is so clean. My guidebook says people sometimes take their trash home, so as not to dirty up the city.
  • No paper towels in public restrooms. Japanese women carry a small towel to dry their hands.
  • People dress formally. Japanese men scurrying around in business suits (very few women looking dressed for the business world); students all over the place in attractive uniforms.
  • No dirt. No graffiti. No homeless. No panhandlers. No unnecessary noise. No grumpy Japanese. None!
  • In  restaurants, the waiters yell out something whenever someone enters (thankfully not for me). I’m not sure what that is all about.
  • Japanese love everything French. Including French bakeries!
  • A very organized country. I won’t have trouble getting around, despite the language.
I captured this scene my first morning in Tokyo. The Japanese adore cherry blossoms.

See more photos