Dispatches from Japan
Here at Imperfect Women, we’re always trying to expand our horizons. Today we expand them all the way to the Land of the Rising Sun: Japan. Guest blogger imperfect_husband gives us some impressions of his recent travel to Japan.
Dispatches from Japan
Japan is an interesting country. My overall impressions are that it is very clean, the people are very polite, and I would feel safe walking the streets at night almost anywhere. I always get the feeling they’re much more afraid of me than I am of them. I try to look “unthreatening” – you know, basic stuff, like not baring my teeth and growling at random passers-by. But I always feel a little like a Sasquatch lumbering around among Capuchin monkeys.
Japan does have its quirks for the new visitor. Here are a few observations from a couple of recent business trips to Japan.
Anyone who has been to Japan is familiar with the “deluxe” toilet seats. If there’s one thing I can say about the Japanese as a population, it’s that they must have very clean bums. Virtually all public restrooms have these toilet seats, and you can buy them at home stores, electronics shops and department stores as well. They all have a “Spray” and a “Bidet” button, which do, well, just what you’d expect (and just what the cute icons depict). I still haven’t figured out what the difference is between the two – they both seem to do the same thing. I guess my uncultured Western bum just isn’t discerning enough. Some of them also have (and I quote) “Powerful Deodorizer”. And one I saw in a coffee shop in Osaka had a button marked “Flushing Sound”, with a little musical note icon.
I assumed this was some pleasant tune or something to mask the sound of the flush. But no, when you press this button, it makes a flushing sound. Why you would want a simulated flushing sound when you have the real thing right there is a mystery to me.
English in Japan has the same sort of cachet that French does for many English speakers. (Notice how I cleverly used the French word “cachet” in that last sentence, to make my point. That’s why Imperfect Women pays me the big guest-blogger bucks.) It’s used a lot in advertising slogans and brand names. However, the usage is often humorous or just plain odd to a native English speaker. Here are few examples:
“SWEETS – The place where is with a smile happily.” (sweets shop in Osaka)
“Dreamfashion Expects 100% Powerful Action” (on a t-shirt)
“No Pudding, No Life!” (on an ad for pudding, of course)
“Little Boy Blue come blow up your horn” (on a shopping bag in Tokyo)
“Please enjoy your Hello Lunch at office – we make for you with all of our heart” (on the bento box lunch at the office where we worked)
You’d feel pretty guilty if you didn’t like that lunch, wouldn’t you? (Unfortunately, I did have some twinges of guilt, as it was not great.)
I also could have purchased some “Red Snapple Sushi”, a “4-port USB Hug”, or a “1400-watt Hair Driver” A popular brand of sports drink is called “Pocari Sweat”, and another popular soft drink brand is “Calpis” (Look, I don’t care who ‘Cal’ is…)
Of course, no discussion of Japan would be complete without mentioning the food. A good rule of thumb in Japan is, the more expensive it is, the weirder it is. At the low end of the price scale, you can find Tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlets, usually served with a mound of raw, finely shredded cabbage), or Ramen noodles, among other things. Of course there’s sushi. My favorite way to have sushi is “kaiten sushi”. This is where you sit at a bar and little plates of sushi parade by on a conveyor belt. You just pick off what you want, and to figure out what to charge you, they just look at your stack of plates.
At one rather fancy Japanese restaurant, there was an “appetizer” (and I use the term loosely, because it was about as far from appetizing as you can get) that was some kind of gnarly, rubbery, shell-dwelling creature. Not being a marine biologist, I couldn’t identify it. Pulling it out of its shell reminded me of that scene from “Wrath of Khan” where the big mind-controlling bug comes out of Chekhov’s ear. And eating it was about as pleasant.
I’m actually pretty sure that the Japanese themselves don’t eat the really weird stuff. It’s just a trick they play on foreigners. I imagine whispered, giggling conversations in the kitchen: “I wonder what we can get them to eat this time! Look, look, he’s about to bite into it…”
The train system in Japan is wonderful. The trains are fast, clean, efficient, and always precisely on time. I wish we could have this kind of infrastructure in North America. If you’re thinking about taking a connecting flight from, say, Tokyo to Nagoya, the train is probably a better option – 275 miles, in just over 90 minutes, at 160mph.
Some of the train stations are huge and can be a little intimidating, but the signs are good, so you can usually find your way around.
Uncle Hiroshi’s Curiosity Shop
Not too far from the hotel is what used to be a department store (or so it appears). It’s mostly empty now – maybe they went out of business or relocated. But there are a couple of small shops using some of the space. A 100-yen shop (like a dollar store) on the first floor. A women’s clothing store on the 3rd floor. And then there’s this odd little shop on the 4th floor. It’s this collection of knick-knacks and old books and magazines. Eclectic art books. Avant-garde magazines from 15 years ago. There’s really not much there; it’s not one of those crammed-to-the-rafters kind of places, just an odd assortment of things neatly laid out. It’s like someone cleaned out Crazy Uncle Hiroshi’s garage and then used the stuff to start a second-hand shop. The oddest thing I saw there was a VHS tape titled “X-Rated Japanese Reggae Dancers”.
The title just begs so many questions. Who knew there was Japanese reggae? And with dancers, to boot? What do the Japanese consider X-Rated when it comes to their reggae dancers? I was tempted to buy it just for the WTF factor. But in the end, I settled for a photo, just to prove that I wasn’t making it up.
How to Make History Boring
At one point, we had to stay over the weekend, and there wasn’t a lot to do in our little rural corner of Japan, so we decided to go to Osaka for the weekend. One of the things to see there is Osaka Castle. I thought this would be fun, as I’m usually quite interested in learning about the history of places I visit. However, I found the visit to Osaka Castle disappointing and rather boring. I think there are a couple reasons for this.
First, like many Japanese castles, Osaka castle is a reconstruction. The original castle – and several re-builds – burned down when struck by lightning. (The Japanese kept building these tall, wooden structures and they kept getting hit by lightning – go figure! Where’s Ben Franklin when you need him?) The inside is a modern museum. There’s nothing of what the original interior would have looked like – not even a sample room or diorama. The outside is impressive, but the inside didn’t do much to spark my interest in the history of the castle or Japan in general.
I think the second reason I didn’t find it interesting is that Japanese history is not very relevant to North Americans. Until the mid-19th century, Japan was very much a closed society. They didn’t have a lot of interaction with the rest of the world, and especially the West, so they didn’t have much impact on our history. I was fascinated at the Tower of London. But British history is relevant to North Americans. It’s our history (at least if you want to go back more than a couple hundred years). Finding out where each boulder in Osaka Castle’s moat came from just didn’t do it for me.
Worst Taxi Driver in Japan
The taxi drivers in Japan are generally courteous and efficient. And their cabs are spotless. Once I was sitting in the front, and I was feeling chilled – I thought maybe the side window was open. It wasn’t – the glass was just so clean I couldn’t see it. Many of the drivers wear white gloves, and white crochet seat covers are popular. Of course, there’s always the exception.
We took a combination of train and taxi to get to our work site. One morning, there were no cabs at the train station. Finally one pulled up. We had the address, in Japanese, on the company’s business card, and we had a Google map, with directions, also in Japanese. But the cab driver didn’t know where it was or how to get there. He called his dispatcher and talked for 10 minutes. He still didn’t know how to get there. He wouldn’t look at the map. We were about to give up and find another cab. Finally the driver hopped out and went over to the police kiosk (they seem to have them by most train stations). He talked with them for like, 15 minutes, and when he got back in, he still didn’t seem to know how to get there. The place we were going wasn’t even that far from the train station. It was a 15-minute drive. So then we called our work site, and one of the guys there talked to the cab driver, and gave him directions. Again, they were on the phone for 15 minutes, and finally, we heard the cab driver saying, “Ohhhh! Hai, Hai! Wakarimaska” (“Yes, Yes, I understand.”) After that, he got us there with no problem. I guess they finally found a landmark or street he recognized. But what kind of cab driver doesn’t know how to find a place within 15 minutes of the train station, with an address and a map? Definitely NOT the cab driver you want to get if you’re on the Amazing Race!
If you are fortunate enough to travel to Japan, learning even a few words of Japanese will be much appreciated by the locals. The basic ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘excuse me’ will get you a long way. If you want to go farther than that, some of Tim Patterson’s 10 Extraordinarily Useful Japanese Phrases for Travellers is a great place to start. And you should also keep this phrase handy for when your Japanese colleagues take you out and try to get you to drink too much (as they inevitably will). You can make a nice toast to start things off:
“Oh sake oh, atataka kuteh mo, tsumeta kuteh mo, oishi des. Nihon daiski. Kampai!”:
“Sake – hot or cold, it’s delicious. Japan is great!. Let’s drink!”