A few miscellaneous observations and recollections:
Urban Japan is startlingly clean. The airports and train stations, including the tracks themselves, are basically spotless. The cities themselves are also devoid of litter, cigarette butts, fast-food wrappers, etc. I saw exactly one example of graffiti. One could speculate that they pay particular attention to keeping the tourist-heavy areas looking their best, but even the industrial/warehouse district on the outskirts of Kyoto that we passed through on the way to the airport was dramatically cleaner than, say, the outdoor mall in Boulder.
We were surprised by the number of fields for crops we saw in and near the cities we passed through on various train rides. It seemed that just about every city and town was surrounded by crop fields (mostly for rice, we guessed, based on the stubble from last season) and there were usually fields visible here and there inside the town. It’s a fair bet that the average Japanese urban population eats more locally grown food than the average American town.
I didn’t see much origami. One temple had skeins of origami cubes as decorations, and we saw kusadama balls for sale in a gift shop in Kanazawa. A couple of other gift shops had small packages of paper, often in adorable paper-covered boxes. I left wondering where people go when they want to buy packages of paper like these, for example.
One of the most memorable incidents of the trip happened because of my interest in origami. We arrived in Kyoto several hours before the check-in time at the hotel, so we wandered around in the shopping mall for awhile. There was a bookstore there and, much to my great joy, I purchased six books by Tomoko Fuse, my favorite origami author. Eventually we went back to the hotel lobby to rest for the remaining time. We sat next to a middle-aged Japanese man and his son, who I’d guess was about 8 or 9. The boy was examining a tiny plastic model of the Golden Temple, which they had visited earlier in the day. I pulled one of my books out of the shopping bag to pass the time, and the man pointed out the book to his son. This inspired a brief flurry of Japanese followed by the man tearing one of their sight-seeing leaflets into a square, which his son grabbed and started folding with impressive speed. He started with a bird base so I assumed he was doing a crane; I started folding a crane from a receipt I dug out of my wallet. Tracie giggled a bit because it was pretty clear that the kid could fold faster than I can.
I assumed incorrectly. Rather than a boring old crane the kid whipped out a rather impressive triceratops head. He handed it to me with a good deal of ceremony and bowing; I accepted it with what I hope was an appropriate amount of gratitude and attention. It was a nice piece of folding. He got his father to produce two more squares which he used to make a stegosaurus. (Later I realized that this must indicate that the common fascination that kids have with dinosaurs must extend across cultures.)
I racked my brains for something more interesting than a standard crane; unfortunately I really don’t have many origami models commited to memory. Fortunately the one I did recall was not something the boy had seen before: a paper cube, a model my father taught to me many years ago and possibly the first origami model I ever learned how to fold. He seemed quite impressed with it.
Then it was time for us to check in and them to leave, so he presented me with the stegosaurus (uttering the word “tape” in English and pointing to indicate how I should join the two parts) and I presented him with the cube. He looked back and waved very endearingly as long as we were in his sight.
We encountered a wide range of abilities with English among the Japanese, ranging from none at all to quite fluent. There doesn’t seem to be any way to predict how well any given person will speak English; I wasn’t able to discern any correlations between fluency and age or gender. Our guide in Tokyo said that all Japanese children learn some amount of English in school but the emphasis is on reading rather than conversation.
Tracie and I speak next to no Japanese, so I don’t mean to sound as though I’m criticizing anyone in Japan for not being able to converse with me in a second tongue. We really had no trouble at all with communication in the sense that there was never a situation in which we weren’t able to accomplish what we wanted to accomplish because of a language barrier. At times it took a good deal of pointing at maps and guidebooks and pantomime, but in the end we were always able to make our point or to get theirs.
I did discover that even one or two correctly used words of Japanese will go a long ways. Even if you have a conversation in English with a hotel clerk, they will smile even more broadly if you thank them in Japanese. If you use the Japanese phrase to your hostess or waitress at a restaurant that the meal was delicious, she will laugh in delight and bow to you (not that she won’t bow to you anyway).
We felt very comfortable in Japan. Yes, it is crowded at times and yes, the train stations and shopping areas are very busy, but there is a tangible difference between those crowds and American crowds. There is a subtle sense of order in the chaos. Nobody runs or yells. Nobody exhibits impatience if they have to wait for a crossing light or wait for other people to disembark from a train. Kids don’t scream and cell phone conversations are rare, quiet and unobtrusive.
The worst culture shock occurred during our trip back. To begin with, there were more fat people at the airport gate for the flight departing from Osaka than we’d seen in total during the entire previous time we’d been in Japan. If you want evidence that America has an obesity problem, it was right there.
The real shock happened when we hit the U. S. Customs area in San Francisco. People were yelling, running around with no apparent purpose, changing lines with no apparent reason, and venting their impatience in no particular direction. There didn’t seem to be any particular protocol for dealing with someone in a wheelchair; as a result I had to wrestle with all of our carry-on luggage while Tracie was left to walk through the metal detector with no support (her cane was taken away from her to be x-rayed). I ended up on the far side of the security area with no laptop bag and no shoes, and was treated rudely when I pointed out their error. Our wheelchair assistant vanished altogether when we reached the baggage-claim area. Compared to the quiet, orderly efficiency of entering Japan through one of its customs areas, it was sheer bedlam.
In Japan, all of the taxi drivers were efficient and courteous at the very least, and unbelievably friendly in one instance. When we were in Nara, a youngish taxi driver took the opportunity to convey his extensive knowledge of some of the local sights to us (using our guide as an interpreter), bought us a guidebook from the shrine we visited, and insisted upon pushing Tracie’s wheelchair when we visited a museum. This he did for no charge other than the usual meter fees while we were driving. The taxi driver who drove us from the Denver airport to our house didn’t know his way around the Boulder area, argued with us about whether or not we were within the city limits, and overcharged us for the ride.
The courtesy, friendliness, and genuine warmth of the hotel employees was nothing short of astonishing. The shop clerks and restaurant staffs were also always friendly, cheerful, and clearly pleased to have appreciative foreigners among their patrons. Even people on trains with whom we exchanged no more than a smile during the ride would pause to wish us well at the end of the journey.
In contrast to our experience at the hospital in Takayama, after our return Tracie has been erroneously prescribed medicine to which she is allergic, as her file clearly states, and the on-call doctor failed to return her call after the pharmacy notified her of the error. This drastic oversight was not made by her usual physician but by his partner; he also advised her to stop taking the antibiotics she had been taking which resulted in her relapse a few days later.
So, altogether we’ve been suffering somewhat badly from what might be described as culture shock in reverse.
This will probably be my last entry for this travelogue. Thank you for reading; I hope you’ve enjoyed it. Special thanks to everyone who has written to thank me for these posts and apologies if I’ve neglected to thank you personally.
Some of the people who have written to me have somewhat tentatively asked whether we had a good time despite Tracie’s illness and us cutting the trip short as a result. The answer is yes, we had a wonderful time. We loved it, in short. We’re already thinking about when we might be able to go back.