Japan in the Rear View Mirror

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April 20th 2018
Published: April 6th 2020
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In the rear view mirror, Japan still has me off-kilter. What will I say if someone asks, “What did you think of Japan?” I'm a muddle of conflicting but true-for-me opinions - I'm intrigued but not besotted. I wrote this entry first while in Hong Kong immediately following our departure; I am finishing it two months later at home, after memories have settled and distance of both time and geography give a little more perspective.

Tokyo was a nut we never did crack. In fact, I have it on my ‘to return’ list but not because of the pleasure found but rather the challenge to figure out what so many others are entranced by. Or not. Anthony Bourdain, who has since left this earth, has it as his favourite city in the world and he's not alone. Two things I would do differently: Up our hotel budget to have a room in the hub of the action and hire a guide (not for the sites but for the experiences).

The rest of our three weeks were quite wonderful in this most foreign of lands. The history was beyond our kin (?) and that gave us exercise in trying to understand relevance of the places we visited. A lot of it went right over our heads. It also served as a foil to show how much meaning comes fitting puzzle pieces into the histories we are familiar with - European history, colonization footprints and WWII for example. Rather like finally seeing the Mona Lisa vs another great work that you don’t recognize.

The Japanese culture of order and discipline ekes out in every way. A dozen people will wait at a don’t-walk light despite no traffic anywhere in sight in either direction. Painted lines on train platforms guide commuters to stand to the side of train doors allowing those inside to exit freely...and that’s where people line up.

In one train a sign was posted to put your phone in “manners mode”. Never once did we see anyone taking a phone or video call in a public area. People speak quietly. One woman leans over the back her train seat to ask if its ok for her to recline it a bit...in sign language, but a welcome thoughtfulness.

No garbage cans in public areas - everyone takes their trash home with them. And no garbage or graffiti is found in public places. One Aussie teacher we met squealed with amazement at seeing a trash bin in a train station and vowed to take a picture.

The topography of the country was beautiful. Mountainous and hilly, the cities seemed to sit on flat valley floors. Hills were treed, not housed. We both found it amazing that the high-end homes you usually find on hillsides to get the views were rare.

The buildings are noticeably neutral colours. Cement, bone, ecru, beige could all be used to described the city scapes. The roofs sometimes have enameled tiles, and the rare blue ones stand out.

Taxis have auto-closing doors and we’re instructed to not touch them. Got it.

Bakeries are surprisingly omnipresent. Sushi less so - we may have had sushi four times throughout the trip. Expect ramen.


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