I had begun my post on Japan by saying there are two sets of reasons I want to give for visiting the country, one dwelled on before my travel, and the other would be the compelling reasons I returned with. I have already explained why I chose Japan in my previous post. Now here’s why I feel everyone should.
As expected, Japan turned out to be exactly the mystic land I had read and imagined it would be. The experience was an amazing medley of the pictures I had drawn in my mind from the limited references of the country I had…. A few pages out of Memoirs of a Geisha, a scene or two out of The Last Samurai, a bolt of neon out of Tokyo Drift and the philosophy of Rashomon’s perspective given to us by Akira Kurosawa.
So here are some of the popular reasons for a Japan visit –
- Japan is beautiful. There’s no doubt about it. But which country isn’t? No. Don’t go there just for its beauty.
- It has the Cherry Blossom season that turns the whole country into a soft focus dream. Even the toughest cookie could get all mushy by the spell cast by the Sakura in season. But, let’s not get swayed by the Sakura (the cherry blossom flowers are called Sakura).
- It walks the tight rope of Tradition versus Modern so elegantly, you would be amazed how the two co-exist in the same land.
Even in religion the Shinto, the Buddhist and the Christian blend in so well that you cannot tell where one stops and where the other begins. There’s a famous old saying that says a Japanese person is born to Shinto rites, married with Christian rites, and buried with Buddhist ones. But lets not talk religion…
- In Japan, the Machine rules. Gizmos you cannot imagine, doing functions you wouldn’t imagine. It’s a whole world of Electronica.
They have hotels completely run by robots. Rockstar transformers entertain you, Vegas style!
Then there’s Akiba, or Akhiabara in Tokyo, nicknamed the Electronics town for the sheer gamut of gizmos and devices available. But, don’t let the glitz blind you into going there. Not just yet.
- Japan is a Future world. There is an Expressway running through a high-rise building! No I am not making this up!!
There are tunnels cutting, not across a mountain, but vertically up and down a mountain.
Formula One cars race across Tokyo roads any given Sunday, the driver could be in a Super Mario costume. Future beckons? Not yet maybe.
- Practically the whole country is swept in by ‘Character Love’. Japan is the birth place of Doraemon, ShinChan, Hello Kitty and hundreds and thousands of more imaginary characters. To me it seems like the Japanese love to perpetuate their childhood by their fixes on these characters.
Not just toddlers, youngsters or those in love, characters or mascots are the mainstays of business, social lives and even government! Every small or big town you visit has its own pet character. The whole town and its paraphernalia revolves around that character.
From stores to food to museums to amusement parks, everything and anything you can think of is dedicated to characters.
Even small towns adopt cute characters as their identity and mascot. And then they are marketed everywhere, even in chocolates and sweets. Sweet na?
Here’s one for keepsakes – There’s a cute Teddy Bear museum in the sweet little town of Takayama, which would probably have a population of not more than a lakh people.
- The youth of the whole world today is thankful to Japan for introducing them to the world of Manga, the comic styled graphic storytelling. And popular manga brought along Anime characters that hooked the Otaku (geeks) of Japan. Some of the Anime characters are so popular they could give the highest billed superstar actor or Sports star a run for their money. The world of Manga and Anime, and the otaku (geeks) that inhabit it showcase the duality of Japan.
There are Manga cafes, anime museums, multi-storeyed manga and anime libraries with six 6 to eight floors of manga series for all ages, sex, genre and content.
- The list can go on and on… but I want to end it here with the Japanese toilets!! Yes, you read it right. The Toilets.
Now these are really something to look forward to. It has the potential of being right up there in the list of must-sees, but for some special effect I have listed it at the bottom 🙂
Nobody in the whole world has paid such meticulous attention to the most basic activity of everybody’s daily life. (Don’t judge me yet, wait till you read about it, maybe in the next post, When in Japan, Poop like a King!)
But all said and done… I would still say, don’t go to Japan for all of the above reasons. They are all cosmetic attractions, very touristy.
What no tourism ad or marketing spiel will tell you is to Go to Japan to see its soul!
And the soul of Japan is its people!
Don’t get me wrong. people are nice everywhere! Mostly it’s our biases that manoeuvre our minds and we judge people one way or the other.
Yet, the people of Japan are a different lot! You have to meet them to believe it. I am not the first one to say this, nor is this my own discovery. A lot has been read, reviewed and written about how honest the Japanese are. How polite and well-mannered are the children they raise, who grow up to embrace the same traditional values and moral etiquette. And the Samurai have been the torchbearers of the Japanese sense of integrity and honour for the outside world.
Yet, no amount of what you have read or heard about the people of Japan can prepare you for the real experiences you will unmistakably have when you are there.
I believe that what’s most beautiful in Japan, rather what makes Japan so beautiful is the humanity that is so alive there. Every person on the street, in the metros, or malls, be it in the busy cities of Tokyo or the remotest part of Central Japan, is a Samaritan…there to help you out.
For example, language poses a problem Japan. Few people speak English, and that too in Tokyo. In the other cities, even fewer do. However, in our close to 13 days there, we never once had to use the Google Translate app that we had on our phones. And that’s because, you just need to stop a fellow Japanese passersby. If they see that big Question mark on your face, they will stop whatever they are doing or change the direction of where they are headed to to make sure you get to where you want to be.
There was this busy and high-end shoes store in the very bustling Harajuku in Tokyo. I went in to check out a few shoes then asked the attendant if she could suggest a place with more ‘reasonably’ priced shoes. Her eyes lit up. She excitedly tried a mixture of Japanese and sign language to show me where to go. I understood that she was suggesting Takeshi Dori, the insane street of teenage fashion, but failed at understanding the directions.
The girl, who was the senior most in the shop left her counter, came half way through the roads till Takeshita Dori was visible from the distance and made sure that her dumb potential customer could finally reach where she wanted to.
Who does that kind of a thing?
This is just one incident. Our days were filled with incidents such as these, little acts of kindness. Of people really going out of their way to help us out.
One Rainy Night in Kyoto
This is one incident which converted my family from being just impressed by the helpful and sweet people of Japan to becoming humbled, awestruck and introspective.
One night, we were heading back to our AirBnB apartment in the suburbs of Kyoto. It had started raining while we were in the bus and we had neither umbrellas on us nor any rainwear. On getting off, the weather turned worse. It was thundering and lightning and raining like crazy. And it was windy and stormy. And freezing cold. (You get the picture? 🙂
We quickly took shelter under the awning of a closed shop. Another gentleman who also got off from the same bus was standing there too. At 10.30, it was pretty late. Though our apartment was a 5 minute walk away, it wasn’t possible to make a dash for it, especially because it was just too cold. Looking at the sudden change in weather, we were worried if this wasn’t one of the typhoons or a storm that Japan was infamous for.
Our Japanese companion under the shade looked at us, and smiled. He started some small talk in Japanese, to which we just politely replied, yes, it is very cold. He asked us where our apartment was. And we told him it was not too far. But blame it on the loss in translation, I guess he understood that it was a distance away. Anyway, with my teeth chattering I left it at that. He soon got busy in a phone call. While we waited for the Japanese Rain Gods to relent.
After a while, Rajesh and I exchanged glances and probably came to the conclusion that it would be long before it stopped raining and maybe we should venture out and hop from one shelter to another minimising the drenching.
Sensing what we had in mind, the man told us in broken English, You wait. No go. Then, pointing to his cell phone he said, my wife coming. And true enough in some time his wife came along in a car to pick him up. With three umbrellas!
All smiles, the lady held out her hand to give us the umbrellas! That’s when we realised that she had brought those for us! And we just looked at the sweet couple, our mouths open. He said, take these, they are big enough. So all this time he was busy on the phone, he was talking to his wife, explaining our predicament to her.
We just recovered enough to ask him how do we return these, could we have the address? And the sweetest man on this earth greeted us by bowing halfway down. He said, its a gift. No return.
In a foreign land, on a chilly night, we met our guardian angels.
Atithi Devo Bhava, (Guest is God) this mantra we had learnt in our country, India, but we understood its essence in Japan.
The couple quickly got into the car and sped off. Leaving behind a family of three with an experience of a lifetime. One that would bring a smile on their face and love in their heart every time they thought of Japan.
Understandably, the umbrellas became our most prized souvenirs. We travelled so much more in Japan, but we carried them everywhere, and finally brought them back with us to India. They serve as a reminder to us, that humanity needs no formal language and help doesn’t need to be asked for. It must be given without asking.
I am so glad that my eight year old could be a part of this very humble and simple incident. Because it has made a very deep impact on her. She’s always been a sensitive child, but this humane experience is setting the right example for her to follow and imbibe in her growing years.
Oh yes, and how could I forget this other gentleman… This happened in the maddeningly crowded and happening locality of Shinjuku. We were trying to locate the Robot Restaurant and happened to ask this gentleman for directions. For some reason, Google Maps was showing us two locations in different lanes. And by the way, one big discovery we made about ourselves in Japan is that we are totally map blind! And the first thing anybody does in Japan, even if you enquire of the most obvious landmark in the city is open Google Maps on their phone and start with “we are here… and this is where you want to go”. Despair. We couldn’t follow the map even if we were on a head on collision route to the place we were looking for. Anyway, the gentleman, who was probably in between meetings, dressed in a very corporate attire and had a sense of purpose in his walk, purpose to reach wherever it was he going to on or before time.
The good fellow that he was somehow made us understand to go along with him. And we thought, he is probably going our way. Aren’t we lucky?
He had turned away from where he was heading to and started walking in another direction. We started keeping pace with him (they can walk really fast). We must have walked a few good blocks for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, the good man was trying to tell us something. I could catch the word…Gojira. But no further. Then he animated Gojira for me 🙂 And I got it. He was trying to tell us about Godzilla. I had read it somewhere that a giant Godzilla was perched on the rooftop of a highrise somewhere in Shinjuku. What he meant was every hour Godzilla comes alive and blows fire from the mouth. He enacted the whole thing so I would understand 🙂 He wanted us to see it because it was close to from where the Robot Restaurant was.
By now, I had understood that the man had taken a long detour from wherever he was headed to and was escorting us right upto the Robot Restaurant. Not only that, he also took us to the next block where Godzilla was mounted atop a fancy multiplex theatre cum mall and told us to not miss it since we had come so far! After showing us both the locations, he turned around and walked away with faster speed. We had probably cut in 30 minutes of his time!
The Japanese Paradox
The country and its country(wo)men flummox me. This is a nation built and running on split second precision. here you can set your watch by the bullet train schedule. I am sure tardiness is surely a crime in Japan. Everybody is so organised, so punctual and so ‘minding their own business’ types.
Yet, if a hapless tourist asks for any help, they will walk a mile for you in the opposite direction. How do they do that?
From where do they scrape out that kind of time from their extremely busy and hardworking schedules? Don’t they get late while helping out people? Isn’t there the office or the class or the college they need to get to on time? Without a doubt they are reaching wherever they are going on time. So, do they leave early so they could help someone in need? Believe me I have asked this question every time someone has given us a helping hand. In the last few days of our trip, we would actually stop ourselves from clearing any doubts with the ‘happy to help’ people, lest they get into any trouble for helping us out.
We are from a country whose people are always regarded as warm, happy and emotional, so it shouldn’t have been that much of surprise to find people equally warm and helpful in another country.
But, this is not just another country. It’s a place that has seen the nuclear holocaust of the worst kind. It has all the reasons and more to be wary and angry at the world. The US in particular. But I didn’t notice any kind of unfriendliness towards the Americans or anybody, for that matter. A little aloof maybe, but certainly not indifferent and unfriendly.
Moreover, this is a country that is at the receiving end of nature’s worst fury. Time and again. It gets ravaged and destroyed by nature more often than any other country in the world. Earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, cyclones…it has experienced the world’s 10 worst natural disasters in the 21st century, the latest one being as recent as in 2011.
But every time a disaster strikes the people of Japan rebuild their country, picking up the last pieces. With no malice. And they come through stronger and stronger.
5 years ago, 16,000 people were killed along Japan’s northeastern coast in the 2011 Earthquake and Tsunami, and 228,000 more lost their homes and livelihoods. 5 years on, some of the survivors are still living in temporary housings and fear they’ve been forgotten. Students and lecturers from Singapore’s Republic Polytechnic visit the affected communities still trying to rebuild themselves. Take a look at a video posted by them documenting the survivors’ tales and open mindedness to the situation.
They don’t get cynical. They don’t get beaten. They get more resilient, more patient… And more innovative.
The Never Say Die attitude and their yen for innovations help them to work their setbacks into advantages and make them a part of their lives and the landscape of Japan.
For example, the Japanese have so gracefully accepted the volcanic state of their geology that they have elevated the natural hot water springs arising as part of the seismic bye-products to the celebrated status of an Onsen. You will find thousands of these onsens all over Japan. Traditionally used as public bathing places they are now a big part of tourism in Japan. And boy! Do the Japanese take immense pride in treating their guests to the most luxurious and rejuvenating experience!
Be it a big luxurious onsen or a humble one in a small BnB inn, it’s an experience you certainly don’t want to miss.
The Selfless Volunteers
I think their constant tryst with mishaps and disasters and their resurgence from losses has perhaps shaped their helpful nature. Because they have learned to live and progress as a team. Like in a game of Tug-of-War, they have cracked it that they need to heave and ho as One to come out as winners. They are not individualistic, they think of themselves as a unit. And it is the same guiding hand they extend to the guests who visit their country too.
There’s an incredible voluntary service that the Japanese offer tourists. There are these Systematized Goodwill Guide Groups (SGG) operating all over Japan which offer a range of voluntary activities. Ordinary laymen with foreign language skills assist foreign tourists providing free guidance and local guide services.
Now, if that’s not going the extra mile to make you comfortable then what is?
Gen Y of Japan
And then, there’s the youth. In a country, where the new co-exists with the old, the modern with the traditional, it comes as no surprise that the baton of their values is seamlessly passed on to their younger generation, without any dilution.
The fancy and glitzy city of Tokyo is brimming with youth culture. Fast cars, music, parties, gaming (Big time gaming! They have put the world of gaming on a very high pedestal), everything that you would associate the modern youth with thrives here. Fashion, brands, high education, a great standard of living, you name it and the youth of Japan is exposed to that.
Yes, they have their own set of problems to deal with, but when it comes to interpersonal social interactions, they have imbibed the same ethos that generations before them had absorbed from generations before them.
For example, it is a very sacrosanct value among the Japanese to never shame someone, to save, not just your face, but even the other person’s face, even if the other person is at fault. It is very uncool to make the other person feel embarrassed or ashamed for their words or actions. So you will hardly ever find a Japanese speak rudely or arrogantly or even irreverently to others, even among their own friends.
A group of young friends may be lost in their own joyful world of jokes and fun, but the minute you address them, they are the same keen listeners as their elders and the same keen helpers too.
With their feet firmly grounded and their heads looking up ahead, the Japanese people definitely count as the number one star attraction of Japan, at least in our books.
Coming up next is an amusing piece on the painstakingly perfect Japanese toilets tentatively titled
When in Japan, Poop like a King 🙂