The chef and the hostess both followed us out to the street – in subzero temperatures – as they continued fervently thanking us and bowing deeply as we hastened off in the direction of the nearest bus stop. We chuckled as we rushed through the frozen city, amused and amazed by our Japanese experience. It’s our last night (of three) in Kyoto, and I have to admit that I’ve enjoyed the time here more than anticipated.
My Bucket List is pretty huge, and the past few years I’ve more or less dedicated myself to working through it, several items per year. For whatever reason – negative bias driven through my grandpa’s war stories and reading “Rising Sun” and “Sayonara” as a teenager, my unimpressed attitude towards Sushi , business meetings that left me feeling perplexed – Japan has never been on it. And yet here I am, liking the people, loving the food (who would have guessed?), admiring the temples and indulging my taste for hot Sake. An 11 day trip to Japan is hardly enough to scratch the surface of such a complex society and culture, and admittedly the first 7 days were spent in Hokkaido enjoying some of the best powder I’ve skied to date (a test for my endurance and skill, not so much for my intercultural competence). So aside from the grocery shopping experience (challenging!), dinners out and the ubiquitous “Konichiwa”s and “Arigato”s throughout the day at the ski resort, it’s really only these final few days in Kyoto that count. So it’s an easier trip than if I’d truly immersed myself in the country. Nevertheless, it’s enough to enable a growing appreciation of the land, people and culture while also making me ready to go home again. What is that supposed to mean, you ask?
Everybody is incessantly polite and this I find endearing: bows as I approach the check-in counter at the hotel or airport, items being passed back and forth carefully with both hands, smiles and hands together with a bow of the head, people moving off to the side and gesturing for me to pass by or go first, the list is endless. There are even attendants at bus stations, wandering around asking where we’d like to go and providing advice on how to get there and which bus to take. Which brings me to another point: order and structure. Thus far, I’ve thought no one could top the Germans when it comes to those two things, but I have to place Japan a notch above. Things work in a very controlled, organized fashion; combined with the need for harmony and getting along, nothing really disrupts flawless functioning of life processes. At train stations, people build lines on the platform as trains approach – I still don’t understand what the system for those lines is, but everyone else seems to and there is no milling around followed by elbowing into the door. It’s all very organized and civilized, and I did my best at just trying to follow the crowds and hope they were really going in the same direction as I was. Which is a big assumption when some trains decouple en-route and head off to different end stations – resulting in a moment of slight panic while I held my breath to find out if I happened to be in the correct car.
You have to also admire the discreetness in Japanese society. No worries that someone else might view your purchase of an article that might be even mildly embarrassing (think personal items like feminine hygiene) – such items are placed carefully into a black plastic or brown paper bag and even taped shut to ensure your privacy. Or when the hotel receptionist making dinner reservations noticed that I was withholding prices from my companion; she obviously passed this on to the restaurant, as they were exceedingly careful to ensure he was not privy to any numbers during our visit.
Perhaps most surprising was the Japanese peoples’ willingness to tolerate the numerous faux-pas we committed throughout the day. With blond hair and blue eyes, I’m very obviously a foreigner and therefore people tend to look the other way or just encourage me to continue in my likely insulting attempts to fit in. At an Izakaya one evening, when we obviously screwed up our method of eating tempura skewers and Shabu Shabu (I know, what can be so difficult?), the guy sitting next to us took over and basically prepared our meal for us. This entailed providing instructions of which sauce for which items, throwing the food into our hot pot and fishing it out again, and telling the remainder of the pub audience all about it. We were surrounded by good natured laughing, where even knowing we were the object of everyone’s amusement, it didn’t feel condescending or vicious – just everyone having a good time (including us, by the way, as we laughed at our self-proclaimed cook and companion).
For all the good things I encountered, there are also some things that I struggled to accept. Like men inherently being served first. Even at said dinner (which I was obviously paying, and where I was obviously the senior person), my adult son was served first. In the plane, my male seat neighbors receive flight attendant service before I do. Which is all very “backwards” according to western ideals of chivalry and American ideals of equality. But even that was perhaps easier to take than the face masks. People actually wander the streets and go about their daily business with a surgical mask over their face. And not just a few people who are obviously suffering a cold – a LOT of people. Perfectly healthy people in suits or dresses, in jeans or sportswear. There appears to be no rule for who or when a surgical mask needs to be donned – they are everywhere and to a foreigner, it feels weird. It’s as if people want to make an extra effort to remain in their own world and space, avoiding contact with anyone else at all cost. Either that, or it’s just the strangest fashion trend I’ve come across since ultra-high-waist jeans (which look terrible on everyone, btw).
And then there is the food, which is a mixed bag. Lots of really unusual (to me) things including whole, small dried fish as a snack (instead of potato chips I guess), all the sea-weed stuff, sea urchin, sea cucumber, small plankton/baby fish things that you eat whole while admiring their little teeny eyes, fried scampi heads (shell and all), small whole octopus with an egg stuffed inside, a penchant for eating live animals or at least putting them still-living on the grill (I know, it doesn’t get any fresher)… this list could get extremely long, so I’ll just stop there. And yet, for the first time in my life, I also can say that I like Japanese food. We had amazing Okonomiyaki (savory pancake things grilled on a hot plate inset in the table with a variety of toppings), incredible Shabu Shabu (one using a soy milk broth into which at the end cheese and rice were added to finish off our meal), Sushi that even I could barely get enough of, all the Japanese pickles, Teppanyaki with Wagyu beef and fresh seafood (yes, the scampi thrashed slightly as they hit the hot plate), Ramen that is worlds apart from the cheap stuff I survived on while at University. And on a cold day, a hot Sake really can rival a Glühwein as a pleasurable warming drink – and has less sugar and calories to boot!
Add to all that the architecture – it was really very nice to view the first 5 or 6 shrines and temples. Given that Kyoto has 2000 of them, you could probably spend years sightseeing if that’s your thing. And the landscape – the quiet beauty of the gardens, the peace of a stroll through the hills with quiet people nodding as you pass, the giant bamboo forests and the snow-capped volcanoes – left me as entranced as one can be while suffering onset of mild frostbite (it was horribly cold on these February Kyoto days!).
Finally, a post about Japan can’t be considered complete without mentioning the toilets. This is the land of high-tech toilets. Sitting down to attend to bodily needs, you are greeted by a heated seat (wonderful on a cold day, especially at the ski station) and a panel full of mysterious buttons that spray, move pipes to direct that spray as desired, regulate how strong of a cleaning you’d like, sometimes even offer a blow dry and a few other functions that I was too hesitant to unwittingly test (the Japanese characters on the buttons didn’t provide much clue).
Will I return to Japan? Not necessarily – there are so many other fascinating places that I haven’t yet experienced. And although I felt welcome and enjoyed my stay, it’s difficult to imagine ever really feeling comfortable in Japan. People seem to keep their distance, choosing to stand on the bus rather than sit next to a blond woman travelling alone, nodding quietly but not engaging beyond answering questions or returning a “Konichiwa.” Maybe if I spoke more than 4 words of the language, I would feel differently and have a stronger desire to dig deeper. And who knows? Perhaps someday the opportunity to return will arise, and I certainly wouldn’t turn it down! As it is, I’m thankful for the experience and certainly feel more positively about Japan than I did prior to this trip. And for now, that’s good enough for me.