Things I loved most about Japan

Having recently written about our trip to Japan in 2007, I thought I’d try and sum up the things I loved about the country and its people.

1. The Japanese people I met were extremely welcoming and quite understanding of my constant flurry of questions. One reason for this is the concept of omotenashi, a word that is often translated into hospitality, although that word falls woefully short of an appreciation of its true meaning. It’s more than genuine kindness towards visitors or guests. It’s also about having a sharp eye for detail, awareness for individual needs and striving to always go the extra mile.

I still remember the delight of the volunteer in the museum in Tokyo when I told her I had three hours to spend, not the usual 30 minutes. She was a treasure trove of information and I’m now pretty clued up about Japanese history.

I was also amazed at the level of English comprehension particularly among those in customer facing roles. I do speak some very basic and rudimentary Japanese, and it did help us out a bit at times, but for the most part, it was unnecessary. Almost all of the employees at popular tourist destinations knew at least enough English to do their jobs.  Also, I’ve never seen people who appear to love their jobs as much as the Japanese. Either that or they’re all excellent actors.

2. Japanese culture is truly fascinating and, harking back to 1. above, the Japanese are recognised world-wide for their courtesy and love of etiquette. I went to the country expecting this, though there were a few things that amazed me and in particular how homogenised it all was. Foreigners (like me) stuck out like the proverbial sore thumb, but that might be because I steered away from typical tourist areas. In particular, I loved all their overt displays of old-fashioned courtesy. For example:-

  • Train conductors walking through from car to car, bowing to the passengers, tipping their hat and saying quietly, “Pardon the intrusion” (or something similar).
  • Commuters quietly queuing up in lines to either side of the train doors, to avoid cutting in line.
  • Even while packed sardine-like in the train, people were very self-contained with minimal eye contact.
  • Anyone who served me would hand stuff to me with both hands or count out my change with a flourish, always in a way that made you feel important.

This respectfulness is most elegantly expressed in a simple hand-gesture. The Japanese don’t point; they direct you to whatever it is you want to see or where you need to go, whether to your seat in a restaurant, the way to the exit or the invitation to step first into an elevator, with a graceful extension of the hand with palm facing up and fingers closed. It is a charming thing to see performed.

Bowing is a common practice, too, but it is not a cultural cliché, cynically performed, but rather a universal gesture of respect. One of my most memorable experiences was walking into one of Tokyo’s biggest department stores when it had just opened to find a row of people lined up outside each of the departments.

As I walked into the store, each person gently bowed. I was intensely aware that while each person was bowing respectfully, with composure. You receive this kind of treatment in restaurants, bars and hotels and the bow sometimes comes across like a charming old-world dance move.

Another form of politeness I thought might have been a thing of the past, but is still rigorously and passionately adhered to, is the custom of removing shoes before stepping into a home or living area or traditional-style restaurants.

Then there was the culture of appreciation. This has left a more lasting impression. Any time I stepped into a temple, I could feel an overwhelming aura of peace. It made me want to walk slowly, look at the sky, sit, drink it all in and just appreciate nature.

Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples happily co-exist. At the famous Meiji Shrine, I learnt about the act of spiritual cleansing. This involves taking a wooden cup attached to a long handle to scoop water with which you first wash your left hand, then your right hand before touching your lips with water to conclude the ritual.

3. The environment was particularly fascinating. On the one hand there’s the bright, bustling cities full of neon signs and spider-webs of power lines which is a complete contrast to the wide-open, lush natural wonderland. It surprised me over and over again how Japan is able to mesh these two together. I was also amazed at how every square inch of land is put to work.

Much of Japan is a bit messy, with too-old-to-be-nice and too-new-to-be-charming houses, but the areas that get it right are downright amazing. Tokyo was spotless, modern and sleek, but there are still hidden gems like the old, peaceful Toshogu Shrine. Osaka was a bit grungier and more quirky while Kyoto and Nara were charming and quaint, with shrines and temples almost everywhere you looked. Japan just oozed ordered charm and richness.

Japan’s a safe place. If you leave something behind, it’ll still be there when you go back for it. Walking the streets of Tokyo, night or day, even in the more bustling areas was a pleasure. I always felt safe and soon realised I was surrounded by people who would willingly help me at the drop of a hat. It was a reassuring feeling, especially not to have people coming up to beg or pressure me to buy this or that or looking to gain some advantage

In addition, despite its large population, particularly in Tokyo, the air quality is surprisingly clean. In fact the whole country appears to be very clean and orderly despite an obvious lack of waste bins. The streets of Japan are the cleanest I have ever seen. It all comes down to culture and etiquette (see 2 above). In addition to being clean, the streets are also quiet despite being crowded. People seem to be talking but so softly that you can’t really hear them.

4. Japanese cuisine is much richer and broader than I anticipated. While I loved eating at the Michelin starred restaurants – who wouldn’t? – eating with both eyes and stomach, I also loved the simple inns, street food and markets. I loved tasting all the morsels offered by stall-holders and was fascinated by the amount of freeze-dried goods. I got the impression that if I stood anywhere too long, I’d be freeze-dried and packaged for future consumption.

Tokyo in particular has more high-end patisseries than France, a country whose cuisine the Japanese quite rightly greatly admire. If you buy a cake from one of these patisseries, it’s beautifully packaged and comes with a small ice block to keep it cool. I also loved watching the chefs prepare food – such focus, skill and precision.

The Japanese like to eat a diverse range of small portions, of as many things as possible: variety is the spice of life when it comes to their dietary choices. In particular, they eat every kind of seafood, including jellyfish, octopus, you name it, the lot. I found it best just to try stuff and then enquire about its provenance.

5. Japanese multi-functional, push-button, warm seat toilets are the crème de la crème when it comes to taking care of one’s needs. At first, I thought it was an over-mechanised hospital toilet with the far too many buttons. But no, each button performed a specific and practical function, including one that initiated a polite flushing sound (new models play music) and others to launch various washing functions with adjustable pressure control. Needless to say I had to try all the features, some of which were a bit surprising.

Overall

This is harder to articulate and demonstrate with concrete examples. But everything in Japan just works. Things are where they should be. Signs are right there when you begin to feel lost. You can reach the towel rack from the bath. The light switches make sense. There are hooks to put your umbrellas and bags. It’s the little things. A lot of places in the world look glitzy and nice, but once you start living there, you realise that things are poorly designed. That’s not the case with Japan. Everything has a lot of thought put into it.

Wondrous Japan

I was fortunate to catch up with an old friend over the phone yesterday. We keep in touch largely by email but like to talk to one another on or around our birthdays which straddle Xmas. We met while working on a major construction project for my previous employer. She’s an architect and designer with a track record in bringing very difficult projects to fruition. She has a real clarity of vision and not only did I love working with her but I also learned a lot from her too. She now lives in Italy, not far from Venice, so we don’t get to see one another often enough.

She’s just come back from a month-long trip to Japan, her first visit. I went two year’s ago during cherry blossom time and was totally enchanted. I had wanted to visit for so long that I was sure the reality would not live up to my expectations. However, any expectations I had were just blown away. It’s such a beautiful, magical place.

We found that we both adored the architecture of the original wooden dwellings, the peace and tranquillity of the temples, the almost too beautiful to eat food, the enchanting traditional arts and crafts, the hustle, bustle and colour of the food markets and the unrelenting charm and politeness of the Japanese. Frankly, I can’t wait to return and have a long list of things I still want to see including Keirin racing, which in Japan, differs markedly from that shown in the Olympics on the track. Let me explain.

Since it started in 1948 Keirin racing  has become a Japanese social institution attended annually by around 57 million spectators  who place bets amounting to 9 billion Euros. Races are held almost every weekend at 50 tracks around Japan.

Picking the winner of a Keirin race is a complicated matter. The riders have to announce their tactics in advance while the punters  take account of the background of each rider, their blood group, astrological sign and thigh measurements, starting position and seasonal form. This is augmented by information about the athletes in special newspapers. bizarrely, most people don’t watch the races “live” but watch on the TV screens at the track.

Once the riders come out of the tunnel, “the racers gate”, they ride slowly to the start, fix their bikes in position in the starting machine, and bow before getting into the saddle. There are usually six to nine racers who are clad in standardized, bright, single coloured jerseys and helmet covers, for easy identification. The races are usually 2000m in length and held on steeply banked tracks.

The race starts slowly. The riders jockeying for an advantageous position behind the pacemaker, who slowly raises the pace before leaving the track after three laps. A bell then rings opening up the sprint where the riders reach speeds of up to 70 km⁄h in the photo-finish sprint for the line. 

A certain amount of pushing and shoving is tolerated by the rules and, as the speeding riders jostle for the best position, spectacular crashes are not uncommon. The surface of the track is rough, providing good traction even in the rain. The racers wear plastic body armour under their jerseys to prevent serious injury.

Top riders will race 80–100 times a year, prize money can be upwards of Euros 100,000 for the winner of a large event, with the best earning up to Euros 1.5m a year. The riders all use approved and specially built, similar, steel framed, bikes with a choice of gearing: 12–16 teeth on the sprocket and up to 55 on the chain ring.

Prospective racers must attend the Japan Bicycle Racing School, dedicated to teaching the academic and practical skills they will need to compete. The 10% of applicants fortunate enough to be accepted undergo a strict, 15–hour per day training regime. During the 10–month period of training and study, the students generally aged between 18 and 22, learn the rules and tactics of the sport, bicycle mechanics and physiotherapy as well as riding technique, and endurance.

Those who pass the exams are approved by and registered with the Japan Keirin Association as competitors, eligible to take part in Keirin events. There are approximately 4000 registered riders and each year 150 new riders are admitted, first to a four-month stint in the newcomer’s league, thereafter they are assigned a ranking which is adjusted, based on performance, every four months.