Some very superficial impressions of Japan

For me, Japan was something of a tabula rasa, as I knew little about it and had very limited expectations when I boarded the plane. So far, I’ve been charmed by what I’ve seen.

I won’t make this post a travelogue, in part because it’s very hard to approach Japan that way. I already discovered that fact when I was trying to plan this trip. Unlike many places that have target destinations (e.g., the Tower of London, Versailles, the Vatican), Japan has cities that are must-sees, such as Tokyo (of course), Kyoto, Kamakura, etc. Within each city there are beautiful gardens or temples, but they’re a subset of the whole.

The real target site in Japan, or so it seems to me after a few days here, is the Japanese culture. Everything that we’ve seen so far is, for want of a better word, “precious.” I adore the obsession with cleanliness, which makes me feel very comfortable. There is no litter, which is a bit peculiar, because there are few garbage cans. Unless you’re unlucky enough to find yourself on a “squat toilet,” every toilet in every airport, train station, hotel, or restaurant has sprays and seat warmers and all manner of wonderful stuff.

The people are lovely to look at: they are immaculately groomed and, if young, often eccentrically dressed. They are all, without exception so far, almost painfully polite. One of the things I like best about them is that they make my petite height seem normal. Everything is sized to me, and that’s a rare and wonderful thing.

I’d love to write more, but bed is calling. We’ve had long days of sight-seeing and travel, and I’m still a little jet lagged. I’ll leave you with this link, to Yunessun. We spent the afternoon here, and a more peculiar and delightful place it’s hard to imagine.

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  • lordsomber

    After awhile, all the shrines and temples seem the same, but if you’re in Kyoto, check out Kiyomizu-dera and the adjacent cemetery for some outstanding views.

  • Don Quixote

    So good to hear that things are going well on your vacation.  Please post more when you get the chance.  Japan is a fascinating place and I’m sure we’d all like to hear more about your adventure there.

  • Caped Crusader

    Wish you had a chance to talk with our daughter who lived in the Kyoto, Nara, Osaka historic area (but then it’s all historic)  while taking total immersion Japanese.

  • Oldflyer

    Japanese culture, and the Japanese character, are true enigmas.
    My wife just finished reading “Unbroken”, and I started but never finished it.  The brutality of the Japanese army was horrific.  Likewise, I have read a bit about the Rape of Nanking, and the treatment of U.S. prisoners.  It is hard to reconcile with any form of civilization.
    Balancing this history, are some other aspects of the culture that are beautiful and praiseworthy.
    One of the most touching books I recall reading was “The Samurai’s Garden” by Gail Tsukiyama.  It can be read at different levels, but struck me as a wonderful story of simple dignity under horrific circumstances.
    But, considering again the culture and character; I wonder if the horror of WWII profoundly changed it.
    Never visited Japan.  I had the opportunity to train a group of Japanese Air Self Defense Force pilots.  It was clear that there was what I would consider excessive pressure to excel–especially among the more junior.  Much more deference to the more Senior than I was accustomed to from my USN days.

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  • Ymarsakar

    The Japanese are trained from birth to separate out their trash and recycle. Because they don’t have a lot of land, they recycle most of their stuff and their efficiency is as good as human technology can allow. They also use trash to make islands in the ocean.

     Japan is split between various sub cultures just like the US. There are the corporate aristocrats, the politicians, the old money families that are traditional, Leftists or LibProgs, and so on and so forth.

     You will encounter those who adhere to the code of the samurai as in obedience is absolute, which is one way the younger generation excel at their jobs or obtain ambition in corporate salaryman jobs. You will also encounter more original and creative people who adhere to the ronin warrior code, which is the exact opposite of absolute obedience in some ways.

     In so far as you are a foreigner, you often won’t encounter the nuances because these divides won’t show up until you probe very deeply into Japanese culture and perspectives. Watch out for elementary children. They are given a lot of freedom of behavior and thus do not possess Japanese keigo or politeness. They are known to point at foreigners or even flip skirts in public.

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  • Scott Kirwin

    YMarsakar says it well. Because you are a foreigner you will not get passed the superficial politeness of the Japanese. I lived there for 5 years in the 1990s after studying Japanese history and politics in college, and it was clear within the first few weeks that I hadn’t a clue about what made the Japanese tick. Even after 5 years there I couldn’t say I knew them any better.
    Living there my wife and I were discriminated against a lot. The only landlords willing to rent to us were those who rented to Koreans or the lower classes known as the burakumin. The Wife spoke fluent Japanese and both of us were well-versed in Japanese customs (tatami+shoes=a big nono!) It was quite a shock for white middle class Americans, and one that I’d recommend to anyone who has never felt what it was like to be spit on, refused service in a restaurant, or assaulted by drunk college students screaming epithets. It was the main reason why we decided to call it a day and move back when the Kid was born; I didn’t want him to experience life as an outcast from Day 1.
    That said I still love the place. What is not to love about traditional Japanese culture, about a history that spans millennia or holidays O-bon where for one day a year one can commune with the Dead? I’ll skip the modern, soul-deadening pressure cooker of Japanese life for the traditional and historical aspects of one of the most interesting people on the planet.