28 May 2008

Signs [Japan]

Trying to find my way around in a foreign place means I am more aware of signs than I would normally be at home. All kinds of signs. One of my first days in Japan a no-smoking sign on the pavement caught my attention. In August 2007 a new law* was effective in Denmark banning smoking in all public places (workplaces, most bars & restaurants). What struck me in Japan was the fact that many places smoking was not allowed outdoors. Being a non-smoker I have to admit it was nice to be able to wait for my train at a platform and not have cigarette smoke right in my face. Smoking was only allowed around certain “smoking-area” sections of the platform, even though it was outside.

I found the Japanese people so polite and orderly that I wondered if it was really necessary to have a sign like the one telling people not to spread their legs while sitting in the train. But I liked the pictograms, even though I am not sure exactly what the people on the left are doing. I mean, surely standing up because other people sit with their legs spread, but I do not know what the symbol above their heads means. Other pictures were easy to decipher. Since you rode your bike on the sidewalks in Japan, the message of this picture should be obvious. And I was, after all, in the land of cartoons.

I wrote about my experience going through Tokyo by metro during rush our in a previous post so although an announcement on the wall of one metro station certainly caught my eye, it was not a real surprise for me. Somehow it made sense, even though it was a very unusual rule for me, to say the least. During morning rush hour there were carriages for women only. A friend explained to me that there had been cases of men taking advantages of the extreme conditions during rush hour and groping women on the train. Also cases of women falsely accusing men of feeling them up. As a consequence of this, certain carriages were now designated for women only.

Speaking of feeling up, I never really found out exactly what it was I was supposed to do to the elevator in the Kyoto Tower while descending! "Please take on the elevator when you go down". Yes, being a bit of a hairsplitter and having the ability to see double-meaning and puns everywhere can be a little distracting. Such as when this exit sign caught my attention. I mean, really, I think that is a lot to ask!

How about the name "Kinki Kanko" of a business? It seemed very catchy and easy to remember even for someone who didn’t understand one word of Japanese. (Kinki is a region and kanko means sightseeing). But I would not be surprised if some words or names in my own language may seem as funny or catchy to a foreigner, and I would be the last to see or hear it.

In order to find out why this map was extremely confusing for me you’ll need to open a larger version of it by clicking on it, and then close study the four corners of the world. North is down, south is up, east is to the left and west is to the right. It worked OK for me to just locate a place in the vicinity two streets away and walk there according to my memory of this map, but when I tried to combine this information with the mental “map” of the city I already had, it was an unprecedented challenge of my spatial intelligence to combine the two reversed pieces of information. Can anyone tell me, is this kind of map usual in Japan?

It really wasn’t that difficult to find my way around in Japan, as most signs were also written in Roman letters. However, I did go to a few smaller towns where they did not see a lot of foreigners, so sometimes I found myself waiting at a bus stop with a timetable like this one, and the only information I got was how often the busses went. Not where they were stopping or which bus I needed to catch. Not that it was a real problem. All I needed to do was stick my head into the bus and say the name of the place I wanted to go in an inquiring tone and then get a yes or no from the driver. But standing there trying to decipher the timetable did make me feel like an illiterate.

Finally, at the Hase Dera (temple) at Kamakura, I had a look at the prayers and wishes in a lot of different languages, which people had put up. I just hope Max will never lose his faith!

*Smoking in Denmark:
The law (in Danish)
Article (in English)

15 May 2008

Japanese Food

One of the things I always try to do when travelling is to stay away from “international restaurants” and instead eat the same food as the local people do. I found Japanese food absolutely delicious, and I’m sure quite healthy as well. I had Japanese food every day and I already miss it: All the little dishes, the combination of tastes and the beautiful way of arranging everything. I believe the visual impression also matters for one's sense of appetite, and it is often overlooked many other places. This plate was just one dish of the 12 courses. Everything was so neatly arranged.

I really, really enjoyed Japanese food and had it for lunch and dinner, but after the first day I gave up on Japanese breakfast. Fish, soup and rice, etc. just wasn’t a good start of the day for me. So at the ryokan in Kyoto I hesitated when I was asked if I wanted to have breakfast. I decided against it, but the host may have guessed my thoughts because he explained they would prepare anything I’d like. So, I just mentioned I’d prefer some dairy products and/or fruit, maybe a little bread… and got a wonderful breakfast every morning for the four days I was there. When I woke up, I opened the sliding door to the little garden outside my room and lay there for a moment, just looking out into the garden (only one other room was facing this part of the garden). And then I could hear the hostess coming down the hallway in her fast little miniature steps, swoosh-swoosh-swoosh, bringing my breakfast. Now, that was a wonderful start of a new day! When paying for my stay I noticed the breakfast was not listed on the bill so I reminded them about this. “Oh no, that’s complimentary!”

I looked at the food at markets and in shops. Lots of (for me) exotic ingredients. Many different kinds of mushroom, seaweed and a lot of things I had no idea what was. I had exactly the same feeling I have when I am in the Chinese shop in the basement of the building I live in: I do not know how to use most of these ingredients when cooking. And when I have got a recipe and ingredients list to go by, I have a hard time trying to recognize them. But I am pretty sure I can get most of it in ‘my’ Chinese shop, or ‘Sachie’, the Japanese shop here. Unlike the experience I had when I was leafing through a Native American cookbook which was given to me when I visited the Pine Ridge reservation in the US many years ago. I do not know where to get squirrels, skunks, bear’s fat or rattle snakes here in Denmark. I toyed with the idea of going into a shop asking for a rattle snake and adding, “If you do not have rattle snake any good, fat snake will do”. But I doubt anyone else than me would find it funny. And I have tasted a lot of things but I do have a limit somewhere before snakes. OK, I’m straying here… back to Japan! I did see "snacks" on a stick, just to eat as you go, which were octopus tentacles and other very exotic food. Perhaps in this case slightly too exotic. (Your eyes are OK, it is the picture which is slightly out of focus!) Another day, a very hot day, I passed a place selling softice. They only had two flavours: soy and green tea. I had never tasted any of these but decided to have a go at the green tea softice. It was good. But then again, softice mostly is, unfortunately.

I was very eager to try out a lot of different food, and I certainly did. A lot of sea food of which much was in raw form. I do not mind raw (we eat herring that way in Denmark) but I would prefer if it wasn’t exactly alive when it was served! Well, it wasn’t, but there were times when I was tempted to pass on the food. One of many dishes during one meal was sliced cuttlefish. It was served on top of a whole mini cuttlefish, and as they put it down on the table, it moved slightly. Oh, it was dead, but a little wobbly, which made it look as if it moved. I am not a great meat eater. Fish is OK, but I do have a problem with food that has big eyes and looks back at me. I don’t find it yukky at all, but I do get a bad conscience. Maybe I am closet vegetarian? In any case, I did taste the cuttlefish, and it was really good.

Although I tasted quite a variety of Japanese food: sushi, sashimi, tofu, sukiyaki, tempura, teriyaki, gyudon, miso shiru, tamagoyaki, okonomiyaki, kare raisu, ramen, … oh, I can’t remember all the names, I did pass on one thing. With a dish of tempura came this little fried fish, which I assume I was supposed to eat whole (?) Head, finns and everything. I had to leave it untouched. And my friend did the same with the one on his plate. This poor little thing gave its life all in vain as I didn’t even eat it.

One of my Servas hosts tried to give me a crash course about tea. What kind of container to use and how to preserve the taste the best possible way. How to break up the leaves of one kind of tea but not another kind. How to whip up the matcha. What temperature the water had to have according to the kind of tea, etc. (I think we generally use too hot water at home). It was extremely interesting and I wish I could remember all this information, but I can’t.

A lot of the food displays outside restaurants made the food look so delicious and appetizing. Of course they were all just plastic. And lunch for four: you need a lot of bowls! (As always, you can click on the pictures to view a large copy of the picture).

The biggest challenge for me was when we had crabs one evening. Try to picture yourself eating crabs with chopsticks. Not easy, I can assure you. We did pick them up by hand and break them, but getting the meat out of the long legs using chopstick was one of the biggest challenges ever for my precision motor coordination. My host saw I was struggling a bit and went to get me some shorter, wooden chopsticks, which were a lot easier for me to handle than the longer, very pointed and rather slippery set I had been using. I never thought it would be possible to actually miss a lobster fork! Afterwards, I almost felt some kind of achievement. I.e. until I started looking at myself and realized I probably needed a hose-down!

10 May 2008

Green Spots [Japan]

The headline does not refer to some kind of exotic disease but to all the small lungs of the cities. I knew Japan was densely populated, but it was much greener than I had expected. I don’t mean the parks and Japanese gardens, because I expected those, but the small patches of green everywhere else. The shoulders and central reservations of the expressways were green, pink, red, white, etc. depending on the season and which trees and bushes were planted there. And everywhere these ‘green spots’ were well-kept and in immaculate condition.

In Fukuoka I saw a building where they had brought up the park to the 12th floor or so. Across the street from my hotel in Tokyo they were restoring a building and the riggers had put up the scaffolding around a tree. I. e. a large branch was in the way, but the scaffolding was constructed around this branch, so the workers would have to climb up or down to get past it. It made me think of the urban renewal in my block when they chopped down everything which was in the way of the builders and their machines. The big tree in our backyard was totally disfigured and is still recovering today, 12 years later.

Some flower beds in the city were an abundance of colours. Very designed, groomed and organized. But other places I saw flowers I usually do not associate with the city, like the beds with (I think they were) poppies by the streets in Ginza, Tokyo. Somehow I thought that wild look was even better than the well-groomed one.

The more unusual green spots I saw were in Kanazawa. By a parking lot was something unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It can best be described as a vertical garden, I suppose. In the same town, by the Saigawa river, someone had used old ladies shoes, painted pink, as flower containers. Needless to say that was also a first for me.

Private gardens were very small, but I found out you really did not need a garden to have one. What I mean is that many people had lots of plants in the small space between their outer walls and the street. Others had a small display of fresh flowers outside their door. A private home in Kyoto in the same street as my ryokan had flowers in a granite bowl outside. I walked past it every day and noticed it was constantly changed. Not much, just a small detail. My picture was taken in the morning, and when I returned in the afternoon the big leaf had been replaced. Hard to explain but it put me in a good mood to walk past these flowers every day.

8 May 2008

Toilets [Japan]

Public convenience, restroom, bathroom, lavatory, men’s / ladies’ rooms, etc. Call it whatever you like. I prefer to call a spade a spade. The best thing was that all those I saw were free of charge. I don’t mind paying, which is what we often have to in Denmark, it’s just that when I need 'to go' I don’t always seem to have the change I need for the lock, and that’s a nuisance. None of that in Japan.

I came across two main types: either the very simple type with just a porcelain bowl in the floor, or the state of the art, high tech models with a heated seat, bidet function, drier, a choice of sound effects (anything from the ocean or Mozart to a simple flush effect) and in one case LED light. I do not think a pilot’s license for a small aircraft is strictly necessary in order to work the controls, but it would be an advantage. The control panel was slightly intimidating for someone like me, who really just wanted the core performance and none of the fancy stuff. As far as I understood you had a choice of temperature, volume, pressure and direction of the water and air. Anything from a squirt to a jet. And the text was also in braille. Often a manual would be posted on the wall, and I recommend studying it well ahead of the time you would actually need the service.

In one restaurant there was not only the panel next to the bowl, but also a remote control on the wall. I tried to figure out why you would need a remote in a cabin of less than one square meter, where you could reach everywhere, anyway. Maybe you could take the remote with you and give your friend, who went in there after you, a real surprise!

6 May 2008

Karaoke [Japan]

'Never' is a big word, but until a few weeks ago I would have sworn you would never, ever catch me singing karaoke. And even if it should ever happen, chances of me actually admitting it would be next to none. But there we were out one evening and my Japanese friends took me to a karaoke bar. I didn’t realize what kind of place it was until after we got all the way in there and sat down and someone started singing. Otherwise I might have been tempted to head for the closest escape route. I had been a lot more spirited and cocky when we were singing in the car some days earlier. This was different. I tried (without much success) to convince myself that I’d try anything once. And why not simply take the bull by the horns and take the initiative instead of just trying to hide and wait until the other 4 people I was with had had their turn and I would feel a bit of a pressure on me. So, as the first of my friends had finished 'performing' I flipped trough the songs trying to find one for myself.
I have always imagined that karaoke was most fun if someone was either a really good singer or completely tone deaf. Those of us falling somewhere between those two categories may just risk looking rather pathetic up there. However, I picked a song I thought I could do without being too embarrassed, and I just went for it. Half way through the second verse it suddenly struck me there was a rather long guitar break coming up which I had happily forgotten all about, but where I needed to come up with something to do. I improvised a little choreography for one person and one microphone stand (which was really just a variation of a dance for one person and one vacuum cleaner to a Springsteen number I used to do at home), and somehow got through the song.
I have never been offered drinks from as many strangers as I did the rest of that evening. I am not sure if this was because they thought I was pathetic or a good sport, but who cares. All I know is that it’ll most likely be the first, last and only time you’ll ever see me in a karaoke bar. Probably. Without much doubt. I think. Maybe…..

5 May 2008

Etiquette [Japan]

Although I did know quite a few things about Japanese etiquette before I arrived, whenever I wasn’t 100 percent concentrated and had my mind on other things – in other words: pretty much all the time – I forgot. I knew perfectly well that I was not supposed to wear shoes indoors, but one of the first days I still forgot and had taken two steps inside, until I was reminded. Oops! Back to the entrance again, cheeks and ears a little more red. There were indoor slippers and bathroom slippers, and at one ryokan* even a third kind of slippers for outdoor use. And no slippers allowed on tatami* mats. No shoes in temples either, of course. Next time I’ll make sure to only bring shoes without shoe laces.
I made the first blunder when I had taken a taxi to my hotel. The fare was about 1700 yen. I gave the driver 2000 and didn’t expect any change back. He came running after me with the exact change and almost looked a bit offended. You do not tip in Japan.

Some things I am still not sure about. When they gave me my change (if there was not a special little tray to put it) they handed it to me with both hands. I was never sure if I was also supposed to take it with both hands or not. Most of the time I would be holding a wallet and/or the item I had just bought, so I only had one free hand. I guess it really was not that important.
I tried to sit on the floor by kneeling and then sitting back on my heels but I never lasted more than 5 minutes before it felt as if all blood circulation had stopped. I think that must be learned from you are young? Being overweight doesn’t help, either. If I had sat like that for longer than five minutes, they would have had to carry me around locked in that position for a day or two afterwards, I’m sure. But luckily it seemed as if nobody really cared if I sat crosslegged or with my legs stretched out.

It seems perfectly acceptable to slurp. I am not used to that, but it somehow felt cosy and relaxed, so I made an effort to learn how to slurp my soup. I was not a good learner. I either inhaled way too much air and had a fit of coughing or almost got it up my nose. I guess those “will you stop that” looks from my parents when I was a child and happened to slurp had had their effect, after all.

The bottom line is that even though I tried to act according to local etiquette, I did look like a fool regularly. A friend of a friend had invited me out for dinner, and as we went into the restaurant we were in the middle of a conversation when the doorman (there is probably a more correct term than doorman) gave me his right hand. Or rather: he lowered his head and reached out his right hand in my direction. In my world that is the beginning of a handshake and I realized much too late that he was actually just offering to take the umbrella that I held in my left hand. I stopped in the middle of a movement and after flapping both arms around for a moment I finally managed to give him my umbrella. My new friend – whom I had just met ten minutes earlier – seemed to manage to kill a chuckle, but the doorman struggled very hard to keep a straight face. (Incidentally, the dinner was absolutely delightful. Thanks for inviting me, E!)
I am sure my Japanese friends can add to the list of the things I did the 'wrong' way. I hoped that there were extenuating circumstances and it was my impression that many people made allowances because I was a foreigner and saw I did make an effort. Sometimes perhaps too much of an effort. At many restaurants they had disposable chopsticks with pointed ends at both ends. Someone once told me it was best to use the end of the chopsticks you did not eat from when you took food from a common plate. One evening friends told me that I was overdoing the ‘politeness’ a tad. “You can stop juggling those chopsticks around like a drum major. It’s way too formal”. I think other things may not be so easily forgiven. Not sure what, though. Maybe soap in the bathtub? I have a feeling that might not be so popular.

* Links
Ryokan (Traditional Japanese Inn)
Tatami mats

4 May 2008

Languages and communication [Japan]

In Kyoto I arrived at a ryokan* at the same time as an Australian girl, so we were shown around together. When we got to the Japanese bathroom the host made a stop, looked at us and said, “Please, take a bath!” Unlike the Australian, who found the remark rather insulting, I understood that it really meant “You are welcome to use the Japanese bath any time you’d like” and not that the host wanted to imply that we needed it, right then and there. Communicating can be tricky. I tend to have a rather humble approach. I never expect anyone outside Scandinavia to understand my own language and I do not expect everyone to speak English, either.

My Japanese friends are fluent in English, so we were able to discuss the meaning of life as well as the crises of the world. But I did find that most of the taxi drivers, people who work at hotels, restaurants, etc. did not speak a lot of English, and then intonation, body language, and sometimes a little “street theatre” seemed to help. I do not speak Japanese and it is, after all, their country I’m in. Somehow their 200 words in English and my 50 in Japanese worked out fine, most of the time. But sometimes a simple thing as asking for the key to my hotel room could be a problem. The number of my hotel room in Fukuoka was 711. A big hotel, but most of the guests were Japanese businessmen or Japanese holidaymakers. They were not used to foreign guests. If I said “sevenhundredeleven” the receptionists did not understand. I thought “seven-eleven” would be easier, but then I was just pointed in the direction of a shop further down the street! I tried “seven-one-one”, but the result was a confused look and a “.. won-won? Won won won?” So after one day I just learnt to say “shichi-ichi-ichi” and they understood. How hard can it be?

I did try to learn a little Japanese during my stay. After a while I was beginning to wonder if everything was repeated, I had heard “moshi-moshi” (hello, when answering a phone), “moto-moto” (originally), “koi-koi” (a card game), “shabu-shabu” (a dish), “soka-soka” (I forgot the meaning of that one) and “so-so-so” (yes…, I hear you). Yes, I have already begun to forget, and I have not been home for a week, yet. I was using the few words I knew with great enthusiasm. Kyoto was one of my first stops, and I used the Japanese word whenever I wanted to say “thank you”. “Arigato”, I said. But I was corrected: “Here we say “okinni”, you know!” Another place I also wanted to tell some friends I thought our dinner was delicious, so I said “oishii” only to be told, “We mostly say “umai” here instead”. Somehow all this is why I like languages so much: just when you think you know something, there is more to know. You never finish learning.

One thing is trying to learn to say a few words, writing is a different thing altogether. I made the remark that I thought it would be easier for me to learn hieroglyphs than write Japanese and people laughed. I suppose they thought I was joking. Not entirely, though. When I had learnt to write my first name in katakana I must have looked as proud as a small child writing his name for the first time. In the end I could also recognize some hiragana symbols. But kanji?! The only ones I learnt were 6 very simple ones. And how many are there? 3000 or so I guess? I am grateful all the directions and all other important information I needed were also written in romaji. On this sign from a train station it is kanji at the top, hiragana below that, and finally - lucky for me - the romanization at the bottom.

Apparently there seems to be no distinction between R and L in the Japanese language. So when speaking English, play and pray sounds the same and so do liver and river, etc. I didn’t think this was a big problem, because it was easy enough to find out which word it was from the context. When I was ordering at a restaurant and the waiter suggested “Lice?” I wasn’t too surprised. However, my command of the small facial muscles that control the corners of my mouth were put to a serious test, when a man who was very active within local politics told me about the election (city council) the following day. “I am very excited” he told me, “Tomorrow: erection. Big erection!” I swear, I kept a straight face. However, I can only remember one time when I actually misunderstood, at least for a moment. Someone had asked me where in Japan I had been, and after I had told him he said, “Ahhh. Wrong holiday!” At least that is what I heard, but just when I was about to ask what places he thought I should have visited instead, it occurred to me that he had actually sad “Long holiday!”

Sometimes my knowledge of English was a distraction. There was a popular brand of soft drinks called Sweat. That name may cause some English speaking people to forget they were thirsty, but I am more curious, so I bought a bottle from the vending machine. It tasted like grape fruit and was quite good. Another day, before getting into a taxi I noticed the name on the side of the vehicle “Kinki Taxi”. Now, that may make someone rather reluctant. Maybe it’ll be better to wait for the next one? Kinki is the region, and there were a lot of taxis from that company in Kyoto.

3 May 2008

Order, accuracy and sense of detail [Japan]

Friends from abroad visiting me in Copenhagen often think we are pathetic because pedestrians here always stand, very patiently, waiting for the little green man, before they cross the street. It doesn’t really matter if it is 3 o’clock at night, with no car in sight, we’ll wait for the green light. It seems we have some fellow sufferers in Japan. I saw the exact same phenomenon there. No jaywalking.

There were two things I never saw in Japan: graffiti and litter. It seemed to be non existent. Everything was clean and tidy. It was the time when the cherry blossom petals fell to the ground, and I saw people sweeping up these petals every day in front of their homes, as well in public parks. A pity, really, as I sort of like the look of “pink snow” on the ground. We sort our domestic waste but do not have sorting systems at public places.

In Japan I saw garbage sorting bins at most train stations, parking lots and picnic areas, and people seemed to use these very conscientiously and carefully. And there were pictograms, so even an illiterate like me understood the system. In Denmark we seem content if people would only throw their trash in the bins and not right next to it. So there’s definitely room for improvement here.

It also seemed the rule to write distances very accurately. If the elevator was 105 meters away at the other end of the platform, the sign would say 105 meters and not 100 meters. And if the temple was 390 meters away, that’s what the sign would say and not 400. Good to know, so when you passed 395 meters you knew for sure you’d missed the entrance to the temple!

When I was going by train from Narita Airport to Tokyo station, I was given a ticket with the seat number 12C. I sat on 12D instead, which was by the window.
When the conductor checked my ticket, he brought to my attention that I was in the wrong seat. I do not know how many people were in the other carriages but the picture by this paragraph will show you what the rest of the carriage I was in looked like: not a soul. So I was slightly perplexed but promised to move, if the legal ticket holder for seat 12C should arrive. That seemed to satisfy him and he moved on. We were already on our way, and it was the Narita Express which went non-stop from the airport to Tokyo station. I still don’t get from where another traveller would arrive, unless he did a James Bond stunt and jumped onto the train from a low flying helicopter. You never know.

2 May 2008

The Japanese [People]

I have wanted to visit Japan for a long time and several friends of mine were interested in going with me, but somehow it never worked out. Not enough holiday time, or we did not have time off at the same time. Finally I decided to go by myself, or maybe I’d never make it there. As I had managed to convert overtime from last year to extra holiday time, this spring was the chance for me to go. I already knew a handful of people in Japan, whom I was going to meet, and I had also made contacts through Servas* and was going to meet two families while I was in Japan. I had heard from a couple of people that it might be difficult to make Japanese friends along the way, as they were often quite reserved. This is something I’d definitely like to deny. That was not my impression at all. Everywhere I went I met extremely open, friendly and wonderful people, who were very interested in talking to me and showed a genuine interest in what I had to say. It may be true that if you stay at hotels and inns all the time, it can be difficult to talk to people, because most of the people I met there did not speak a lot of English. And as I don’t speak Japanese, communication would be rather sluggish.

However, it happened more than once that people crossed the street in order to come over and talk to me, ask me where I was from, and told me to let them know if I needed any assistance, etc. In those cases I guess I was more reserved than the Japanese, and slightly taken aback at their interest. If I ever hesitated for a moment at a street corner (sometimes I simply looked for the most adventurous looking way, not the direct route), I would be approached immediately by someone offering to give me directions. One time I asked a woman waiting at a bus stop a question. She did not understand English, but I got a clear signal from her: “Don’t move from this spot!” and she rushed into a shop and came back with someone who spoke English.

On my way by train from Kyoto to Fukuoka I got to talk to a very nice man from Hiroshima. When he found out I was planning to visit Hiroshima on my way back, he gave me his card, told me he was a good-will guide* and asked me to please call before I came to Hiroshima, as he would love to show me his city. My stay at Hiroshima was very short, and I never did call. My only regret in connection with visiting Japan is that the six weeks I spent still did not allow enough time.

It seems that Japanese friendliness starts at an early age. One day at Wajima, a small town by the Japan Sea, I was in a shop and a little girl stood in an aisle, looking at the goods on the shelves while humming. (I talked to her mother afterwards and found out she was 2 years and 10 months). Suddenly she turned her head, had eye contact with me and her eyes and mouth were wide open, “Ooohh!” There were other people in our aisle but she only stared at me. Then she just smiled and in her baby voice said a clear “konnichi wa!” I returned her greeting, and she laughed and offered me a half eaten cookie. Although I took that as a great honour I turned down her offer, and by then her mother had caught up with her and I started talking to her. The little girl was waving for a long time as I left the shop. It made me wonder: what is it that either makes children interested in or afraid of anyone who looks “different”?
The only people I encountered who weren't polite - I'd go as far as saying they seemed pretty ruthless - were fast moving businessmen at large. My first experience with them was when I travelled from Kanazawa to Tokyo and had to change to the Shinkansen at Maibara station. There was a veritable stampede of men in suits rushing from one platform via the footbridge to another platform. They steamrolled everything and everyone in their way. Survival of the fittest in practice. I do not expect any favours. I can take care of myself, although I did have the disadvantage of having to carry my suitcase as I was trying to keep up with the moving mob instead of being run over by it. Somehow I managed to jump on the train just before the doors closed. Phew! Another day I went through Tokyo during rush hour. Big mistake. I thought I knew what a crowded subway carriage looked like, but I didn't. Those that I had been in before had only been half full compared to this one. No reservations against body contact here. Not even sardines in a tin are as close together as we were. No matter how full the carriage was, people made a run-up on the platform and jumped into the mass of people inside the carriage. Sometimes it took more than one attempt until they got stuck between two other people and managed to stay inside when the doors closed. At a point a man held his briefcase in front of him and bulldozed me up against a metal railing so I got jammed in between him and a railing. I could hardly move my chest to breathe. A scary feeling, to tell you the truth, but we were only two stations from the end of the line and I somehow managed to keep calm. Out on the platform afterwards a man collapsed. I felt as if I had just gone through a combine harvester. Luckily I managed to escape the reaper-binder.
If I had only “seen the sights” my stay in Japan would not have been the same. The people I meet while travelling are much more important to me. I have been a member of Servas* for nearly 30 years and am still amazed whenever people invite a “stranger” to stay as a member of their family for a few days. It has been a unique way for me to experience what the everyday is like for a Japanese family.
I am especially grateful for the time I spent with my Japanese friends, and friends of friends. Thanks for inviting me into your homes, for introducing me to your family and friends, for taking time off from work in order to spend time with me, for those long drives to show me your favourite places, for the delicious home cooked meals, for taking me to your favourite restaurant, for praising my chopstick technique (and for managing to almost pretend you did not notice when I catapulted a piece of food across the table one day), for teaching me a little Japanese, for our long talks and for bearing with this crazy Scandinavian who is not always familiar with Japanese etiquette. Thanks, simply for being the wonderful people you are! Domo arigato!

* More information:
Good-will guides in Japan