6 December 2008

This and That …. [Japan]

One of the main reasons why I like travelling so much is of course to experience something different. Sometimes these differences result in major culture clashes, something I have always learnt something from. However, at other times these differences are just small, everyday stuff that I stumble across. Apart from the incidents I have already written about, I’ll mention a few other things which caught my eye and made me start thinking ...

One of the things which really puzzled me was the way in which the seats in certain waiting rooms were arranged. I saw a few of these during my trip. The picture above is from the station at Kanazawa. Single seats with quite a distance between them, all facing the same way. They look as if they are meant for people suffering from social phobia. Maybe for the hikikomori* if they ever do venture out into the surrounding world! ;o) If someone out there can explain this phenomenon to me, I’d be grateful.
The next picture shows a bench by the river in Hiroshima. Now, I doubt the partitions are there to separate the people sitting on the bench. Instead, I imagine they are there to prevent people from lying down. No loitering or sleeping out.

Are these benches or tables? I think perhaps a little of each. These ‘tables’ were at the park surrounding the Kinkakuji at Kyoto.

I really enjoyed staying at the ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) where your bed was a futon rolled out on the floor, covered by tatami mats. At the ryokans I stayed at, my room always had a sliding door leading out into a small garden or green courtyard, even in the middle of a big city. The inns were rather small, and the hosts always gave me their undivided attention and very individual and personal service. The first picture above shows my modest room at a ryokan, an 8 tatami mat sized room (approx. 160 sq.ft.). During the day, the futon was rolled up and put away. The second picture is from a private house in which I stayed as a guest. ‘My’ bedroom doubled as a dining room during the day. My hosts got up earlier than me and have already put away their futons for the day in the room next to mine. I like the idea of flexible rooms. But I don’t think many modern Japanese live like this anymore. Perhaps they have one traditional Japanese room in their home, only.

I see heart starters more and more places, but not as many in Denmark as I spotted in Japan. I used to teach paramedics, so maybe I am more aware of such equipment and easily spot it when it’s there. I don’t know. At places frequented by many people, you usually found them in Japan, such as here, at a temple in Kyoto, when it’s right next to a Fuji film vending machine and a machine on which you can make a souvenir coin with your own name on it.

In my country, if someone picks up a magazine in a shop and starts to leaf through it, I guess nine out of ten times, the shop assistant will tell you in no uncertain terms to either buy the magazine or put it down! But in Japan I saw lots of people, mainly younger men, not only leafing through the cartoon magazines, but taking their time and reading it carefully. It seemed to be OK. In one shop, when I wanted to buy some detergent I addressed a young man, who was standing right next to me reading a magazine, as I needed a little help deciphering the writing on the product I was holding. As I had begun talking to him, I suddenly realized he was actually reading a strip cartoon with strong pornographic contents, and I was trying to pretend not to ‘notice’. But he made no attempt to close the magazine or do anything else to indicate that what he was doing wasn’t OK in public, so I assumed even that might be perfectly acceptable (?) And he actually did help me find the right kind of detergent. Incidentally, he is not the man in my picture. That photo was taken in another shop.

I don’t want to seem too soft. My golden rule when I meet other cultures, other traditions and other rules is not to be judgemental. But sometimes the left side of my brains is powered down and the right (more emotional) side takes over completely. So pet shops full of puppies kept in ‘cages’ that resembled fish-tanks really broke my heart. I considered a Turtle-Diary-or-Free-Willy attempt, but I managed to control myself. Two years ago, in Turkey, we were having lunch opposite a pet shop, where they had a number of puppies in a cage out in the baking sun, with no shade. I actually walked over to the shop keeper and asked why the dogs didn’t have any water, ‘Oh, yes, water!’ he said and gave them a bowl of water which they fought over and finished in no time, so he had to fill it again. I think my life would be much simpler (and my blood pressure lower) if I could manage to just mind my own business. But it’s difficult for me not to interfere.

Other things seemed more similar to home. I saw a notice about dogs while I walked along the Philosopher’s Walk in Kyoto, and although I don’t understand what it says, I assume it must be the same general idea as the signs we have in our parks (right picture).

Sometimes when friends from abroad are visiting me, they comment on alcohol being displayed freely on the shelves in the super market. That would be the standard, at least when it comes to beer and wine. I suppose most of the time liquor is kept behind a counter. But in my local shop in Fukuoka I noticed that even some strong spirits were on display in child height.

I saw bottles of water outside many homes, such as this one in the Nagamachi Buke Yashiki District in Kanazawa, and I finally asked someone what they were for. My first guess had been that it was in connection with some sort of ritual. Like when you put out a bowl of rice for your ancestors. But no, no, that was not the case. I was told it helped keep cats away. But how?

We have a lot of bikes in Denmark. Personally, I have two: a 3-speed bike for city use with a basket attached to the handlebars and a 24-speed mountain bike for .... Well, I don’t really go on all those rides through the forest that I had planned to! There is now an official policy in Copenhagen to make it the best European city for bikes within a time frame of about ten years. In Copenhagen, we have separate bike lanes between the sidewalks and the road. I am simply just not used to bikes coming towards me on the sidewalk, which is what they do in Japan, so I often saw them rather late and only managed to step aside in the last moment. A few near misses but no injuries, fortunately.

Of course I have seen intersections like the one in this photo (taken in front of the main station in Kyoto), where pedestrians can cross in all directions at the same time, but I have mostly seen those in the States, and now in Japan. As I stood there, waiting for the light to turn green, I could not figure out what the advantage was of three-stage traffic lights. First stage: green light for motorists in one direction, second stage: green light for the motorists crossing the first direction, third stage: red light for all the motorists while it is green for all the pedestrians. True enough, if you are a pedestrian, you can get to the corner diagonally from where you are in one go, but won’t it mean that all the vehicles will have to wait even longer? And even the pedestrians, if they arrive when the light has just turned red. Embarrassingly, I’ll have to admit I am too stupid to understand why this is supposed to create a better traffic flow like they claim. Someone, please enlighten me.

Generally, we like to think the Danes are very advanced when it comes to green energy and protecting the environment. Although this is true, especially concerning wind power, I saw lots of things in Japan that we don’t have (all that much of) at home. Including street lights powered by solar cells. The sun would provide the light regardless if it was day or night. Great!
Another thing which was ‘great’ was the bamboo, of course. The bamboo in my family’s garden was maybe 6-8 feet tall. The grove I am standing in here has a sort of bamboo which gets … somewhat taller! I really like all the ways in which the bamboo sticks are used in traditional construction, such as for the gutter and drain of this house at the Shugakuin Imperial Villa. I always admire good craftsmanship.
Now that we seem to be playing ‘Where’s Wally’, here’s a picture of me with a cherry tree in Shinjuku Gyoen. Someone told me Europeans look so pink. I tried to prove that by blending in with the pink cherry blossoms.

I wonder if school uniforms were ever used in my country. I don’t think so. Japanese secondary school children all wore sailor suit style uniforms. I don’t think primary school children had uniforms, but I am not sure. I liked all the coloured caps kindergarten children wore.
As for the traditional clothes, my thoughts on all the beautiful traditional kimonos I saw would fill too many pages to bring up here. I also thought the traditional wedding clothes were exceptionally elegant. This couple was at Miyajima. At all the hotels and ryokans I stayed at, there was a yukata (thin cotton kimono) to sleep in. At the ryokans these were often worn outside your room, as well. I already knew I was supposed to tie them with the left side on top (the right side on top is reserved for the dead!), so I felt slightly enlightened and sophisticated (wink wink) at my ryokan in Tokyo, where I noticed the way other tourists wore them was not always like this. I heard the tradition behind the left side being on top, is from when people wore swords and daggers. As most people are right handed, these would be worn on the left side of your body. If you had to pull it quickly, there would be a risk of your hand or weapon being caught up in the hem of your clothes if the right side was on top. Just watch Richard Chamberlain in ‘Shogun’, or any samurai movie! ;o) Men and women wear clothes the same way. Actually, last year a Japanese friend asked me why on earth our clothes, e.g. shirts and jeans, were closed differently for men and women. I did not have a clue about the tradition behind this, but a friend who’s an anthropologist and folklorist eventually gave me an explanation, which had some similarity to the explanation about the kimonos: when men had to pull their weapon it would be safer to close their hides (or whatever they wore back then) with the left side on top, in order to avoid their hand getting tangled up in their clothes. If they wanted to signal they were unarmed, they would place the other side on top. As women were generally unarmed, that would be their typical way of dressing. I have no idea whether or not this is the real explanation, but it does make sense, somehow. All I can say is that I have jeans that are men’s/unisex and jeans which are for women, exclusively. And it’s a lot more difficult to zip those women’s jeans if I try to use my right hand!!!

If it rained, I would wear my rain jacket. I prefer to have my hands free, so I don’t use an umbrella very often. I didn’t see many other people wearing rain clothes there, though. I wonder if it is considered uncommon or un-cool, somehow. Instead, there seemed to be umbrellas everywhere. Literally: everywhere! I ended up buying two during my stay and just passed them on to someone else when I didn’t need them anymore. They were inexpensive, and you could buy them at every other corner, it seemed. Typically, it seemed people got caught in the rain and just bought another one and brought it home. I took this picture in the hall of a private home. They (a family of three) had more than twenty of them in their hall.

Something else I didn’t know from home: all the cords suspended over the streets. A rocky underground would make it difficult to dig them into the ground, I’m sure. Also, with frequent earth quakes and possible damages to these cords, it also makes good sense to have them in the air, so they can easily be repaired. So a street scene like this is part of the Japanese couleur locale for me.

I enjoyed the ability to find beauty and value in something, which not everyone can. We had a big garden, where I grew up, and my father had come across a some rocks while digging in the garden, and unlike most of our neighbours, who arranged for the rocks they found to be taken away, he kept a few of them on ‘display’ as he thought they were interesting. I saw that many places in Japan – and I am not talking about the big, symbolic rock gardens but just a few square feet of garden in front of a private home. I found that interesting. I wonder what age a rock like the red one in my picture has. I wouldn’t be surprised if dinosaurs had stepped on it.

Finally, why change the course of a path through a park just because there is a tree right in the middle of it?
*Link:
Hikikomori

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to thank you for sharing your experience. I have learned more from your blog posts than any Japan guide book I have read. Hope you'll keep it up.
sam.

AE said...

The fact that the kindergarden children wear caps with different colours could very well be because they are often divided into groups according to blood type! I know it sounds like a joke, but it isn't!
AE

RJG said...

I looked at your photographs and I must say, the waiting room looks very unusual to me. Maybe there was some eccentric involved in the planning of Kanazawa Station? Single seats are no doubt the exception rather than the rule. Such uncomfortable seats, too!

It is, of course, not a case of good manners if you stand at a book-shop and keep reading instead of buying the item. Even so, a great many people do it, and hardly anybody minds.

The sign above the dog says 'Friendly Dog', and the one below, 'No Pictures!' This second one seems to be on every cage.

Yes, few people use raincoats, and virtually all of them do use umbrellas, some very fondly too. As for raincoats, I tried to get one yesterday, but it was hopeless. Coats (longer than jackets) are rarely if ever sold at the usual clothing stores. When I asked my friend why nobody demanded raincoats, she just answered it might be because hardly anybody walked long distances.

emenel said...

Thanks for your comments. I really appreciate your feedback!

AE: For a moment I did think perhaps you were joking. Then I read an article in wikipedia and realised you weren't! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_blood_type_theory_of_personality)

RJG: Thanks for all your interesting comments. It does make sense about the raincoats and unbrellas, somehow. Oh, so it says "No pictures" in one of my pictures? Oops!

Kapi said...

I want to comment on something about the seats in Kanazawa station.It may look strange to people from other countries, but the Japanese hesitate to face with someone they do not know at all... That is one of the Japanese characters
, too shy.
And,the Japanese think it is well mannered to stand in a line so... the seats also stand in lines!

emenel said...

Hello Kapi! Thanks for your explanation. I do see your point. Thanks for leaving a comment - I really appreciate it!

emenel