Japan

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Tokyo, Japan, November 2008.

Attendants bowed when the train moved in and out of the station, when they entered or exited a car, when they offered you food. A refreshing lesson in civility. I already told you that they not only warn you, but ask you if they can recline their seats in front of you, and refrain, not only from talking but even letting ring their cell phone in public. In the West, they break your knees in the plane without so much as turning around, and they yell on their cell to their partners back home while shopping at the grocer’s.

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Kamakura, Japan, November 2008.

We also had nice experiences in that country, such as an authentic Shinto wedding in which we bumped totally by chance in one of the famous Kamakura temples. Our friend and host Eizaburo had never seen one! When they finally came out of the open temple, the newlyweds bowed before the priests, everybody bowed to everybody else, then photos. Visitors to the compounds were also taking photos, I took over one hundred, to the point, said my companion, I made the thin groom look nervous.

The two Shinto priests were dressed in very light colors, with a funny hat attached by a string to their chin. They had black, wooden clogs. The 3-men orchestra, however, played not very harmoniously the flute and a drum.

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Kamakura, Japan, November 2008.

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Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan, December 2008.

The food was another good surprise. Under the expert guiding of Eizaburo (here at his home) there was not a single day when we did not try something different, I mean different types and preparations, not just ingredients — fried, steamed, boiled, barbecued, saute, browned, wok-ed, they even have a Shinshu beef cooked on a hot stone. Under the shadow of Fuji-san we had a dinner then a breakfast full of too difficult dishes to describe, like Takoyaki, octopus fried in balls with Katsobushi, dry fish flakes, Tsumire-jiru, a sardine ball soup (!) or Kawori-Sakura, a jelly from petals of cherry blossoms. At a Tokyo joint we had very tasty fried shrimps with sauce and all. At a restaurant with a friend we had a fondue of meat, liver, shells, even an entire fish we broiled ourselves on a gridiron atop the table. Eizaburo kept ordering the whole menu! Later on we were going to have fried fish, sauteed meat, pancakes stuffed with soja stems, thin noodles, pieces of meat and a sauce – particularly tasty – plenty of steamed vegetables and noodles we had never seen. And soups, soups, soups. If you think only about sushi when they say Japanese food, it’s like saying Greek wine is limited to retsina !

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Otaru, Hokkaido, Japan, December 2008.

Small fishing village by Sapporo’s harbour, 40 km west of town. The weather was so overcast there was no way to see Vladivostok (43.12) on almost exactly the same parallel (43.15) but on the other shore, anyway both are well hidden in rocky bays.

On the way back we went to hot springs, yes, one more great discovery in Japan! Actually we were lucky, some of Otaru’s onsens had had a policy of denying entry to foreigners because these often “cause trouble”. There is an easy explanation, “Otaru attracts over a thousand Russian vessels and more than 25,000 sailors a year”, and these are often drunk and, among others, “jumping into the tubs with soap on their bodies”, scaring away the regular patrons hence the management’s policy, until a court upheld the right of a foreigner who chose to sue to be able to use the facilities. Coincidentally, the Japan Times just had a lengthy piece on that subject from Paul de Vriess, an author about to publish a book on Japan’s teachings, who defines “group accountability” as “a process within which all of the members of a group are punished for the indiscretion of one of that group’s members. It is a process that seeks to take the onus of policing away from law enforcement professionals and place it in the hands of society at large” [Japan Times, 3 December 2008, p.15]

Hence we have race profiling, or even the hassles we have to go through when boarding a plane. While he agrees about the potential abuses of group accountability, the author justifies it in the case of Japan and makes an interesting comparison: “While the rights of the individual [or the consumer!] are certainly more strongly upheld in America [i.e. the U.S.] than in Japan, the presence of rogue individuals within America [i.e. the U.S.] is disproportionately high. America [i.e. the U.S.] is unquestionably a more dangerous place than Japan”. And de Vriess argues that “group accountability” is precisely used to make Japan “cohesive and safe”, with a low rate of random violence, therefore, some discriminations here and there are a small price to pay for that, hmmmm. I wonder what Chinese immigrants, like this one below, at Sapporo’s airport, think about that.

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Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan, December 2008.

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Sapporo, Hokkaido, Japan, December 2008.

The sure one distinctive feature of that nation. They keep photographing each other in front of any monument (here the Clock Tower) or sight, and they keep making the V sign on any photo.

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