The Japanese culture is one that is probably pretty familiar to most people, given its prevalence in international cuisine, its anime and its notoriously far-out game shows. Without any first-hand knowledge, these aspects paint a rather interesting picture of Japan:
Clean, cute, bright and colorful. Cue images of ninja, samurai and girls looking very kawaii (lovable, cute, pretty, adorable…).
Truth be told, I was blown away by what we encountered in Japan. The best way I can describe it is that while the big picture is always there, the beauty is in the details. There is such an attention to every part of a scene or project or object that it never ceased to amaze me. We often found ourselves thinking: “I wonder why they didn’t think of doing ________?” (A minute later) “Oh wait, they did!” On a side note, the meal ticket vending machines at restaurants are nothing short of amazing. The time that the chef and servers might spend waiting for customers to pore over a menu at their table is completely eliminated.
From the rows of tuna at Tsukiji to the intricate carvings underneath the bell at the Kaminari-mon to the beautiful (and incredibly delicious!) sakura swiss roll from Patisserie Kihachi, the meticulousness with which everything was executed was beyond compare. Even in the bright lights of Shinjuku, Harajuku and Shibuya, there seemed to be a place for everything.
There is also a certain regalness to the way things are done here, it is almost futuristically modern and yet steeped in tradition, plus there is a level of politeness I have yet to see elsewhere. Our local friend laments a little that rather than tell you “no,” the Japanese are wont to talk in circles (offering up alternatives in our experience) until they can avoid telling you “no” no longer.
There is a way of doing things, unspoken rules that everyone seems to know, and most things are followed to a T. Arrived a little early at your hotel? You’re welcome to leave your bags with us, but check back with us at 3pm. (Contrast this with Vietnam where upon asking if we could check in 2 hours early, reception smilingly responded with “Why not?”).
Dense though it may be, everything seems to have its own place in Japan, and it is beautiful. If we look at one of our ryokan rooms as a microcosm of Japanese mentality, I think it will be easy to see. Wall-to-wall tatami mats neatly cover the floor. By one wall a little table and seat cushions are set up, with a carefully arranged tea tray, complete with an electric kettle. By the far wall, two futons lie side-by-side. Each comforter is laid exactly on top of its mattress, sides folded in so as to stay within the bounds of the mattress. A yukata, two towels, an obi (belt) folded into a pentagon and a little origami crane sit stacked at the head of the mattress, while an extra blanket lies neatly folded at the other end. It was a perfect picture, with just the right amount of asymmetry for balance. I must say, it appealed to my inner perfectionist so very nicely.
Here are a few other tidbits we noticed while in Japan:
There’s a vending machine for that
Whatever you need, you’ll find it in a vending machine. Want a drink? Your choice of hot or cold beverages awaits you. Museums often have vending machines to dispense tickets. For trains, there’s a vending machine for anything and everything imaginable. Anything you can fit into a vending machine and is a consumable, we found. If you can’t find it there, you can see it at one of the infinite convenience stores (Seven Eleven, Lawson’s, and Family Mart, to name a few).
It’s so quiet
The city is surprisingly quiet. No one honks, no one shouts. It seems even the cars are quieter, rather than the loud ones one might expect in other cities. You can even be on a crowded bus and still think you were one of a few people on board. Even arcades (pachinko), with their flashing lights and frenetic beeps and pings, only ever let sound seep into the streets when people entered or exited.