10 Ways Japan Shocks Me (to My Delight)
Exotic, enigmatic and mysterious are all words that come to mind when describing Japan. This country is all that and more. Whilst in Japan, take your eyes off your list of ‘Things to See’ and watch the world go by; you are bound to come across something shocking, yet delightful.
Like most travellers, I have a checklist of things to do and places to see. The touristy side of Japan occupies my senses, but now and again, I see something which makes me stop in my tracks—such as a customer wiping his table in a fast food restaurant, fresh flowers in public washroom by a motorway, or a bus driver saying ‘arigato gozaimasu’ (a more polite version of ‘thank you’ in Japanese) to passengers as they alight. These are but a few insights into the weird and wonderful ways of the Japanese.
Here are my personal top ten favourites, in no particular order.
1. Punctuality That Knows No Bounds
The Japanese penchant for punctuality is well-known throughout the world, but do not think just in terms of train schedules. If you’re taking a bus, you’d do well to bear in mind to get there well before departure time. You may not be allowed to board if you’re cutting it too close, as the driver will start the engine 30 seconds beforehand to ensure the bus leaves on time. On a recent trip to Japan, I noticed a strange sign at a shop door: “Open 10:59 – 21:01”.
2. Self-Service Cinema
The Japanese are a disciplined lot. We think of this in terms of an orderly society where queueing is a way of life. That is not all. On your way out of the cinema, having enjoyed your movie, you’ll be greeted by staff standing behind a food trolley, bowing and saying ‘arigato’ over and over, only there’s no food on the trolley. This is where patrons place their empty cups, empty popcorn containers, and other rubbish as they leave.
3. The World Is My Home
Nothing brought this home to me more than what I saw at a fast food restaurant. In Japan, it is commonplace for customers to return trays of used cutlery, but I was surprised when a Japanese man went back to his table with a cloth and proceeded to wipe his table. Apparently, he took care to treat a public place as if it was his home.
4. Welcome to Our (Public) Washroom
When travelling in Japan, one of the things I look forward to is restroom stops, weird as it sounds. Necessity aside, it’s a novelty, a break from the monotony of bus travel, no matter how simple the rest stop turns out to be. As I stepped into one of the many restrooms dotting the motorways of Hokkaido, I was greeted with fresh-cut flowers. I was confused; I’ve always associated this with five-star hotels, and I lingered awhile to take in the scene.
Bus driver to passengers: "Thank you for boarding my bus."
5. Thank You for Boarding My Bus
What if a bus driver stands up from his seat to thank you personally as you disembark? It happened on my way to Osaka airport to catch a return flight. Again, I was confused; I’ve been taught to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’, to be polite and to express my appreciation, hence it was awkward when the driver thanked me, along with all passengers, when I had done nothing to deserve it. I responded the only way I felt was appropriate: I said my ‘arigato gozaimasu’ loud and clear in return, so he didn’t miss it.
6. Bidets, Going Above and Beyond
It can only be Japan when you encounter the bidet numerous times on a daily basis. It’s something I had to learn to navigate but have since come to expect as a staple Japanese experience. It not only does its job but gives you some semblance of control over something you don’t have complete say over; you can tailor-make your preferences for nozzle direction, water pressure, oscillating spray options, temperature control for seat and water and finally, drying with warm air—all without lifting a finger (well, as far as the toilet is concerned).
7. Come Skinny-Dip With Me
This is the one place I can go skinny-dip by day or night with complete strangers and feel totally safe, so to speak. The onsen (Japanese hot spring with covered bathing facilities around it) experience is not to be missed. There, it’s frowned upon to cover yourself for the sake of modesty. Some of my friends cannot overcome this and miss out on the sensation of freezing and boiling hot all at once, to feel snowflakes landing on their noses with a feathery touch.
8. Platinum Service Without a Platinum Card
Uniformed ladies at department stores open elevator doors and announce your floor. Shop assistants wrap your shopping with care and walk you to the door, still bowing after you leave. Hotel staff line up at the entrance to wave you off at the end of your stay. You don’t have to be a millionaire to get the VIP treatment; these are some of the perks in the normal course of business of Japan Inc.
Rock gardens instill contemplation and turn down the volume on multitudes of inner voices, not a bad thing in a world addicted to constant stimulation.
9. Rock Garden or Courtyard Full of Pebbles?
I cannot figure out why they call it a ‘garden’. It is the antithesis of what a garden is supposed to be—dry, grey, devoid of life and off-limits to the public. Yet it draws you in, interacting not on a physical level but a mental one. There is a purpose behind the patterns on a bed of pebbles and rock arrangement. As they’re usually found in temples, rock gardens instill contemplation and turn down the volume on multitudes of inner voices, not a bad thing in a world addicted to constant stimulation.
10. The Best Is Saved for Locals
As the saying goes, ‘charity begins at home’; the Japanese take this literally by giving locals priority when it comes to the best things their land has to offer. From everyday items such as nail clippers to cosmetics and medical devices, high-quality products are reserved for local use. This is so refreshing, coming from a country where higher-grade products tend to be exported and local ones are synonymous with inferiority.
You may have your own discoveries about Japan which are just as delightful. No doubt my list will continue to grow given my fascination with Japan and its wonderful people.
© 2019 CC Leau