27 August Sayonara - and some random memories
We rose at 6.00, Stephen having stayed up until 4.00am recording a message on the video camera for the folks back home. Last-minute packing and a cup of warm brown fluid filled the time until 8.00 when we left the Chiba apartment for the last time. Reversing the train journey 23 days previously, we eventually arrived at Narita. We were speedily checked in and then went up to the mezzanine where there were a variety of restaurants. We settled for the “cake set” for breakfast. Literally cake and coffee. The check-in hall was bedecked with banners advertising the 2002 World Cup. Eventually our flight was called, and we sadly departed from Stephen.
Arriving in the departure hall, we sat and waited. And waited. We were called and took our seats on the plane, and waited. And waited. And waited some more. There had been an international sporting event in Japan, and, this being Aeroflot, we were waiting for the Russian team to arrive for their journey home. Eventually they strolled on. Several of the women looked, er, sturdy, and there was one man who was stripped to the waist, rippling his tattoos and generally strutting his stuff. We concluded that this was a powerlifting team, or some such.
The journey to Heathrow was pretty much the same as the journey to Narita, only in reverse. Sheremetyevo was much the same, except that this time, the ground staff misdirected a number of the transit passengers, including Val and me. This meant that we were now en route for Cuba or somewhere. By ducking under the barrier, we got back into the right lounge, to the evident dismay of some of the staff, who swooped on us, trying to chivvy us back to the wrong sector. As we showed no sign of paying them any attention, they ceased their shouted orders, stopped waving their arms, and finally slunk away. We were thus free to re-board our onward flight.
At Heathrow, we waited interminably, it seemed, for our baggage, but once we had picked it up, there was no further delay as we passed through customs and immigration. It was noticeable that the British immigration officers treated incomers with a smile and a cheery word of welcome, in contrast to their comparatively surly Japanese counterparts. Maybe it’s a culture thing.
Sue met us. We retrieved the car, and I drove us back home. We arrived at 11.20 p.m., having set off from Chiba at 8.00 that same day. This time we had travelled East >>> West (with the sun).
Pepsi, our cat, was pleased to see us, but after a few minutes of fuss, she suddenly remembered that we had abandoned her for over three weeks. Thus it was that she decided to let us know her feelings, and went off to a corner where she sat with her back turned toward us. By the following morning, she had forgotten all about her pique, and forgave Val as she demanded - and received - her breakfast.
The long plane journey had given me time to recall some of the surprises and “Oohs” of our stay in Japan.
I had been surprised that so many teenage girls dyed their hair. Blonde and dusky orange were the predominant colours.
Japan must be the last place on earth where girls teeter along on high platform-soled shoes. And I had thought that the knitted legwarmer was an extinct species. But Japanese girls wear rolled-down legwarmers above their platform-soled shoes, in conjunction with fairly short skirts. They think it makes their legs look longer. It is something of a national obsession that they believe that they have embarrassingly short legs.
Bowing was the single most common difference in behaviour. It soon became unremarkable, but then I suppose that we do not remark on the shaking of hands as our greeting / parting custom.
Girls wave at each other all the time. Even when they are standing face to face. Maybe it’s a substitute for bowing, when that is impossible (trains are packed really tight sometimes) or otherwise inappropriate.
The strange, nasal, sing-song Irrasshaimasu that greets you on entering shops and restaurants, or even on moving from one floor to another is rather un-nerving at first. It’s only when you realise that you’re not expected to reply that it becomes comfortable.
Equally, the insistence of the smartly-uniformed teenage lift operators on announcing the contents of each floor takes a bit of getting used to.
All of this is the product of a sincere desire to serve their customer. Perhaps it’s deeper seated than that. Stephen explained that there was something stronger than the Protestant Work Ethic at work here. Maybe it’s the Japanese Service ethic, but the essence is that everyone wants to do their job to the utmost of their ability. And because of this, there is a dignity in every job, however menial.
There is also over-employment visible at many levels. The welcome girls at the entrance to department stores perform only a cosmetic function, as far as I could see. The small gang of baton-wielders at every traffic obstruction, roadwork, or delivery vehicle is another case in point.
There is a lot of political haranguing in the street. Time and again, our ears would be assailed by amplified slogan-shouting. Stephen says they are often extreme left- or right-wingers. No one seems to take any notice.
The use of Japlish as a chic style statement is amusing. Entirely unconnected words are printed on carrier bags, on T-shirts, as the name of shops, in fact almost everywhere that a bit of cachet might be gained. Things like “Elephant Brick”, “Legal Sunshine”, and “Ground Control Two Much”. There is an isotonic drink marketed by the Pocari company, called “Sweat”. One bloke’s T-shirt’ slogan was “They say a fox can cheat a parson. Have you seen a cock?” No, I don’t know, either.
I was surprised how primitive is the personal banking system in Japan. The consumer economy is predominantly a cash economy. Credit cards are allegedly acceptable in the major cities, but often it is only this bank’s Visa or that bank’s MasterCard that is accepted. Personal cheques and guarantee cards seem unknown. If I go back to Japan (as I hope to do some day) I will take a Visa card, which seems more widely acceptable than any other international card.
The amazing ability of people to enter a tube train and instantly fall asleep (irrespective of whether they’re sitting or standing) was a wonder to me. They sleep whatever time of day they’re travelling, if they’re not reading something. The something for men is often a pornographic comic book, which they read quite brazenly.
Air conditioning was one of the best features in the enormous heat and humidity of August. It made travelling a real pleasure, for trains, taxis and the subway were universally air-conditioned. Not to mention big shop doorways.
On every street there seemed to be a restaurant. Perhaps it’s the small size of Japanese homes that makes eating out a necessity, especially if entertaining. Sadly, there are McDonalds everywhere in Japan, not to mention Burger Kings and KFCs. I’m with the anti-globalisation crowd on this specific one. Stick to your own country’s cuisine!
On every street corner, there are vending machines, mainly selling drinks (hot as well as cold) and cigarettes. Cigarette smoking is ubiquitous, and commonplace among teenage girls and boys. One vending machine I saw in Hiroshima dispensed draft beer, or alternatively 5-litre cans of it. When people buy a can of Coca-Cola or other beverage from a vending machine, they stay by the machine until they have finished their drink, when they carefully pop the empty can into the re-cycling bin. Equally, no one walks along a street while eating an ice cream. You stay close to where you bought it, delicately ingesting the item, and then walk away.
You have to be careful how you dispose of rubbish. Usually, there are three receptacles for rubbish: one for cans, one for bottles, the third for “burnables”. Woe betide you if you put, say, a can into a bottle recycler, as I did once. An officious elderly person will retrieve the offending item and insert it into the right bin, while scolding you for your ignorant gaijin ways.
And perhaps that’s the summation of our 24 days. I am undeniably gaijin. I do not understand the Japanese culture, although I understand it a great deal better after my insightful tour than I did before. At least, I understand it enough to know that i do not understand it very much! But I am now an aficionado and perhaps in a small way becoming a connoisseur of Japan and its ways. It is a staggering country, at once 21st Century and steeped in ancient tradition and history, full of western comforts and yet clearly alien to western ways, hugely friendly and yet independently aloof.
I wrote a feeble haiku to summarise this holiday of a lifetime:
Summer in Japan;
Cicadas, sweat and Kirin -
When may I return?