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Children go to School – Day 7

Children go to School – Day 7

The Japanese play it safe a lot.   It’s one of the things that makes travel here so refreshing.   The streets are safe from most crime, the building codes are strict, the food is clean and carefully marked, the people are polite and there is a general social cohesion.  That means there are a lot of things about Japan that the occasional visitor may not notice – especially when the visitor is a member of the media looking for “news”. This comes to mind since there had been some reporting about Japan that, as a somewhat frequent visitor, I found disingenuous at best.  For instance, there were some reports that the people of Tokyo were wearing cloth face masks due to fear of radiation.  The Japanese have been wearing face masks for decades – to protect both themselves and others from germs, dust, pollen, etc.  One of our guide wears one all spring due to allergies.  In a society where blowing your nose is frowned upon, a face mask is a way of dealing with all sorts of physical discomfort while still keeping with the Japanese tendency to put the good of the group over the individual. Another example is that they are supposedly only “now” labeling food with its place of origin due to fears about food from Fukashima prefecture.   I remember being in Japan last year and seeing a very large apology posted in a department store because they had advertised chickens on sale as being from one prefecture when a few that they sold came from some other prefecture.  Food origination information is NOT a new phenomenon in Japan – it’s part of how they work and think.   Food quality is highly valued and each area has specialties.  These are displayed proudly and are used as reference points – one buys abalone from this place and turnips from that place. So with all that concern for safety and hygiene as practically inbred into the culture, it brings to mind a question about the children.   If you think that Japanese are vigilant about their personal health and safety, it’s nothing compared to the health and safety efforts they take for their children.   Little hard hats immediately available in case of earthquakes, regular drills, special foods and vitamins, and on and on.   So with all this concern, it got me thinking – how are the people of Japan protecting their children from the disasters that have just befallen the country? Well, it seems from a casual observation over the past 7 days that they are going about their business as usual.   During our touring we saw many large groups of school kids – in a range of ages and at a range of sights and events.   Unlike in the US, where it seems there are far fewer field trips and, when they occur, the kids all take a bus to a nearby farm and are back for lunch – the Japanese seem to travel quite long distances in groups from a young age.   We saw lots of kids on field trips on public transportation – whole classes of children, of all ages, in their uniforms or cute matching hats, accompanied by their teachers, patiently sitting on the station floors, lined up for 1/2 hour before their train departs, filing onto the trains and into their seats.  And this wasn’t just subway trains; it was Shinkansen trains across half the country.   And it wasn’t 16-year olds – we saw...
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Lost in Translation

Everyone has their own little personal quirks and one of mine is that I habitually misplace things. Traveling only exacerbates the issue, since being on the move means that it’s even more difficult to track everything. On my most recent trip to Japan I lost not fewer than five separate items – and I’ve got four back! Japan is amazing that way – three of the lost items were rather simple for this efficient and incredibly honest society – a blanket left at a ryokan was takybbined to my final hotel, a sheaf of papers dropped (yes, I was so tired I just dropped them as I walked around a hotel resort property and didn’t notice for 15 minutes) was found and sent directly back to my address in the US and at least one bag left in a store was exactly where I left it when I returned. My favorite hair clip, alas, is probably never going to be seen again. But the most incredible (to an American) “return” was the lost CD case. We finally figured out that we’d lost the case of movie CD’s on the last morning when we couldn’t find it after repacking all the bags the previous night. Calls to all 5 previous hotels yielded nothing – but did get us a second call back from the Four Seasons to let us know they’d checked everywhere even though we’d been there 4 nights previously. We doubted our memories – maybe we hadn’t packed it. We hoped we’d left it in the room in Matsumoto; one of the only hotels without enough English to check ourselves, so we were having a colleague call when they had a moment. We headed to the airport – really hoping we’d just for forgotten it at home. In a last act of desperation, we asked at the American Airlines check-in counter to see if we’d left it on the plane on our inbound trip 7 days previously – we described the case and its contents and the lovely lady at the counter called it in. We left, went through a little hoo-ha at security check (note to self: do NOT try to take sake on board with you – it’s LIQUID!) and arrived at the lounge to await our flight. Where, when we checked in, they handed us the missing CD case!!! Found on the plane when we came in! Maybe this happens all the time in the US and we just don’t hear about it. Yeah, right… a CD case with a new copy of “The Hangover” is left on a plane and 7 days later you return to the check-in counter at the airport and they locate said item and have it delivered to the club or departure gate so that it arrives before you do. So, at least in Japan, my personal quirk doesn’t create quite so many problems for me – items are rarely lost – only understanding in...
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Train Folding

Train Folding

There are some things that fall into the “only in Japan” category, not because they require location, but because they require all the elements to fall into place.   Such was my experience on the train to Himeji when we noticed the woman across the way, patiently folding delightful origami birds and boxes.   Americans aren’t accustomed to traveling on passenger trains, so just sitting on the Shinkansen, whizzing across Japan en route to the famous Himeji Castle was a foundation for an interesting cultural experience.  Most people read, look out the window, snooze or maybe listen to music on long train and car rides.  A very few people might knit or something of that nature, but it’s not common for people to make things while traveling.  The US is also not a country with a single, unique pastime that can be enjoyed by everyone – knitting and crocheting don’t count.  Origami, on the other hand, is a singularly unique Japanese pastime that is learned young and, apparently, practiced throughout life.   Which brings us to the origami lady – who was seated across the aisle from us on the train.  Apparently she was just as enchanted with our enthusiastic videoing of Mt. Fuji and the train experience as we were with her patient folding of many different origami delights.  She gave us the peacock pictured here, let us take her picture, and then went on to fold an entire bag of peacocks, boxes and other items for the entire train...
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Safe Umbrellas

Safe Umbrellas

OK, let’s face it, I think the Japanese are just naturally “neater” than we are.   Take umbrellas.  My experience of umbrellas in the US is that you carry around a tattered old umbrella in the back of your car or in your briefcase, take it out when it’s raining or pouring, open it to dry in the office or the laundry room and then stuff it back where it was.   If you’re out and about, you walk around with a wet umbrella, dripping all along the way, like a damp Hansel & Gretal leaving a little trail to be followed by any thirsty birds or something. The Japanese have a more refined way of handling these things – a system that probably wouldn’t work well in here, but seems to define them. First, umbrellas are available EVERYWHERE for about $5.  This means if you forget yours, it costs less than a latte cappacinno frappe with an extra shot of something or another to get an umbrella and keep from getting wet.  In that sense, they’re somewhat disposable.  They’re also very practical.  They’re clear (so you can see where you’re going) and they all have the same white handle and trim.  Only the children’s sizes are different – they seem to come in blue, too. Second, almost all buildings and shops have umbrellas stands outside where people actually LEAVE their umbrellas and nobody takes them!   It’s still there when you depart and you just pick it up.  Some big places (like museums), have little number tags that you can take – I guess so that you can get back your own clear umbrella with the white handle. Third, and this is my favorite part, the BIG stores don’t have umbrella stands, they have these plastic umbrella bags that you stick your umbrella in and it covers them from bottom to top, stopping the dripping and allowing you to walk around their store without creating a mess. So how does this translate to traveler tips: a) almost all hotels have umbrellas and hand them out like candy on rainy days.  I guess they magically wind their way back to the hotel. b) taking a folding umbrella actually makes it HARDER to use the handy plastic umbrella bags – the folding ones don’t fit c) taking a folding umbrella also makes it harder to use umbrella stands in the shops.  Folding umbrella’s just don’t fit there either. d) many experienced travelers to Japan just budget to buy a few umbrellas – one clear white one in each city where it rains. OH, but if you DO take an umbrella – the very large, golf-sized rainbow umbrella shown below will DEFINELY attact attention.  All the Japanese ladies we met wanted...
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Getting Off the Bus

Getting Off the Bus

Who knew that it would be so hard to get OFF the bus?  We’ve all heard about how crowded the trains and buses are in Japan.  And they ARE!  And we’ve seen those videos of transit workers PUSHING more riders onto crowded trains.   But we found ourselves with a very different, and interesting dilemma. When taking crowded buses we were surprised to find that while getting on was difficult, getting off was almost impossible.  In the US, when you press the “next stop” button and stand up, people move out of the way so you can get off the bus (or train).  Not so in Japan – it was actually kind of weird.  No matter how many sumimasen’s,  we couldn’t get anyone on crowded buses or trains to move out of the way so we could CREATE MORE ROOM FOR THEM!  Very funny.   The funniest part was how determined everyone was in their “ignoring” the miscreant departer.   The only way to get off was to actually push and shove people out of the way, stick your hip out, drive into the crowd, step on toes, whatever it took.   We found this part a little challenging, but also noticed it on many occasions.   Here is yet another awareness of small cultural differences that make travel so...