Saying it with flowers . . . a graduate from Kyoto University
Story and photos by Rhoda Goodman
We hadn’t booked the holiday; we never intended to go, but somehow, we found ourselves on Air ANA winging our way from Heathrow to Japan. On the Thursday, our friends in the UK who had booked their Japanese adventure, and who were now unable to go because of illness, managed to get both the holiday and the flights transferred to our names. The following Monday, we were en route to the Land of the Rising Sun.
With no time for research, we abandoned ourselves to emotional responses, rather than accumulated knowledge. However, the first thing we did upon our return was to open Google to find and verify the missing background to so much that we had seen.
When someone asked me “Sum up Japan in one word”, I answered “lonely”. I could, of course, also have said “pristine”, “orderly”, “obedient”, “polite” or “technologically advanced” and although all of these adjectives are correct, “lonely” was the one that struck me the most. We learned that 60% (Google says 62%) of young people do not marry or have children. This was evident everywhere, from the businessmen with their briefcases who, after work, play for hours in Pachenko establishments (a kind of slot machine game played with ball bearings) to young girls and young men eating alone everywhere.
A shinto shrine on an island outside Tokyo
Sometimes there were girls together or boys together, but very few couples, certainly in the center of Tokyo.
Apparently women who work lose their job security if they marry and they prefer their independence, whereas men often work many unpaid hours and the tradition of handing over your wage packet to your wife who then gives you an allowance has now become less attractive. We saw the robots they are developing to look after the elderly, because there are no young people who will want to do this work. The Internet tells me that 2012 was the first year in Japan when more incontinence pads were sold than nappies. Who, I wonder, will pay for pensions in years to come?
Then there are the pet cafes. In every town we saw cat cafes or owl cafes where you can interact with an animal. We even saw a sign that said “Come in and pet our hedgehog”. Undoubtedly, small living quarters and long hours at the office preclude the owning of pets. We saw fewer than a handful of dogs or cats throughout our entire tour. There are also, of course, maid cafes in Tokyo which seem to me to be the modern equivalent of the geisha tea houses. We had only one fleeting glimpse of a geisha in Kyoto but chanced upon hundreds of students leaving a university graduation ceremony and every girl was dressed in an inherited kimono looking absolutely amazing.
How can I speak of Japan without mentioning their toilets? Suffice it to say that, in the Ladies, toilets flush all by themselves to mask any noise you may make, thereby avoiding embarrassment. Oh, and the seats are warm and they don’t use toilet paper; the toilet does the entire procedure for you, just press the right button. No hand dryers are to be found, because the Japanese believe they are unhygienic. But they don’t blow their noses either, since that is considered rude. Don’t ask me what they do; sniff I suppose.
As is well known, conforming and not losing face is so important. Someone asked why all the cars were clean, sparkling clean in fact, and our Japanese guide told us that the owners cannot lose face before their neighbors by having a dirty car. No surprise then that young people rebel by dressing and imitating characters from comic magazines or online games. I remembered a life-like toy that came onto the market a few years ago with a whole proscribed lifestyle – feeding, cleaning, putting to bed and so on, and I understand now why it was a Japanese invention.
The gardens and countryside were indeed beautiful, in parts, and disappointing in others. Whilst the trees are beautifully sculptured and the water features delightful, there were lots of brown tracts of land and grass with few flowers (the flowering cherry trees were not yet in bloom). Irrigation didn’t seem to feature anywhere. Still, it was March and I was told that during the summer, when there are torrential rains, there would be a greening of the land. Mount Fuji was indeed stunning and we were lucky enough to see it in all its glory, often it is shrouded in cloud.
In the Pachenko gaming shop at 7.30 pm in the business district of Tokyo
The reasons we were given for the bombing of Hiroshima differed considerably from history as we know it, unsurprisingly, I suppose. No mention was made of the fact that it was a military city. In any event, the museum was chilling but emotionally, I was left cold, remembering instead the barbaric and brutal treatment of British and Allied prisoners of war.
Our friends had booked vegetarian meals but the Japanese do not do vegetarian, they do vegan and we had the tastiest food imaginable. Buying food is very difficult although there are the most amazing food markets, particularly in Kyoto. Very few people speak English and labels and signs are only in Japanese.
A Japanese shrine
In any event, at the end of long days travelling and visiting shrines – of which there are many – we were glad to relax in the hotel and raise a glass to the serendipity, albeit on the back of our friend’s misfortune, which had brought us to Japan.