Sat 24 May 2014
When I moved to Ireland just over four years ago, I went through my fair share of culture shock. There were the big things – like struggling to understand what everyone was saying (to be fair, I was living in Drogheda!) – and a million little ones, like seeing grated cheese in a cold sandwich (so…odd) and realising that you can’t buy liquor on Good Friday.
Life was quite different here than what I was used to in Los Angeles, my adopted hometown. I say “adopted” because I was actually born in Japan and lived there until I was five years old. With my mom’s entire family still living there, we go back to visit when we can, and a couple of weeks ago I went back again, this time bringing my Irish husband along for the first time.
I’ve heard many describe Tokyo as being like another planet with all its flashing lights and cosplay devotees and talking billboards. This is true, but Japan is also one of the most civilised countries in the world: it’s extremely clean, incredibly efficient and the people, respectful and polite.
You can literally set your watch by the train timings; if a train is scheduled to arrive at the station at 13:02, it arrives and departs at 13:02. Taxi cabs are nothing like the ones here or in America. Drivers wear full suits and white gloves and doors open automatically via remote (in fact, drivers will insist that you do NOT touch the doors). They are so clean you can eat off them. When you walk into a restaurant or a shop, the employees immediately greet you with irasshaimase!, which is “welcome” in Japanese. And when you leave, the entire staff calls out a cheerful arigato!
There is a sense of pride people have for work that is rare. Whether it’s the hotel shuttle driver or the manager of a swanky restaurant, people take their work seriously and strive to do their best. This is reflected in the products and food you see in all the shops; even a pre-made egg salad sandwich from 7-11 is impeccable: soft, fluffy bread with the crusts cut off and just the right amount of filling, seasoned perfectly. It’s as good as those I’ve eaten off silver platters at expensive afternoon tea services.
At times, the attention to detail can be a bit overbearing. Most shops, no matter how inexpensive, adhere to an almost over-the-top packaging standard when bagging your purchases. Remember the scene from Love Actually where Rowan Atkinson is gift-wrapping the necklace (“…and now, the final flourish!”)? I bought a shirt and it was first wrapped in tissue paper and designer tape, then put into a glassine bag – also affixed with the shop’s logo sticker – and then placed into a paper shopping bag, which was then sealed closed with yet another sticker. Sometimes you just want to grab your goods and go, but I can certainly appreciate this level of service for a €25 shirt!
All of the above works so well because (and yes, I’m generalising here) the Japanese have a natural tendency to follow rules. This becomes problematic when they are presented with the option of colouring outside the lines. For example, we arrived at our Osaka hotel early, so we checked in our baggage and went for lunch. Upon our return it was still 15 minutes before the official check-in time, but assumed we could at the very least start the process. Not so.
“Check-in time is at 2 PM,” the hotel clerk reminded me politely, whilst pointing to her watch. And unlike in Los Angeles, where substitutions come standard with ordering food (“half-caf, skim, sugar-free vanilla latte with extra foam!”), I wouldn’t recommend doing it in Japan as you’ll be met with a [very polite] “oh, no, no….” and an apology. Even if the cafe has the ingredient you’re requesting, it doesn’t matter. “Can I have the egg sandwich but with a slice of cheese? I see you have a cheese sandwich, so just take the cheese and put it on the egg sandwich…”
Cue look of utter confusion, followed by a [very polite] “Oh, no, no….”
So how did Mountaineering Man fare in the Land of the Rising Sun and dichotomies? Stay tuned for my next post…