Thursday, December 18, 2014

Learning Japanese

When I was in Japan earlier this year, the most of the Japanese language I could manage was “Arigato gozaimazu”. Even in its romanised form, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the long, long words, especially the names of stations that I had to remember when getting around from place to place. Apart from the language, however, there were just so many things about the country and its people that I loved and loved learning from.

The Japanese are, without a doubt, the politest people on the planet.  I never tired of the gracious bows and greetings that welcomed me wherever I went. Not just in the shops and restaurants, but even on crowded buses and trains. Riding around on the buses in Yokohama and Kyoto, I marveled at how the driver would greet each and every one of his passengers when they boarded and again when they got off.  No matter how packed the bus was, he never resorted to yelling, and patiently waited for little old ladies to take their time. In Yokohama, my niece, S, fetched us from her home late at night to Haneda Airport to catch our flight back. Part of the highway leading to the airport was closed off for roadworks and there were all these Japanese workers seeing to the repair works but taking the time to bow to each car as they passed by.

Despite having some of the most heavily populated cities in the world, the Japanese practise patience in every situation. Never once did I hear anyone yelling. Riding in the buses and subways must be one of the quietest, most soothing experiences. Everyone is encouraged to turn their mobile phones off, and they speak to one another in the softest of voices. Even the kids, when they talk to each other, do it quietly. Tiny tots cross the street in an orderly manner, without pushing, shoving or shouting. What beautiful manners they all have!

I had the privilege of staying with some Japanese relatives and yes, they are really that polite with each other, and with guests, all the time. The Japanese must be among the most precise and punctual people, right up there with the Swiss. Trains leave and arrive on the dot. Buses are timed to the minute, and everyone apologises profusely even if they are a little bit late.

The Japanese are among the most thoughtful and innovative people I know. Staying with my niece S and her family at their farmhouse outside Osaka, I had to burst out laughing at the many gadgets in the house that sent out a cheerful melody at every opportunity. The rice cooker chirped when the rice was cooked. We were all in the kitchen when I heard another melody chime. “Is it the rice cooker? The hotpot?” I wondered. S’s father grinned while S translated, “No, the bathtub is ready for you to soak in.”

S’s mum cooked us huge meals that utilised the freshest produce. Eggs still warm from the henhouse. Spinach plucked from the garden. We were spoiled rotten. Japanese toilet bowls are famed for doing just about anything short of dancing a jig, making a visit to the loo such a treat for me. And don’t get me started on all the gadgets. I could spend hours wandering along the aisles at electronics stores such as Don Quijote, a discount shop that stocks just about anything.

As a nation that’s in love with innovation, Japan has some of the niftiest inventions and thoughtful touches. Imagine having baskets or trays under your seat in restaurants to place your bags, jackets etc. What a clever use of space! The Japanese have perfected cup noodles and you can pay homage to this clever innovation at the cup noodle museum in Yokohama. The coffee-loving Japanese have also invented individual sachets of drip coffee which can be perched right over a cup for a perfect pick-me-up.

Japan is a nation that has had to make really clever use of space. I did a double-take on realising that S’s carpark space in her apartment complex was below ground at the bottom of a three-car space, with two other cars parked above her. I grinned in absolute delight when a sales assistant presented me with a paper bag and slipped a plastic raincoat over it to protect it from the rain.
S's triple-storey carpark space
A plastic raincoat for paperbags!

I can go on and on about how the Japanese pay close attention to detail and make sure even the simplest things are made beautiful. Every item of food I ate was beautifully presented. I loved how pieces of sushi were laid out like jewels to be admired and savoured.

Everything I bought was beautifully wrapped. Everyday items like aprons and umbrellas are treated with reverence and turned out beautifully. I almost laughed out loud when I chanced upon a tiny shop in the Tsukiji market area selling bristle brushes in every shape and size, even decking out a tree with them like ornaments.

There were so many incidents when I was rendered awestruck by the absolute honesty of people everywhere I went. I had already settled on a packet of pine nuts that I picked up from a tray outside a shop when the owner held up his hand and rushed into his shop to give me another packet of what he deemed to be fresher nuts. I was riding in a taxi which in itself is an awesome albeit horrifically expensive experience. Having gotten lost, the driver pulled over by the side of the road, and stopped the meter before finding his way on the map. He didn’t turn on the meter until he was actually back on the right way.

Japan has to be among the safest countries in the world, which makes it such a boon for visitors, especially women travellers. At a McDonalds, I was having a cup of coffee when a group of teenagers came and sat beside my table. Off they went to order, leaving their backpacks, mobile phones and tablets behind on their table.  I was totally flabbergasted. It was really a treat to be able to wander safely around the streets and even back alleys till late at night. I didn’t see all that many police personnel around, and yet I felt safe and secure.

As smitten as I am with the Japanese country and people, there are some things that I do find a little weird. I am thoroughly nonplussed by their obsession with game shows on TV, where slapstick humour seems to be the order of the day. They do have some of the thinnest toilet paper, but hey, the wonderful singing toilets make up for it anytime.

As Tokyo and the rest of the country gear up for the Olympics, things are just going to get better for the visitor. Already, this time around when I visited, just a couple of years after my last trip there, many more people were able to speak in English, from train station masters to shop assistants. Apart from the beauty of the landscape, the rich history and culture, exquisite cuisine and crazy shopping, I absolutely love the Japanese people themselves, who show the rest of us how to behave with consideration, dignity and grace.

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