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Japan For Beginners

Liam Lawson Support

sunny 20 °C

The first thing of particular interest I saw after landing in Japan, was a seemingly normal man vacuuming a car parking area in near the airport. With a vacuum cleaner strapped to his back, he peered into nooks and crannies that may conceal elusive litter -with little success I might add. I was instantly on guard; this was a country and culture that could contain bad role models likely to cause changes to my well-formed and comfortable opinions.
Traveling in Japan can be challenging. Never-the-less it is always interesting given nonstop things and actions that catch one’s attention. For instance, when travelling by train there are other passengers to observe, mostly with their attention riveted to their telephone. A delightful custom is constantly enacted by the Guard when inspecting his passengers. He or she is keenly observant of any small and rare piece of litter which they will swoop on exhibiting great satisfaction. Best of all, when entering and leaving each carriage they pause, turn, and bow to their customers. I needed great restraint to stop leaping up and bowing in return. Everyone knows bowing is big in Japan. Not as prevalent as in past years but still occurring as a mark of respect or thanks.
Japan is a country a bit larger than New Zealand or Great Britain (Japan 364,500 sqkm NZ 267,710 sqkm UK 243,600 sqkm) but has a population of 124,000,000 (NZ 5,000,000 UK 67,500,000). While I consider the UK is densely populated, Japan is almost twice as dense while New Zealand is virtually deserted. To house and move all these people requires enormous infrastructure; dense strip residential, industrial and commercial developments, all connected almost without gaps to railway lines. 16 major regional companies provide railway services as part of their corporate operations. There are also dozens of smaller local private railways. It makes purchasing the correct ticket quite challenging. In addition, there are differing standards of ticket ranging from trains that stop at every station through Express and Limited Express (the fastest). Having an aversion to both public transport and vending machines, I was grateful for assistance when faced with multiple options while in the bowels of a train station full of travellers determined to gain a seat in a rattly contraption they confidently believe will serve their travel needs.
From the air Japan has vast areas of mountains and forests. Research has revealed the terrain is mostly rugged and mountainous with 66% forest. Only 12.5% of the country is cultivated for food production while 21.5% is considered unusable or economically unviable. 77% of the population lives on 2% of the land. Understandably, the housing is either squashed together or high rise. There is little wonder, when watching the hordes of people scurrying around by train, bus and car, one gets the impression their lives are a little like bees in a hive who come out daily to forage and disappear back inside for the night.
Much as I loathe public transport, I was unable to avoid numerous bus and train trips. Only 1 was memorable. It was when I was one of 73 people crushed into a 48 seat bus, the passenger squashed beside me was furtively reading comic porn on his phone. On reflection, it certainly passed time quickly and was a journey that furthered my knowledge of Japanese literature.
Understandably this is a country highly organised with clearly defined rules and expectations. An example – stairs are labelled on the lower tread faces .. up & down. Left up, right side down. Makes for a smooth flow and facilitates the ability to continue studying one’s telephone without fear of crashing. Pedestrians obey crossing signs. Motorists never run red lights. There are no rubbish bins because nobody has any to deposit. I had a perplexing moment deciding what to do with an Ice Cream wrapper – so I put it my pocket where it was discovered late that evening. In the tunnel under the race circuit there were signs forbidding people to shout or even cry – maybe it would upset others.598a90d0-7889-11ee-ac41-43c0e3319510.jpg 598587c0-7889-11ee-9f11-d1aebcd28762.jpg
The Japanese people are astonishingly polite and without exception, helpful. Many (especially the young) speak sufficient English to enable a question to be answered. They look you in the eyer and appear interested in your dilemma while making every effort to help. Unlike some in other countries citizens who will only talk if they need an alibi.
Japanese food is becoming increasingly westernised and there is no difficulty finding nutrition that is identifiable. However, the brave or naïve can still find themselves reading a menu which will provide surprises and a wish to be instantly transported to a McDonalds where the food is unhealthy but at least cooked. The Japanese prefer their protein raw and often disguised or among other ingredients that lead one to believe it is edible. I recall my first visit to Japan in 1984 when my lovely old supply agent took me to special restaurants every evening and supplied me with his favourite treats. The very first was a plate of chicken gizzards and ducks’ feet. (They remain popular on menus to this day.) The strategy I quickly developed back in those days was to have a glass of (excellent) Japanese beer to quickly wash the mouthful of food down followed by a slug of Saki to change the taste – or more probably numb my taste buds. Years of slow learning has resulted in my ability to avoid the need for these tactics. Older & wiser? … no – just less adventurous. There remains my curiosity as to why, a culture that has given the world some amazing technology and engineering marvels, still struggles with 2 slippery sticks to eat their food. I find that chop stick users who travel immediately adopt the simple inventions of knife, fork & spoon. I wonder if they revert when they return home? Its well known Japanese people live longer than westerners. Could it be they cannot eat fast enough to confuse and irritate their digestive system?Perfection.jpg
Japan only recently opened their borders to travellers and dropped most Covid restrictions. Probably the last country in the world to do so. Many people still wear masks – although Asians generally have always been quick to use masks if feeling a little unwell. (I always wondered if mask wearers were those who woke a little late and avoided the need to put on makeup or shave.) As a result the Yen is weak and economy is still slowly recovering. A discussion with our hotel manager revealed we had chosen a good time to visit – few tourists, lots of accommodation at good rates, less people on the streets and at attractions, etc. Mask wearing is still required by employees in many restaurants which causes difficulty – every waitress looks identical to her colleagues.
The reason we were in Japan was in support of a young Kiwi motorsport competitor whose career we have taken an interest in over the past 7 years. It was his final weekend in the Japanese Super Formula at Suzuka where and when we considered he had every possibility of winning the championship. Unfortunately, he was robbed by decisions made by the organisers to finish Race 1 after only 3 laps followed a large accident at the tail of the field. It was a race that I believe, had he been able to complete, would have provided the few points required to win the championship. 598560b0-7889-11ee-bcea-a1bd4f39dc3f.jpg New Zealand had a bad 24 hours that weekend. Apart from Liams unfortunate result, the All Blacks lost the Rugby World Cup also in arguable circumstances.
Those who have travelled will know its prudent to use an airport toilet before boarding. Not only was this my parting aactivityn from Japan but also Japans parting experience for me. My comfort and relief was brutilly disturbed by the Tsunami Warning. A strident siren acocompanied by shouting in numerous languages. The English version galvanised me into action. In these circumstances one wonders how much time is available for a proper cleanup and ensuring ones belt is in the correct hole to enable enough speed to keep pace with the fleeing crowd - without ones trousers falling down. With other cubicle doors crashing open and excited voices urging each other to greater effort it is a tense experience. (Some didn't even wash their hands.) Just as I started accerating thinking the rooftop should be safe, another anouncement advised ... "This is an exercise". When I rejoined Flypaper - who had her own palpitations - all she could say was ... "Your fly is undone".

Posted by Wheelspin 08:11 Archived in Japan Tagged chopsticks motorsport

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