Friday, October 12, 2007

More Comfortable in Japan than Nascar Country?

I will admit I was a little anxious about going to Japan. As I have described previously, I am a person who does not like to be too far out of my comfort zone. My expectation of this trip was that I would be entering a culture vastly different from ours. How would this tall pale American handle the streets of a large Asian city? When I travel with Dave to meetings, I spend a significant amount of time exploring on my own. Amazingly, Kyoto felt more familiar to me than Charlotte, NC. The North American cities I am most intimately acquainted with are Seattle and Vancouver, BC. In addition, we have been to Honolulu many times over the years and more recently to San Francisco twice. I did not realize the pronounced and subtle Asian influence on these cities until this week.

In North Carolina, I could not understand the accent at times. They are prolific jay walkers. And although the food was outstanding, I had a significant stomach ache from the fat the second day there. Overall, the easy factors about Japan outweighed the difficulties. The following is my list of why Japan was a pleasant place.

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View from our hotel room--I slanted the camera to get more in.

1. Toilets: Plenty of public toilets are everywhere and they are spotless and private. Larry Craig would have trouble in Japan giving his signals because the stalls have partitions and doors floor to ceiling. Unlike many places in Europe, you never have to pay or tip anyone or put coins in slot to use a restroom.

2. Plug-ins: In our hotel, the plug ins were the same as ours. The computer could be charged and I could use my electric hair accessories just the same as at home. At least twice in Europe, I almost started fires trying to use an electrical adapter with a curling iron.

3. Money: Lucas will verify that in many of our travels I get frustrated with the money--especially the coins. For some reason the Yen was simple for me. The numbers are big but you just put in a decimal point. For example, a tempura menu may say 3940Y per person but this translates to $39.40. A 1000Y bill is equal to $10. The coins were well marked making it easy for me to buy an apple.

4. No tips: Tipping is not expected in Japan. Culturally, they provide service to guests without reward and it is always excellent and never done for the buck. Taxis, bell boys, and waiters are not tipped.

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Mmmmmm! Noodles.

5. People are helpful: At times in our travels, Dave and I are like bulls in a china shop and this trip was no exception. It took us a while to figure out the tickets in the train and subway systems. For example, when we took the airport express and the bullet train, we had three tickets each for the entire trip. You are supposed to put all three tickets in a little stack at the same time through the automated ticket thingy. If you do not, a red alarm bell rings. At least three times, we set off the red alarm while people were lined up behind us. Very calmly, an extremely nice and wonderful Japanese person would come and open up the machine to reset it, check our tickets and wave us through. All the while, the people behind us waited patiently without even a hint of exasperation on their faces. They do everything in their power to keep you from feeling embarrassed.

6. Store clerks: The clerks do not hover while you shop. They do not invade your space, call you "honey", pressure you to buy, or think you will steal anything. If you do indicate you have a question, they immediately respond.

7. No bargaining: They do not bargain. The prices on the items are what they cost and all tax is included. This is true even in the market areas.

8. English signs: Most everything is labeled with English subtitles underneath the Japanese characters. Explanations of statues and shrines at tourist sites all have English along side Japanese. Clear maps with an English "You are here!" are located at crucial spots all over the city.

9. Plastic food: Even the fanciest restaurants have realistic plastic food displays at the entrance demonstrating their menu. When you order, you have a clear idea of exactly what you will be eating. However, Dave and I did not always think the plastic models were all that appetizing.

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Looks real but it is not.

10. Transportation: Trains and subways are spotless and clearly marked. The Kyoto conference center was quite a ways from our hotel. The meeting provided a shuttle bus but only once per day early in the morning and it took 45 minutes. We figured out the 20 minute subway ride and within a day, I was taking it all by myself back and forth between the hotel and conference center. Actually, our hotel was part of the train station complex which included a shopping mall and restaurants. Even so, it was one of the most quiet places we have ever stayed.

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Kyoto Train Station---view from our hotel lobby.

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Kyoto Conference Center

11. No jay walking: Yes! When the red light indicates no crossing, people do not cross. They obey the traffic signs. You don't feel stupid standing at the curb with no cars coming waiting for the light to change---this is what I am used to.

12. People line up: Everywhere people line up in a civilized manner and wait their turn. Nobody cuts in. It is like this getting on and off the subway or picking out goodies in a bakery. This is an integral part of Seattle society as well and it is wonderful.