Observations of Japan

1. Cars: this was the first place we ran into cars with a right-sided driver's seat, which of course means the car is on the left (wrong, to our senses) side of the road. It was not so noticeable when we were in Tokyo with its steady stream of cars, but in Hokkaido where traffic on country roads is light, we got lots of cheap thrills as we met cars coming around curves or making turns at intersections.

We were amazed at how the politeness of Japanese society carries over even into the roads. In the week we were in Tokyo, we only heard a horn honk once! And all drivers of public conveyances—taxis, buses, vans—wear perfectly clean white cotton gloves.

2. Beds: Our nights on traditional Japanese futons at Jeremy and Chiyoko's old farm house were the best nights' sleep we've had in months (George didn't even snore—now figure that one out!). The crisp fall air of the southern Japanese Alps kept the room cool, the blankets kept us warm and the floor kept us straight.

Futons are now sold in most American cities (with frames for using them as couches), so they aren't all that unusual. But believe me, if our beds in Fujimi are the standard, a proper Japanese futon bed is a different story. Our futons (pads about the shape of a twin-sized bed, and about four inches thick spread on the floor) had a mound of quilts on them, each covered with a sheet. The coverings were not exactly like a duvet—they were tighter fitted and usually had a hole cut out in the center. What would be a top sheet was made of terry cloth.

At the 3-5-7 Festival in Tokyo

Other beds we slept in were very firm and seem to be a dense foam on boards (no springy inner coils or box springs), sometimes covered with a soft pad. Most beds—and rooms for that matter—were too small for George (at 6'6") and Samantha (at nearly 6').

Traditional pillows either have a section on one side filled with grain (buckwheat we are told), or are small—about half the size of an American pillow and totally filled with grain. We really liked these grain-filled pillows as they molded to our heads and necks. Hotel pillows seemed to be of the same, firm stuff as the mattresses.

3. Inner and outer: Japanese society is divided into "inner" and "outer" realms. For instance, men are in charge of the outer world of work, but women rule the inner world— the home. The removal of shoes at the front door is as symbolic as it is practical in this division. The famous "group think" of Japan can also be ascribed to this inner and outer orientation-—personal needs are inside, group needs are outside, relationships are primarily to come from "inside" a group, with its needs that come above those of the individual.

4. Facial hair: Cassidy observes that not many Japanese men have beards or mustaches.

5. Smoking: Lots of Japanese people smoke, especially men. Our friend Etsuko is positively militant about it. She will not travel to the United States because of its combative anti-smoking contingent. She got in to an altercation with a group of Americans over her lighting up at a European restaurant, and she has never forgotten it.

6. Gum: The Japanese gum was the best we've tasted! Our favorite flavors were Muscat grape, blueberry, cool mint, and umi (a sweet gum made from the flavors of a really sour dry-pickled plum). The flavors were clear and explosive.

7. Obesity: Except for sumo wrestlers we watched on TV, we never saw overweight people, or for that matter joggers—and it's no wonder since everywhere people seem to move as if they're jogging. They run across intersections, an umbrella in one hand and their cell phones going in the other.

8. Service: The people in service, most wearing smart white gloves, are intricately woven throughout the culture. Even in places where everything is automated, like the ticket turnstiles at the railway, the courteous service people are there.

After school shopping in the trendy Shinjuko area of Tokyo.

At one intersection of four smaller streets we watched as four traffic guards, each with a neon baton and white gloves conducted the confusion of traffic like a great maestro working the Philharmonic of the streets. You could see that each knew they were important and their service vital, and they did their jobs with great enthusiasm and pride—qualities that too often we don't see in Americans since many Americans believe they should be doing something more important than what they're doing.

A distinctly important aspect of this is how the Japanese take their jobs and the companies they work for personally and seriously. Unlike Americans and most of the rest of the world, the Japanese working person takes on the responsibility of their job. If something goes wrong, it's as much their fault as the company's—and they will strive to make it right. There is seldom that infuriating style we've grown used to in America of complaining about service or products and being told, "Hey mister, it's not my fault, I just work here!"

9. Order: There is a remarkable order and cleanliness about Japan that is found in few other places in the world. Tokyo is one of the largest cities in the world, yet it's squeaky clean. Even its air is more breathable than most US cities, due in part to its efforts. And, unlike most cities of the world, it feels safe and uncommonly helpful. One time we were lost in downtown Tokyo and we asked directions from a salesperson in a store. Since he could not speak English, we couldn't speak Japanese and our map was useless, and against our concerns—he personally walked us the five blocks to where we needed to go, and happily waved good-by as he returned to his still open shop.

10. Internet: And contrary to all that George has preached over the years about Internet—the Japanese are still a long way from being fully connected (1996). This is due in large part to the fact that telephone companies charge for the time of all calls, long distance as well as local.

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