Japan Observed

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By Elaine Ikoma Ko

Much has been written about Japan, yet it surprises me how many people have never visited this beautiful country. BynomeansamIanexpertonmy ancestral homeland, but as a frequent visitor, this most recent visit was a chance to intentionally observe daily life in Japan.

On a societal level, life in Japan is orderly and precise. The Japanese are seen running through the stations as the trains and subways depart on the second. Of all the thousands of train and subway trips in Japan, they were late a total of four minutes in one year, according to one statistic. In the stations, people dutif ully stay on the lef t side (slow lane) of escalators and wear face masks at the slightest onset of a cold. Have you ever seen a piece of trash anywhere in public? How about a dirty car or cargo truck? Not to be seen. In fact, you are hard-pressed to even find trash receptacles.

Bicyclists are omnipresent. Everyone shares the sidewalks, and the yellow sidewalk Braille guides the blind throughout Japan. We, gaijin, love to “people watch,” but Japanese will never look directly at you, especially on the subways and buses. Thus, you never feel uncomfortable.

As visitors, our daily interaction would be with customer service staff. This is always the most gratif ying experience (almost as good as eating in Japan!), as the Japanese exude respect and unparalleled customer service that I am told does not exist anywhere else in the world. This is deeply rooted in the tradition focused on “others” and service to others. They model perfection and a passion to serve, even if you sense the work is tedious, repetitive and long. Our parking attendants outside our hotel would stand directing traffic in full uniform and fully attentive in 90-degree sun all day long.

During this visit, we tried to eat traditional Japanese food specific to the region of Kansai. In researching the food that seemed less familiar, I discovered that I knew of the dishes, although the varying preparation was always a delight. Preparation is never less than perfect both in appearance as well as taste.

Osaka serves its own version of okinomiyaki (grilled egg omelette) right at your table. Obanzai dishes use ingredients produced locally in Kyoto.

Hot grilled mochi with anko red beans were delicious as was the local version of Japan’s popular street food takoyaki balls, topped with katsuobushi f lakes, Japanese mayonnaise, sweet sauce, green onions, and picked ginger. With delectable food everywhere, the Japanese still manage to maintain their desired weight due to healthy diets, strict portion control, and also due to lots of walking. Obesity is simply not a problem in this highly industrialized country.

The Toji f lea market, Kobo-ichi, displayed hundreds of vendors who sell an amazing range of handicrafts stretching beyond one’s imagination — unique food and ‘food art,’ art, and of course, vintage apparel/wares and antiques. I got my share of steals: beautiful haori jackets for 500 yen (about $5)!

Japan has been referred to as a country in the 23rd century due to her environmental strides, smart innovation and technological advances. A casual observer can only marvel at the country’s natural beauty perfectly blending within this industrialized country – the thousands of shrines and temples shrouded by old growth trees, manicured green spaces and vast, verdant rolling hills.

I must admit that while I am always in awe of beautiful aesthetics and design in all aspects of Japanese life, their over-packaging is renowned and can be concerning even if it is pleasing to the eye. Does a piece of fruit need to sit on a styrofoam nest inside inner and outer packages with a store sticker? Yet, I understand their recycling systems are very efficient.

Some of the social downsides to contrast with these wonderful attributes can be the extremely long working hours and limited upward mobility especially for women, lack of support for families with children and working women, and a concerning demographic trend of low birthrates, to name a few.

Not unlike here in the US, Japan faces big challenges. And I imagine if I ever chose to live in Japan as a foreigner, even though I look Japanese, it would be a bit challenging to integrate into Japanese society and adjust to the cultural norms. But as a frequent visitor, it is hard not to fall in love with the beautiful people and country over and over again. If you have never visited Japan, you definitely should.

A breakfast in Japan. Photo by Elaine Ikoma Ko
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