“What must be admitted, very painfully, is that this was a disaster made in Japan…Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience, our reluctance to question authority, our devotion to ‘sticking to the program,’ our groupism, our insularity.” Source
I studied Japanese history at university and have had an ongoing interest in the country ever since which has been stimulated greatly in the last few weeks. This third post about our recent travels in Japan will be relatively brief, sharing the highlights of our trip and few reflections about the experience. I look forward to hearing from experienced travellers who know much more about Japan than I gleaned in our brief visit and hope you find the time to comment at this post or email. As always, there are more questions than answers.
Reflections & Questions
It is strikingly obvious that social and technical systems work efficiently in Japan. The collective commitment from Japanese people toward their environment is particularly noticeable. The cities are incredibly clean and the public transport excellent. The reliance on nuclear power seems to assist to keep pollution low. People are unfailingly polite and friendly. There seems to be very high levels of group cohesion but with an acceptance of difference. The traditional and the ‘out there’ seem to be more or less comfortable with each other. Our impressions of Japan and the Japanese are glowingly positive. This impressive culture and society has much for all to appreciate and admire, as witnessed by the incredible number of World Heritage listings.
That’s what makes the above quote, from Emeritus Professor Kiyoshi Kurokawa (chairman of the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission), so interesting. The very strengths of Japanese society that I observed are held up to brutal scrutiny. I did, however, see what he meant many times while travelling and the above quote has to be placed into a personal context. Firstly, I read it after having a strange experience on an hour long tourist bus excursion around Tokyo. It was the coldest day in Tokyo for many years and we were sitting, in assigned seats, on top, right at the back of the open air bus with about 9-10 Japanese tourists. The tour was advertised for English speakers and the guide used a microphone that was very well-amplified. She did not speak English and did not pause. We had earphones but the recorded English commentary was difficult to hear because of the guide’s voice. My hat kept blowing off in the wind and my scarf was proving difficult to manage. The sheltered, front of the bus beckoned. I stood up, said to Miss 9, come up the front if you like and holding on to my hat for dear life reseated myself on the near empty bus. Unknown to me, the guide prevented Lucy from moving and a scene ensued. My partner explained my hat kept blowing off and I was seeking shelter. The guide was very agitated but did not come and speak with me. I did not realise any of this until later on.
Reading Kurokawa’s comment later that same day had us talking about what was going on with this incident. Had I been rude? Did the guide not understand my reason for moving or was it simply that I was not following the rules. I had a seat, sit down and cope. Instead, I did what any sensible person would do, I moved out of the wind with no harm done to others. This is a very minor anecdote, trite perhaps, but similar incidents were observed in a variety of contexts. People just seem to do what they are told. Everyone waits for the lights to change before crossing the road, even if there is absolutely no traffic in sight. The designated smoking areas are where people stand to smoke. The Japanese are a wealthy people and their perspectives on what order is in a society and how one contributes are very interesting. Why is there no litter in the streets? Why is it it that one feels very safe here? Paradoxically, what are the costs of this level of order and cohesion? Kurokawa’s quote suggests there are plenty of challenges.
As always, observing my children’s perspectives prove to be particularly illuminating. Vending machines excited them and were very convenient – especially for hot and cold beverages – but they could not believe anyone could just pay money and buy cigarettes on the street. One does wonder about this freedom. Do many students smoke they asked? I assumed not but did not know the answer.
Food is spectacular in Japan and often very reasonably priced (except for fruit). We had many superb meals and dining experiences of which I will mention but a few. The Sometaro in Asakusa was our first taste of an okonomiyaki restaurant. The pancakes cooked at our table were a hit with everyone and we repeated the experience several times around the country.
My daughters have no problem with chopsticks after a couple of weeks in Hong Kong and practising when we eat Asian food at home. We had some superb sashimi and sushi in Ponto-cho, in Kyoto and at the Tsukiji fish markets that they used their fingers to demolish. All of us really like gyoza and tonkatsu too. The experience of dining at our ryokan was particularly delicious and informative. We loved the apple sake brewed by the owner and the seafood, particularly the ‘mountain stream fish’ crunchy dishes. The crockery, platters and many different ways of presenting such dainty, delicious dishes was wonderful and we saw more variety at the ryokan than anywhere else. Breakfast was just exquisite with so many tiny dishes and condiments to savour. We are definitely keen to do some cooking, Japanese style, during 2013 and plan a shopping excursion to Northbridge in Sydney during February.
Tsukiji fish markets were another highlight of our stay in Tokyo, partly as we always visit this kind of market anywhere we travel and have never been in such a large, strange and bustling place. If you read my earlier posts or check my Flickr stream there are some photos of the experience and have this book in the mail. I would like to return to Tokyo and attend the early morning tuna sales which were closed to foreigners during January.
The absolute highlight for all of us was the trek, in swirling snow, to see the snow monkeys. I wrote about this last post but now that we are back in Australia, it seems almost like a dream. Here’s a brief video of the snow monkeys soaking and relaxing to give you an idea of how close to the monkeys one can get.
We made a good choice to stay in a quality ryokan while visiting the hot springs where the snow monkeys reside. We all loved our onsen experience and dressing traditionally, in Japanese garb, for the duration of our stay. We have discovered that there is at least one good RYOKAN in AUSTRALIA and plans for another closer to home. Maybe we can save our pennies for a special weekend treat one year when missing what Japan has to offer. It truly is a relaxing bathing experience that I thoroughly recommend. We liked it so much that we found another onsen outside of Kyoto, with glorious mountain views and boiling hot water, to spend our last day in Japan.
My daughters also enjoyed learning about ‘the way of tea’ in Gion, Kyoto. They both read up about the tea ceremony before we attended one and they had a chance to make their own brew. They both enjoy the traditional with the new and funky. Spotting maiko and geiko in Gion was as fun for all of us as when we were in Tokyo seeing residents who were into cosplay.
We visited many impressive shrines, temples and castles but a couple were special for us, mostly due to their awesome design, size or location. I posted about our experience near Nikko but equally as impressive was Tōdai-ji in Nara. The Great Hall you can see in the photographs below houses the largest bronze buddha in the world.
What do you think about the two images below? The first was shot with a a Nikon D700 and edited in Lightroom 4. The second was taken with an iPhone using an olloclip with editing in Snapseed and Eyeem. I like both but which do you prefer? The iPhone does do an amazing job compared with a full frame professional camera.
The nightingale floor we walked on at Nijo Castle in Kyoto just stimulated all of our imaginations. There was really too much talk about assassination, shoguns and ninja in the following hours and days.
I love travelling with my family and it is a highlight of all our trips that we get to spend so much time together roaming, talking and having a laugh in the time we have on the planet. I am proud of the way they cope with any hardships we face and enjoy the good times. I especially like simple shared pleasures and the laughter. The two images below caused much mirth, especially from Miss 6.
When both girls attempted to reach enlightenment, by crawling through the “Buddha’s nostril”, and Miss 9 was temporarily stuck on her path, both parents laughed hard too, enjoying quips about ‘the path’ is not always easy grasshopper’.
The above photograph, shot in the gardens near the Imperial Palace, is the image that most seems to summarise what I saw in Japan. A venerable and ancient culture is consciously supported and nurtured as society speeds rapidly into the future. Even though I titled this image ‘Continuity & Stagnation’ I did not see much that could be thought of as stagnation. Tradition does not seem to be holding anyone back and is an important aspect of the success, wellbeing and resilience of the people. I loved the place. My impressions of Japan and the Japanese are glowingly positive. The culture and their society has much to appreciate and admire.
We will definitely return.
Your thoughts about Japan?
PS Check out my Diigo account tagged Japan if you are interested in travelling here and make sure you keep Hyperdia handy. Here is a slideshow of all my publicly available photos of Japan.
PS We all like dragons.