Traveling to Japan, especially as an American. (What did you THINK I was going to say??)
(This is the second post from guest writer Alix!)
Hi All! Torey’s sister, Alix, here again.
I know, I know. I said I had more posts up my sleeve and then I went all radio silent. My apologies. Things got a little crazy here, as they do from time to time when you run a non-profit. You know, the usual stuff: picking the lock on the unoccupied restroom that someone managed to lock behind them, rescuing toads from the front steps, hauling lumber into the shop while wearing a dress because the delivery guy just dumped it without letting you know, assembling a stage single-handedly and finding Waldo … . But I digress.
I’m baaaa-aaack! So away we go!
As I said in my first blog post, my sister really prepared me for my trip – it was super helpful to have the perspective of an American in Japan, because it’s just so different. Not only are you traveling somewhere where you (likely) don’t speak or even READ the language, you’re traveling into a very different culture, and I’m guessing that those of you reading this wouldn’t want to be THAT American in such a situation. (And if being THAT American doesn’t bother you … insert angry face here). In addition to Torey’s excellent advice, and Roberta’s excellent advice from her trip, I did my research. All in all, I felt very prepared for what I experienced, which made for smooth sailing (and flying, and train travel, and driving, and walking, and cabs …). So, this post is all about what I learned and what I’d share with anyone planning a trip.
TOREY SAYS: To be fair, she didn’t have to do the driving!
First, Japan is very orderly. There are rules and etiquette that are just ALWAYS observed, as well as actual stated rules and regulations for just about everything you do. I also noticed how polite everyone was! It’s more than just saying please and thank you, too. It’s knowing that you give up your seat on the train without asking to the elderly, mothers, expectant mothers, the injured, families or friends trying to sit together, etc. It’s knowing that you don’t tip in a restaurant or a cab. It’s knowing that you don’t blow your nose in public (although frequent sniffing/snorting is ok. Frankly, I think both are gross, but whatever, when in Rome … or Nagoya/Hiroshima/Kyoto …). So here are a few things to keep in mind regarding rules and etiquette:
- No tipping. It’s not a thing here and can be insulting
- No hurrying in stores, restaurants, etc. It will take as long as it takes, because each and every transaction is conducted with the same precision, no matter the size or how many people are in line.
- No public nose blowing
- Taxi cab doors (rear) open and close on their own – don’t try to do it yourself!
- Get in line, and don’t hang back. You line up for everything, and you compact that line!
- Pay attention on public transit: give up your seat to those who need it (ABSOLUTELY necessary if you’ve sat in the priority seating), keep your backpack out of the way or put it on your front, and DO NOT talk on your mobile or leave the sound/ringer on
- Always say please and thank you. And thank you. And thank you. (You say thank you a lot)
- DOs that are a little strange to us Yanks: sniffing/snorting, wiping yourself down with the towel you ALWAYS carry in the summer, fanning yourself (with an actual fan. Everyone carries one of those too), leaving little space between you and the people in front of you in a line, always taking your receipt
Now, a lot of this is common sense/common manners. But they’re not always that common, so it can’t hurt to point them out.
In addition to making everything very orderly, rules make Japan very safe. They are extremely no-nonsense when it comes to things like standing over the yellow line at the train station. Not gonna happen. There are people to make sure of that. At large festivals, you’re not going to dodge the police officers directing traffic. They’re strict, and they’re efficient. It keeps things moving AND safe. Heck, even the highway signs and your GPS tell you to drive safely and warn you of rain. It’s nice to feel so safe, but also, don’t let it make you complacent. For instance, no matter how narrow the street is, JUST ASSUME IT’S TWO-WAY TRAFFIC. I kid you not. It may not look wide enough for ONE car, let alone two, but always look both ways (and remember to look the opposite way you’re used to – traffic to your right is in the lane nearest you). And if you hear a honk – MOVE. It is really rare to hear horns, even in crazy city traffic, so if you hear one, HEED IT.
- That’s enough of the kinda boring don’t-be-an-idiot, don’t-be-an-ugly-American, rules-and-regs section of this blog post. Now, here are some of the amusing moments that illustrate some of the interesting bits of being immersed in a totally different culture.
The Tale of the Shibori Instructor Who Thought I Spoke Japanese: My sister made us (Rosie, herself, and me) an appointment to do Shibori, traditional Japanese tie-dyeing, at the Shibori museum in Arimatsu. It was an awesome experience. Arimatsu is really intriguing, as it’s very, very, old, so the buildings are gorgeous.
The museum is really neat, and they have the most beautiful examples of Shibori, along with artisans who demonstrate the different techniques (which is almost hypnotic to watch). These artisans also teach the instructional sessions like the one we were attending. We were working on handkerchiefs while the instructors guided us through the steps – stitching along the printed pattern on the fabric, pulling the stitches together and fluffing the poof of fabric that creates, and tying the thread along that poof.
The instructors did not speak English, and I, of course, speak about 6 words of Japanese. But I sew, so it was easy for me to follow what the instructor was showing me. In an attempt to be polite, I said “hai, hai, hai, hai” and nodded vigorously each time she showed me something, and always made sure to thank her (“Arigato gozaimasu!”) each time she assisted me. About halfway through the process, after having hai-hai-hai-hai-ed and arigato-ed once again, the instructor paused, spoke to the other instructor, and burst out laughing. When I was able to do so discreetly, I asked Torey why she had laughed at me. Turns out, my few words of Japanese, paired with the standard Japanese repetition of “hai,” and the fact that I picked up on the technique quickly, had somehow made this lovely woman believe I was understanding what she was SAYING, rather that copying what she was doing. And then it dawned on her, no this giant, blonde, white girl had NO clue what she was saying, and it tickled her to no end.
Moral of the story: learn a few words of Japanese. Although it may mean that people start speaking rapid-fire at you when you don’t understand, everyone appreciates a person who can be polite in the language of the country. Please (onegaishimasu), Thank you (arigato, arigato gozaimasu, arigato gozaimashita), excuse me (sumimasen) – all very handy.
The Tale of the Photographing Beauties: One interesting thing about travelling in Japan is that, especially if you aren’t in a tourist destination, there are not many visible foreigners. Especially not foreigners who look like me. I’m pale. I’m blonde. And I’m … not small. I admit, it took a couple of days for me to get used to the fact that people would stare openly at me when we were out and about. We’re not talking the occasional glance here, either – we’re talking full on staring and watching. In addition to all this, in case I failed to mention it, summer in Japan is HOT. Hot and HUMID. Like, WOAH. So, I’m also sweaty. And one sweaty evening, we all packed up to take a couple of trains to Toyota City for a fireworks festival. The first train was busy but not super crowded. But then we got to the station for the second train and every person in the greater Nagoya area was headed the same way we were. As we waited in line first for our tickets and then to board, we got to see all the glorious summer kimono that people were wearing to this matsuri (festival).
They were gorgeous. Beautiful fabrics and colors, brilliant lightweight obi tied in perfect bows, hair in intricate updos decorated with flowers and ornaments … everyone looked stunning to me. So lovely, so cool and collected and perfect. And then there was me. Pink, frizzy, sweaty, no makeup, dino backpack
(what. I’m TOTALLY an adult).
And I realized, these incredibly beautiful women were taking pictures of ME. It made me giggle, but, what the heck – after all, I was the different one!
Moral of the story: just be prepared that you’re going to be different, and so people are going to be interested in you. People will stare. Just be polite, smile, and realize you’re going to do some of the same when you see kimono.
The Tale of the Talking Potty: As I said in my first post, I could do an entire post on restrooms. Now, while this little anecdote pertains to a potty, it can be extrapolated to anything mechanical or digital. EVERYTHING IN JAPAN TALKS OR SINGS TO YOU. EVERYTHING. Day one, getting sushi via conveyor belt (OMG YUM), I was entertained by the little jingle that played to alert you if items you had ordered specifically were arriving
By day two, I was only a little confused when I asked what I had just heard from the kitchen and my sister replied “oh that’s just the bathtub letting us know it’s ready.” And I had heard her stories about talking this and singing that (including a very funny story about a hotel bathroom). But my first “talking potty” managed to be in the Hiroshima Peace Museum. So, imagine this huge, white building, full of information and somber artifacts. It’s a place and an experience I will never forget. It is extremely emotional.
It’s really beautifully done, so you start at the top, with information on nuclear proliferation, and move down the floors and into the more difficult to handle displays. After viewing the last of these items in the display in the basement, and taking a few deep breaths and fanning some tears away, we were getting ready to go out into the Peace Park, and over to the A-Dome. But first, restroom stop! And as I entered the stall, the potty very graciously began playing its water noises for me. And I could not keep it together. I had just spent something over an hour being very emotional while trying not to cry in public, and the whooshing potty just pushed me right over the edge. I’m sure T and the kiddos were wondering if I was ok, having disappeared into that restroom for so long, but, real talk, I was locked in the stall, trying desperately to suppress a massive attack of the giggles. I only mostly succeeded, and then had to hide out for a minute so I didn’t have to “sumimasen” my way out past other people.
Moral of the story: SERIOUSLY – everything talks. So just be prepared for your potty to play you a … er … well, a “cover song,” shall we say? 😉
Well, that’s all folks. I know it doesn’t cover everything, but – if you have questions, go ahead and post them or send them to Torey, and I’ll do my best to answer them, if you’d like to hear from the perspective of a visitor. Cheers!