This is a land of many traditions, rules, regulations, etiquette and expectations. I have absolute respect for them all, and have vowed to tread carefully in my massive, usually totally unsubtle boots. But to witness the many differences in culture is fascinating.
For a start – and this isn’t a culture difference so much as an economic no-brainer – there are staff everywhere. I mean yes, you have your hotel receptionist. You have your doorman. You also have greeters and porters, multiple greeters and porters, smiling and bowing as you pass. At the train station there are multiple porters who carry your heavy luggage up stairs and down again to your platform (and this is another thing. For all its technological advances, this isn’t a great country for the infirm and those with limited mobility). In the supermarket there are two cashiers at the check-out, one to scan your goods and one to scan your card. And you don’t tip any of these people.
Wherever you turn, there is a member of staff to assist you. I don’t know what the employment figures are for this country but I’m willing to bet that if the UK followed Japan’s lead and basically employed a person to do every little thing, we could do away with benefits. (If this sounds like the idealistic rambling of someone who hasn’t the faintest clue about employment and the economy, that’s because it is.)
Also, and this is definitely where the UK could do with some guidance, all these staff members are polite. Helpful. Smiling. Gracious. When I think of a couple of the ticket inspectors on my local train service, I squirm at the comparison. And when I think of the belligerence displayed by some British people to foreign visitors who are lost, or confused, or in need of some guidance… I am ashamed. We’ve been here only five days and on several occasions I have required help, blurting out what little Japanese I know – “Noboribetsu eki? Ikura desuka?” – and expecting, praying, that the person I’m blurting at will have the heart to work out what it is I need.
And invariably they have. Invariably I am met with nods and smiles, a shared use of hand gestures, some rapid fire, unintelligible Japanese from my helper, all of which results in exactly what it was I wanted.
Sometimes, to be absolutely honest, this takes longer than it should. But this is mostly to do with the extreme difference between the English and Japanese languages. Husband and I endured three months of intensive Japanese lessons before we set off, almost none of which was any use at all, except that I do know how to say please and thank you.
Learning the Latin-based languages is easier since so much of the grammar and structure is similar. But if you think it’s funny that the French say “where is the pen of my aunt?”, you will be totally thrown by Japanese: “Mr Smith will tomorrow with Mr Takahashi by train to Kyoto go”; “I to the library a book to read am going.”
And particles. Oh, particles. If you don’t use the correct particles, your sentence is meaningless. And the particles change according to the context. Frankly, if I ever see another particle I shall stamp on it. Particles were my particular weakness during my lessons, our teacher gently at first, but increasingly less gently – voicing the particles I’d missed: “Teburu no ue ni saifu ga arimasu.” Fecking hate particles.
And counters! Oh my god, counters! Which, to you, me and everyone else, are numbers. The word for a number will also change according to context. So though “one” is ichi, if you’re counting things it’s hitotsu, and people hitori, and it doesn’t stop there. They have different counters for long things, flat things, small animals, large animals, electrical goods… Fecking hate counters.
Anyway, the long and the short of it is that, even with a couple of Japanese words proffered to my helper, which I hope might signpost to them what I want, I am still sometimes met by a completely blank stare. Albeit one accompanied by a nervous smile. When, standing in a queue at the bus station, I checked with the man behind me that I was in the right line – “Sumimasen – Noboribetsu eki ?” as I swept my hand up and down the line of people around me – he clearly had to think for a while about what I might mean. And when he eventually nodded and said “Hai,” I still wasn’t convinced he had understood at all. Was he pretending to understand the question? Telling me the answer he thought I wanted to hear? Was this another type of Japanese etiquette? (It was the right queue. We got to Noboribetsu station.) (Also, to be fair, my pronunciation might be really shoddy.)
Obversely, on the odd occasion I get it right, I am greeted with such surprised delight I feel stupidly proud. “Kocha hitotsu okudesai,” I say. One tea please. “Hai, ii desune!” exclaims the waitress, beaming at me as though I were newly toilet trained.
Though the relentless niceness might seem unnatural to us more overtly emotional Europeans, and though it might be, at a deeper level, somewhat false… I can’t help thinking we should still all just try bowing and smiling at strangers on the street. It makes for an altogether delightful experience.
One other tradition that I thought might bother me, what with having misophonia and everything (see posts passim), is the slurping of soup in cafés. Turns out that’s not a problem at all. Turns out I can’t stop giggling when I hear it. My first encounter of this was in a wee noodle café in Sapporo. Three young men at the table next to us. One young man orders a plate of soba noodles, which comes out piled ridiculously high on a plate. They ask for an extra set of chopsticks and small bowl, to share the noodles.
Second young man scrapes some piled high noodles into his spare bowl… and proceeds to suck them up – noisily – into his mouth. I turned my head sharply at the sound, and then turned back just as quickly. Then, at the continued sucking and slurping, couldn’t stop giggling. This might have been a nervous reaction, I don’t know. But the salivating slurping didn’t overcome me with anger or disgust, so that’s what matters.
Actually the subject of sounds, which ones are offensive and which ones aren’t, is keeping me endlessly confused and amused. Slurping noodles is okay – but other bodily functions are pretty much to be kept to yourself. The toilet in our Sapporo hotel flushed itself when you sat down on the seat, we assume to mask the sound of your thundering waterfall of bodily fluids. Except that, I don’t know about you, unless I’m absolutely busting, I don’t necessarily evacuate my bladder immediately upon seating, but sort of relax myself into the act, as it were. So by the time the pee arrived, the flushing and its accompanying sound had stopped.
This matters little when you’re sharing a room with husband and children, but if I were on a date, say, or in the rosy beginnings of a new relationship, I would feel quite a lot of pressure to make sure all the noisy stuff happened as soon as I sat on the flushing toilet.
Moving on. Well, moving on a bit. Still on the subject of bodily functions. Before we came out here I was led to believe that blowing one’s nose in public was something to be avoided. If you do have to blow your nose, I was told, you should do it discreetly, preferably in another room. And, sure enough, I have seen absolutely nobody here blowing their nose, despite the fact I’ve seen several people sneezing, and bloody hundreds wearing the face mask that indicates they either have a cold or no intention of catching one. Do their noses not run? This is an enigma that is bothering me. Anyway, I have regularly blown my nose in public because I am an habitual, relentless nose blower. My nose is runny, what can I say. And so far I haven’t been met by any disdainful glances or disapproving head shakes. I’m starting to wonder whether nose-blowing as an offence is a bit of a myth.
The Japanese really aren’t keen on shouting or noisy behaviour, which I think might have something to do with the concept of Wa – unity. Japan, and especially Tokyo, has an astronomical population, packed into small spaces, and I think the concept of Wa is to enable harmonious living among a populace living on top of one another. Hence the civility, the smiles, the kindness. (By the way, don’t quote me on this theory. I know nothing of Japanese culture bar what I’m seeing here, as a foreign visitor.) An announcement over the train tannoy said, “Please refrain from engaging in loud conversations.” I mean, seriously! Can you imagine a hen party on their way to Brighton or Newcastle abiding by this request? But conversations, if there are any, on Japanese trains are conducted at a murmur that will not distract or irritate other passengers.
Which is possibly why, when we had disembarked one train and I was trying to catch husband’s attention, when I roared his name for the third time a passing gent laughed openly at my strange behaviour. And where we in Britain might say, “Bloody foreigners,” he was clearly thinking, “Ah, these foreigners, they’re so funny.”
What all this sensitivity to noise doesn’t explain is why there is a constant bombardment of music and announcements from tannoys across the city. There are constant streams of messages, I don’t know if they’re commands, or information, or adverts, chattering from speakers above your head; interspersed with chirpy children’s television-style tunes. It’s relentlessly noisy. An overwhelming cloud of sound buffeting you as you walk through the streets.
All of which has made me so far feel as though I’m on the set of Bladerunner. The neon signs, the primary-coloured lights, the mirrored glass skyscrapers, the crowds, the voices… If I come face to face with a replicant, I really won’t be surprised.
And then there’s the question of footwear, and what can be worn where. This might seem simple – just take your shoes off at the front door. I pity your naïveté. For the most part, it is that straightforward – take off your shoes and slip on some indoor footwear. However, at the hotel in Sapporo you could wear your shoes into your room, although you were supplied with slippers – which you were not allowed to wear downstairs into the restaurant; at the hotel in Noboribetsu you could wear into the restaurant not only your slippers but also the pyjamas you wore into the spa – but these were not the same slippers you could wear in your room, and woe betide you put the wrong slippers on in there; and at the hotel in Hakodate they didn’t seem to care what you wore where, though slippers were provided.
It’s a footwear dilemma, through which we are being guided by gentle chiding and eagle-eyed observation of those around us.
Husband and son spent some two hours in the onsen in the Noboribetsu hotel. Daughter was trepidatious from the get go. We both changed into the regulation gi and donned the correct slippers. We got to the changing rom and I explained that we needed to take off the gi.
“Do we have to be naked?” daughter asked.
“Yes. Everyone’s naked. It’s totally normal.”
“I don’t want to do it.”
“Okay, well, let’s just have a look, and you can decide then. You don’t have to go in if you don’t want to. But it’s just like having a bath at home, a lovely, hot, relaxing bath.” By this point, the thought of that close-to-scalding, sulphurous water releasing the tension from my muscles was making my skin prickle.
A nude mum and her two little girls ambled past, and daughter peered through the glass doors into the spa, just as an elderly bare naked woman hove into view.
“I don’t want to do it,” said daughter. By this stage the spa assistant had wandered over, smiling encouragingly and pointing at the baskets into which we should put our clothes.
“No,” said daughter, shaking her head, and I’ve seen that look before. Much as it bothered me that a 6-year-old who has no trouble shaking her naked booty in the privacy of her own home should be so self-conscious about her body in public, this was not the time to discuss it.
We returned to our room, where I disconsolately got changed and daughter stripped naked to dance around the table.