Monday, October 28, 2013


Since the first thing that you come across in a new country is the people, I thought I might as well begin with them.
We had an amazing experience with the people of this country. Before Japan happened, I always thought the Spaniards were the most amazing that I had met. I love their infectious vivacity, their loquacious nature, their thing for the afternoon siesta (as a bangali, I could so well relate it to our 'bhaat-ghum' and forge a kinship), their expressiveness and friendly attitude, and of course their good looks. The Japanese are none of these, er, barring the good looks (especially the women; the good-looking machos were all concentrated at the Tsukiji Fish Market, I felt) but they still beat the Spaniards in my book. Their bowing before another person, at any occasion, is something truly unique. It indeed is a huge reflection of their deep-rooted culture in modesty, humility and politeness. The graciousness is extended everywhere. We were quite amused the first time we saw the ticket collector enter our car and bow and greet, and then for each person he had a bow and a smile and greetings ready. He did this all the way up the car and when he came back, just before the exit, he turned around and again bowed, despite nobody taking any notice of him. Their zeal to thank and plead at every occasion– ‘arigato’, ‘gozaimasu’ and often ‘arigato gozaimasu’ – is also singular. It reflects not only their civility and affability, but perhaps their deep respect for fellow humans. But what impressed me the most was the fact that, you would rarely catch them expressing irritation. Either, they are not bothered, or they camouflage it extremely well, but whatever be the case, it is quite singular to  discover not a single annoyed, or disturbed or irked soul in two weeks, even at times when you are yourself antsy about your stupidity. Twice, in Tokyo, in two of the busiest subway stations - Shinjuku and Meiji Jingumae - I goofed by punching my subway ticket into the wrong line-machine, which swallowed it up, leaving me with no ticket to punch when I reach my destination. At Shinjuku, that is the first time, as I approached the solitary soul standing guard, simultaneously watching with a hawk eye the zillion commuters punching their cards and tickets and answering queries of another zillion commuters; I was all prepared for a Japanese reprimand, and add it to my repertoire of myriad experiences.

Myriad it was, indeed, but not the way I had expected. The man at the helm smiled, asked me to wait with an apologetic look. Stepped out of his place, and with an equally apologetic expression, asked the dashing commuters to use the other machines. He then smiled and unlocked the machine, and as he opened a side of it, out came gobs of tickets. The attendant diligently scoured through them and after a few minutes, picked up one and came back beaming. He handed me the ticket, bowed, and said something in Japanese, and that left me even more dumbstruck. I was the one supposed to be bowing, for more than one reason - I almost felt like standing there in bowed position for the next half an hour. But we just bowed, said domo arigato gozaimasu and proceeded, and he stood there with a smiling face attending others, with similar or even more doltish problems. Well, this entire action was repeated at Meiji Jingumae in toto, and except for yours truly, the characters were different. Even the commuters never expressed any distress for having to compromise on their precious time because of my dimness.

Japanese are quite amiable, but what is even more striking is the fact that they are extremely helpful. Well, we are all helpful.
Except in France, where a Policeman denied answering when asked for directions, citing the reason that he could not understand English, we have been always greeted and helped by natives. In fact, in Vienna, quite to the surprise of A’s Austrian friends, we were approached by passers-by on their own to bail us out as they saw us pouring into the map and trying to figure out directions. And it happened quite a few times. Germans and Austrians are not famous for going out of their way. 

However, the Japanese take the cake. Day one, we stroll out of our hotel and get ensnared by the dazzling evening lights of Shinshaibashi. Hopping from one alley to another and then another backstreet, in our excitement and wonderment, we lost our way. Only after a sumptuous Japanese dinner, and our feet calling it a day, did we realize that we could not find our way through the maze of alleys. Had it not been late and almost 16 hours of journey before this, we would have quite enjoyed and indulged ourselves into the distraction.  And since we had only plans to stroll and accustom ourselves to the new surrounding, we did not have our phones or Ipad as well. After a few failed attempts and further confusion, we finally approached a young dude, who was coming down from the other side. Obstacle One, he did not understand English. Obstacle Two, he did not know the place well himself. The first obstacle was easily overcome, as he needed only the hotel address. Signs have been man’s best companion. But the second obstacle was a bigger concern for us. However, the young man assured us in Japanese and accompanying signs and then checked his GPS on phone for directions. Now comes the unique part. He changed his direction, and though unsure of the feedback, he asked us to accompany him and started hunting the address through the maze of backstreets. We were literally dumb-founded. We protested and tried to tell him that it was fine and that we would find someone else to tell us the way back, but the message got lost in translation and he smiled and with a concerned look continued to follow his GPS directions from one road to another, identifying the street names on the buildings. Finally, after some good 10-15 minutes, we were standing in front of a building, we did not recognize, but the young gentleman looked sanguine and upbeat as he beamed while his eyes moved from us to the building and then to us again. We really did not want to reveal that this was not our hotel after all his arduous efforts. We only wanted to thank him much for what he did. But he smelled something. He then checked the hotel card that we had shown him and the address on the building and smiled again. Only then did A realize that it was the backside of the hotel building. We really were overwhelmed. Welcome to Japan. 
In the trip, this gesture was repeated numerous times, when someone had actually changed one’s course or come out of one’s work station to accompany us till a convenient point from where it would be easier to explain directions. 
At a convenience store, in fact, I had mistaken a buyer for the store help and asked him something about a product. Poor thing, he nodded vehemently and tried to explain that he was the same as me. Embarrassed, I apologized for the nth goof up, the nth time; and while I was being reprimanded by A for my faux pas, we found the guy actually get hold of a store help and bring him to us. I cannot recall how many times I bowed to thank him. 

However, despite all their geniality and cordiality on a one-on-one interaction, what is strange is their aloofness and indifference at public places. You would rarely catch any one even remotely glancing at anybody else. How I felt that they deliberately avoid eye contact with anyone. Everybody seemed to be immersed in their own worlds on their phones or reading manga, or sleeping or listening to music. Coming from that part of the world where gaping, gawking, talking, chatting, arguing are just the souls of public transports, I was just amazed at their inattention and disinterestedness. There were no animated conversations, no heated arguments, no genial gossips, and no appreciative glances or shocked grimaces; just plain deadpan, inexpressive visages concentrating on keypads and pages. I later learnt that the Japanese work so hard and with no distractions, that the moment they are out of that zone, they hit social media and all other media with a vengeance. Thus, they have no time to look around and appreciate the surrounding, as they have much to like, comment and update in their virtual/imaginary life.
Another interesting facet that surprised me was their obsession with porn. Of a culture so deep-rooted in austerity, zen-like fervor, modesty, humility, respect, and showing little sign of erosion otherwise, it is most singular that they are so fixated with pornography, and oftentimes with its extreme and violent versions. One would often catch a Japanese, irrespective of age, pouring into hentai at a public transport. And at Akihabara, supposedly the electronic district of Tokyo, you would find an array of maid cafes and dvd parlors loaded with endless porn stuff, whichever kind you want. At any convenience store one can find array of magazines with scantily clad women or plain hentai stuff, which one can browse for free. 

‘Fashionable’ would be an understatement to define Japanese sartorial splendor. Streets, not just in major cities, look more like international fashion ramps, and you would rarely, just rarely catch a person who is not in-vogue, if not edgy. At any given time of day, at any part of the country, and for whatever purpose, you would always find them dressed to the nines. Unless you are absolutely averse to anything aesthetic, you cannot evade being hit by their penchant for fashion. I guess they are the most updated about the latest dernier cri and follow it to the t with utmost aplomb even at the most casual of occasions. But, what strikes most is their proclivity to the finest of detail, irrespective of the most muted or the most outrageous votary of fashion. If you are in Japan, just feel free to unleash your fashionable side like never before. 

When we departed for Japan, we had numerous things highlighted in our mind, but when we returned, people were definitely the highlight of the trip!! 

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