The Trip Part 8: Japan 101

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We met up with our friends Theo and Tarra, who were staying at the same apartment complex we were. We decided to go on a little whirlwind tour of the city via the Yamanote line, an elevated train that circles all of Tokyo. Since this was Theo’s third trip and Tarra’s second, they gave us some important pointers about getting by in Japan.

– When you go to pay for something, you place your money in a small cash dish which gives the salesperson time to wrap up your purchase or calculate your change.

-Don’t tip the wait staff at restaurants. The tip is worked into the meal price and the wait staff will go to great lengths to give you back your change. Restaurants do this to ensure you are a repeat customer rather than just a one-time big spender.

-When using the washroom, bring your own wash-cloth to dry your hands. Most public restrooms will have no toilet paper, a hold-over policy from when people would steal toilet paper in the early days after the war. It’s customary to use kleenex, which is commonly handed out at street corners to advertise pachinko parlors and other such things.

-If you are having trouble communicating with a Japanese person, write down what you want to say. Most Japanese took English in middle school and high school, and are more likely to understand English in written form rather than spoken.

We took a walk through Ueno park to look at some Cherry Blossoms, then took the subway to Asakusa to see the Senso-ji, the oldest temple site in Tokyo. After lunch, we headed to Akihabara and had tea at one of the first maid cafes in Tokyo. We ended off the trip with a hearty dinner of Shabu-Shabu in Shinjuku.

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Japan, like any other far off place, is surrounded by so much myth and hearsay in Canada. Some people will tell you that it’s full of nothing but buttoned-down salary-men and office ladies, and others would have you believe that it’s a saucer-eyed mecca of anime-themed insanity. I was glad to finally go there myself and get my own impressions of the country.

The first thing that I noticed about Japan was the signage. Everything and every place seemed to come with its own set of instructions. Trains, bathrooms and snack packaging are all designed to be fairly easy to use without any questions. This might strike people as kind of stuffy, but I look at it as the product of a people that just likes to know where to go in life. I think this attention paid to organization and instruction has created a very high penetration rate for advanced technology like cell phones and televisions. The Japanese can trade up cell phones every three months because NTT DocoMo is willing to hold a customer’s hand and facilitate the change over, rather than throwing a data cable and an Indian call center agent at them and say “get to it”.

On that note, salesmanship is considered real work in Japan. Over here, we have this image of salespeople as Willy Loman from “Death of A Salesman”, pathetic souls with no vocation besides hocking the work of other people. In Tokyo, there are people on megaphones and flashy signs everywhere. Once you’re in the store, you never get the feeling that you should buy something or get out. The salespeople are having fun selling to you and you in turn have fun shopping there.

Japan has a lot of things that we in the West would consider very libertarian in nature. Cigarette and beer vending machines are restricted by legislation here in Canada, but in Japan these things exist because of a strong sense of organization and community. It’s kind of a busy-body philosophy. Many businesses will not serve students during school hours and if a child decided he wanted to buy a pack of cigarettes, passersby would think nothing of interrupting him. It makes you think about the kinds of freedoms we could enjoy if people simply took an active interest in the lives of people around them.

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