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Thoughts on Japan

Japan – written after our trip to Japan, and before we realised our kid was Made in Japan…

When travelling, you expect certain contradictions. Third world nations provide a feast of unexpected contrasts, such as monstrous wealth next to screaming poverty, and luxury resorts walled off from local villages.

Developed countries create fewer of these mental distractions. Voyage by road from Poland to Portugal and the “contradictory observer” will find little mind stimulation.

Yet to great surprise Japan abounds, nay leads the field, in contradictions. Of all the delights Japan offers, for me, this is the most cherished. These are subtle and don’t generally cry out for attention, nor are they easily explained.

Firstly, there is no doubt that the Japanese have an innate sense of beauty. Their temples and ancient untouched villages are repositories of a high standard of symmetry and design.

They call it shibui – beauty in perfect harmony with nature. This, along with wabi (simplicity) and sabi (the rust of age) forms the foundations of traditional building codes, which were rigidly enforced and adhered to by all classes. I think anyone who first decided to put a roof on top of a roof (called eaves), as you can observe with the pagodas, was a genius. It may seem obvious to us now, but only because someone had the insight of it first. Then came the second world war, then the bombing. And then the rebuilding using concrete and neon without a smidgen of urban planning. The creed after the war was to build and develop, with the ideal that though they lost the war, they would win the peace.

Occasionally in these gray streets there are pockets of beauty and calm, or beyond a clamoured street, caught in the corner of the eye lies a stunning thousand year old temple. It is as if, however, the country forgot the language of beauty, its patterns and formula. Japan’s construction industry, however, is one of the biggest players in the economy and lobbies hard to restrict zoning laws and other environmental protection efforts.

Though the new cities are vast concrete gray enclosures tightly packed with people, there is calmness, even during the tight rush-hour. It was never too bustling, the streets were never too crowded. Sometimes the subway became massively packed, yet it was a strange unhurried organised package.

Tokyo, along with every centimetre of the country, is very clean. Even that scourge of most cities, chewing gums squashed on the sidewalk, does not exist. In urban areas there are even designated outside smoking areas delineated by yellow lines on the ground, which all abide to. Yet I could never find a rubbish bin to dump my litter. I noticed that chewing gum packets come with little holders to put used gum in, but where are the trash cans to put this? I would easily walk the streets for hours holding on to an empty bottle vainly looking for somewhere to dispose it until I got the idea to give it to my wife.

There must be, however, a huge amount of waste to get rid off. The Japanese are big recyclers, and have an enlightened view of environmental protection. Against this is the way they create tonnes of extra waste from their propensity to wrap anything purchasable. Small sweets are individually wrapped, sealed in more plastic, put in a large cardboard box, wrapped again, and then placed in a plastic bag. While supermarkets in Europe try to end consumer’s habits with plastic bags, the Japanese thrive on them. Encase all in plastic and paper seems their mantra.

Yet over packaging is directly proportional to the level of service consumers expect and the Japanese are the world leaders in service. Dignified, discrete service, though never annoying. Where they are masters at service, however, they lack in efficiency. I assume it is part of the belief that one should never sack employees. I was in a department store of seven floors, and each one had a help-desk staffed by two women. Their ashen bored faces of blighted my day. This is repeated everywhere in every shop. Thousands of sales assistants are ready to help despite few customers. They even employ people at car parks to stop pedestrians from crossing when there are outgoing cars. I could go into a discussion on the benefits of a flexible labour market to business and the economy as a whole, but I would not hold your attention.

Talking about waste, the Japanese toilets, especially in hotels, are the best in the world. Technologically advanced, they have little consuls with buttons and lights all for your toiletry pleasures. These things pack a punch way beyond necessity. The Apollo moon missions didn’t carry as much computer processing power as the Japanese use to clean their bums. Contrast that to the fact that they know nothing about toilet paper – theirs is the most useless bits of paper. Single ply paper – god help them.

But what a wonderful country, crazy beyond belief, exciting, and forging its own strange future with a mixture of Zen Buddhism and surprisingly individualistic attitudes to life that feeds a creative Japanese soul that appreciates the simple pleasures life brings. I bought a notebook in Kyoto, emblazed with “A notebook makes me feel free and happy.” It didn’t but I appreciated the thought from my hosts.

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