Brief Encounters of a Japanese Kind

A big part of why I love to travel is meeting diverse people (and robots!) I would never ever had a chance to meet otherwise. Sometimes they are interesting travelers, sharing tips and excitement of the road, but mostly they are locals sharing insights into their culture and way of life.

“Isn’t it impossible to travel on your own to Japan?” asked some friends, who travel often and far. “We heard Japanese speak no English.”

No English is a gross exaggeration, but yes, communication in Japan is a bit of a challenge, to say it mildly. Japanese all learn English in school, but in a very old fashioned way, without a chance to practice and speak English. So, surprisingly, even young people with college education often are not able to put a sentence together, though they probably do understand quite a lot of what you are saying.

Still, since our first visit 35 years ago, when there was no English anywhere, the tourist infrastructure is vastly improved with excellent English signs everywhere. Occasionally the translations are too literal and afford great opportunities for some laughter. The tourist information centers are well stocked with English brochures and timetables even if sometimes you have to and people manning them have a very limited spoken English capability.

Luckily for us we had a chance to communicate with a few excellent English speakers so we could have quite in depth conversations and ask some pressing questions. Important, because Japanese culture is not always easy to understand for an outsider.

For example: What is it with grown women walking around dressed like live dolls? I still do not have a full answer. It has something to do with Japanese obsession with cuteness called Kawaii, that can refer to things, people or toy characters that are charming, shy and childlike. Think Hello Kitty!

What is it with Japanese obsessed with plush animals, that continues far into adulthood? A friend told me she once spent a night at a Japanese family’s house where she was offered their grown daughter’s bedroom . She said it was literally hard to find the bed for the whole room was full of large and small stuffed animals. Here’s a couple taking their wedding portraits sporting their favorite plush animals. Huh? It would only make sense if they then ceremoniously flushed them down the toilet as a symbol of leaving all childish things behind. Didn’t happen.

My husband, who always pays (too?!) close attention to ladies, was the first to notice that most Japanese women wear shoes at least one size too big. I still don’t have a satisfactory answer, but a variety of responses from people like: shoes are a relatively new idea for us Japanese….we take off shoes more often than the westerners, so they need to be bigger…the fancy western shoes are sold here in Japan in small, medium and large sizes only, so everyone goes for the bigger size. Didn’t have a chance to confirm this. Looking for shoe shops was not very high on my priority list.

Just as you can’t help but notice the inordinate amount of passionate kissing and hugging in (romantic) European cities, you also can’t help noticing the total lack of any public affection in Japan. The closest you will come is seeing a young couple holding hands while on a walk in the park. It is simply not acceptable to show any more and very impolite to “burden” others with having to watch you. What’s wrong with that? Well, the problem seems to be that this dispassionate approach to love does not diminish at the doorsteps of Japanese bedrooms. Japan has one of the lowest birth rates in the whole world.

On the other hand most visitors to Japan will tell you how extremely helpful and warm the Japanese people are towards Western visitors. People will go out of their way to help you and are very concerned if you are a woman alone. If I happened to stray from my husband, someone would invariably ask if I was traveling alone. With crime rates the lowest in the world I figured it would be a perfect country for a woman to travel alone. I asked a young black woman from England traveling solo on the same ferry, if she felt safe in Japan. I expected her to nod enthusiastically, but she looked at me gravely and said thoughtfully, “Yes, the Japanese are helpful, but let me just say they have not seen a lot of black people.”

Ah, another good thing about traveling – it teaches you to not make assumptions one way or another.

You certainly can count on the Japanese to help you if you ask to the extent that they would rather send you in the wrong direction than not helping you. Or is this the case of Asian “Not loosing face”, by admitting you don’t know.

One early morning after having spent a night at a youth hostel in Kanazawa, the only accommodation we could find, we were desperate to get some breakfast. The only person up and about was a lady struggling to put up a flag in front of the Samurai museum. So I lent her a hand and she in turn mobilized the staff of the museum to brainstorm on our breakfast options.

The Japanese are in general quite shy and will not be the ones to initiate a conversation. We found that we could always exchange at least a few words if we stopped and offered some lavish praise to the owners of pampered pets. My understanding is that isolation is a really big challenge in Japanese society, especially for young men. I wager that overuse of technology does have a role to play. Riding local trains we could frequently observe school kids on their way to school. While the girls would be engaged in some conversations and giggling together, the boys invariably just played (violent) video games on their smart phones. Indeed, it seems that in general girls are doing much better in Japanese society these days than boys. As they grow up they tend to be more confident, educated, enjoying their life, shopping and traveling. They are in no rush to get married. Because of the very traditional gender values and expectations, the pressure on men, especially first sons is exacerbated. Men are supposed to be responsible breadwinners, working extremely long hours, while women should stay home alone minding the house and kids. Very clearly depicted in this beer ad:Rejecting those norms has initiated a worrisome phenomenon called Hikikomori whereas adolescent boys and even middle aged men shut themselves in their rooms and refuse to come out for years. On the low end the estimate is that about 1 million Japanese are modern day hermits.

quite in the contrary our three Japanese Servas hosts very very outgoing. They were the ones answering lots of questions and giving us a real insight into the real Japanese life. First we visited a family of four in Sapporo. The dad was an elementary school teacher who had studied music in the States, so he could speak English. His wife was also a musician, but was now a stay home mom with two boys. We spent the day with them driving to the site of the Winter Olympic museum and ski jump.

They taught us how to eat Hokkaido noodles with just the right amount of appreciative slurping and arranged for free tickets to a grand concert of community wind orchestras. Who knew classical music was so popular in Japan? With the high level of professionalism and prevalence of young musicians classical music has a secure future there.

We even got to visit the wife’s mother and father for a demo of green tea ceremony and a real home made Japanese dinner feast with lots of kanpai (=cheers!) toasts. It is surprising how easily family secrets and complaints surface after a few drinks! Our second host was a divorced woman living with her elderly parents in a house they built after their 130 year old traditional home was totally destroyed in the 2016 earthquake, burying the parents underneath for many hours. What are the chances that the first morning of our stay a strong earthquake of 6.3 on the Richter scale magnitude shook and swayed the ground. If I wouldn’t have believed in PTSD before, I would have been convinced, as our new friend jumped into my arms crying hysterically. Luckily there was no damage but frayed nerves.

To get into a different frame of mind we drove to another friend’s house in a traditional village nearby where they prepared a wonderful lunch and showed us their old treasures. Upon departure they pressed upon us a few old lacquer bowls even though we protested we had no room in our luggage. The best part though was a peek into their thick green bamboo forest. The size of the trunks and especially of the fresh bamboo shoots was really impressive. As the friend was going through a divorce as well we had a chance to discuss this still rather taboo topic. Divorce continues to be very much frowned upon in Japanese society.

If in agreement, a couple can get easily divorced by mutual consent, simply filing a form with the local government office. But there are much less simple solutions for their children after a divorce. Or rather there is only one simple solution. As there is no joint custody of children, if the parents can’t agree, the court decides whom the children shall live with and it can be the mother, the father or even the relatives. The divorced father or mother then pretty much looses any right to see his or her children. And the children who are not seen as individuals with legal rights, but as belonging to a family, have no right to access their non custodial parent. This might be one of the major factors why the divorce rate in Japan is quite low.

Our third host was Tomoko, a 75 year old retired High school English teacher, who returned with her husband to her small home town of Sasebo, Kyushu, where they built a beautiful house made of fancy wood and filled it with books. She picked us up from the train station and immediately took us sightseeing. Her English was wonderful, so our conversations were the easiest and most enjoyable. You bet we had discussions about challenges of having retired husbands! If anywhere in the world it is in Japan that husbands literally live for their job and they are lost without it. She said that Japanese retired men simply refuse to learn anything new, like using a smart phone. But, she noted, at least her husband, contrary to many of her friend’s husbands, even though he does not want to travel, does not object to her going off on her own. So much so that we will reunite with Tomoko in September in Europe.

Her women network was a real boon. Whatever my wish, she could pick up her (smart) phone and within minutes she arranged for some really special Japanese experiences. I was tickled pink to have a private kimono lesson with her friend, a Japanese traditional dance teacher. Did I mention how much I adore any and all Japanese kimonos? I also love Ikebana – the art of Japanese flower arrangement. I have taken many classes and found much creative enjoyment with my limited artistic skills in Sogetsu Ikebana school. Turns out Tomoko’s cousin is an Ikebana Instructor, from a different, Ikenobo school. So of course we had to pay a visit and she gave me an introductory lesson! Her house and garden, too, were full of flowers – what a treat! While these were all well planned visits through Servas organisation, it is a chance encounter with a special 80 years young lady that we cherish even more. We came across the big traditional house of Ishikawa International Exchange Center on our stroll around Kanazawa. The Japanese garden was beautiful and the special exhibit of a rich collection of Japanese fabrics even more so, but the crowning glory was the woman runing the show. Seeing our interest, she took us to the off limits upstairs to show us some secret features of the old house. She was a big U.S. enthusiast, having sent both her daughters to the U.S. for high school and university studies. Her love for America was triggered when she was 5 years old and the American soldiers came to war torn Japan. “We couldn’t believe how nice the soldiers were; big, strapping guys, with pockets full of candy and chocolate. truth be told Japanese husbands don’t have a great track record, so I am really glad both my daughters have American husbands!”

On the way out the door she gave us a hand made Temari ball, which is a traditional gesture of friendship with the symbolic design of the crane, the bird of happiness.

We said goodbye to Japan, knowing that there are still many unexplored places beckoning, but also new friends that will welcome us back.

10 thoughts on “Brief Encounters of a Japanese Kind

  1. Loved loved LOVED your Japanese stories. Meeting the individual characters is what I would also love the most.
    Laughed to myself with you mentioning about ” retired husbands” ssssshh. Don’t tell Mirek. 😉😀🥂


  2. Glad to see the fruits of your planning Labors paid off. You certainly have the details down to the shoes and the Hokkaido noodles. Only one at a time Ksenija.


  3. Love the descriptions of your adventures in Japan. You got me on kimonos, my favorites too. Such beautiful hospitality. Safe travels.


  4. Thanks for your continuing stories. The experiences you recount bring back so many memories of my three visits to Japan, which also involved home-stays and interesting people.
    You are on your way to Prague now?


  5. Hi Ksenija,

    I laughed out load at the cat picture. What did you do to cause that?

    The food pictures made me hungry.

    What a great trip you are having.

    PS I am attending the 50th anniversary of SERVAS at their conference in San Rafael in July. I have not been active since the 1980’s.



  6. Your post was enlightening …. a quick lesson for me in Japanese culture! Wow, an earthquake, too! As always, I love the photos!


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