Observations: (Warning: Contains gross generalizations bordering on stereotype)
An excess of cuteness:
Furry animals, bunnies, cats and a general obsession with adorableness that extends to clothing. Grown women dress like little girls pretending to be hookers going to a tea party; crinolines, thigh-high stockings, short shorts, super-high platform shoes.
Dogs are often paraded around in strollers in full baby regalia. Sasha insists that he has seen dogs with eyelash extensions. We watched a couple feed their dog with a spoon from a variety of Tupperware containers hanging from the back of a stroller and wipe his mouth with a linen cloth after each bite. Evidently an epidemic of raccoons (all the rage to have a baby raccoon as a pet after a TV show character 20 years ago) is destroying the wood temples and shrines of Kyoto (although we saw no evidence of this).
$$$ Beaucoup bucks:
This is the most expensive country I have ever visited. Even with staying in Sasha’s apartment, and a falling Yen (= more yen per $) it’s easily $50 for a very simple lunch. Groceries to make a pasta dinner for 4 cost $110. The perfect melons below cost $20 each (but they are perfect).
Lost in translation:
Very little English, although street and subway signs are well marked. (But people don’t have actual addresses). Somehow Sash has always lived abroad with an address like: next to the Lamb House, or in the building owned by Suleiman. In this case it’s way more upscale but still no address. English may be the international lingua franca but not here.
Wow. After the shock of a subway map that looks like the artery system of the human body and wondering how you can ever figure this out, it’s actually brilliant. Each line has a number, a name and a color and each stop on the line has a stop number. The monitor in the car constantly shows you your direction, the stop you just left and the stop coming up next with a series of red or green lights.
I have a great sense of direction and often refuse to use a map. After 10 days in Tokyo I have no clue where anything is. I usually know where I am – which is good enough to retrace my steps, but if you asked me to point something out on a map I wouldn’t know where to start.
My first impression of the sinks in restrooms is that they are all handicap accessible, or perhaps designed for children – isn’t than thoughtful. No, they are meant for grown women and I, for the first time anywhere, am a giantess. Similarly I can reach the straps on the subway because they are dangling in front of my eyeballs and not way above my head.
Hair: (Stereotype alert big-time).
Japanese women have gorgeous hair – thick, straight, shiny, hair with substance and body that can look great long or short. They must have fabulous colorists because a good many of them have hair in various in shades of auburn and brown with no roots and looking completely natural. This is the downside of being in a family of men, because every time I mention this in wonder I get blank stares and no one will take the bait.
Earthquakes: Evidently we experienced a “small” one which I didn’t notice, but they happen frequently and a “big one” is expected at any time. I was very aware of this on entering any elevator to go to an inevitable high rise floor (because it’s that kind of city) and observing the signage on what to do in an earthquake. The English translation is something like: In the event of an earthquake do not take the elevator. OK, let’s say I’m IN the elevator, stuck between floor 38 and 39 and we are experiencing an earthquake, NOW WHAT? And this leads to…
Climate and geography: It’s freezing in Tokyo at the end of December, although quite sunny. Evidently it’s mercilessly hot and humid from June through early October, and during all this time you are on earthquake alert on a chain of mountainous islands. Taking the train from Tokyo to Osaka was solid city the entire 400 miles. It sure makes you realize how big a country we live in and how many options we have.
Politeness, manners, face: You could live here for 20 years and probably not get it. People are unfailingly polite but remote, less so in Osaka than in Tokyo.
Toilets: We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. There are so many options that it’s hard to figure out how to flush. And do you really want a public toilet turning into a bidet?
Design: Really beautiful. Simple, clean, stunning. Although it’s hard to tell what’s what in a shop window because it’s all wrapped up and indistinguishable in teeny delicate papers — dessert, stationary, tea.
Diversity: None. Same, same only moreso. We are so used to diversity and ethnicity in our major cities, and here there is none. It’s rare to see the occcasional tourist.
Sleeping in public: People fall asleep everywhere, on the subway, at a restaurant table, on the train, sitting in a chair, their heads at odd angles and their faces covered by a sheet of hair. They look utterly passed out, not just cat-napping. Then the subway stops and they jump up just in time and get off. The woman running the AV equipment in the auditorium at a museum is sound asleep, her chin tucked into her chest.
Tattoos: None. It is a violation of cultural norms to have a tattoo. Plus you aren’t allowed into a public bath or a hot spring. Only the Yakuse (mafia) have tattoos. However, women wear stockings with fake tattoos.
Face masks: Everywhere. The whole country looks like its about to have emergency surgery. It’s not clear if the wearers are sick and trying not to spread germs or if they are protecting themselves from germs, but it is so commonplace that when someone sneezes you turn and look at them in horror.
Walking: (More stereotype alert). What’s with the pigeon-toed walk? Is this a hipster trend for young women? Sash claims that he asked a co-worker who answered, “nobody ever taught them how to walk.” Maybe it’s the use of the ritual sandals with the strange white socks split at the big toe. Women actually wear these things along with kimonos. I assumed they were dressing up for some occasion, but no – they’re just going about their business.
Waiting in line. I’ll do almost anything not to have to wait in line and I suspect I am not alone. For several nights running we see a long line snaking around something that looked like a theatre, people standing in the cold, waiting patiently, guided by men in baby blue jackets who point the way. (They take the place of an old-fashioned rope — it’s a full employment economy). Finally we walk up to the front and they are waiting to enter a tiny store where they can either touch, or photograph or purchase signed memorabilia from some hot boy-band. These are not teenyboppers in line – they are grown men and women.
Androgyny: (More stereotype alert). These are the most effeminate looking men I have ever seen. Is it the amount of estrogen in soy? The women look fabulous and are out and about in large groups in the evening, and the men look like they are about to devolve into another species. Surprise: Japan has a seriously declining birth rate.