JAPAN: IMPRESSIONS FROM TODAY
By TY HEINEKEN
One morning early last January, I stumbled to the bathroom as usual to brush my teeth and decided that either the mirror needed replacing or I was looking rather older then I felt.
That same week, my doctor, a no nonsense guy with a minuscule sense of humor, told me that my medical tests were telling him something I may not want to hear. By some coincidence, that very same week, a flood of year-end greetings arrived from Japanese friends thus stimulating a lively deliberation as to who was still active, now retired, currently ill or presumed deceased.
Good wife Kiyoko, for various quite legitimate reasons, travels to Japan at least once a year, allowing her to remain more keenly in touch with her native land then many other Japanese expats. I, on the other hand, being too easily enticed by the unknown and exotic, have been traipsing around southeast asia overthe past nine years, ignoring my half century attachment to the land of the rising sun.
After taking a deep breath, checking the bank balance and placing implicit trust in Kiyoko's mature judgment, I commited to a twelve day visit.
- Although the impressions I noted in my travel diary may in fact have been in place, in whole or in part, long before my last visit in 2003, I'm including them here because I feel they epitomize a cohesiveness of social attitude that is unique.
- 1- The airport bus platform attendant bowed to the passengers upon departure.
- 2- On the expressway between Narita and Tokyo, all vehicles with ECT pass registrations could pass through the toll booths at a normal driving speed.
- 3- There was no roadside refuse or garbage evident.
- 4- All vehicles observed appeared clean. When I asked the bus conductor if it had rained recently, she said no.
- 5- At a pre-ordered dinner for a special guest at a superior western stvle restaurant, when the white wine of choice was not available and the alternative was not as yet chilled, the Maitre d' offered complimentary champagne with his apology for any inconvenience.
- 6- The two "BULLET" trains we took to ultimately reach Kyoto via Atami, departed and arrived within 10 seconds of the published schedule.
- 7- All taxis we used in Kyoto had uniformed drivers with white gloves, using GPS for address location.
- 8- In every public space, floors were "hospital" clean.
- 9- All refuse bins were identified to be specific to the appropriate trash that would be acceptable.
- 10- In all train and subway stations, there were either escalators or elevators for the elderly or infirm.
- 11- All direction signs were written in both KANA (symbols) and ROMANJI (western alphabet).
- 12- Both for long distance and local trains approaching stations and interconnections were announced in both Japanese and English.
- 13- Free plastic shopping bags have been largely eliminated.
- 14- At the supermarkets visited, customers were expected to pack their own groceries and bring their own shopping bag.
- 15- Even in the smallest private house garden, it was not unusual to see a tree pruned in a topiary style.
- 16- Train and bus schedules were clearly posted, often in English as well as Japanese.
- 17- In the SMART HOTEL (inexpensive business and travel) we used in Kyoto for two nights, we were impressed as to how they had achieved cost efficiencies by eliminating "peopled services": a full western or Japanese buffet breakfast offered without staff, keyless rooms, automated check in and out, public bath facilities, no room telephone, non view windows, rooms over commercial stores. Smart is one of a number of hotel chains throughout Japan that now offer excellentvalue for the traveler.
- 18- Public travel information service offices/counters staffed with multi-lingual personnel.
- 19- Umbrellas for loan as needed in numerous locations (usually plastic with a store name or logo prominently shown).
- 20- No smell of fish in the fish market.
- 21- An assortment of abundant free seating in most shopping and public areas.
- 22- Seat belts required for all auto passengers in front or back seats.
- 23- "High tech toilets", some of which will even talk to you if you install the software, so I've been told.
- 24- Beautiful mountain roads open only 6-8 months, per year that used to require a toll, but are now free to all vehicles.
- 25- Express way rest stop facilities where fresh flowers have been placed in the sanitary areas.
- 26- The Rest Stop at the Sano Interchange on the Tohoku Expressway (going north to the earthquake/tsunami effected city of Fukushima) deserves a special mention for its exceptional qualities by any standard: a fine restaurant, a fresh bakery, a local organic garden store, a forested walking path, a dog exercise yard.
True to my instincts as a collector I did have a few changes to look for antiques in the western and eastern provinces, but was generally disappointed in what was on offer until I reached Yonezawa, my old Tohoku "hometown" in the mountains. As I turned the Prius off route 13 and crossed over the now new railroad bridge that leads to the town center, I noticed a familiar sliding door on a nondescript house with an equaffy obscure piece of something Buddhist yet recognizable off to my right. Could it be that ancient and venerable Goto-san was still in business? Like two naughty children, Kiyoko and I slide the door open slightly and softly called to the inside: IS ANYONE AT HOME? Mr. Goto's voice was weaker then I had remembered but it was indeed his voice. At 90, still sitting with his faithful wife at the kotatsu offering hot green tea and ready to tempt us with treasures from Japan's past.
Our two days in and around Yonezawa were truly wonderful. Being with my Japanese "brother" Toshio Otake, his loyal wife Kazuko, the Takahashis, the Endos and of coarse Goto-san, always tolerant of my ignorance but grateful for my trust in his good taste.