10 Things noticed on a Return to Japan


A bit of a switch-around post today.

Back from our return to Japan. It had been more than 2 years, and so it was great to take things in all fresh again.   Japan has always been a major source of inspiration for me and I miss it terribly, so I kept a list of things that struck me during our time there. Perhaps they are just simple observations, or, as I would like to imagine, its thought-scouting for longer returns. We shall see. We mostly spent time with friends and family, but certainly we did get out quite a bit, so here are 10 things noticed.


1. Neatness


I love how neatly kept even the roughest of places are kept. Vacant road-side lots. A homeless person’s tent all so neatly kept. Even the area around abandoned buildings appear cared for. It was striking considering how poorly cared for the building I work at during the day is.


2. Calm Roads


I hate driving with a passion, and when I lived in Japan I didn’t need to use a car – ever. But being back this time we were driven around by a lot of family, so I had a lot more experience on the road in Tokyo. Everything felt calmer to me, how people drove and how they didn’t know one speeding through and switching lanes. Everyone seemingly content with getting there when they get there.

Of course this is talking about car drivers. Motorcycles are entirely different. As they apparently need to stay in no lanes, I find them really frightening. Not threatening, just the opposite. Because they apparently follow no rules, I would be afraid if I was driving that I would seriously hurt someone.


3. More Decay than I remember


Certainly I am a great lover of the Wabi Sabi evident throughout Japan – especially on little side streets and hidden neighborhoods in Tokyo. But something struck me this time about the amount of empty buildings and shops I saw. I can’t say that it changed in the few years since I left, but it certainly seemed more noticeable. Here and there just closed shops, and a few more abandoned spaces than I recall seeing previously.


4. Wet Smells


We arrived shortly after a large typhoon had ripped through, and aside from a few large trees being down in Inokashira-Koen, there was a strong wet smell in various places we got out and walked. I couldn’t be sure if it was just from the typhoon, or was also related to Tokyo humidity. It wasn’t unpleasant, just really noticeable. A kind of damp, faintly moldy smell on trains, on streets and in the parks.


5. No Change in Lighting


A lot of folks mentioned, or signs mentioned, or TV mentioned the whole campaign for setsu-den and saving electricity. Coming from the US though my wife and I both felt that none of the stores felt darker to us. It seemed normal. This contrasts with the first time I visited Japan and remember feeling like I had to leave a pharmacy/drug store because it was so unpleasantly bright.


6. Customer Service


Its remarkable how you can walk into any store in Japan and there is someone there ready to offer help. Just walking around and knowing that someone is nearby and will answer your question readily. This certainly trumps my experiences in the US when you often have to take quite a bit of time to even find someone who works in a store. And then you have to wait around for them to find someone who might be able to answer your question.


Its weird that Japan can have such a successful economy and have so many people working, whereas the US looks to cutting staff as a first resort when times get tough. I think those things feed into each other. People take pride in their jobs because there companies demonstrate a commitment to them. I’m sure there is a lot that folks interested in economics could say about that, but it wouldn’t matter to me because it just feels better shopping in Tokyo knowing that folks actually will help you.


7. Sweets Everywhere


Man alive I had forgotten how much of Japan revolves around the movement and consumption of sweets. Meeting friends? Bring sweets. At a party? Bring sweets. On the street for a few minutes? Go try this crazy new sweet everyone is talking about. Ice cream, cake and fruit are everywhere.


I definitely got to try some of my favorite wagashi as well. Although we ran out of time to head to our favorite spot for an-mitsu.


8 Jishin hangs over conversation


The Earthquake was omnipresent in our return. Everyone talked about it, shared their experiences that day and we heard plenty of horrible ones. Some very scary stuff, and I see how its just sort of attached itself to so many folks and become a part of them. A lot like my own experiences being in New York on 9-11 hang with me – at least that was the only thing I could compare it too.


And of course the earthquake still dominated the conversations on TV and  newspapers. All politics seemed rightly centered on recovery, it was just wildly everywhere we went in Tokyo.


9 The desire to compare Japan


Maybe it is just how folks find conversation with foreigners, but I was really struck how any conversation we had could easily turn to comparing Japan to other countries and ideas. Its a weird thing, and a bit boring after a while, but I just felt this constant conversational flow to compare the world in Japan.


In the US, you do this, but I don’t think this works in Japan. Japanese never do that. Americans are good at this, but Japan is not.


After a week of conversations that included some kind of need to compare, I just was a little bored with it. I’m just more interested in the possibilities of what might be, rather than what is. But that is my mileage to be sure.

10 Transport Freedom


Lastly, I realized how much freedom I feel living in Tokyo. Through walking or public transportation I feel like no part of the city is inaccessible. I could so easily get wherever I wanted to, and I got out and enjoyed that as much as I could. Just walking everywhere was great fun.

And I really miss the trains as well. People watching on the Inokashira and Chuo lines, was a great pastime and I was happy to get back to it. And I was not disappointed. So much to take in. Walking on the streets of Tokyo so often feels like reading a magazine. So many interesting things happening. Inspiration everywhere. Really great stuff.


So this was just a collection of things glimpsed, felt and thought on – for what its worth. Next week I will write up a bit of my first impressions after returning to the US.

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  1. Pingback: 10 Thoughts on a Return to the United States | AndrewConti.Net

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