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Japan: Land of Fascinating Contradictions
Extravagant is the adjective that many associate to modern Japanese civilization.
'Extravagance' comes to many minds because of the way movies and documentaries have made it their business to portray Japanese culture.
I'll grant you, Japan is different from what most of us are used to in our countries, but the only certainty we can derive from that difference is that it makes for an extremely appealing country to the open minded person.
Japan is a fascinating country, a culture that doesn't have anything to do with anything else that we're familiar with in the western world.
Whenever I'm asked what's so different about Japan, I'm hard pressed to name this or that one thing…
In my opinion, the most impressive, unique factor in Japan is the juxtaposition of its fundamental rooting in tradition versus the most outrageous modern thinking and behavior.
The core of the matter is we can pinpoint many things that are different in Japan, but none of them can explain in and by themselves the singularity of that country. One's got to list them all together, as a string of unique beads, to explain why that wonderful country is simply not like others we know.
Contradictions in Japan
I will name a few things that caught my eye as fascinatingly contradictory.
It's not a comprehensive list by any means, just some tokens that exemplify the differences with western societies.
It is allowed to smoke in the huge majority of public venues. Restaurants, bars, clubs allow smoking. However, out in the street, it is forbidden to smoke except in some nooks and crannies that are very well marked to that effect. Additionally, there are convenient smoking areas in crowded zones of the city, such as Shibuya in Tokyo.
Apparently, the reason behind this funky contradiction is that public spaces are so crowded (true!) that carrying a lighted cigarette in one's hand lends itself to accidents.
And an accident did happen that was publicly out cried to make this a sort of standard in Japan. No smoking in the streets downtown… but feel free to have a beer and a smoke, by all means.
Tip for smokers
In you find yourself in the middle of a huge city, say Osaka, right downtown where it's not allowed to smoke, and you have no clue where you'd be able to light up, go and find a row of vending machines. It is generally allowed to smoke right next to the vending machines, and almost always there are ashtrays next to the machines as well.
Finding your way around
Many of the streets in Japanese cities don't have names, and the numbers are anyone's guess.
What I've been able to devise is that numbering goes per 'block'. Whatever that may mean wherever you are in Japan...
This means that it may become quite an adventure to find your destination, if you have one in mind. The same goes for Japanese folks, it's not just us foreigners that are street-challenged…
Search the business in Google Maps and print out a Google Street View of where you'd like to go. 'Visual' support comes in handy in a country where most citizens don't speak a foreign language
Note down the phone of the business you're going to. In big cities, most (not all!) taxis have a locator-by-phone service, so by providing the phone of your destination they will be able to locate it.
In their website, most businesses will indicate what exit to take from the subway station closer to them. No joke, make a note of that, as some subway stations can have up to 30 exits, some being many blocks apart from each other.
All cities I visited in Japan are outstandingly clean. Shining clean, and not just "compared to" most of the cities I've even been to in the Western world. They are clean. But it must be a miracle indeed, because there are no trash baskets to be seen anywhere. None, zero, zilch.
One must 'save' their trash until such time as one finds a place where one can dispose of all the garbage. Literally. And the thing is, everyone carries a bag of some sort to put trash in. Everyone.
The thing is, there is an unwritten rule, a tacit agreement between the citizens of Japan, to keep clean one's front yard. Or back yard. Whatever space 'corresponds to you', you will keep clean, implicitly.
I've read that if any disabled people, or older citizens, live in a neighborhood, the rest of neighbors will take care of that space on behalf of the less fortunate, so everyone's citizenship responsibilities are covered.
One very handy "trash location" are the many 7/11 joints all over any city. 7/11 is just one brand of combini, as they call it in Japan. Delis, or all purpose stores, is what we know them like in our neck of the woods. There are Lawsons, Family Marts, etc etc They have big trash cans and ashtrays there, presumably for customers who just bought and consumed something, but …. Help yourself.
Another very convenient way to dispose of garbage are the many malls. I would go into one to have a bite, or take a look at some clothes, or use the restroom area, and lo and behold, I realized those monuments to consume were exactly the place where I could unload all my 'stuff to discard', be it tissues, plastic bags from my breakfast, anything!
We don't accept ...
We've all heard how Japan is one of the biggest consumer economies in the world. It is true. 24/7 shopping occurs right in front of your eyes.
Then how come it's not possible to pay by credit card? Credit cards are only accepted in a few businesses. Tokyo is a bit of an exception, but a bit only.
As everyone knows, Japan is the country in the world where most Michelin stars reside. This means there are Michelin star restaurants pretty much anywhere you go in Japan, primarily in Tokyo and Kyoto.
It's not that these restaurants would require you to take a loan or anything… but they'll want cash.
Bring cash. Don't count on paying by credit card in Osaka, or Kyoto… or anything of a lesser size. It just won't happen. Hotels are the exception. Tokyo is a bit more credit card friendly, but don't expect to find the store fronts half covered with "We accept VISA, Master Card, AMEX" stickers. It just doesn't happen.
Most restaurants don't accept credit cards, just cash. If you're aiming to have dinner at any nice joint, don't count on your AMEX saving the day!
Credit cards are accepted in pretty much all transportation offices: Shinkansen welcomes Master Card! Yay!
When all is said and done, the question is: For all of those things that we view as singular and contradictory about Japan, what does Japan think of those same things as established in the rest of the world?
Worth a thought, if one's got an inquiring mind. Domo arigato.
© 2013 Elena.