While I was in Japan recently, my friend and I were stopped in Asakusa for an interview for Osaka TV. They asked us of our impressions on Japan. Unfortunately at the time we’d only been in Tokyo for a couple of days — and I suppose springing up a television camera at an unprepared person first thing after breakfast (ours, not theirs) did not help — I’m afraid we probably didn’t give them any very good material. (Except for that photo of a multiple option toilet menu, possibly.) Now that I’m back in Finland and I’ve had time to reflect upon our trip, I can respond in full.
No, I didn’t think Japan was weird in any way. The topmost impression left to me of Tokyo (and by that, Japan) was that it’s beautiful, clean, quirky, well-organised and harmonious. Of course, I may be biased, because I have been interested in Japan and Asia since I was a child; I may also be somewhat oversaturated to Asian “weirdness” for spending a year in Seoul, South Korea, and thus less likely to be fazed. So when we first arrived to Japan, I felt like I had returned home; okaerimashita.
My one and only disappointment in Japan was the local food — I love Korean cuisine, so I had high hopes for the Japanese counterpart… But I found it was mostly just bland. Happily, for intented but unscheduled return, an abundance of Korean restaurants can be found all over Tokyo. Ahh. <3
What I most like about Japan is the way old and new live side by side. I loved how supports were built for old trees — in Finland, they would be cut down instead as a threat to public safety — and how it’s completely natural for people (young and old) to walk around in kimono or yukata (summer kimono). In the trendy Shibuya you can see kids with kimonos modded to a more modern look. I couldn’t think of anything sweeter than seeing young sweethearts walking together in traditional clothing.
I loved, loved, loved the parks in Tokyo. I think the best part of the entire trip, if I had to choose one, was experiencing the Japanese gardens. Somehow, in a traditional Japanese garden, I felt like I could breathe more easily, I felt more calm, my heart felt at rest. The most wonderful ones were in Kamakura, some 50 km south from Tokyo. In particular, I loved the Hokokuji temple with the wonderful bamboo grove. I wish we had had more time to spend in the Hasedera temple, too, but we were there close to the closing time so we only had a chance for a cursory tour. The parks in general were a pleasing contrast to the Tokyo cityscape. Everything in central Tokyo seems to have been designed with a set of aesthetics that are simply pleasing to the eye: old things look old, and new things look new.
And then there is the quirkiness of Japanese design! This is what seems to throw people off — the Japanese seem so constrained and polite and pleasing on the outside, and then you see something so out of character you think it’s simply crazy. Buildings which look like a coupling of 50’s functionalism and a mecha robot or something out of a space fiction series, cute chibi figures in an otherwise serious history documentary, a middle-aged salaryman with teddybear icons on his phone… I think they are a testimony to the playful facet of the Japanese.
This sense of humour, this playfulness and, let’s face it, certain perversity (I’m looking at you, Akihabara) is the flipside of the hard-working, tidy and efficient Japanese nature. I live for dichotomies, so perhaps that’s a part of why I’m so enamoured with the country.
From dirty to clean
And finally, the cleanliness. It sounds really boring when you mention it, and it’s hard to appreciate without a concrete example, but the fact that the streets — even the dark alleys I managed to sneak upon a couple of times — were completely clean of bodily fluids (spit, pee, puke, etc), bubble gum, candy wrappers, cigarette stumps, even dirt (!), and the entire city seemed to be virtually graffiti-free was dumbfounding. In a metropolis the size of Tokyo (and Seoul, for that matter), you expect a certain level of pollution. But, unlike in the aforementioned cities, in a relatively low-pollution country of Finland, if I walk around the central Helsinki wearing sandals, I come home with black feet. In Tokyo — virginally pink soles and toesy-woesies. Unbelievable. (This definitely disproves the myth about Helsinki as a clean capital. It’s filty. Fiiiiltheeeeeee!)
In Finland, we have a “collect a piece of garbage a day” movement. We have, in Helsinki, garbage bins every few hundred meters. And yet, people discard their shit within sight of garbage bins. And don’t even get me started on the Finnish version of public toilets (elevators, trees, bushes, fences, or failing anything else, the street)… In Japan — outside of Tokyo in particular — garbage bins were hard to come by. The drink machines (located at about every street corner, and in between) usually had bins, but only for bottles and cans. Stations and the outside of mini marts usually had a set of waste sorting bins (for bottles, for cans, for combustibles and for incombustibles), but otherwise you had to carry your garbage with you. The only waste we saw was in places tourists frequent, and you just know it wouldn’t be the Japanese who left the McD wrapper or Starbucks venti cup on the ground! It’s not unusual for Japanese to pick up waste where they see it and take it with them to the next sorting bin.
By comparison — I’ll be honest — just the other day I took the kitchen garbage to the area waste bins, and on my way there I spotted a milk carton someone had thoughtfully discarded on the street. I considered picking it up, but in the end the “if I clean up after the person who did this, they’ll never learn anything” -mentality won and I left it there. But it’s not really the working solution either, now is it? Next time, I probably would pick it up.
So, there you have it. As I have time to digest, I may have things to add, but as is: my impressions on Japan, based on a two-week tourist dash. I hope you enjoyed this second hand experience.