A few days ago Alex and I were on the train from Nikko, north of Tokyo, to the airport to catch our flight to Okinawa. We were both busy immersing ourselves in Japanese culture—me reading a Japanese novel from the 1950s for which its author won a literary nobel, Alex playing a game called sushi-go-round on her phone—when I was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. The tapper was a small Japanese girl who said in heavily accented English “Hello” and then held out a small origami crane, her hands shaking slightly. I sort of froze, so she put the crane in my hands, smiled sheepishly and said “have a nice day.”
No New York experience had prepared me for this (extreme unprompted friendliness) and as far as I can tell there really is no appropriate response for an unsolicited origami crane. I interrupted Alex’s sushi game to show her the crane, and together we said “arigato gozaimasu” (by far the most important phrase for travel in Japan) about 25 times. She seemed pleased and put on headphones, leaving Alex and I to figure out what to do with the crane. I took a picture of it. Alex held it like a toy and sort of tried to make it fly around, making crane noises (?) and surruptiously making glances at me that said “is this helping? can I stop now?” Meanwhile the girl, watching her out of the corner of her eye, took out a smaller piece of paper, and made a smaller crane for Alex. Well, shit. Commence more over-enthusiastic head-bobbing thank yous. At this point the entire train car (which is, by the way, situated like an NYC subway car with people sitting along the sides all facing one another) is watching and the middle aged woman next to the girl decides to drop some knowledge. She starts talking to us and to the girl in Japanese. We nod along, nodding and smiling to hide our confusion. Two mins later, crane number 3 arrives, small but more expertly folded, from the older lady. The first girl goes into Thank You mode with Older Lady (even though the crane was clearly for us) and we continue to look on, our faces locked in moronic, bovine smiles trying to slip in our own “arigato” and look less clueless than we feel. Then the train arrives at the station and the girl, seeing the “what the f%$* do we do with these now?” faces, gives us a pretty patterned envelope to keep the cranes in. The older lady shows us how to fold them and put them in. And then we all go on our way. Oh and when I said “girl,” she was at least 25. Welcome to Japan.
Over the past few weeks, Alex and I have been acclimating to a culture that is so polite and friendly it is mind boggling. One of my favorite anecdotes is from an ex-pat Brit we had beers with the other night (who we met through our scuba guide). He described diving from a pier and before he went down, just noticing a wallet, fat with cash, lying unattended on the pier, no one in sight. When he returned from his dive not only was the wallet still there, but next to the wallet there was now a homeless man, just hanging out, guarding it, waiting for the owner to get back. Such is the Japanese way, and it shines a pretty harsh light on Western finders-keepers customs. Apparently during the tsunami many people saw their life savings swept out to sea in safes (zero interest rates, deflation, literally nobody steals… why use a bank?). You can imagine the American version of the story— a brief frantic gold rush, a nationwide news story about the ten year old boy who found a safe and turned it in to the police, he makes the rounds on the Today show, the Late Show, everyone feels good about themselves. The Japanese version? The Japanese handed in 78 million in cash, and almost all of it was returned to its original owners.
So yea, we’ve spent the last couple weeks feeling a little out of place—we’re big, sweaty, loud, white, illiterate Westerners bumbling our way through tiny Japanese streets—but at the same time we’ve felt very comfortable, thanks to the great people who have hosted us along the way and the overwhelming Japanese hospitality we’ve encountered. In Tokyo we stayed with a couple Americans who teach English and do translation work. They took us to dinner, karaoke, shisha and a house dance party. They walked us around different neighborhoods and recommended places to eat. Our experience in Tokyo was pretty relaxed, in cool, quiet neighborhoods, largely thanks to them. In Nikko, our host was a tiny Japanese lady named Yoshiko who spoke very little English but gave us great recommendations and happily played Japanese soccer mom for two days, shuttling us around the little town to dinner, the cottage, the local bathhouse (where she took us inside and gave us extensive instructions on what to do), back to the cottage, the train station, etc. In Okinawa we stayed with a Brit who the first morning made us heart shaped pancakes. Tonight (in Fukuoka) is in fact the first time we have had a place to ourselves since Hawaii. And it feels good.
There’s so much more to say about our amazing experiences so far in Japan, but here are a few other fun and random tidbits that are currently on my mind (courtesy of Alex!):
- Shimokitazawa, the neighborhood where we stayed in Tokyo, reminded us of Williamsburg and is full of Japanese hipsters. Daikan-yama and Naka-Meguro were also awesome neighborhoods that we wandered around and had a similar feel to Soho or the village (but Japanese!).
- Real life sushi-go-round is even more fun than the iPhone game, and certainly more delicious. It was filled with business people out on their lunch breaks; a hectic scene, with sushi coming around on the conveyor belt while people yelled out other orders. Cole and I were shy to order at first, but finally got into the groove and proceeded to eat some of the most amazing and cheap sushi we’ve ever had. Also, they had hot water on tap at each seat for the green tea bags, which were also in front of every place at the table.
- Karaoke was one of the highlights of our time in Tokyo (for me, at least)—but unlike when we karaoke in NYC, everyone was dead sober when we first arrived. On the other hand the place was BYOB, so we were able to get adequate liquid courage, and we had a brave Japanese opera singer in our crew who showed little hesitation and led the way...
- Halloween is EVERYWHERE in Japan—everywhere! The only thing they’re missing is candy corn, which is depressing but may be for the best.
- Nikko is a tiny town just a few hours north of Tokyo and filled with temples. It is stunning and quiet and was the perfect place to experience fall in Japan. It had that crisp autumn smell, and I couldn’t get enough of it. We went on a 4-hour “hike,” which was really just a long, flat walk, but beautiful. Most of our fellow hikers were older Japanese people who looked like they were outfitted for a 10-mile steep overnight hike with no access to civilization (this “hike” was anything but that)—bear bells included. We said “konnichiwa” to everyone we passed on the trail and got a lot of konnichiwas back. It was wonderful.
- We went to a local onsen (hot spring) bath house in Nikko, courtesy of our amazing host Yoshiko. The baths are segregated by sex, so Cole and I said goodbye at the locker rooms and went our separate ways. We each got completely naked in our respective locker rooms, surrounded by a handful of completely nude Japanese people, and walked into the bath area. It was a relaxing experience for us both, but we noticed a key difference between the men and the women: the men were silent in the baths, even if they had come in with friends or family. The women, however, were chatting the entire time, some in large groups, throughout the baths and in the sauna. In fact, I felt slightly lonely—I wished that I could speak Japanese so I could make small talk with them in the baths. The women were all very friendly, however, and even encouraged me to properly use their showers (I tried to stand up as I normally would, but they insisted I sit on a stool like the Japanese women do when they shower).
- Okinawa is a fascinating and beautiful place (like the Hawaii of Japan!) with a complicated history. There are a few large American military bases on the main island, and there has been a strong American presence in Okinawa since WW2. As a result, more people speak English here than in Tokyo, and there are a ton of both American and “American” restaurants (it’s hilarious to get the Japanese interpretations of America- see our WTF Japan album for that). For Cole and me, who still know very little about the military, our time in Okinawa was a true exploration of multiple cultures we were unfamiliar with and the ways in which they interact.
- We’ve just arrived in Fukuoka, where we are staying for just one night before heading to Hiroshima. Fukuoka is known for having “the most beautiful women in Japan”—we’ll keep you posted on that one :)
PS we just uploaded some new photos — check them out!
PPS leave us comments! We love hearing from you!