Japan: A Week in Tokyo
Being a small island off the coast of Asia, there is no wonder why Japan is so unique. The country was not easily accessible until the last few hundred years. The thousands of years before this saw Japan to be almost completely separate from the rest of the world, as the culture and its traditions developed with few outside influences. Today, Japan is as global as any other country, specializing in the production of electronics and automobiles. But the unique culture is still very alive and well.
Chika’s aunt and uncle (Setsuko and Tatsuo) live only about 20 minutes from the Narita airport and were very kind in picking us up and also hosting us for the night at their home in Chiba, about an hour and a half by train from Tokyo. We immediately went to the Naritasan Shinshoji Temple, a Buddhist temple that was originally founded in 940 AD. The current temple was built in 1968, but several of the surrounding buildings (including a 3-story pagoda) were built in the 1700s.
We waited in line to walk up the stairs to the temple where it’s traditional to throw a coin into a large wooden box and then pray. We then noticed that many people were filtering inside the temple. When Chika’s aunt, Setsuko, asked if we wanted to go inside, there answer was, of course, “Yes!”.
Inside, we watched the Goma Fire Ritual, a daily ceremony since the temple was created over 1,000 years ago. Sitting in this temple was a bit surreal for me. The temple was in the shape of a square, with the stage up front and center. Everyone was seated on the floor with shoes removed and in a plastic bag. The ceremony started with the head monk speaking, which was followed by the entrance of 10 other monks, all dressed in yellow, as a drum was beat. With all of the monks chanting, the small fire was started up on the stage to perform the ritual. Many people, including businessmen and women, took their bags up to the stage, as several monks would take the bag and bless it by holding it over the fire. All of this happening with the beat of the drum and the chanting of the monks, and with less than 5 hours of sleep in the past two days, made this all seem extraordinary. My trip to Asia had began.
Japan is truly a unique place. Staying with locals has given me the chance to experience the culture first-hand. Bear with me as I explain some of the more noteworthy differences.
The Japanese are some of the most polite people I’ve ever met. You are always treated with the utmost respect, whether you’re on the subway, in a grocery store, or just on the street. Everyone smiles and bows and just generally respects each other. If someone bumps into you, they’ll typically stop and say they’re sorry. As you leave a cafe, you’re sure to hear from at least one person (but usually several), “Arigato gozaimas”, “Thank you very much.”
The Japanese are extremely orderly. It almost seems too orderly when you see it in action. This is best seen on the public trains in Tokyo. When waiting for the train, people line up at certain marked spots spaced evenly to where the doors will open for the train. So rather than people standing horizontal to the train, covering the edge of the platform where the train will arrive, the lines are perpendicular to the train as people wait their turn to get in the train. Traffic jams in the public transport are all very systematic. At one point, a large mass of people were waiting to get up and out of the platform. People naturally formed three distinct, perfect lines as everyone exited the station very slowly. There was a small part of the stairway that was marked for people to come down. However, everyone stayed in the stairway marked for people to go up, rather than jumping over to the unused part for people coming down.
Central heating is almost unheard of, but the Japanese focus on things that matter. It’s rare to find a house with central heating in Tokyo. Instead, they use space heaters and mounted wall heaters. This means they keep just certain rooms warm and leave others cold. And they definitely get cold, as temperatures get below 32 degrees F (0 degrees C) in Tokyo. So the living area may be room temperature, but you may be able to see your breath from the cold air in the upstairs bedroom. But they do some things that make the winters bearable. Electric blankets are used as an efficient way to sleep warmly. One of my favorites is the heated toilet seat. Walking into a cold bathroom is not fun until you find the toilet seat pleasantly warm. There is also a magical coffee table called a kotatsu. On the underside of the coffee table is a heater. Long, thick blankets are placed over the table, spreading out over the sides. This allows you to sit on the floor with your legs under the heated coffee table, which is perfect on a cold winter night. To top it all off, even the metro train seats are all heated!
The Japanese know how to bathe and relax. In a typical Japanese house, there is both a shower and a bath tub, side by side. After showering with soap and shampoo, you jump into the bath tub, which has been heated to anywhere from 100 degrees to 110 degrees (38 to 44 degrees C). This is the cleansing process. The funny part is that the water is not replaced after one person bathes. An entire family may use the same bath water over the course of the night. I did not have the chance to experience an onsen while in Tokyo, which is a public bath used for cleansing. I plan to try one of those when I return to Japan in May.
Efficiency, Efficiency, Efficiency. Everything in Japan seems to be done right and to maximize resources. Trains are almost always right on schedule, down to the minute. If a train is going to arrive at its destination two minutes late, the train conductor will apologize over the loud speaker. The used water from the bath, which I mentioned above, is automatically used in the laundry machine. The bathroom light only stays on if your turn the door handle while closing the door; if you just push the door shut without turning the handle, the light goes off. It’s the little things like these that show the Japanese efficient mind-set.
Most things in Tokyo are not as expensive as you’ve probably heard, at least with the current exchange rate of $1: 104 Yen. I had read many different lists over the years which always put Tokyo as one of the most expensive cities in the world. However, I found it very affordable. A filling lunch can cost as cheap at 500 yen, or about $5, including tax (and tipping is not customary). A train ticket in the city costs around 200 yen, or $2. Groceries tend to be a bit more expensive than the US, and clothing seems to be much pricier. However, for the purposes of a normal tourist, things are not quite as expensive as one might think, especially with the current exchange rate.
Between the food, the people, and the way of life, Japan is one-of-a-kind. Nowhere else will you find everything so efficient and orderly and such a mix between old traditions and new trendy ways. From the thousand year old Buddhist ceremonies, and the enormous electronics stores featuring the latest in technology, Japan has a bit of everything.