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"The Nippon Chronicles"

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Thoughts and impressions from a recent trip to Japan.

To begin, let me say that overall, I found the Japanese people, both as a whole and individually, to be some of the warmest, extremely polite and most helpful people I have ever met.  I thank them for a wonderful experience.

My largest regret was that during six weeks in Japan, I was only allowed one entire day off.  To me this was the largest tragedy of the entire trip.  My employer on the other hand, came over for a week to seek potential clients for our uplink services.   On the third day of his trip, his host and guide had a family emergency and had to depart for northern Japan.  What did he do?  He immediately booked a flight out the next day.  If that had been my situation, you could have waved goodbye and jumped out of my way, (that or get trampled), as I disappeared into the Japanese sunset on my way to at least one adventure.

Here are a couple of examples of the warmth and compassion of some Japanese individuals. 

Gerald Shehy, my driver and partner in crime for this trip, was with me, riding the subway system in Tokyo on our one day off and we were thoroughly confused.  We knew we were on the correct train, but had only a vague idea which stop we needed to get off at in order to reach our planned destination.  We stepped off of the train in a station and were trying to make sense of the route map on the wall.  A young lady, probably noticing our perplexed head scratching, stopped and in halting English, much better than my smattering of Japanese, asked if she could be of assistance.  We explained our problem and she reached into her purse and pulled out a JR (Japanese Railway) transit system map.  She circled the stop we needed and handed us the map asking us to keep it and wished us a safe journey.  She then disappeared into the crowd once again.

Mr. Yamaguchi, a supervisor with OOCL, our shipping company, was one of the gentlemen I shared a van with on the way to Yokohama.  During the ride he inquired about my recreational plans while I was in Japan.  I explained that I wouldn't have much time, (read as no time), but that I was interested in seeing Mt. Fuji, riding a bullet train and seeing some of the local temples.  I also expressed a definite interest in finding some Bonsai exhibits.  About a week later there was a knock on my hotel room door and when I opened it a hotel employee was holding a thick manila envelope containing a wealth of tourist information that Mr. Yamaguchi had sent over to the hotel for me.  Then one afternoon a week later my cell-phone rang and it was Mr. Yamaguchi once again.   He told me that a very large exhibit of Bonsai were on display at Tokyo Station, the main rail transit station.  He told me where it was located in the North Hall and said it would be well worth the trip.  He went on to explain that the exhibit would end that evening and apologized to me for not having been aware of it sooner.  That afternoon, I grabbed a cab and arrived just as the judges were awarding plaques to the winners of the bonsai contest. There were about eighty exhibitors and you can see some photos of the arrangements on my photo website at: http://community.webshots.com/user/theuplinker

As with any culture, especially our own, there were problems with communications occasionally and, (mostly among the older population), a few individuals who suffered from extreme ethnocentricity.  For example a very few people would literally turn their backs on us so that they didn't have to acknowledge our existence.  This occurred most frequently on the mass transit systems.

I did find many things that were odd to me, but then I expected no less.   I had to weigh a lot of my impressions against what I consider the familiar.   Our perceptions are always based upon our past experiences and biased by our cultural heritage.  Having never traveled overseas I was amazed at how easy it was to communicate in a society so totally different from the one with which I am familiar.

I didn't understand a word they were saying.

Not so much on an individual basis, although this was true also.  What I found the most disconcerting was the fact that the background conversations, something I usually take for granted in my own language, were totally incomprehensible to me.  So much of what we experience during our daily lives is familiar and ignored and it is a bit of a shock when you realize that you are completely immersed in a totally different culture.  Even when I have visited Mexico and the French speaking areas of Canada, I haven't felt quite as isolated.  This is probably due to the fact that although I don't understand very much of the Mexican or French language, many of our words have the same roots in Latin.  I have also lived in Texas and Florida for quite some time, both of which have very large Hispanic populations.  This at least gave me a frame of reference with which to compare things.  Not so in Japan.  This is a country whose history, culture and language stretch back thousands of years, much further than my own countries history.  The Japanese have buildings that are far older than our civilization in America.  The possible exception being the cliff dwellings of the Native Americans of the desert southwest.  I may feel much the same if I ever have the chance to visit Europe.  I hope to find out one day soon.

Here are just a couple of things I'll always remember about the trip.

How expensive most things were.  People aren't kidding when they say Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world.  A cheap steak dinner would cost in the neighborhood of thirty to forty dollars on the low end and up to three hundred dollars on the high end.  Fast food places were slightly more expensive than the norm here in the U.S.  The cost of a McDonald's meal ran just a little under twice as expensive.   However, a pack of cigarettes would cost you 280 yen, slightly over two dollars, anywhere in the country whether it was in a vending machine or a store.

Vending machines on the streets that dispensed beer.  Yes, Beer!  We could never do that in this country.  We would have hoards of high school students, minors all, lined up before, during and after school.  I have no idea how we could trust our own youths, or some adults for that matter, not to abuse this kind of freedom.  It was quite a treat to be able to walk up to a vending machine on a hot day and insert some coins and obtain not a soft drink, but a real Japanese beer.   All I can say about this is WOW!

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No seagulls!

One of the strangest things I noticed in Japan was the total lack of seagulls.   Yes, seagulls.  During the entire six weeks I was in Japan I never saw the first seagull.  So what you say?  There are many people in the United States who have never seen a seagull on the wing.  The reason I found this situation highly unusual is that during the trip I spent approximately four weeks on the waterfront in several areas of the country and on both coastlines.  I found this particularly strange because although many people assured me that seagulls abound in Japan, and my uplink truck was adjacent to a location in Kobe, Japan named Seagull Harbor, not once did one of these usually obnoxious birds put in an appearance.  I saw many gannets and cormorants, along with other water fowl, but no seagulls.  Jokingly, I started referring to the local Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises as Kobe Fried Seagull.  It was either that or the seagulls knew something I didn't and had taken their raucous cries elsewhere.  That was a scary thought considering the reported sensitivity of the avian species to earthquakes and such.  I was standing in the midst of prime earthquake territory.

Flashing red lights!

One amusing little anecdote occurred on my second day in country.  We had to take delivery of the uplink truck from the OOCL docks in Tokyo and transport it to Yokohama.   A distance of about fifty kilometers.  OOCL is the shipping company who brought our uplink vehicles over from the U.S.A.  During the trip, Gerald drove the truck with a navigator aboard and I rode in a van with Mr. Chien, the President of OOCL, and several other OOCL employees.  Mr. Chien, is a thoroughly pleasant man of Chinese descent who was extremely helpful in explaining some of things I was seeing and experiencing for the first time.  The entire staff of the OOCL organization went out of their way to make sure we felt welcome and it was a pleasure to meet them.  More on this later.

During the trip to Yokohama, we had passed several locations which had flashing red lights out in front on poles.  Now being a Navy brat, male and single, I am fully aware of the significance of red-light districts in our cultures past and  I asked him what these flashing red lights were all about.  He explained that they marked local precinct offices of the Japanese police.  That brought a smile to my face and I explained the reason for my question.  This immediately broke the ice and after he had interpreted my explanation to those people in the van who didn't understand English, we all had a good laugh.  Visions of some drunk U.S. sailors walking up to a local precinct station looking for commercial company floating through our minds.

Once again I wish to thank the Japanese people for a rare and wonderful experience.  Enough for now, the chronicle will continue as I find the time to devote to it.

Thanks for stopping by.

James

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