Smile – You are in Japan

There are many things to say about Japan, and hopefully I can get my thoughts together to tell you the whole story of my two-week experience in this very peculiar country. Some things in Japan, though, leave you pretty much speechless, and so I decided to let the pictures lead the way in this blog post. From ludicrous advice on how to stay away from bears to the uncountable number of bows that the population performs to say thanks, Japan is a head-spinning, crazy world that gives one plenty of reasons to smile.

One is Hello Kitty, designed by Sanrio. Thanks to some exceptional Marketing efforts, it is impossible to cross Japan without being greeted by Hello Kitty in her various forms. Purses, books, laptops, pencils, umbrellas, huggable larger-then-human-size dolls – one could spend days going through the list of branded items available (apparently, there would be some 12.000 different products recorded yearly). Innocent though this cute cat character may look, she is an absolute killer business machine. There is, I was puzzled to find out, a Hello Kitty TV series, passenger aircrafts, MasterCard Hello Kitty debit cards, a very own production of wine, fine jewellery, restaurants and even (hang on) a Hello-kitty maternity hospital! Considering that it started out as a cartoon on rubber sandals, our Kitty has come a long way, giving birth to yet another category of fanatics. So we joyfully surrendered to the Hello Kitty moment too. When in Japan…

Interestingly mixed with the Japanese popular culture, the Japanese formality and uniformity comes as no surprise. Take the metro on a regular working day and you will inevitably experience that movie-like sensation of the Smith multiplying himself in Matrix Reloaded: everyone around looks the same and seems to be dressed the same way too. Until you spot the teenage girls, that is, wearing those short skirts in combination with kawaii stripped stockings and high heels that seem almost impossible to walk on that you previously only saw in manga. Japan is not short of paradoxes, which make it so difficult to pin down (let alone understand).

Leaders in advanced technology, they are some of the most conservative and traditional people on the planet. And they do like to queue. Traffic lights, metro, bus, train stations – Japanese people amaze me with their incredible, unique ability to wait in line patiently, weather conditions notwithstanding.

Umbrellas waiting to cross in Tokyo

But their ads in English alone make a trip to Japan worthwhile. Japanese people seem to be rather confident that what they say in English is also what they mean. Most of the times, it isn’t and the results are often funny. Do they deliberately refuse to work with English natives? I don’t know. But this country has a very rich collection of such advertisements and not once have we found ourselves puzzled by the riddles of the implied meaning which we sometimes took a long time to guess, only to burst out into laughter when the penny suddenly dropped. It’s a brain game. Here are just a few examples (though my pictures are of doubtful quality), of Japanese-English random communication that made us giggle time and time again.

In the lobby of a capsule hotel in Kyoto. I refused to be available and even less so for free.

We made a coffee break in Tokyo on a rainy day and like a proper Alice in Wonderland that I am, I was tempted by the cake. All the more so since I hadn’t tried one that gave me the Quality of Confidence before, something I very much need. Japanese also seem to be inventors of the “hand made taste” – intriguing, to say the least. It tasted nice, if you wonder.

When they are not open, they are close. They were also sorry, and so were we, because we were desperately hungry. Try feed yourself on tiny samples of miso soup, yakitori, soba, udon or rice for one week when you’ve been travelling with a heavy backpack and you are a voracious steak eater by nature

Toilets are highly entertaining in Japan –and I was happy to see how much room was granted to the ladies (Women, if you do not feel empowered in Japan…). Passed the door, you are confronted with a variety of buttons worthy of a space ship. It is always a guess and fortunately, you do not need sophisticated buttons to open the door, so you can get out at any time. To make things even more complicated, not one toilet has the same buttons as the other. Have fun and take your time.

In a cable car on the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route to see the famous Snow Corridor which for some reason attracts an impressive number of Asian tourists (only?). People travel far and wide to admire a heap of snow. And there is no such thing as too much cautiousness for the Japanese.

Too many things to do and too little time? The Japanese came up with an ingenious solution –the 25-hour-day. Only in Kyoto.

A touch of mystery hovers over what exact evil snow can do to us.

It’s a strange, but nice place, no doubt.

Japanese precision. It isn’t mentioned where you have to wait if you only want one ticket. Or if you simply have a question. But I suspect you have to queue up for anything anyway.

Japanese are extremely kind, friendly and helpful people who smile a lot. They are pleasantly inquisitive and always eager to talk to you for a long time (in their language) even when you cannot make it any clearer that you have no clue what they are saying. They are always happy to attend tourists, so count on them to put a big smile on your face.

And if a bottle of sake does not make you smile, then several will!

Needless to say, we were very happy with our discoveries and encounters. Japan is a wealth of unique experiences, and although it didn’t feel like it stole my heart then and there, looking back, it is now that I realise just how special and dream-like it all was.

Squinting our eyes to look Japanese – or the effect of sleeping on a tatami mat one too many

I take a bow myself and sing: Arigatou gozaimasuuuuu, Japan! I’m sure our paths will cross again.