Just a brief interlude from our reports on actual travel to two items of note with regard to travel in Japan. Notably, toilets and gaijin.Toilets
There was a request in our fan mail for actual visual documentation of rising Japanese toilet seats. This is a true phenomena...In fact, we have a whole article
from yesterday's Japan Times on the technology behind luxury toilets. I think there is a good chance the ToTo museum just made it to our itenerary. Now, as many of you know, I like privacy in the loo, and Japan has made it a point of providing decadent bathrooms with following enclosed toilet areas and totally hands free everything (auto flush, auto privacy noise maker, auto deoderizer, auto soap and water dispensers, auto hand dryers...). In sharp contrast, the traditional Japanese toilet is a ceramic bowl in the ground that you awkwardly squat over facing the flush/piping. The problem for me and Aron, of course, is our size and lack of flexibility make these toilets incredibly hard to use and pretty nasty. Thankfully most of Japan seems to be on the way to full saturation of Western style, warm seat, highly advanced toilets. In fact, on our hike in the Nakasendo, there was a heated toilet and running water. Right out there in the middle of nowhere! Why couldn't yesterday's ryokan have that?!Gaijin
It is pretty common knowledge that most people in Japan are Japanese. It is therefore the case that the non Japanese black, white or Hispanic person stands out like a sore thumb. As noticeable as the gaijin is to the Japanese, they are also quite noticeable by fellow gaijin, and this has become something of a problem for Aron and me. Obviously we have something in common in that we all stand out from our native hosts, but still. These people are strangers to us too, and there's a good chance they are from some country that doesn't speak English. It is really awkward- do we talk to them? Say hi in English? Ignore them like they are just some stranger on the street? Run up and greet them happily as they can truly sympathize with our isolated existence? So far, we've alternated between avoiding eye contact and casually approaching with English overtures. We met a man traveling alone from Montreal and two software engineers from Georgia. The sad fact of Lonely Planet travel is that everyone else with a copy of the guide is going to the same hotel and tourist sites as you, so you are bound to run into them over and over again. It is really quite strange.
In Takayama, we have seen about 20 gaijin. We overheard a conversation on the bus between an Israeli couple and an Australian couple. We like to guess why some of these people are here. My gaijin identity crisis continues unabated...
Of course, the flip side of the gaijin-observing is the gaijin-being. First of all, Hillary's Japanese is stupendous. Although she fully fits the Japanese model by being very modest, her Japanese is better than all but the most studious of the Japanese folks we've run into. Now, that said, there are still many Japanese (men mostly) who insist on talking to her in English. Worse, there was the woman behind us in line when we were trying to get information who insisted on reading our English tourism pamphlet to us. Despite all the western tourists, we still get lots of stares, and kids particularly enjoy saying 'konichiwa' or 'hello' to us over and over and over again. The Lonely Planet describes the phenomenon accurately when it says that the Japanese are incredibly friendly and helpful, always willing to make an effort to make you feel comfortable (ask Hillary about the guy who she accidently had fold laundry for her) , yet you also have this sneaking suspicion that they are supremely ethnocentric (they are, after all, decended from the gods). Of course, I don't think this is any different than anywhere else in the world, and in large part I attribute it to barriers of language. Japanese is very difficult (read: my wife is very smart), and when you can't communicate clearly, you inevitably come off as confused or slow or something. Since few gaijin take the time to learn to speak (and even fewer take the time to read - the written language is stunningly complex), it's no wonder that the Japanese feel some ethnocentrism. It's no different than American ethnocentrism (which is blossiming in recent months, I might add).