KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We added Japan to our agenda for Year Two when we received an invitation to visit our friend, Amit Dutt, in Tokyo. Amit had just been posted to work at the Canadian Embassy in the Trade Section and was assigned a large three-bedroom townhouse in the heart of the city. With an invitation of that nature, from a young man who is almost a nephew, how could we refuse? Little did he know that we would plan to stay for two long weeks and bring along another guest as well.
Amit is the grandson of Anil’s father’s best friend. I met the senior Mr. Dutt when I arrived in Patna, India for our wedding in 1974. Mr. Dutt spoke exceptionally good English and sat beside me at the wedding an explained all the rituals to me. We became fast friends during the month we spent in Patna following the wedding. Mr. Dutt’s daughter Rani happened to be living in Edmonton with her husband and three small children and we also became friends when we returned to start married life in Edmonton.
Amit is the youngest of those three children and was just approaching his first birthday when we met his parents for the first time.
Over the intervening years, we have stayed close friends and Amit and his sisters Sangeeta and Alka have always called us Aunty and Uncle. I can’t imagine being closer to them if they were blood relatives. For this reason, it was particularly sweet to receive an invitation to visit Amit in Tokyo and we felt comfortable descending upon him and his bachelor lifestyle.
Amit was thoughtful enough to send us written directions to his townhouse along with a screen shot of a map in Japanese. We followed his instructions to take a taxi from outside the train station and I sat up front with my laptop on my knees, the screen open to the map and the directions. I’m not sure what the taxi driver thought of this arrangement, but he seemed pleased to not have to deal with these foreigners who couldn’t speak a word of Japanese. We cruised along through wet streets of the city and before long we were able to spot some of the landmarks that Amit had described. He noted that most taxis have trouble spotting the small lane where his townhouse is located, but his instructions were excellent and we managed to find the turn and cheered when we recognized the address. I learned later that Japanese addresses are notoriously hard to find, even for the locals.
Amit was at an Embassy function but had left a key under the mat and we piled in with our luggage, relieved to be at the right place by the right time. We were astounded by the luxury of the accommodations provided to Embassy personnel, it was hard not to pinch ourselves and not think we were in Vancouver by mistake. In most cases, Embassy personnel are posted overseas with their families, and long experience has proven that if the families are not comfortable and happy with the living accommodations, the Embassy employee will not be happy with the posting and it will impact the success of the work overseas. For that reason, much of the accommodation in Tokyo is built to Canadian specifications and therefore the homes for Canadian Embassy employees are much larger than the homes that Japanese nationals are used to living in. Amit was fortunate to be assigned a townhouse with three bedrooms because that was the most appropriate housing available for him when he arrived. He counts himself very lucky and loves living in the Harajuku district within walking distance of work.
We counted ourselves equally lucky to be his first overseas guests. Hopefully we didn’t wear him out as he has other guests arriving over the coming summer months. The weather was a little on the cool side when we arrived but as soon as the holiday weekend was over, the sun burst through and much of the remainder of our visit was warm and sunny with brilliant blue skies. This gave us ample opportunity to explore Amit’s neighbourhood on foot and to strike out and see other parts of Tokyo and to take the train to the seaside city of Kamakura, near Yokohama.
The first thing that strikes a visitor about Tokyo is the exceptional cleanliness of the city. We had been amazed at how clean China is, but in Tokyo it’s not an exaggeration to say you could eat off the streets and back lanes. There is no litter anywhere we visited and this is surprising as garbage cans are almost non-existent along the sidewalks and busy intersections. Amit had warned us of this fact; he told us that the Japanese are experts at managing household waste and that any litter one generates while out walking is usually carried home to be disposed of with the family waste. Recycling is a serious fact of life for Tokyoites and there are small trucks coming almost every day to pick up the different types of recycling and garbage from homes and offices. One of the most surprising things I saw along Tokyo streets was ‘smoking stations’. These are located at busy intersections and there were usually several people standing around them having a cigarette. When they are finished, they place the butts in a stainless-steel box for disposal, one never sees a stray cigarette butt anywhere on the street.
The people in Tokyo tend to dress very formally, at least those that are heading to work every day. The men are all dressed in black business suits, with white shirts and sober ties. Traditionally, Japanese men worked their entire lives for one company, their job was guaranteed for life. They are often referred to as ‘salarymen’ and their lives are hardly their own. After a long day at the office, they are expected to go out drinking with their boss most evenings and their wives are expected to run the homes and raise the children. Amit pointed out that the Japanese are notoriously sleep-deprived, and we witnessed this as we moved about the city on the subways and trains. Anyone sitting down on the train seats seemed to instantly fall asleep. Somehow, they seemed to know when their stop was approaching, as they would wake up just in time to get off at their station. We were fortunate to be able to travel around the city during the quieter times of the day, but I am told that during rush hour, the trains and subways are packed and even people standing manage to catch some sleep while they travel to and from work.
There are certainly a large number of foreigners working and visiting Tokyo, but we didn’t see many on the streets. The streets appear to be crowded when you look down the sidewalk, but one never gets a sense of congestion. Even when there are crowds, the people seem to flow along as if they were schools of fish, passing one another without ever getting in each other’s way. We had become used to walking on the left side of the sidewalks and staircases, but we were constantly moving to the right depending on where people were approaching us from. Loads of people ride bicycles in Tokyo and most of them ride on the sidewalks. We were surprised that they never seem to use a bell to warn you that they were right behind you and wanted to pass. They seemed to patiently wait for you to be aware of them and then move to one side. I was surprised to see that most people don’t lock their bicycles up when they park them in front of their homes. There is very little crime in Japan and no one would ever think to take the property of other citizens.
The strangest thing we noticed is that the people in Japan almost never make eye contact with you. This was not the case if you were being served in a restaurant but in everyday life, interactions are rather formal and deep bows and formal greetings and thank yous are the order of the day. When we travelled on the bullet train from Osaka to Tokyo, we were startled to see the ticket conductor enter the carriage, make a deep bow and then announce that he would be passing through to check tickets. Once he was finished, he returned to the front of the carriage and made another deep bow before turning and moving on to the next carriage. We became pretty good at greeting people with a ‘Ko-nee-chi-wa’ and a small bow, but I found the extended formal ‘thank you’ very hard to get my tongue around so I resorted to a little bow and a simple ‘Domo-ari-gato’. If we were staying for any length of time, I feel it would be really necessary to work on some of the greetings and counting. In such a formal society, it would be really rude to not make an effort at learning the most common courtesies.
We have now visited quite a few countries in Asia and we were struck by the dramatic differences we noticed in Japan. Thailand is known as the ‘Land of Smiles’ and the people are warm, friendly and very easy going. In China, we struggled with the lack of English and the fact that few Chinese have had the opportunity to interact with foreigners. However, when we did say ‘Ni-hao’ all hesitation seemed to disappear and we were greeted with smiles and a strong sense of genuine warmth. In Japan, people are so very formal with each other that it is a little more difficult to feel welcome and included, but in a couple of instances where we managed to get past the formalities, we found individuals to be gracious and friendly. Amit tells us that all students learn English in school but have had little practice at speaking with foreigners and are very shy about making mistakes. Once I knew this, I was less hesitant to speak English to the clerks in the shops and I found them willing to make an attempt to communicate with us in our language. This is one of the most wonderful things about travelling, once some of the initial barriers are lowered, people are usually interested, interesting and friendly. It just makes us willing to meet more and more people from different backgrounds and cultures. Sometimes I wonder if we’ll ever be able to settle down again.