My first impression of Japan was exchanging Korean
Won for Japanese Yen in the ferry terminal. Asking for small bills, the Japanese teller apologetically handed me a stack of older notes. Through the intercom she told me that these bills were over 20 years, and that she was all out of the newer notes. Passing a white envelope beneath the glass I looked inside to see what 20-year-old year Japanese yen looked like.Besides a crease in the center, none of the bills seemed to have any wear, and were all clean and free of any grime or graffiti. To my eye Japanese money that had been in circulation for over 20 years looked brand new. Little did I know that I was about to step into a country unlike any of those I had recently traveled to.
In the west we struggle for what seems to come so naturally in Japan. Everyone seems to take responsibility for their own actions and understands their input on society. Public transportation, renewable energy and reusing products is prevalent throughout the land, and there is an underlying sense of unity never before observed. It is almost as if everyone is working together to make Japan their home. I my 4 days I have witnessed so many random acts of kindness and generosity that it has rubbed off on my nomadic every man for himself mentality. In the countryside I watch elders playing with grandkids or sitting on stools in the yard while their son and daughter rake leaves. There are many villages that have literally been left untouched, with the older style homes, sometimes several hundred years old, with porcelain tiled roofs covered in decades of moss. Simple yet elaborate wooden entryways and sliding glass doors. The beauty of the past blends so well with cultures minimalist lifestyle, that I have trouble distinguishing between the old and new customs.
In contrast to Korea, I am completely in awe of the landscape and scenery of the southern regions of Kyushu and Honshu. I feel as if I am cycling through the scenic epitome of Asia, watching thick fog encapsulate lush green bamboo forests, and clear turquoise water slowly wearing away large smooth boulders. But it’s not only beauty, there is so much style and taste that go into the architecture and landscape that really separates Japan from the other Asian countries.
Besides having no litter, there are literally no trash cans. “Trash” is a word that belongs to the developing world and to us in west, but in Japan all discarded items have their place; plastics, compostables, combustibles, recyclables, etc. Rubbish bins are segregated by material, and I have often had to carry around different forms of waste until finding the right place to dispose of it. In America we generally only have two bins; trash and recycling and most of the country can’t even get this right. I can’t count the amount of times in America that I have seen all sorts of materials dumped in to recycling bins.
Similar to Korea there is very little confrontation but I have found it very obvious as to what is considered “right and wrong behavior”. Since arriving I have broken the law many times (mostly at stop lights) and I often receive the look of shame. Nothing will be verbalized but you can quickly tell by the look that you are doing something that is considered wrong. It can best be described as a look that says “your parents didn’t teach you that what you are doing is wrong”. The look coupled with the fact that no one else breaks the rules has a drastic effect, and I will often now just wait for the signal to turn green.
Shopping is also an interesting experienced where one can literally enter and exit a store without paying. In grocery and large department stores the emergency exit in the rear of the store is often times another entrance with no employees or alarms to keep one from stealing. In parking lots discounted items are often displayed on large tables where items could easily vanish unnoticed. In the countryside the honor system is in full swing with unmanned fruit stands selling overly priced super fruits (extremely large apples and oranges) with yen collected in plastic jars, sometimes containing up to $100 dollars’ worth. As a boy my parents would always keep a jar full of money on the counter which was used for errands or trips to the grocery store. This seems to be very similar to how the system works over here; where trust is not an issue and there is more responsibility on the individual.
At first it was quite shocking, because I have not felt this way since leaving home. It is completely opposite western culture; where we need locked doors or policemen to stop us from breaking the law. Here everyone already knows what’s right and wrong.
So during my stay in Japan I will often have to remind myself not to be so “American” which will mean the following;
1. Don’t ride on the right side of the road (traffic drives on the left like India, Britain and France)
2. Remember all the lessons my parents taught me as a child.
Heading now towards Hiroshima, looking forward to visiting ground zero and seeing the peace memorial museum.
Touch base again soon!