How we unlocked the mysteries of the orient
Published 17/09/2011 | 05:00
When you find yourself travelling on a silent carriage of a high-speed train where you daren't eat or show your shoulders in public, then you know you can only be in Japan.
I was travelling with three friends, one of whom had been living there for more than a year, so we were hoping that with her by our side, cultural faux-pas would be kept to a minimum.
But even simple activities, such as crossing the street, meant a whole new approach. This is particularly true in Tokyo where you need nerves of steel to cross Shibuya Crossing, the busiest traffic intersection in the world. When the lights turn red, they do so at the same time in every direction, and thousands of pedestrians surge onto the street from all sides in a scene of organised chaos known as the 'Tokyo scramble'.
In Hiroshima too, crossing the road was an experience, with even the smallest streets having traffic controllers. Even if there isn't a car in sight, locals won't cross until they have permission. This rigid following of the rules is a national trademark. But the flip-side is a culture of trust, with bikes left unlocked, and as four girls travelling, we never once felt unsafe.
Another seemingly straightforward activity -- dining out -- was not as clear cut as you'd expect. On our first day in Tokyo we went to a local restaurant. Guided by pictures on the menu, we tried to order but the waiter kept shaking his head.
As there was no-one else in the restaurant, we couldn't understand his reluctance to take our order. After many gestures, we eventually established that we had to order and pay through a vending machine first and give the ticket to the waiter.
Food experiences generally baffled us. The nation's favourite beverage, green tea, comes in endless guises such as green tea bagels, green tea ice-cream and green tea Kit Kats. On the streets, you're not allowed eat in public, unless it's ice-cream, and in restaurants, staff will happily dash after you to return a tip.
By day, the locals seem so serene, yet after dark, they reveal a very different side. Their favourite social pastime -- karaoke -- gives them a chance to let their hair down and we saw everyone from elderly couples to singletons going into booths and singing their hearts out without a hint of Dutch courage in their systems. Putting our embarrassment aside, we finally joined them for a very memorable rendition of 'Bohemian Rhapsody'.
In pretty Kyoto, a city of 1,600 temples, the old traditions of Japan come to life. On the narrow streets adorned with wooden teahouses and paper lanterns, you see geishas dash from one appointment to the next, striking with their white faces and colourful kimonos.
We stumbled upon our first Zen Garden (Shosei-en) in Kyoto. Filled with ponds, shrines, and ornamental bridges, it spanned more than eight acres and was a haven away from the more touristy parts of the city.
We had a similar feeling of escape when we stayed in our first ryokan (a traditional inn) in Osaka. We were given kimonos and green tea upon arrival, and the room, which was sparse, had pillows filled with rice, in theory to aid sleep, but in practice, not quite. Beds were the one home comfort we always hankered after.
Despite the culture shock it induces, Japan is one of the most captivating countries in the world. The language barrier can be tough, but the people are so hospitable, you'll always get your point across.
Six months since the tsunami, their response reflects the resilience of this stoic nation but they need all the help they can get. If you've taken Japan off your must-see list, now is the time to put it back on.