A few final thoughts about Japan:
Cleanest bathrooms in the world
Not every toilet was the fancy washlet kind, but every single toilet I encountered was super clean and not smelly. There were no unflushed toilets either, in contrast to my experience just about every day at work. (What’s up with that anyway?) It sounds like an exaggeration, but clean and non-smelly toilets really do make traveling (and life in general) a lot more pleasant. Oh, and there were so many public toilets in Japan that I was never more than 5 minutes away from one. Another bonus for a small-bladdered person such as myself.
On the creepy mix of cute things + sex
I won’t say too much about this, except I think that it’s really odd. It’s like the culture is ashamed of acknowledging sex, so they cloak it in pre-adolescent ways, such as in manga (comic) porn.
On Japanese design
One thing I figured out is that Japanese are really good at designing things, even though it might take you a while to figure it out. For instance, they sell a lot of rice balls in Japan — triangular shaped pieces of rice usually with fish or with pickled plum, wrapped in seaweed. To prevent the seaweed from getting soggy, there is a piece of plastic between the seaweed and the rice. The ingenious part is that there is a three-part unraveling of the plastic that perfectly unwraps the rice ball — sort of like that magic trick of pulling out the tablecloth without moving the place setting. All you have to do is follow the numbers and arrows. Unfortunately, the first time I tried to unwrap one of these suckers, I did it the brute force way, by pulling it apart at the seams of the plastic wrap. Halfway through, I saw the little numbers and followed the instructions. In my head, I imagined a Lolcats picture with the caption: “Unwrapping riz ballz: UR DOING IT WRONG.”
You might say that Japanese culture (actually, most East Asian culture) is built on the foundation of shame. Shame is a strong motivating force — you must fit in and succeed. In some ways, shame can be positive as it structures society into a functional unit with shared goals. For instance, not once did I see anyone talk loudly on their cell phones in public because that is considered shameful. Also, as a young, healthy person, sitting in a seat in the front section of the bus is shameful, even if the seat is empty, because it is reserved for the elderly and handicapped. These are unwritten rules that everyone follows out of consideration. On the flip-side, shame can also be negative. Not blending in (being overweight, homosexual, loud/obnoxious) will bring shame upon you and your family. In the extreme, shame results in things like kamikazes (WWII fighter pilots, not the alcoholic shooter), students committing suicide over a failed test, and suppression of individuality and freedom of expression. I appreciate the structure and organization of Japanese culture, but I love the freedom to express yourself in United States even more.
On a lighter note, one can also exploit the shame for his/her personal gain. EO told me a story about when she accidentally got on a reserved train without buying a reserved ticket. She said she acted shamed enough that the train ticket person eventually let her remain in her seat. Score!
On Being an Asian vs. Western tourist in Japan
One interesting observation I made was when I was comparing my experience to those of my Caucasian peers, both at the hostel and at the conference. Whereas I found it difficult and surprising that not many Japanese people spoke English, they often had the opposite experience. They said a lot of locals would approach them, hoping to practice their English. The simplest explanation, of course, is that I am Asian while they are not, and so my appearance leads to the assumption that I speak Japanese (or at least, I don’t speak English). At first, I was annoyed by this, but then I realized that I would much rather blend in, and not have people stare and take photos of me, than to be able to speak English with a handful of Japanese. Also, I knew how to read enough Japanese to get by, so it wasn’t like I was completely lost.
On traveling alone
This was my first trip abroad all by my lonesome, which I admit was initially a little scary. However, I ended up really enjoying it. A friend asked me what revelations I had about traveling alone, and I was sort of at a loss. None of my observations about solo travel are really “revelations;” in fact, they are completely obvious. For instance, it was very freeing since I created my own itinerary and I got to do what I wanted to do. There was none of the inevitable tension or annoyance that happens when you travel with someone else. On the flipside, I didn’t have anyone to share experiences with. Meals were especially boring, after the initial picture-taking and observations about the food. For these reasons, I’m glad I stayed in a hostel, because it was the best of both worlds where I got to do things on my own as well as hang out and socialize with people when I wanted to.
I had a great time in Japan, and I definitely want to go back! Who’s coming with me next time?