Wednesday, April 29, 2015

My parents' impressions of Japan

Before they left I asked my parents 4 simple questions about their experiences in Japan.  Here are my impressions of their responses (note:  This was not a formal interview so these are not their exact words but rather some rough notes that I jotted down.  They both read this blog so I'm sure they will correct any grievous errors.)  These are their thoughts on Japan and I tried to accurately convey their thoughts.  It was really interesting to see Japan through the eyes of someone new again.  Many of the things that I now find so normal struck them as odd or interesting.  It's funny how much we adapt when living someplace without always realizing it.

What did you like about visiting Japan? 
  • Both of my parents were impressed by the cleanliness of Japan.  Despite is large and dense population it stays pretty clean.  My dad also noted the lack of graffiti in the cities and a general respect for public places.
  • My mom really liked the public (onsen) style baths with the large, very hot baths
  • Both parents liked the landscaping and were impressed with the parks, gardens and even the yards around local houses.  They were amazed that in front of a junkyard would still be a row of immaculately trimmed trees and flowers.
  • Both of my parents noted that Japan felt like a very safe place to travel.
  • My dad really liked the availability of mass transit.  It sounds like they initially had some difficulties figuring out the trains but got the hang of them after a little practice.
  • The food.  Both parents found some Japanese styles of food very appealing but they also both had a couple of things they really didn't care for.  The did appreciate the freshness of Japanese food and also the availability of western styles of food, particularly where there were a lot of tourists.  Both also really enjoyed Sake.  I think they are going to try and find some good Nihonshu (rice wine) in the US because they really enjoyed drinking it here.
  • When it came to interacting with Japanese people, they felt that most people at least tried to be helpful and were very polite.  Manners seem to be important to Japanese people and people seem to have a very orderly society.
  • I think most of all, the enjoyed the exotic feel of Japan.  It feels more foreign than any place they have previously visited.
 What didn't you like about visiting Japan?
  • Smoking.  There is a lot more cigarette smoking in Japan than the US and often there is no non-smoking section or it is difficult to get a non-smoking hotel room.
  • Ambient noise.  There are many loud things in Japan in public places from the street hawkers, to electronic advertisements in stores, loud jingles in stores, campaign vans and just the noise that comes with having so many people in a small space.  My mom also thought it was odd to have street vendors and hawkers in or very near temples and shrines as it seemed to distract from the serenity that should have been part of the experience.
  • My dad really didn't appreciate the humidity in Japan as it made his arthritis much more painful.
  • With hotels, both parents were amazed at how small some of the rooms were and both were glad they brought travel pillows with them as Japanese pillows can be very flat, rock hard or strange textures that feel like they are full of rice husks.  My dad also thought the beds were really firm.
  • My mom mentioned that she found it difficult to navigate without knowing a little Japanese.
What advice would you give to a friend who was planning on visiting Japan?
  •  Learn a little Japanese before you go but also be aware that not being able to read can be a formidable barrier.
  • Study the train system and train stations ahead of time.
  • Be prepared for rain, because it will rain!
  • If you go, stay a while.  It takes a bit to adjust to the new pace, sights, sounds and feel of things.  Once you adjust a little, it is much more enjoyable.
  • Learn a little about the manners, culture and try to be polite according to Japanese rules.  As a foreigner, you will stand out but with a little effort you can avoid being the "ugly American".
What did you find most surprising about Japan?
  •  My dad expected everything to taste like fish and was pleasantly surprised to find that was not the case.
  • The crowds in shopping areas, temples, train stations and the general density of the population.  I think the high percentage of usable land was something they didn't expect.  Japan is a small country with a lot of people but it's way smaller when you realize how much can't be built on or farmed because it is too steep or unstable which leaves every available flat space used for farming or buildings.
  • My mom found the lack of zoning to be odd.  On a single block you can see a temple, a high rise building, a falling down shack and a rice field and it's not at all unusual.
  • My dad noticed the lack of handicapped accessibility.  Some train stations only have stairs, no elevators or escalators.  In Japanese building codes, you don't need an elevator unless a building is more than 5 flights high.  It would be a difficult country to live in with a wheel chair.
  • The lack of public trash cans which (even more surprisingly) doesn't seem to cause a lot of public trash
  • The lack of cultural diversity (despite having socioeconomic diversity) and the lack of female equality
  • Both of my parents expected to find more people able/willing to speak some English especially given that most Japanese people spend at least 6 years studying English.

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