A Japanese Tea House
When you travel, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to afford, I believe it is important to relate to the people of the places you visit. Through my parents and subsequent hard work I’ve had the opportunity to do some interesting travelling. I remember travelling to a country, which no longer exists, in 1974 – Yugoslavia. I saw graffiti that consisted of ‘Viva Tito’, the then president, and bullock drawn carts in an interior that boasted no tarmacked roads. However, the most considerable difference from my English culture had to be in a place that from the outside is seemingly much westernised – Japan.
The trip was set up in such a way that we would meet the ordinary Japanese people rather than folk working to service tourism. We were off to sing in a concert in Osaka with the Osaka Festival Chorus and therefore were teamed up with Japanese chorus members who supported us for the week we were there. As one would expect they were acting as hosts and therefore were incredibly kind but this was where we found the first difference between our cultures. We were presented with gifts. Unlike here in England where visitors take gifts to hosts!
Travelling round Osaka and the environs, we also visited Nara, Kyoto and Hiroshima, we were immediately aware of the kindness in every situation. There were few Japanese people who spoke English and all of their signs were in the native language so using the tube and finding appropriate banks was a bit of a problem.
I needed the post office because that was the only place where I could obtain cash on my Visa credit card, they use Mastercard, and post offices were the only place where they were accepted. I searched without success then saw a policeman and, with much sign language and flourishing of bank notes and the Visa card, he eventually directed me with hand signals to the nearest office. I followed his instructions and was confronted by a multi -storey car park! To my astonishment I felt a tap on my shoulder and there was the policeman. He’d followed me to ensure that I arrived at my required destination and indicated that the Post Office was in a parade of shops beneath the car park.
This kindness was indicative of how all the people we met treated us and each other but in fact it was more respect than kindness. That was the key factor that to me seemed to pervade life in Osaka. I am not naïve enough to believe that they don’t have some problems with delinquency and anti-social behaviour, after all they have their own mafia – the Yakuza, but in their dealings with each other they are demonstrably respectful.
The signs of respect are there for all to see. If you travel on their underground or Shinkansen (bullet train), guards, on entering and leaving carriages, bow to the people sat therein. Many shop doorways, particularly eating houses, have short curtains under which you must bow when entering. It is the custom that you bow lower to someone in a superior position or status than you, but everyone bows.
A second cultural difference is in the people’s almost obsessive/compulsive nature. The parts of the country that we saw were spotlessly clean and that included the temporary shelters of homeless people! Just outside the opulent ANA hotel where we stayed was a bridge crossing the river. The bridge provided a place for the homeless to set up their shelters but there was no mess or filth and during the day the temporary dwellings were folded away.
Overall the visit to Japan was amazing, the culture and its history is fascinating. The effort the people put into anything that they build or produce is bordering on the OCD but the outcomes are laced with quality.
The final night in the country, after our successful performance, was celebrated with a reception where the Japanese choir acted as our hosts. As a matter of interest we sang Benjamin Britten’s ‘War Requiem’ in English which the Japanese chorus had learned by heart. They held books so that we didn’t lose face!
The reception room was decorated, including ice sculptures, the food and drink plentiful and they served us personally but we were given a warning. If your glass or plate is empty, the hosts will refill it without being asked so if you’ve had enough to drink, leave some liquid in your glass!