This is my sixth visit to Japan, and it remains an astonishing cultural experience. We are currently on the bullet train to Osaka, and the ticket conductor has just bowed as he entered the carriage. As did the person who came to hand out hot towels. Or the waiters as they move from the kitchen into a restaurant. Even if there is no-one there to witness it. It is as if they respect the physical space in the same way that they respect each others’ personal space.
While we waited on the platform in Tokyo, the cleaners gathered on the platform prior to cleaning the train (God forbid that the carriage should not be spotless, with every chair swivelled to face the front as the train changes direction). Before going to work, they gathered in a circle and bowed to each other. It may well be that each of these actions are performed automatically without thought (although it does not appear so), but even so they display a degree of presence. An awareness of gathering with your fellow workers. An awareness of your surroundings as you move from one room to another. An awareness of the other guests in the hotel.
Perhaps we notice most those things which we ourselves lack – as I am quite capable of doing all of the above in a world of my own with my mind on other things.
I am sure that under the surface Japan has its problems like any society, but there is so much to admire. A real privilege to be here.
Which begs the question of why, given all the above and some passable pictures of Nagoya Castle, have I also included a dumb snapshot of some cleaners waiting to board the train?! Because I was struck by the uniforms. Pink for the women and Blue for the men. Has this come from us in the west, or is it universal? Even in the west, it is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the 1850s I believe it was as common to see the reverse – blue for a girl and pink for a boy. My father, in formal attire with suit and tie, often wears a pink shirt (and he may be old, but he is not that old!). You frequently see the veneer of various western customs, such as Christmas decorations, but they tend to be presented in a uniquely Japanese way.
We are almost exactly halfway through this tour. Time to savour it while I can.