Tag Archives: Japanese Etiquette

Forty for Ninety

“According to this,” I read to Lynn, my captive audience on the bed across the way, “Japanese are so accustomed to a specific Japanese way of doing things that they developed an extreme sensitivity to any deviation from the norm.

“Unexpected or nonstandard behavior not only disrupted the cultural imperative of harmony, it was extremely stressful and could be dangerous to the individuals concerned.

“Get a load of this—when Japanese businessmen first started coming to the west in the 50s and 60s, they found our ‘casual, chaotic’ behavior so shocking that some of them had to be whack-evac’d!”  That’s a term used in the NGO world, along with medivac and alc-a-vac.

“It could have been the large helpings of meat that westerners served them at every meal, too, it says here.  Japanese weren’t used to it.”

“And—this explains a lot!—Japanese behavior is so predictable that they almost have telepathy among themselves.”  I turned to Lynn to make sure she was listening.  “The Japanese … point to this ‘telepathy’ as one of the cultural characteristics that made their culture superior.”

“Interesting,” Lynn said. “What about dinner?  It’s getting on for six o’clock.”

“Want to take a cab somewhere?”

“But where?

“I’ve got the name of a restaurant written down somewhere, but I think it’s only open for lunch.  We could walk across the street to the convenience store and buy instant noodles.”

Lynn gave me a look that said “I am not an instant-noodles-in-the-room kind of person.”

“Let’s investigate the rooftop lounge with the $40 beers,” she suggested.  “That can’t be right.”

And it wasn’t.  But first, we stood looking at the board, working up courage to mount the stairs to the lounge.  What if a beer really did cost $40?  Should we ask first, prepared to walk out?  Would they feel complained against and maybe commit suicide?

To be clear, I don’t think suicide is a joking matter.  My own dad died of suicide (probably).  But I was quite certain no one was really going to commit suicide because tourists declined to pay $40 for a beer.

At the top of the stairs, the maître d’ handed us a menu on which was written in English, “All You Can Drink in 90 Minutes Set Meal, Y40000.”  Lynn and I exchanged excited glances.  It wasn’t a beer for $40, it was all you could drink and a meal for $40.

“Yes, this will do,” Lynn told the maître d’. We were led out onto a lawn with panoramic views of the city.  A few other tables were filled with Japanese.  Glasses of wine arrived with large plates of what I can only describe as Japanese tapas.  Piano music wafted from inside the lounge with great old hits like “As Time Goes By,” and “What a Wonderful World.”

The waiter returned after a few minutes and asked if we wanted anything else.

“More wine?” I held up my empty glass.  He looked a bit taken aback, but brought refills.

“They didn’t see us coming,” Lynn said.  We ate, drank, and watched the pinks and oranges of the sky turn into purple, blue, and black as we had one of our long discussions.  We talked about Richard’s mum, who had died recently, aged 99.  That led to talk about my mother and Lynn’s relations who are in their “twilight years.”

“It’s so depressing,” I commented.  “I need another glass of wine.”  This time the waiter looked amused as he refilled our glasses.

“I think he’s resigned himself to us, as westerners, being able to drink up the stock,” Lynn said.  “They’re probably placing bets in the kitchen on how many glasses we’ll drink.”

Lynn told a story about conducting a workshop at an employee retreat in Poland when she worked for Nokia; let’s just say it involved a different workplace drinking norm than in the UK or US.

All the other guests had left and our 90 minutes was up.”

Back in the room I read that we should have held our glasses with both hands as they were refilled.  “We missed our chance to demonstrate our exceptionally good manners and character.

“We’ve got two more nights to prove we’re not barbarians.”

Great Shakes n Buddha

The Okumura Commemorative Museum is sponsored by the Okumura Company, which makes earthquake protection systems for buildings.  This was the first of half a dozen tiny specialty museums we visited in Nara, which were one of the reasons I loved the city.

After being strapped into the simulator, the man below held up the card to the right and explained that I was about to experience the great such-and-such earthquake of 18–.  The chair shook violently sideways, slowed, shook again, etc.  He pointed to another location on the map and told me which one I would sample next.  This went on, with Lynn standing by giving me a devilish look.  She has done earthquakes—in particular aftershocks in the wake of the 2005 Boxing Day Tsunami in Indonesia, where she worked for Oxfam.

The simulator was fun, like a carnival ride.  We were all laughing.  But you could imagine, if you were in your home when the jolts started and your ceiling was collapsing, it wouldn’t be fun at all.

Next our guide demonstrated how Okumura systems protect high-rise buildings.  The building on the left swayed back and forth precipitously when he pushed the “Earthquake” button, while the one on the right barely moved.  My very imperfect understanding is that builders employ something like ball bearings at the base of new construction.  When an earthquake hits, these buildings roll with the movement instead of resisting it—like the old analogy of a willow and an oak in a storm—one bends and survives, one is rigid and topples over.

Nara is famous for deer.  On our first foray from the hotel, we passed a reservoir and I pointed to the water’s edge.  “Look! A deer!  I wonder if we’ll see any more—I’d better take a picture.”

As our vista opened up onto the main park we could see gangs of deer everywhere, like Canadian Geese in a Minnesota park.

Vendors sold what looked like large Catholic communion wafers for tourists to feed to the deer.  The deer were aggressive; jostling each other, lunging at the wafers, and giving an occasional nip to any tourist who didn’t fork over a wafer fast enough.

Time for the main event—Todaiji Temple.  “It’s the largest wooden building in the world,” Lynn read from her guide book.  Yes, she often carries guidebooks in her capacious handbag.  Selfishly, this is convenient for me; she lugs the weight around and is a handy reference.

Todaiji from a distance appeared to be computer generated, it was so immense.

We had been walking for almost an hour in the heat so we rested on a bench in the shade before tackling the interior, which was heaving with school groups.

“The great Buddha is 15 metres high,” Lynn read.  I tried to do the math in my head but just now Googled it.  That’s almost 50 feet high.

“Another popular attraction is a pillar with a hole in its base the same size as the Daibutsu’s nostril. It is said that those who can squeeze through this opening will be granted enlightenment in their next life.”

“Charming,” I remarked as we hoisted ourselves onwards.  Near the entrance, Lynn snapped me ringing the bell.

A witch-like Bodhisattva glowered nearby.

Inside, the Bodhisattva of wisdom and memory sat to the left of the Great Buddha.  This may have explained all the school groups.

The kids seemed to be having more fun goofing around than praying for success in their exams.

Here they are posing before the Bodhisattva who presides over the six realms of rebirth.

This solicitation of funds to rebuild Notre Dame was touching.

These looked like murals but were statues guarding the Great Buddha.

We slogged back to the hotel, telling ourselves we would go out later for dinner.  On our respective beds, I interrupted whatever Lynn was doing on her phone to read from the “Etiquette Guide to Japan” I had purchased in Kyoto.

“Why didn’t I buy this a month ago?” I asked myself. “Even the mildest criticism, if not followed by apologies, could cause a Japanese person to commit suicide.

“I hope I haven’t left a trail of death in my wake!”