Japan Trip Report

Copyright 2000 Kaitlin Duck Sherwood
My husband Jim and I went to Japan from 24 Mar 2000 to 3 April 2000. Jim was there on business; I was taking advantage of his frequent flyer miles and company-paid hotel.

I'm not going to talk much about the things you probably already have heard about Japan. (Yes, the trains are fast, the stations clean, and the food yummy.) I'm also not going to give a laundry list about what I saw on which days. Instead, I'm going to talk about things that were new to me.


This was my first trip to a country where I didn't speak at least the rudiments of the language. While I could read katakana (one of the four Japanese scripts, mostly used for writing words borrowed from foreign languages), I couldn't say much. I only knew the words for about twenty different foods, one form of "thank you", "good morning", "goodbye", and "I don't understand". I couldn't say anything as complicated as, "Where is the train station?"

While Jim speaks Japanese quite well, I was going to be on my own for a lot of the time while he was at work. I was thus quite nervous about being able to communicate.

Things turned out okay. At the hotels we stayed at, most of the staff spoke English, ranging from understandable to superb. I also could save up questions for Jim and/or get him to translate for me. However, I don't want to give the impression that it was completely pain-free. I had the following uncomfortable language encounters:

I also had a very poignant language moment. I was standing on a train platform, looking at my map, when a young ( 16? 18? 22?) woman asked me (in excellent English) if I needed help. I had just figured out what I needed, so I said no. I had the sense that she wanted to talk to me about my world, and I wanted to talk to her about her world, but neither of us was prepared with an excuse to continue the conversation. We stood there looking at each other sadly for a few moments then went our ways.


I had been told over and over again that the Japanese were very polite and very formal. I'd been told that the Japanese were also very reserved and frequently racist. The mental image that I formed from that was sort of the English butler: using exquisitely formal (and cold) rules of correctness to stay very distant.

That isn't what I found at all. In my (mostly commercial) interactions and watching people in the train station, I didn't see much difference between Americans and Japanese in terms of warmth. In fact, the word I would use to describe Japanese society is "nice". People genuinely wanted to be helpful.

For example, I went to a an art museum, and didn't have small bills for the entrance fee. Instead of trying to break my 10,000 yen note (approximately US$100), they just waved me on in.


After studying American Sign Language, I'm interested in gestures. I noticed the following gestures in Japan:


The first kanji ("Chinese" pictograms) characters that I learned were for "fire extinguisher". In the U.S., fire extinguishers don't usually call a lot of attention to themselves. In Tokyo, they practically screamed for attention.

I am guessing that this is the vestige of the Great Kanto Earthquake (and subsequent fire) of 1923. Deaths from the earthquake were over 100,000 and something like 71% of the population in Tokyo and Yokohama lost their homes. To put it very simply, Tokyo was trashed.

(I heard that a disproportionate number of women died in the fires because their kimonos were awkward. The source (which I've forgotten, sorry) said that the fire really hastened the acceptance of Western-style clothing.)

In Japan multi-story buildings, a certain percentage of the windows must be openable from the outside. Those window are marked with red triangles, as you can (faintly) see in the center window above.

In Osaka and Kyoto, the fire extinguishers weren't quite as prominent (they were in grey boxes with lights instead of red boxes with lights). However, in Kyoto, we saw red fire buckets filled with water in front of many houses.


In Kyoto, we also saw water bottles surrounding telephone poles and lined up in front of buildings. I thought maybe those were additional fire supplies, but no. The superstition is that they keep cats away.

Upon hearing that, I reflect that they must work, as I hadn't seen any cats. Or rats. Or squirrels. In fact, I never saw any ground animals except for an occasional dog on a leash. The only wildlife I ever saw was birds.

Street People

I know that the politically correct term is "homeless", but that doesn't seem appropriate because at least some of them had homes. In most of the parks that I visited, there were pretty extensive tent cities in the trees. My husband also saw a lot of people materialize to camp out in the train station late at night.


I had of course heard of karaoke but had never seen anyone doing it. I had always thought that it would be a kind of pathetic exhibition - individuals who weren't good enough to sing unaided trying desperately to get attention.

Wrong. Karaoke, at least as it was performed by a group of young sumo wrestlers (think college football players and you'll get a sense of the demographic) was a real riot. It reminded me of American lip-synch contests, except that in addition to jumping around the stage, they were singing. It made American lip-synch contests seem kind of pathetic by comparison.

Note: I did also see some lonely karaoke later. In Tennoji Park, Osaka, there are some gardens that you have to pay to get into. There's also an art museum, and to get to the art museum, you have to go through the garden. Since the garden is for-pay, there is a pedestrian road with fences on both sides that felt sort of like a chute.

The foot traffic draws entrepreneurs. Not only were there people hawking used goods - clothes, shoes, tableware, kitchenware - but a LOT of tiny bar/cafes with karaoke machines. When there was no singer, they'd play a tape LOUDLY as a way of advertising their service. The noise was somewhat oppressive.


I had heard that congestion was horrible in Japan and was not disappointed. One morning rush hour in Tokyo, a three-mile (5km) taxi ride took thirty minutes.

I have heard of crazy drivers in many places -- Bangkok, New York, Boston, etc -- but Japan was never a place I'd thought of as having crazy drivers. This was before I visited the Meiji shrine in Tokyo. I was unnerved to see that the most popular charms for sale were for traffic safety. (The next most popular was for scholarship or luck on exams, the next for health, with only a few for other random things like marital happiness.)

In general, I was not nervous while driving (although I would have been happier on general principles if the seatbelts had been more accessible in the taxicabs). There was one night, however, that made us a bit uncomfortable. The driver was going at least 50% over the speed limit at all times, doing some unorthodox passing, and moved his body around a lot -- as if he was trying to keep awake. In his defense, he didn't do anything that was obviously dangerous. The car seemed under control at all times, he tootled his horn before coming up on driveways with obstructed views of the roadway, and his lane changes, while unorthodox, did not seem to be particularly risky.


I spent a fair amount of time in electronics stores. In theory, I was looking for a specific item for a friend. In practice, I needed some sort of a goal for my days and this search sufficed.

I was surprised at how vertical Japanese stores are. The footprint for each store was quite small, but there would be five or six floors for that store. (In the U.S., all but the very biggest stores are on one level. I would have expected to see store A on the first floor, store B on the second floor, etc.)

I was also a bit surprised at how limited the selection of stuff was, and how little variation there was from store to store. Granted, I live in Silicon Valley, home of some extremely large electronics stores with huge selections. I knew our stores were impressive compared to the rest of the U.S. or Europe. I just hadn't realized that they'd be impressive even by Japanese standards.

The number of flat panel displays was impressive. I don't think I saw a computer display during the whole trip that was NOT flat-panel. This makes sense when you recognize how small living quarters there are!

Because I'm working on a book about email, I wanted particularly to see what style email books had in Japan. I opened up a book called Emeeru (Email) English at random. I was stunned! On that page, it said:

>Should I just boost the power on the Jaiger?
No, if you turn it up to eleven, you'll overheat the motors and it might explode.
That's something that I wrote! It's taken almost literally from my web site A Beginner's Guide to Effective Email. Leafing through, I found many more examples taken almost directly from my web site.

My immediate reaction was outrage, followed a split-second later by laughter. It is actually okay that they copied my work: I explicitly put A Beginner's Guide into the public domain. I made it freely available specifically because I was hoping that people would take it and expand upon it. I just forgot that for a moment.


There were a lot of people whose job it was to entice you into stores (especially in the electronics districts) and/or hand out promotional material. In the electronics stores, there were frequently people inside the stores at the top of the escalators handing out material.

In the course of the week, I I got three pocket packs of tissue paper in the train stations from such people. (If you get offered a pack when in Japan, take it: the train station restrooms don't have toilet paper.)

The oddest thing someone gave me was a plastic ball containing a sheet of aluminum foil connected to a pipe cleaner and a page of what could only charitably be called instructions (in both English and Japanese). The "instructions" started out: "Congratulations! You are the lucky recipient of Simulcast Mobile Kit #1. It is by no means a mistake that this kit has landed in your capable hands. It could be destiny at play, but more than likely you were simply in the right place at the right time." Later on, it says "SIMULCAST is about a reciprocal relationship between organisms and electronics. SIMULCAST is so simple of a concept that even dogs and cats can become active participants..."

It was very, very strange. I think it was performance art of some sort, but I don't understand the point. There was a URL that turned out to be just as unenlightening. I guess this just goes to show that Japan at its goofiest can be just as goofy as US at its goofiest.

Wouldn't It Be Nice?

There were some things I saw that I thought were better than in the US:


Jim had told me that Japan excelled at the extravagant touches. I got to witness this first hand.


All in all, I had a very good time -- a much better time than I had expected
Copyright 2000 Kaitlin Duck Sherwood