Lessons from Japan
What a remarkable trip. Japan is my first passport stamp and may end up being my favorite country when it’s all said and done. I have a lot more to see and more to do, but the feeling Japan left me with is second to none. Upon arrival, I am greeted with an incredible sense of pride in hospitality. I just landed in a foreign land without the slightest clue on how to get around the airport, where to buy my Japan Rail Pass (best investment but will get to that later), and most importantly, speak the language. I planned on using Google translate and saving specific phrases and words that I knew I would need before my departure, but I caught a flight a few days earlier to get a few extra days in Japan. So finding the earlier flight certainly made the communication barrier a bit higher, but a worthwhile trade.
After I got my luggage, I made my way to the JR Rail pass ticket booth. My attendant didn’t speak any English, but was very patient with me and took the time to explain my options as best she could. The explanation took some time because, well………. I am frugal and wanted to make sure I was getting the best value which the rail pass provided. You know what’s crazy, no one seemed to be aggravated that this foreigner was taking so long with the attendant because he didn’t speak the language.
What’s more shocking was the attendant’s patience. She sat there and explained every option as best she could by using a calculator and pointing to pictures and destinations that I might want to see on my trip. Think about that……..
Let me paint you a picture that most of us can understand and you can draw your parallels. It’s not apples to apples, but not everyone takes long-distance plane rides. Imagine being at LAX, and you’re standing in line waiting to check in to your flight at the ticket counter. You’re next in line, scrolling through Instagram while you wait, but what seems like ten minutes go by and you pick your head up and see an older Hispanic woman at the ticket counter. Because of the time that’s passed you start to pay closer attention to what’s going on to see what’s taking so long. Here is the problem, you cant understand what this woman is saying, but you hear the attendant trying to explain everything the senior woman should see in extreme detail. How would you feel? Rushed, annoyed and impatient right? You’re probably in a rush to get to your next destination and depending on who you are, you may make a racist remark in your head, wait no, we live in the realm of Trump, so some of you may feel comfortable enough to say it out loud. Shit, think about the woman at the ticket counter. Airport/train station attendants often have to deal with some challenging issues, so they may have as much patience as someone who works for the DMV. This realization set the tone.
As I sit on the Shinkansen from Osaka to Tokyo, I am reminded of this hospitality by the train attendant bowing as they enter and exit the train cars. Every time, no exceptions. It’s not a bow in the sense of you’re riding this train, and I am your servant, but a bow out of a sense of respect/customer excellence. Not customer service, customer excellence. More on this in a moment.
The Shinkansen ride gives you a glimpse of Japan’s leading edge structure. First of all, the Shinkansen is a high-speed bullet train that connects a ton of destinations in Japan at just short of 200 MPH! What blew my mind was how frequently the train runs during peak hours. There is a high-speed bullet train departing every 10–15 minutes. Imagine being able to hop on a train every fifteen minutes that gets you to San Francisco from Los Angeles in under three hours. Yes, every fifteen minutes, and in three hours. From Tokyo to Osaka is about the same distance as LA to San Fran.
The other part of Japan’s excellence I witnessed within the first few hours after arrival riding the Shinkansen was the mix of urban/city life and nature. One phrase I kept repeating on my trip was “damn….. they don’t forget nature.” What I meant by this was the sheer natural beauty of Japan was on full display during the train ride. One moment plush green mountains covered in trees surround you. You see Bonsai trees, bamboo, and other types of trees covering the surrounding landscape. Then, as the train is flying through a tunnel at 195 mph, you suddenly emerge and see a beautiful bluff overlooking the ocean bay. Some of the most colorful water I have seen in my travels. It reminded me of a trip to Jedidiah Smith in northern California.
The sheer nature and beauty and too be expected, but that’s not what I mean by “they don’t forget nature.” What I mean is when you pull into a station, you can see fantastic skyscrapers and urban living, but within the urban setting is a reminder of nature’s beauty.
An office building will have it’s own little (sometimes significant) beautifully landscaped park. It’s well maintained and has a level of detail that you would see in San Diego at Balboa Park or Central Park in New York. The difference I soon learned was these little reminders are scattered all throughout the cities. To me, this symbolizes the importance of nature and beauty in Japanese culture. They honor and respect the environment and protect its ability to incite a childlike sense of joy.
Hence the picture of me at this random park I stumbled upon in Kyoto. I was using the WiFi at the Kyoto aquarium to say goodnight to my kids, and after I left, I was on a mission to find the train museum (my son loves trains and bridges). On my way, I saw a bathroom in what looked like a restaurant. I walk in and see this fantastic park through the window. I went to the bathroom and said to myself “ I am going to check this out.” I walk out of the restroom, walk down the hall and see a ticket machine. I don’t understand anything but 200 YEN. Imagine seeing this park and realizing it’s only $2 to enter. When I go in, it’s nothing short of amazing. I will shut up and let you look at the pictures.
Notice something? I noticed two things.
- Not one piece of trash
- Had the park to myself
Again, it goes back to the respect for nature and the childhood sense of joy and wonder that was unlocked. How much trash do we see in the streets of our neighborhoods? How much respect do we have for nature? For goodness sakes, there is a park in Nara that I didn’t have the chance to visit where deer walk up to you, eat out your hand and bite your clothing. They are unafraid of humans here, but what do they do back home……..
I spent most of my trip in Osaka, and they are known for their food. OH MY GOODNESS, THE FOOD!!!!! My best friend I was visiting was telling me time and time again “man I just ate X, and it was the best I ever had!” French toast, chicken wings, Ramen, etc. My friend has never been a foodie, which was one of the few ways we differ. We have been best friends since 8th grade and have a crazy amount of things in common. In the past year, we laughed because we discovered that both of us love Jeep Wranglers and Porsche Panamera’s. Another thing we have in common. That’s why for years I was shocked that he was not a foodie. My wife and I live for food. So when he told me that he was becoming a foodie in Osaka, I couldn’t wait to get there. I ate:
The best french toast:
The best Sushi:
Some of the best gumbo at a restaurant (my family recipe is tough to beat)
The best Ramen
Shit, 7–11 has good food. I told my friend that 7–11 food is as good taste wise as a TGIFridays or BJ’s. It’s not the best you’ve ever had, but most meals were under $5. (500 YEN). Why is it so good? The pride they take in their work. They don’t just open a restaurant. They take the time to study the food they want to make and discover the best methods to prepare and cook the food. Japanese people source for the best ingredients, experiment with different flavors, perfect it, then open a restaurant.
I view this as the people taking pride in your work, and It’s exemplified all over the country. I went to a golf shop to pick up some Japanese golf balls for my uncle, and the service was memorable. When I stepped through the front door, the AC was blasting. It was refreshing and loud at the same time because it felt like a high powered blast of ice cold air blowing down the back of my shirt and freezing the sweat that comes from the humid climate (unless your Japanese, they don’t sweat even in suits riding bikes which everyone does). Once the noise from the blast of cold air subsides, I hear at least five people say “konbanwa” which means hello. At the same time. That’s impressive customer excellence (service isn’t the right word). They let you feel the fresh air then give you a warm welcome. One young lady didn’t speak much English but made her attempts to help me find what I need most of the time I was there. She took pride in her work and seemed thrilled to be helping me see what I needed even though we couldn’t communicate effectively. Taking pride in your work is expected in Japan. The food, the shopping, the craftsmanship, everything. And most importantly, everyone in every profession seems to be treated with the same level of respect and dignity. Which leads me to my last point.
The biggest takeaway from the trip was the level of respect, patience, and compassion the people have for each other. When making decisions, you consider the common good. When deciding what to do or not do you think about how your choices affect the people around you. For example, there are not very many trash cans throughout the city but vending machines that serve amazing $1 coffee like this on practically every corner. Despite the lack of trash cans you don’t see garbage on the streets. Why? Let me make an attempt based on my limited understanding:
If I drink my coffee and discard of the waste on the street it makes the sanitation workers hard difficult
Trash can disrupt the beauty/nature we all as a people enjoy
Someone can slip and fall on the garbage
An animal can eat, or be hurt by the garbage
More, and more, and more
Another example of this is the lack of police presence. I saw maybe five police officers in seven days exploring three cities. My best friend lives in Hommachi, and the Police station was about the size of a Starbucks and had one patrol car. Why? They are only needed in emergency situations. For the most part, the culture, respect for one another, and laws take care of everything. For example, no one steals because the punishment is severe and the locals think about how it would impact someone if their bike was stolen. I use the bike example, because throughout the cities I seen bikes left unattended just about everywhere. In the states, we don’t have the same level of compassion in our choices. We are not thinking about what’s good for our fellow citizens, just ourselves. This to me is the catalyst for crime, and a lot of what’s wrong in the US. As far as police presence, just turn on the TV and you know what happens in the US.
In summary, as I travel home, I don’t know how I will react to the western culture. I was already taken back by the negative energy an American male’s bag on the train was giving out. The tag to identify his bag said: “BACK OFF IT’S MINE!!!” Yes, in quotes and three exclamation points. This trip has changed me forever and despite the challenges we face back in the states, I will do a better job respecting others, taking pride in everything I do, become a gourmet chef (can’t be a foodie for Ok food anymore), and continue to expose my family to the outdoors and beauty in nature. I understand that I am blessed to have the opportunity to travel and explore. Not everyone is s fortunate, so I share my experience to give anyone the chance to learn about the Japanese culture. And I hope, that if you made it this far, the culture rubs off on you like it has for me. Compassion, respect, patience, dignity, pride in one’s work, and an appreciation of natures beauty is something we all can incorporate into our lives.
Bassanio Peters 7/3/18 13:07 PM on Shinkansen
FYI all of the pictures were taken on my Google Pixel phone. A gentleman on the plane who had his DSLR with him thought I took them on a DSLR.