Here’s Part Two (Part One is here) of our quiz in answer to the question “Are there some things so unique that they are pretty much “’Japanese?’” Here are more photos of things in Japan. See if you can guess what they are, and judge for yourself how unique Japan really is.
Japan’s mass transportation system rocks.
Tokyo and other major cities are criss-crossed by multiple train and subway lines run by a several companies, plus the quasi-government Japan Railways (JR; the bullet train people) and city government subways such as the massive Tokyo Metro subway system. If one of those doesn’t get you where you want to go, there are buses, trolleys and a monorail or two.
This leads to train stations the size of small cities themselves, often stretching underground over multiple floors with literally miles of hallways. Inside the stations there are whole shopping complexes, complete with shops selling high fashion clothing, daily needs, books and most other things.Oh, and food — everything from cheap ramen to the very best stuff. The sushi restaurant featured in the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, where a meal starts at $200 and reservations need to be made months in advance, is located in a Ginza subway station.
The problem with those near-endless stations is that they have many, many exits, 30 or more in the bigger ones. When a business tells you they are reachable via Shibuya Station, or a new friend offers to meet you at Ueno Station, that means nothing. Exits can be very far apart, so to navigate you need to know both the station name, and the exit number.
To help, stations have two kinds of signs posted. The white ones shown above are simple locators; exit seven over there, exit 18 further to the right. The yellow signs are helpful if you have not planned ahead (i..e, not an Xpatnation reader!) They list popular nearby destinations alongside their exit numbers. The signs in larger stations include English, with more English signs being added ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Useful Train Signs, (We could really use these in America)
Women Only Train Cars
Wait, are you in the Middle East, where Islamic beliefs require men and women to separate in most public spaces? Not quite. Japan has a problem on its crowded, rush hour trains: groping. Called chikan, the gropers are typically older men who prey on women as young as junior high school age. Taking advantage of sardine-like conditions, they inappropriately touch and fondle. Many women, fearing embarrassment or believing station personnel will not believe them if they report the crime, remain silent, exiting at the next stop in shame.
One way Japan is combating this problem is with women-only train cars. You’ll see signs on the platform. Women-only rules usually apply during rush hours, and male children in control of their mothers are welcome.
Yep, the streets are narrow, with most corners off the main drags blind. Homes, and their exterior walls hiding tiny bits of grass and garden, extend right to the edge of the road (there are no sidewalks.) For the safety of drivers, and pedestrians, a pole-mounted mirror at an intersection is not uncommon.
Learning to look up while driving is an acquired habit, but for Japanese drivers a necessary one. Japanese also drive on the left, the opposite of in the United States. Don’t cross the street looking the wrong way for incoming traffic.
Clean and Safe
See that? Those are handbags, left all alone on a bench in a public park. The owners wandered off to talk pictures of some flowers, well out-of-sight of their purses. I watched. I waited. No one approached the left items. When they were done with their photos, the women returned, picked up their stuff, and went on with their day. It just happens that way.
You can’t talk about Japan without emphasizing how clean and safe it is. We’ve covered the basics of safety in Japan in another article, but don’t be surprised to see people leave handbags, shopping bags and even kids unattended. Bicycles are often left unlocked. The streets are swept, and public facilities are just, well, clean. It is an amazing, pleasant change from nearly anywhere else in the world.
Unless you’ve spent a little time in Japan, in which case this one is easy, it is tough. Here’s a hint: what you see is a rack, designed for rainy days.
Japanese people love their umbrellas. Because most people use public transportation to get around, there is always some walking involved in every journey, rain or shine. Japan has a distinct rainy season in the late Spring, so one way or another umbrellas are a handy thing.
You don’t want to bring a wet umbrella inside, so at many businesses you will find a rack like the one pictured in the entrance way. Each little U-shaped thingie holds one umbrella. To ensure no one walks off by accident with the wrong umbrella, each slot has a kind of lock and a numbered key. Upon entering a building, you lock in your umbrella, pocket the key, and retrieve things on the way out. The setup helps you remember to take your umbrella, too, in case it stops raining while you’re inside.
Big or Small?
When it comes time to flush after doing your business, the handle in Japan will often offer you a choice. What to do with this?
It’s simple, and you can’t go too far wrong no matter what. To conserve water, the flushing handle offers you a choice of a “big flush” or a “small flush,” so you only use as much water as is really needed. You’ll need to use your own judgment about which amount of water is most appropriate for your, um, use, but most people choose the size based on exactly what you think you’d base it on. In the photo, the character at the bottom that looks a little like a standing man is “big.”
You don’t see many of these anymore in “new” Japan, except maybe at a public bath (shown) or in schools, but they are very Japanese. These are shoe boxes. One removes one’s shoes at the bath and other places, and kids change into indoor-only shoes at school. To keep things neat, these shoe cubbies are very handy. Each fits a pair nicely, and has its own numbered key to keep everything organized.
A Real One
Yes, of course, it is a Buddhist monk, not altogether uncommon in parts of Asia. But in Japan, you want to be on the lookout for real monks, as there are impostors afoot!
Monks in training are required to go through a period of begging for their meals, to teach them charity and humility. In the old days, they were required to go door-to-door with their bowl, hoping someone would put some rice in it for their next meal. Times have changed, and now most monks seek donations with which to buy food, and to donate forward, instead of rice.
The problem is some fake monks are about, hoping to scam a few yen off passersby.
Telling the good guys from the bad guys is easy. Real monks will not approach you, will not ask for anything and will not speak to you. They will remain standing alone and silent. If you choose to approach them and offer something, they will bow to you in gratitude, nothing more. They will never, ever ask for money for a picture, or react to what you give or don’t give.
Fakes are most common around tourist sites, where they think people can be easily fooled, but don’t be surprised if one pops up somewhere else. And yes, some of the fakes have figured out the game and remain silent, but there’s not much you can do about that, so just be content that at least your heart is in the right place!
© Peter Van Buren, 2015. All photos by the author.