The most common questions we are asked when we returned from Japan were about what we ate and what, besides the language differences, was different. I’ll take a crack at some of what we saw as different. I am not an anthropologist, and frankly, sometimes the other side of town where I live feels different, so differences are relative. We were in Naha, Okinawa, a separate island from mainland Japan, so that in itself marks major differences. Also, I need to find another word for “different.” Enough jabbering, here’s what I’ve got:
Alas, for better or worse, I have flat feet (thanks, Dad!). Large, flat feet. That means no fancy high-heeled shoes for me. Danskos it is. Side note: in Madison Danskos can even be considered fancy! But anyone familiar with America knows that we’re trained to perceive the confident sounds of high heels across an airport concourse, or walking down a hall, implies strength and power. Women tower in five-inch heels, never wincing, to slip them off later and hobble around their abodes.
Yet, in Okinawa, women wore all types of footwear, sure, but if they wore high heels, they looked really uncomfortable and they didn’t hide that fact. Women would literally shuffle around in spiky shoes too big or too small, taking painful-looking steps and not worrying how it looked. It was interesting, and frankly, a better illustration of how painful most women’s shoes are.
As mentioned in a previous post, Okinawa, and Japan in general, is a cash society. We brought cash with us, and fortunately our hotel exchanged money, but many of the family members traveling with us had to find a Post Office to use an ATM that accepted American cards and then exchange money.
It wasn’t only the focus of being in a cash society, calculating exchange rates, which fluctuated from 78 to 82 yen to 1 US dollar during our stay, but that money is not something that is directly handled. Everywhere we went, including in taxis, there was a small tray near the register that you placed your money on. Only in returning money did money literally exchange hands. And even then, paper bills were placed first and coins fanned out on top. I found the practice to be quite nice, since it gave a sense of importance to one’s money and made the transaction seem special.
Paper goods are rare in Japan, and most people carry a handkerchief of sorts. More like smaller squares of fabric, they are sold everywhere and come in an endless variety of patterns and styles. Paper towels are rare in bathrooms, since most have eco-friendly hand dryers, but restaurants rarely have paper napkins as Americans know them, and maybe have tissue-like squares or cloth napkins. This description from Craft Nectar, who moved to Japan, summed it up well:
“For Japanese women, carrying a handkerchief is essential. Not all public bathrooms have paper towels so having a lovely handkerchief with which to dry your hands is helpful. The handkerchief is also useful during humid summers to dab you brow or neck on a crowded train. I never saw anyone blow his or her nose into a handkerchief the way Americans do. It’s more for discreet dabbing the way you would when you walk inside after walking a few blocks on a snowy day and your nose drips a tiny bit. Tissues are used for dealing with runny noses and serious nasal congestion while handkerchiefs are a more multipurpose cloth kept either in the pocket or purse. Japanese hankies are made of very lightweight cotton so they dry extremely quickly and are not bulky in pockets.“
Even babies had their little handkerchiefs, tucked into baby carriers and strollers. Picking out a few fun ones for Miss Red was a neat experience.
Overall, everything and nothing was different. I’m sure, as Americans, and now knowing cultural nuances, we were at times rude or awkward. But if so, no one pointed it out to us or did we appear to make major gaffes. A few times I told CH to speak softer, only because he has a boomy voice. We did our best to be polite at all times, smile, bow and just be good humans. It seemed to work.
Next post: some of our favorite highlights. Anything else you’d like me to report on?