The most pervasive element of Kyoto’s streets the past two days has been the Japanese schoolchildren, all dressed in their identical uniforms with the yellow hats as identifiable as blue UN helemets in the developing world.
Outside some temple this morning a bunch of super short, probably 10 year old girls all dressed in a black uniform with pink umbrellas came up to me, turned around, and posed for the camera. They motioned for me to stay put, so I did and flashed a toothy smile. Afterwards they said in unison, "Thank you!". For the next hour I kicked myself for not asking the teacher to take another picture of us with my camera, mostly so I could track the height differential (I am heightist, after all).
Later, this afternoon, on a public bus, four school children boarded and were feeling goofy. Three girls and one guy. I watched them and got annoyed that the girls were picking on the guy. Tugging his backpack and the like. So being the Benevolant American Policeman that I am, I stepped into the line of fire so the girls would stop picking on the guy. They weren’t going to tug on my backpack. My Intervention saved the day for the cute little boy and the rest of his ride was in peace. Got to help a brother out, you know?
We saw an elderly woman picking up trash in the streets using chopsticks. Yep, two chopsticks in her fingers going around picking up different pieces of trash.
Simply awesome. Always presented in style. I’ll let this picture speak for itself. If you pull open that drawer you’ll find more food. In the bowel on the left there’s steaming rice. Hot sake in lower right hand mini glass, tea in upper left hand corner.
We waved goodbye to Tokyo this morning and headed for Hakone, a small resort region a few hours outside Tokyo. Our Tokyo hotel room was the smallest I’ve ever stayed in, internet was broken, few of the staff spoke English, and we were the only non-Japanese guests. So, it was nice to head for a more luxurious setting! Our trek to Hakone could have gone better — it totaled four hours with lots of hassle.
But once here the setting takes your breath away. Absolutely stunning! The weather is perfect: clear skies, bright sun, mountain air, fields of green. I went for a run in the national park area. The park is totally clean with tons of trails and mini-shelters for stretching and meditating. True Japanese tranquility.
After my run I went into the hotel’s hot springs baths. There’s an inside bath and outdoors bath. These are famous in Japan and I’m glad I was able to experience one after our unsuccessful hunt for a "sento" in Tokyo.
First, I put on my kimono and walked downstairs to the bath area.
Then, I stored my provided-sandals and towel in the locker area and stepped into the shower area. I read in the guidebook that you must scrub thoroughly and with lots of soap and then you must wash the soap off completely before entering the hot spring spa. No bathing suits or towels allowed — they want to maintain purity. I did that and then stepped into the stone bath. Lovely. There were only a couple of other Japanese men and we stayed focused on the relaxation effect.
The hot springs water didn’t strike me as too different from normal hot tub water but the whole atmosphere made it more special.
Afterwards I went to the shower again and washed off, as you’re supposed to do. In the locker, as I re-tied my kimono a 40-something Japanese man started talking to me in Japanese. I just smiled. He asked me another question. I just smiled. Then another phrase. "No Japanese" I said. "Oh! No Japanese!" he responded. And that was the end of it. It was the first time someone ever tried to speak Japanese to me proactively in a one-on-one setting (in restaurants and everywhere else they speak Japanese to you whether you can understand or not, and you just have to smile and nod). I guess I can pass as Japanese when I’m in the flesh!
All in all, a Japanese hot springs bath experience is not to be missed on a tour of Japan.
The other night I ate three hot dogs, nibbled on fried chicken, and sat back to enjoy a baseball game. America? No. Japan!
I had always heard the Japanese are obsessed with baseball and that it’s their #1 sport by far. After watching the Tokyo Swallows play their visiting opponent, I can certainly corroborate this rumor and even add to it: Japanese baseball fans far outdo American baseball fans in every dimension.
First, baseball is baseball, same in Japan as in America. In Japan they use many English expressions (first base, second base, strikeout, catcher, pitcher, etc.) and play by the same rules. The difference is in the atmosphere of the stadium as the game is being played. Both teams had huge bleacher-seating fan sections all of whom cheered for every batter during every inning. This is not just random cheering, it’s highly organized. Think college football games, except pull people from all ages and demographics. Everyone had noise makers and shirts. Businessmen in suits pulled a jersey over their shirt and tie. Old women screamed their hearts out.
The collective nature of the cheering reflects Japanese culture of groupthink, not standing out, etc. I’ve never seen such a highly organized cheering machine in any other sports venue or game I’ve attended. Such a collective fan spirit means many people show up by themselves but instantly join in. The fans cheer while their players are batting. Then they sit down and are quiet the other half of the inning, again reflecting the Japanese value of respect and dignity for opponents.
Some other observations (I took some notes during the game):
- The cultural-straddling is fascinating. After the ceremonial first pitch the catcher shook hands with the kid who threw out the ball. Shaking hands is unheard of in Japanese culture but they probably adopted an American custom.
- One reason why the Japanese can invest so much pride in their baseball teams is they aren’t the minor leagues for other leagues. Europe football is the minor leagues for NFL. Since the MLB has its own minor league system, many of the best Japanese players stay in Japan and the fans know they’re seeing some of the best. In the seven innings I watched today I’d say the quality of play is at an MLB AAA minor league level, which is solid.
- Some of their cheers integrate English phrases, which is funny. "Let’s go" or "Yokurma, Yokruma, He’s our guy". English is obviously an influential language especially since it’s baseball. But in California some foreign phrases have also entered the vernacular (Livin’ the vida loca or "rapido"). In CA Spanish is the dominant foreign language influence.
- Globalization, globalization, I love it. In Japan, with non-English speaking fans saying "He’s our man," with Enrique Ingelsisas music playing on the stadium stereo.
- After someone hits a homerun the fans for the Swallows all held up little umbrellas. Nice touch. See picture.