It’s the little differences

I love learning about foreign cultures. It fascinates me to see all the different ways people from all over the world come up with to do the same thing. That is why I am usually more interested in the little differences, rather than the more obvious, big differences.

I think Vincent Vega, in the movie Pulp Fiction, said it best when he said:

Vincent: You know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
Jules: What?
Vincent: It’s the little differences. I mean they got the same shit over there that they got here, but it’s just… just there it’s a little different.

pulp fiction europe

Vincent (left) and Jules (right) discussing the little differences, in the movie Pulp Fiction

A good example of one of the little differences is a Japanese taxicab. In Japan, the interior of a taxi is decorated with white, lacy fabric. In Belgium, such fabric is usually only found in the homes of old-fashioned grandmothers. To see it inside a taxi seemed very funny to me. Another remarkable difference is that Japanese taxi drivers sometimes wear a navy-like hat and they always wear white gloves.

Japanese taxi inside

The inside of a Japanese taxi

Japanese taxi driver

A Japanese taxi driver – mind the white gloves

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People watching – The Golden Clock in Nagoya Station

The best place for people watching in Nagoya might be The Golden Clock in Nagoya station. It is a favoured meeting place and around every full hour (e.g. 18:00h) the area is positively teeming with people. It is remarkable how much calmer it gets at around the ten minute mark (e.g. 18:10h), when all the meeting up is concluded and people leave to go do whatever they were meeting up to do.

Nagoya Station Golden Clock

The Golden Clock at Nagoya Station, a very popular meeting place – image from Wikipedia Commons

In the above picture, it looks uncharacteristically calm. The video below gives a better impression of what it is usually like to wait for someone at the Golden Clock. For us gaijin, it is fairly easy to find the person we are meeting, or rather it is easy for them to find us, since most gaijin are at least a head taller than most Japanese people. If you have blond hair to boot, like me, it makes you virtually impossible to miss. But how Japanese people manage to find anyone in the crowd around the Golden Clock is beyond me.

As I already mentioned, it is one of my favourite places for people watching. Have a look at this beautiful young lady in kimono.

girl in kimono

Girl in kimono – a mobile phone might help to locate one’s friends in that crowd

girl in kimono 2

Notice the long sleeves and exuberant design, typical for a kimono worn by unmarried, young women. I think she was meeting up with friends to attend a wedding.

People watching – Legs for Days

After having lived in Japan for a while, I gradually started feeling more and more at home there. As life in Japan became ‘normal’ to me, I often forgot that I myself still looked all but normal to Japanese people. A tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed gaijin stands out in a Japanese crowd, no matter how ‘Japanese’ the gaijin in question might feel on the inside.

My acclimatization to life in Japan, and consequently my familiarity with that sea of dark-haired, fairly short Japanese people had a funny consequence: I started feeling surprised whenever seeing a gaijin (‘OMG, look, a gaijin, I wonder what they’re doing here’) or tall people (‘I can’t believe how tall that person is! Look how much they stand out.’). After which I was of course forced to remind myself that I am, in fact, a tall gaijin myself.

Nevertheless, it prompted me to attempt a sneak photograph of an exceptionally tall Japanese lady that I saw on the train. Especially her legs seem to go on for days:

Legs for days, in Japan

Do you think she noticed my sneak photography attempts?

Kids sleeping on the train

Japanese people have the remarkable ability to take a nap anytime anywhere. A favourite place for those power naps is the train. While most adults try to maintain a fairly upright position even while sleeping, these kids seem to have no such reservations and have comfortably settled themselves for a nap on the way home.

kids sleeping on the train in Japan

Kids sleeping on the train in Japan

 

The mask

A typical image that Westerners have of Japan, is a subway car filled with business men and school girls, all wearing white surgical masks.

Mouthmask on the train in Japan

Someone wearing a mouth mask on the train in Japan

In the West it is considered a bit suspicious to cover your face in public. Masks are usually reserved for bank robbers and superheroes. We think that those Japanese people with their white masks look a bit silly and a bit dodgy.

In Japan, the wearing of such masks is completely normal. They are worn for various reasons: for example when the flu is in town or to avoid catching a cold. People with allergies wear them to avoid ingesting pollen.

Mask on the train in Japan

Salaryman wearing a mouth mask

When I had just arrived in Japan, those masks took a bit of getting used to. Especially when I was talking to someone who still had their mask on. It is a bit difficult communicating with someone if you can’t really see their face. But of course I got used to it and after a while I didn’t even notice the masks anymore.

I even went as far as wearing one myself at some point. There was a big cloud of yellow dust, pollution from China, travelling over Japan. I had already been coughing for a few days and I also started getting chest pains from an irritated trachea. “That does it”, I said to myself, “it is time for a mask”. And indeed the mask made a big difference. The irritation to my throat and trachea were greatly reduced.

The first time venturing out in public with the mask I felt quite self-conscious. Don’t I look very silly with this thing on my face? But no Japanese looked any different at me. Even my husband didn’t poke fun at me. Wearing such a mask is just very normal in Japan, and I am beginning to understand why!

Mask on the train in Japan

Cute mask with pink bows on it. Sorry for the blurry picture. It was a sneak photograph on the train.

People watching – Sartorial Japanese man

I have recently become enamoured with the blog ‘The Sartorialist’. It is one of the most famous blogs out there and I can see why. The posts are short and simple, always revolving around a single fashion photograph. Although not every featured look is to my taste, it is interesting to see the different styles that people adopt. And the photographs are always beautifully taken.

the sartorialist screenshot

Of course I was wondering what the blog name meant and after some research I came across a video in which the author explains all about it. Apparently ‘sartorial’ means tailored, but it can also mean someone whose look is well put together or someone with great personal style.

Looking at the man in the picture below (taken on a Japanese train in April of this year) the word ‘sartorial’ comes to mind. Although people might argue about exactly how stylish his big hair and tight jeans really are, at least there can be no discussion about the fact that he has a clearly defined and deliberate look. In any case, I am a fan. It takes guts to wear a tailored jacket made out of sweat pants fabric.

Stylish Japanese guy, wearing a tailored jacket made of sweat pants fabric

Stylish Japanese guy, wearing a tailored jacket made of sweat pants fabric

A day in paradise

Around the middle of April it was cherry blossom time in Japan. Needless to say I had been looking forward to this for a while. When foreigners think of Japan and typical Japanese things, the beauty of the cherry blossoms is one of the first things that comes to mind.

Sakura beauty

Beautiful cherry blossoms

My anticipation was only increased by the excitement that takes hold of the entire Japanese nation as the blossom time approaches. The news report even gives daily reports on the advancement of the ‘cherry blossom front’.

Cherry blossom front for 2008. The flowers open first in the south and then the front makes its way north. The blossoms were a bit late this year due to the cold weather. (picture taken from http://stlelsewhere.blogspot.jp)

Why do the Japanese people love cherry blossoms, or ‘sakura’, so much? Apart from the simple fact that the sight of a street lined with blooming cherry trees is just gorgeous, the Japanese feel touched by the transient beauty of the blossoms. The sakura are at their most beautiful for only a few days. One day of rain may destroy the fragile flowers. This short-lived beauty is often taken as a metaphor for life: so beautiful and yet so short and sad. Indeed when watching the blossoms, one may be touched by an intense joy and a sweet melancholy all at the same time.

Sakura detail beauty, Nagoya, Japan

Cherry blossoms against the bright blue sky

Sakura detail

The delicate beauty of a cherry blossom

Apart from these rather poetic feelings, of course the Japanese also love to celebrate the seasons and never pass up an excuse to gather with friends and enjoy some typical festival food.

Sakura selling sweet potato or yakiimo

A small cart selling grilled sweet potato (called 'yaki-imo' in Japanese)

Sakura sweet potato salesman

A happy salesman, also selling sweet potato

Sakura selling takoyaki or octopus balls

A stand selling 'takoyaki': baked balls of dough stuffed with vegetables and pieces of octopus

In my efforts to see as much of the cherry blossoms as possible, I prepared for a ‘hanami’ (the viewing of the blossoms) on a sunny afternoon in April at one of Japan’s 100 most beautiful cherry blossom spots: the Yamazakigawa riverside in Nagoya.

Sakura Yamazakigawa riverside, Nagoya, Japan

The Yamazakigawa riverside in Nagoya

Cherry walk in Nagoya, Japan

Walking alongside the river Yamazaki in Nagoya

Having been to a few other cherry blossom viewing spots earlier that week and being slightly underwhelmed, I was not prepared for the beauty of this place. Not only was it simply gorgeous, all other conditions were perfect as well: the weather was sunny and warm with a slight breeze, it was not too crowded since it was a weekday, and everyone I met was just as happy as I was. Even the animals I met were in a good mood. It truly seemed like a paradise on earth; some place as yet untouched by the rest of the world. A magic spell, just for one day.

Sakura and fish, Nagoya, Japan

Cherry blossoms and sunlight on the water. Even the fish seem happy.

Sakura rabu rabu, Nagoya, Japan

A young couple, enjoying a romantic moment under the cherry blossoms

Sleeping under the cherry blossoms

It doesn't get any more relaxed than this: having a picnic and a nap on a sunny afternoon

Sakura and children playing in Japan

Children playing in the river

Sakura salaryman escaping modern life

An office worker escaping from modern life just for a moment