On first glance, Japan still appears as the land of convenience and politeness, making it a fabulous if yet somewhat surreal experience for the first time visitor, especially if you are unused to high levels of hospitality and customer service. If you want a banana, there is a vending machine for that. On the metro, the intricate signs tell you in exact metres how far it is to walk to some of the different lines (believe me it’s far) and there are still station guards dressed in full uniform with white gloves waving off trains and directing people around minor construction works apologising to the passers-by for the inconvenience. My hotel owner at 7am this morning phoned up local courier who collected my bags and delivered them to another hotel on the same day for the grand total of £20.
Unsurprisingly, it can be very seductive and somewhat misleading to assume that all Japanese people are more polite and nicer than the rest of us. Their group orientated society demands certain behaviours to make sure it all ticks along nicely and people are aware of their effect on others. As a result, rituals and rules dominate. Everywhere you turn, there is a sign telling you what to do and how to do it and generally, this is respected. In effect, this is the pay back for a still highly functioning society where people generally do as they are expected to do. I have experienced the long-term effects on this as a non-Japanese living in Japan as it is not always a positive thing for someone from a more individualised society to adapt to when the politeness and rule following can result in inflexibility and prevents a depth of human connection.
In the world of fast paced business, some of these rules seem never to be questioned and can obfuscate and cause frustrations, especially for the non-Japanese, who are unaware of their roles in maintaining the status quo. However, for this trip I am completely happy to follow the rules and enjoy the ensuing harmony and politeness. Having recently experienced such poor levels of service in the UK, I can never get enough of being profusely bowed at and thanked when I come in and out of a shop and can have all my purchases wrapped beautifully without having to remember my ‘bags for life’!Read more
Due to its intense volcanic activity, Japan has more hot springs (onsen) than anywhere else in the world, wonderfully described by the Lonely Planet as “Iceland on steroids.” These can be found in towns and cities in the style of public baths, in hot spring resorts or in isolated spots hidden in mountains. They form an integral part of Japanese life and socialising whether with colleagues (I visited many on teacher away-days) friends or families.They were one of the most memorable experiences I had in Japan, not least because of the embarrassment factor of your first onsen experience, where the towel you have to cover your modesty barely lives up to its job! They were also a very cultural experience and a good insight into the Japanese love of rules and rituals.
Being Japan, the onsen experience should ideally be done as a group activity and there are of course certain rituals involved as to what you do before you enter the water and even websites and blogs dedicated to the correct way of using them especially in the traditional guest houses known as Ryokan, where the onsen experience is integral to your stay. Most onsen are segregated by sex so do try and learn the Japanese for men and women (or follow the crowd) but don’t assume this is the case, as I found out when travelling with two male friends and we came upon a remote onsen in the Japanese alps (see photo).
Many first time visitors to Japan feel nervous about using onsen and doing the “right” thing but as long as you make sure you wash and shower before entering the onsen, don’t drop your towel in the water, are not covered with tattoos (some of them refuse entry to people with tattoos), and can put up with some level of staring, it is a recommended experience. There is, in my opinion, nothing more soul-lifting than sitting in an outdoor onsen surrounded by snow and the occasional monkey.
As part of the Satogaeri project, I am going back to Gunma prefecture and will be visiting one of my favourite Hot Spring resorts- Ikaho, a very traditional onsen town nestled in the mountains of Gunma. Gunma’s onsens are correctly perceived as some of the best onsens in Japan. Needless to say, I will be in the onsen quicker than a flash!