It isn’t hard to fall in love with Japan. It happens slowly. In 2015, it was a trip to distant Naoshima Islands that hooked me on the Japanese sensibilities. But it was on this most recent trip, the small seductions of Japan — its people, its landscapes, its food and its culture left me completely besotted by this island nation. What I like about Japan is its subtlety. It is aloof, it is shy and almost silent. And yet when you slow your rhythm to its ways, the slow hypnotization starts to take control of your sense. There wasn’t just any one thing that took control of my senses, though if I had to pick, it would be the juxtaposition of people and its landscapes. The country is crowded and yet there seems to be enough beauty in between the gaps left by people.
I am already planning my next trip to Japan — Hokkaido in particular. I am going to download courses to learn the language enough to order food and get around the countryside without resorting to sign language. Apart from Iceland, it is the only place which has had that pull. But that would be in the future — for now I am going to share some photos and random vignettes from an eight day trip in March 2017.
All hail the King Zuckerberg
In a small farming community — where they grow seaweed among other things — we ran into an elderly farmer. He had worked for Toyota in Japan, Europe and the United States. He had returned to his original profession — farming — and has been enjoying the rigors and joy of growing things by hand. He took a photo of our group on his iPhone 5SE and posted it to his Facebook account to share with his friends and family. In Silicon Valley we might like to think Facebook is “over” but that one action of our farmer friend showed: Zuck is still the king of the Internet.
The Car Choices
Driving around Japan’s countryside through small towns, what stuck me the most was the sheer choices of car models: colors, shapes, types and brands. Most of them are small. Many of them are boxy. But they are unique in their design. They feel as strange to our alien eyes as those colorfully festooned trucks of Africa and South Asia seem to visitors. Design is a reflection of local culture and realities. Japanese roads are small, which in turn is because the country is small and people have a defined sense of self, despite being conformist.
The sheer size of the auto industry and its role in Japan’s economy is visible everywhere in the country. Dealerships, repair shops, garages and gas stations dot the countryside. Infact they are visual elements that seem to dominate and remind auto-industry’s importance to Japan. I was left wondering what would happen to this fabric of society woven around the car-ecosystems when autonomous and self driving vehicles start to dominate. I wondered what happens when car ownership becomes less prevalent. For some odd reason, I feel the Japanese are going to figure this out — perhaps having learnt from losing their lead in semiconductors, electronics and mobile technologies.
We were driving around in a strange, boxy Nissan van. It was spacious, if not big and powerful. What impressed me the most — the fantastic GPS system, which was rarely wrong. If you followed the rules — speed and lane changes, it got you to your destination without as much as a hissy-fit. Enter the phone number of the destination you were headed to and the GPS did the rest. There was little or no latency in performance. I compared with Google Maps and Apple Maps – they got spanked like boarding room prats. Apparently, other car makers have their own interpretations of the GPS and create unique interfaces and different voices. That said, I still like to use paper maps — only to see if I am as good a navigator as I used to be back when I was younger. Incase you wanted to know — I am!
Good Ramen Noodles are my kryptonite. I can’t help myself and need to have them. In big cities like New York, or places like San Francisco, good ramen can set you back by about $20-$25 dollars. Ouch! However, in Japan, 10 dollars is more than enough to enjoy a great, fresh bowl of noodles. The best bowl I had on this trip was in a small mom-and-pop shop. Their eyes must have seen many summers: he smoked and cooked up the noodles. She smiled and took my order. I didn’t speak a single word of Japanese, but somehow they spoke the language of the stomach and heart. Ask any cab driver in Toyohashi and he will take you to them.
What Camera? Smartphone, Obviously
I had been desperate to buy a Fuji x100F camera — it has been in-short supply and my friends at Fuji USA couldn’t really help. So I ended up in many camera stores. BIC Camera is one of the biggest electronics chains. The camera options at most of the stores were far fewer than smartphones — a somewhat telling comment on the hard times that have fallen on the camera business. That said, the BIC Camera in Ginza, Tokyo is a whole different experience all-together. You can buy anything in that store. By the way, Sony smartphones are exceptional in quality — as long as you don’t mind the Android OS and rectangular shapes. I was blown away by their cameras and screens. Too bad they have retreated from the US market.
- Japanese Hotels – no matter how small — provide a dental kit, shaving kit and other necessities as part of their service offerings. I don’t understand why we can’t have that as a standard feature at all hotels in the US: it makes so much sense. And it is so civilized.
- The after effects of Tsunami are everywhere. There are broken piers and rusted metal. But you see debris and garbage on the beaches in far flung areas — plastic bottles, coke cans and all such stuff spewed by the ocean. It is jarring because Japan is a culture obsessed with cleanliness.
- I saw a gentleman vacuuming the space infront of the gate of a small hotel. So yes, they like their country nice and neat.
- Mount Fuji is something else… especially when you get to see it at 6 am in the morning with the sun starting to give the white snow at the top a pinkish hue.
April 16, 2017, New York