Observations (followed by some pics of note)
Observation Ichi: Speaking of 2010, DB asks THB on the last night, so which trip was better, this one or the earlier one? THB thinks for a few seconds (nearing the max on thinking, unlike writing) and says, 2010. WRONG! We start reviewing the two trips and a minute or two later (THB is now getting exhausted, hard to keep up this thinking pace), and come to the following conclusions: the artist visits for most part were way better this time (and thus we are spending more on art in 2013); in the terrific to essential category: Sagawa Museum, Adachi Gardens, Nakasendo Road hike with a great guide, The Earth, Abeke House, and, not just one triennial, TWO triennials full of discovery and meaningful art, and a few more happenings that THB will have to re-read the blog to remember (his own writing and he can’t remember!!!). All exceeded expectations, were worth a significant detour (and some were very significant detours).
So why did THB jump to 2010 as the better trip? The obvious answer is that the shock and awe factor were in full force. Who could forget picture after picture of the toilets. Changing shoes every time you approached any sort of entrance or exit or bathroom. Figuring out the trains, which always ran on time, and never finding anywhere by the address, always having to use a map (and THB’s eyesight has weakened enough in 3 years that DB does all the map reading now, a burden that used to be more equitably shared). The cleanliness, the safety, the different food (and Japan has many different styles of food we don’t see in the US) from breakfast through dessert at dinner.
All taken for granted this time. As Thomas Wolfe said, it’s great to go home again, as long as someone is along to remind you how much better it is now than the last visit. (Tom Wolfe, right?).
And the real reason: many kudos and thanks to DB, our fearless trip designer (she should start her own Japan Trip Advisor page), who used her knowledge from two prior trips and customized one hell of a trip, as well as having along our ever-congenial and passionate art-chasing co-travelers, E&J , who started out strong and took the early lead in buying art, only to be overtaken on the last few hours of the last day.
Observation ni: Transportation is always a big plus in Japan. There are trains going everywhere, invariably on time (even after typhoons that force re-routing, the new schedules are totally trustworthy). The airlines run efficiently. And this time, because THB was walking around a lot, it became clear that the cars are kept up immaculately. You rarely see a dirty car and almost never a car with a dent. Fastidious might be a better way of putting it. And, most of the cars look like they are of recent vintage.
Observation san: The lower level hotels (i.e. the inn hotels) have no need to take credit card impressions because whatever charges you might make after paying for the room are all pay-as-you-go: TV extras require a pre-paid card; there are no mini-bars, the common bath areas are included, the breakfast is included. However, whenever you check in anywhere you supply your passports (so the government knows where you are?) and THB thinks pretty much always a copy is made as well.
Observation shi/yon: All the hotels and inns have converted over to having out large bottles of shampoo, body soap, face soap and hair conditioner, and there are always plastic wrapped toothbrushes and often (always? THB isn’t always checking) razors and shaving cream. The big bottles are very ecological and aid the hotels in cost control; THB thinks that the average Japanese traveler doesn’t bother bringing along toothbrushes and razors for some reason that is akin to having separate slippers for the bathroom.
Observation go: While there appears to some fashion norms, THB cannot discern much other than the women (of almost any age) are not wearing a “work uniform.” Pants are very common now, yet there isn’t a big jeans-and-t-shirt look…there’s no particular trend other than everybody seems to be wearing an outfit unlike anyone else. There are clothing chains here and lots of shopping in department stores, somehow uniqueness is attained. THB may need to spend more time looking at the younger crowd to find out how it is done. Of course, if THB focuses on a truly younger crowd, he will find out the school kids are wearing uniforms: white tops and blue pleated skirts and long white sox.
THB has the following theory: every woman (or teen not wearing a school uniform) has the following items in her wardrobe: 10-15 pairs of a variety of shoes; 10 pairs of tights (all have at least 2-3 versions in black) and 20 pairs of socks in all lengths and colors and patterns; 10 paIrs of shorts; 15 different pairs of pants; 20 skirts of all lengths and most made to be worn over tights and/or pants; 20 blouses; some dresses; a variety of sweaters and jackets. Each woman must not wear the same combination of above in the same half-decade (notes are kept, spreadsheets updated). Therefore, the chances of seeing two women wearing the same combination at the same time in the same area approaches zero. Since occasionally THB has been left behind in high traffic areas (i.e., the others are off visiting restrooms) and is doing his sampling, it was almost impossible to see two women (out of 100s) wearing the same shoes, let alone all the others items that go into an ensemble. Can there be another country like that on The Earth?
Observation roku: There was minimal public usage of cell phones (and if a phone was answered on a train, the person got up to move between cars). Smart phones have made an inroad here, yet you see plenty of flip phones (the Japanese version was way ahead of US before smart phones showed up). You very rarely saw anyone walking and talking to him or herself. About the only time it was ever obtrusive: a guy on the moat tour around the Matsue Castle took a call, and THB was so bored it was more amusing than annoying (and he stayed on the call for 4-5 minutes).
Observation nana/shichi: Bikes are big here, and they are pretty much all the same: three gear oldies with a basket in the front, used for commuting or going to school. On the islands around Naoshima many bike places were renting the standard model except they had small motors on them (and we also saw them on the road up to the silver mine outside of the Abeke House). And, in the cities and larger towns they are ridden on the sidewalks, sometimes at pretty good speed. THB almost got killed in Matsue when he was crossing with the light (since DB and E&J were in the crosswalk with him, THB is pretty sure it was green) by a big guy commuting at speed in the road who was not looking at the pedestrians before turning and almost hit THB in the twilight (where exactly is the twilight on THB?).
Observation hachi: There was a phenomenon we noticed with taxis: invariably, if the taxi driver was not familiar with an address or business name (easily possible because in Japan addresses are pretty much meaningless without landmark buildings to go by), the fare to the location (usually a restaurant) was always higher than the return fare over the exact same distance. Sometimes by a factor of 25%. Taxis here have high flag drop costs (in cities, usually $6.50) and slow incremental increases. One night, we had two taxis, one following the other, arriving at almost the same time: one fare was $21 and one $25 (at least it wasn’t as bad as the two taxis back from the restaurant to the hotel in Santiago, that was $25 and $50!).
Observation kyu: Something we noticed in 2010 and has picked up pace in2013 is how the art triennials end up being staged in closed schools. In rural Japan, the pace of movement to big cities combined with low birth rates is accelerating. That makes for a nice opportunity for art to invade these large empty structures (classrooms, gyms, schoolyards, pools), and also makes for poignant example of the changes in demographics and what it means for these communities.
Observation jyu: Rice! Here, there, and everywhere. Not so noticeable when you’re in Tokyo and Kyoto. Travel anywhere else in Japan and realize these small plots are pretty much everywhere, and are not on the industrial scale of California and other growing regions. Sort of goes along with the full employment mode here: the trains, the stores, the hotels (not so much in the Inn Hotel type spots), the post offices are loaded with staff. Road crews have twice as many workers as you see in the US. There are a lot of people working here. You don’t see any vagrants (or we didn’t visit spots where they might be seen).
Observation jyu ichi: This is a quiet country, in general. In the country, there are very few birds around. People are restrained on trains. While conversations have a lot of thank yous and bowing and hai, hai, hai, nobody is raising their voice. Even the guys drinking at the inns were damn quiet. In the public baths, the only time THB heard a conversation was when he could hear DB and E talking on the other side of the wall at I Love You on Naoshima (I love you, DB). If a restaurant filled up, there would be a hum for sure, and nothing like the decibel ranges at Delfina or Nopa.
Observation jyu ni: Tokyo had the highest recorded temperature on record for both October 11 and 12. It has been hot (and often humid) on this entire trip, maybe 3-4 days of what we used to call fall weather out of 25 (that includes our departure half day, which was very nice out). The common rooms at many of the places we stayed were not much below the outside temperature, if at all, day and night. And, a number of the installation pieces in the two triennials dealt frankly with the tsunami damage and resulting nuclear reactor disaster at Fukushima (here they refer to the disaster as 3/11). And, there usually is a master switch (that holds your key) that turns off all the non-essential electricity (like lights and a/c) when the key is removed (you don’t have to put in your key, e.g., you can fool the device with biz cards).
These are not totally unrelated statements. Global warming is definitely influencing our trips in the fall; here and on our National Parks trip what used to be fall tending toward warmish days and cool nights has become warm and humid days and rare cool nights. After 3/11, all of the nuclear reactors have been shut down In Japan (and there is a major controversy about when to start up). In response to the reduced national energy production, many of the businesses have significantly raised the kick-in level of the a/c temperature to save energy (however, it appears that ambient light in the big cities is as bright as ever now).
Observation jyu san: THB kept postponing writing about the absence of birds in Japan in the countryside and the parks in the cities (who knows how THB’s mind works when it comes to putting stuff in writing…THB does not!). After just completing the biography of Rachel Carson, maybe there is some relationship between the environment and global warming and farming that has reduced the bird population. Maybe more likely is that THB’s observation is so anecdotal as to be meaningless (put this statement at the end of every observation and you are closer to the truth than the shadow?)
Observation jyu yon: THB tried not to write (really? After 21,000 words…THB did not try near hard enough!) about things that were noted at length in the postings from the 2010 trip. So, here, are a few words that had to be repeated: Send Ahead is a terrific service. You take bags that are going to needed later in the trip, have the bell desk or concierge fill out a form with the details, pay a very nominal fee (between $10-15 per bag, no matter how large), and as you are checking in at the send ahead spot, your bag magically appears (even when the one time the bell desk sent it to the wrong hotel, then made it good at no charge, and the bag was there in time because Fusao proactively checked). Above and beyond!!!
Observation jyu go: From our vast research, we’ve learned that Japan is an aging country with a very low birth rate and the young are starting to seek work overseas. In the cities, what we saw was a very young crowd of teens and under35s everywhere, during the day and night, weekdays or weekends. Walking a bit of Roppongi at night and on the subway ride back to the hotel, we saw an overwhelming number of young women (in our car, it must have been 35 teenage girls and young women to 3 men; we assumed some teeny-bopper concert had let out).
We also saw very few young kids and babies. So, maybe the oldsters a) aren’t going out much, b) living outside the big cities, and c) there really is a very low birth rate and/or parents don’t get out much with under 5s. Stats say Japan will shrink by 30% over the next 45 years if things stay the same.
Observation jyu-roku Often, THB could not figure out how to turn off all the lights in the room. Yes, it should be no surprise when THB also could not work the phone, the camera, and plenty of other devices. However, sometimes even the master switch wasn’t enough. Sometimes the controls were next to the bed stand and mixed in with the alarm clock (fortunately THB never set the clock to go off too early). We saw this when we stayed at the recently Hotel Bel Air in Los Angeles (there, THB couldn’t get the wifi working and you had to wait 17 seconds to find out if the TV was coming on…TRUE STORY!).
One night THB slept with a soft red glow above his head (DB was already asleep and sh thought that light was out…nope). Some nights THB turned on and off every light twice (or more) to get them all off (or more likely, to find out he couldn’t turn them all off).