There is no nation in the world quite like Japan.
Normally, every country has a flaw or two which makes it real. Makes us hope for some scope of improvement, a flawed freckle that prevents the “ah” of perfection.
Japan was perfect - in stillness and in movement; in mannerism, courtesy, beauty, dedication, organisational skills and devotion to the country.
There is impeccable uniformity in civil conduct and eutaxy in life. No loud talk, no dashing against people, the systematic queuing, cleanliness, and tremendous sense of purpose in keeping the society, environment, village, city, country as tidy and orderly as their own homes. The way each Japanese conducts himself in public is worthy of note and replication.
The central theme of their civic life is axled in the desire to dwell in a society where no one creates any nuisance for others. So, each person remains self-contained and yet fits into a large whole. There is an incredible sense of responsibility that one ought not to cause discomfort to others, and there must also be extreme gentility in the way one approaches others even if they are complete strangers.
There is zero littering, even cigarette butts can be found in designated smoking areas marked out in public space. It was the first place on earth that I did not find even a shred of paper or a toffee wrapping lingering on the streets. The roads, malls, train stations and every other public area are immaculate and spotless.
In most places, there was a line drawn in public areas so that people could walk effortlessly in streams without banging into each other – much like a one way for pedestrians. No one changes lanes even if their side is crowded.
The people of Japan are generally stoic, there are no loud expressions of merriment or censure. Everything is subtle and dignified. You will be in the middle of a large crowd and yet hardly hear a whisper. Most office goers are out early and dressed in monotonous greys, blacks and blues.
Nobody leaves toilets dirty or wash basins with leaking taps. Mothers remove shoes from the feet of their children so that train seats don’t get soiled. In case someone comes into your way even in a shop or a street, they will bow politely to apologise for the inconvenience.
The Shinkasen or the Bullet runs like a dream. It is punctual to the second, not just the minute. Even in the most advanced countries in the West, a train may draw into the station two minutes late, but not in Tokyo.
Tourism as an industry is terrifically well organised. The guides and drivers greet you with a genuine sense of hospitality. And they consider you their responsibility as long as you are in their custody. Having encountered dozens of guides on various tours around the word, I must admit the guide that I met for a tour to Kamakura was simply the best I have ever come across.
The focus and dedication with which people approach their work is unparallel. In peak afternoon and under the blazing sun, the driver of our bus continued to clean the vehicle at every long stop. Using a white towel to take the grease off even the screws on tyres!
If it was raining, he would stand down with a raincoat and a board mat for us to clean our shoes before we boarded the bus. At the end of the tour, the driver and guide would de-board and bow in courtesy as we left for the day.
In every hotel, our see-off was similar, as was in every posh restaurant. The hosts would wait at the door and would graciously bend double in a show of hospitality and politeness as we left.
There is no culture of tips in Japan. There is no anticipation or desire for any gratuities. We initially offered a porter a tip for lugging our bags out of the hotel and into a taxi, the employee simply shook his hand in polite refusal. Each person does his work and gets a salary and the matter ends there.
Any person, who may be a complete stranger, will go out of the way to help if approached with a query. No taxi driver will loot you or haggle with you even if you are unfamiliar with the city. All taxis stand in a sequence and you have to hail them in the same order only. Whatever is on the meter has to be paid, and that is pretty much standardized.
We took a taxi from Osaka to Kyoto and there was toll charge that got added on the meter bill. The driver could have taken advantage of the fact that we didn’t know how inter-city commuting works and asked us to pay what was showing on the meter, but he didn’t. He reduced a substantial amount that is normally done in inter-city travel and asked from us what was actually due. That is the level of honesty in everyday life.
There are rigorous norms on safety and habitation standards. I was also told that each year there is an inspection of even private vehicles to see if they are in good running condition. And bribes can’t get you a clearance certificate.
Best of all, at least tourists encounter no racism at all (though they don’t seem to embrace immigrants as their own people easily). Normally, that is not the case – whether overt or covert, holiday makers sometimes do face prejudice in most countries. Here, you can be comfortable in your skin.
Japan does have a very large proportion of grey or greying population and I saw a fair number of old people all around. But there was a total absence of self-pity or expectation from others to extend a helping hand even in the most aged. The idea and the mostly successful attempt is to be independent, self-sufficient and have self-respect.
Even the oldest, most gnarled and bent Japanese were managing on their own, walking about in their antiquated condition with self-confidence and with as equal a purpose as the young and buoyant.
Of what I understood, Japan allows retired people to pick a second job suited for their age. One of the guides told us that he picked showing his country’s heritage to tourists as his post-retirement career as he wanted to contribute to his country in his small way. One could see this was not blabber for the consumption of a few foreign travellers, but stemmed from a deep value system that is ingrained in each citizen.
Which brings me to the manner in which the Japanese have preserved their tradition and monuments. Again, my experience was nothing short of exceptional. All scenes were picture perfect, especially the gardens and the Zen temples. They nearly gave one a feeling of having arrived in heaven. One can sit on their bamboo mats and gaze out at nature the whole day. There is not a shrub or petal out of place. And there is extreme quietness, shattered sometimes only by unruly tourists.
Their tea ceremony, traditional dances and playing of instruments have depth and beauty.
In the picture-perfect land of the rising sun, if one were to really attempt fault finding, it would be the lack of vegetarian food. Nevertheless, I must hasten to add that in each eatery from the smallest and most modest to the high end, the restaurant manager made an attempt to give an alternative.
For someone who loves travelling across India and to Europe, I had apprehensions about how my vacation to Japan would turn out to be. Stepping into that country made me realize the magnetism of the country. Japan is a perfect balance between the modern and the ancient, a paragon of how people ought to conduct themselves in society and work towards nation building.
Had it not been so prohibitively expensive, Japan would have seen a lot more of me and that too very often.