Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Order, Culture, and Group Identity...

Those are just a few of the things I will always remember about Japan.  I just came back from a two week stay in a country that made me realize the error in the wide misconception that Westernization and Developed are interchangeable.  (And by "just came back", I mean I am continuuing this post about 6 weeks since I got back.  Whatev-I got married in the mean time!)  Anyhoo...I always knew the textbook definition of Westernization/developed, but let me tell you.  Some textbooks got it wrong!  Japan is by far developed, with the yen kicking the George Washington out of our dollar.  However, it is definitely not Westernized.  Sure, there are Starbucks and Gaps, McD's and Subways.  But, street signs remain in Japanese and untranslated, most people do not speak English (out loud...they actually know English but it's not in their culture to speak it...for many reasons we can discuss at a later time), and well, they are too skinny.  Although the Western tentacles have edged their way into even a country as strong as Japan, they have respectfully resisted. 

So the reason I went was to coordinate with NASA's counterparts at JAXA in Tsukuba (pronounced Scuba), which is just outside of Tokyo.  We discussed an upcoming upgrade to the current Ku Band subsystem for ISS communications.  It was my first time on business travel, and as usual, I loved it.  It's a different frame of mind than casual travel.  I mean, I had a laptop with me!  I would never be that connected on my regular travels.

There were a few things that stuck in my head as I am one to observe.  First, the escalators.  This next facet would never happen in the US.  Everyone who wanted the escalator to do the work stood on the left, without fail.  Anyone who wanted to climb the escalator entered on the right.  Hands down-no one disobeyed this social, unwritten rule.  In fact, I witnessed people lining up on the left hand side just to get on the escalator instead of riding up on the empty right side.  Second, the culture is so engrained in people.  It's great to see other places like this where culture is so revered (coming from my Indian upbringing).  One thing that I distinctly remember is that Japan is the cleanest country.  Not one tiny instance of littering in all of the places I visited.  And the clincher?  There are hardly any trashcans!  The only place you will find bins are near the vending machines, and most of them are recycling bins (It is legally required to recycle.  God bless the Japanese.  What a great law.).  Don't expect candy bars or snacks either.  It's taboo to eat on the go in Japanese culture.  You don't see it at all.  I actually had the chance to see culture being "taught" to the younger generation.  On my way to Kyoto, a small child wanted a piece of gum.  He went to put his wrapper somewhere, and one of the parents looked at him and said "If you want to eat the gum, you have to hold the wrapper until we get home."  Lastly, I learned that the Japanese really do think of the group before the individual.  I am unsure if this is a direct example, but I think it fits.  When the JAXA folks took us out for lunch, they made sure that the "vegetarian" could eat.  But, it was not that simple since I also didn't eat fish or seafood, etc so they spent quite a bit of time figuring out where to take us.  What makes me relate this instance to group identity (and hospitality) was that they announced that "we have to respect her too so we will go to a restaurant that can serve food she can eat" even if it didn't have their favorite meat dishes. 

Travelling is by far one of my most favorite ways to pass time.  Blogging about them is like reliving the experience.

 On the plane with my two work colleagues: Diego (Left) and Zach (Middle)
So, to start things off, Diego and I could not figure out where the money came out of in these darn ATM machines.  Turns out, the machine was rejecting Diego's card, but it was all in Japanese!

Being vegetarian (meaning no fish either), eating in Japan was surely going to be a challenge.  Alas, though, I was able to find some things to eat.  However, I am entirely positive that I ate fish-something-or-another because the more I asked English-fluent folks, the more I realized there is no true way to specify that vegetarian also means no fish.  The looks on people's faces were priceless as they wondered what they were going to feed me.  You see, in Japan, "hosting" a guest means being able to feed them, and that hospitality was found even in restaurants.  This was my first meal in Tokyo.  The roasted peanuts were delish.   

One of our first touristy spots.  Imperial palace! 

I quickly learned THE thing to do in Japan was to check out their Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.  Outside of the temples were these areas in which you were to clean your mouth and hands before entering the House of God.  Many things reminded me of Hinduism (where we wash our feet before we enter the Hindu temples). 

Outside of both Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples were prayers posted by followers on these boards.  My favorite ones were from students wanting good luck in passing their exams! 

It was mother hot in Japan in August.  Enough said.

These freaked me out.  But the guys ate them! 

 This was more my style. Mmm...actual Japanese Shitake mushrooms!

One of the "things" in Japan is fake food to represent dishes the restaurant serves.  In fact, there are old shops in Kyoto (the old Imperial capital before Tokyo) that specialize in making these dishes.  They made for an easy way to order Japanese food when you didn't speak Japanese! 

I left the airport thinking the Japanese used the same toilets we do. Ha! Then I stepped into JAXA and realized there are "Japanese" toilets (or just toilets locally. No Japanese adjective.) Consider the description as a "hole in the floor".

 The JAXA hosts taking us out. 
 The after party was a real life Karoke bar!

I will admit-I strayed from the group to find food that I could eat without having to specify no fish, etc.  So when I smelled Indian food on our way to lunch, I went on a hunt to find it that evening after work.  It was not the greatest food, but it was heaven in my mouth at the time.  Spinach daal!

JAXA was so amazing to see.  This is the position with whom we coordinate as they are responsible for the communication systems for the Japanese segment.

 Their version of DVIS.

 In their mockups!

 At the top of Mt Tsukuba.

So the coolest thing I did was take off on my own and do this bicycle tour of Tokyo.  Considering I just got myself on a bike not too long ago (you know that since you read my blog), my first city ride in Tokyo was quite adventurous!  I will tell you this--riding in a large city like Tokyo is one way to force you to become a decent bicyclist!  The best part of the ride was finding sumo wrestlers!  YAY!

I decided to spend another week in Japan after work ended.  So I took the Bullet Train called shinkansen across Japan.  Here was my train to my next destination after Tokyo.  I was on my way to Kyoto!  The things I will always remember about the shinkansen are the smooth ride, the timeliness of all things in Japan (seriously, not even a second late or early), and the expense.

 In a small, local Kyoto shop for a quick snack.

One of my best meals in Japan was in Kyoto.  Gosh, it was so yummy.  I loved Kyoto because I stayed in a ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese inn.  They took great care of me and found me this restaurant that served a truly vegetarian meal.     

 I took a day trip to Osaka from Kyoto.  I couldn't believe how big the city was!

My next stop was Hiroshima, which was the one place I couldn't wait to get to.  I always am so curious how history is told from other perspectives, and Hiroshima did not disappoint.  It was solemn but hopeful.  It was well worth the trip. 

By far, one of my favorite places I went to in Japan was this mom and pop place in Hiroshima.  See the sign below, which should explain my attraction but also my hesitation (Mexican food...really?).  I look back and shake my head that I nearly walked out when I walked in.  I had instantly judged the place.  I love dives, but for some reason, I questioned this place.  I was certain they didn't speak any English and that I wouldn't find anything to eat.  Contrary to everything I thought, I loved this place.  It reminded me of my parents-local, hospitable, kind, and best of all, humble.  I had the best conversation in the two weeks I spent in Japan.  This was truly a small business with two people who just made an honest living.  I know it sounds cheesy, but I loved it.

Before I left Japan, I had to travel via the locals' advice to Miyajima, which is the sacred island near Hiroshima.  The torii in this picture is one of the most revered images to the Japanese.  Torii is a sign that a shinto shrine is nearby.

After Hiroshima and Miyajima, I made my way back to Tokyo and decided to climb Mt Fuji.  With me was this fantastic Australian couple on their 30th wedding anniversary trip.  Mark and Susan were a joy with whom to spend my experience. 
The thing to do is to use a stick to climb Mt Fuji.  Along the way, you can get your stick branded at each station, as Mt Fuji is broken into stages (5th Station, 8th Station, etc.)

I decided to do the climb in two days so I could see the sunrise (Bonsai!).  So we woke up around 2AM and climbed up just in time to summit and see this beauty.

I dragged a Glamour mag with me all around Japan just so I can get published!  I need to send it in!

One of my favorite pictures was this one I took with my phone.  If you can make it around the volcanic rim in time after sunrise, you can get this fantastic view of Mt Fuji's own shadow from its own peak!  It was awesome.

Continuuing to be amazed by the beauty that was.  And the Peace symbol was super popular for the Japanese to flash in their pics:)

And to top things off, I just had to snap this pic.  Of all things I saw in Japan, I was most surprised to see an AMERICAN computer there.  Turns out, with the volcanic ash of Mt Fuji, the Dell computers are better suited the handle the dust than Japanese laptops.  Interesting, huh?

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