Japan is stranger than any place she has been to before, and yet at the same time one of the easiest and most thrilling, one could experience, writes Irna van Zyl.
The first thing that springs to mind when I think about Japan is the smallest room, or rather the loo, or the toilet.
At my first encounter in our hotel in Kyoto, tired from the long flight and relieved to find a quiet corner, the toilet raised its seat in a welcome greeting. Uncanny, I thought. It knows when you have entered the room.
But that was only the start.
Next up was the pleasantly heated seat. Although it was almost the end of March and pretty hot outside. Nothing like this past cold Cape winter where I would have welcomed every encounter with my toilet if the seat was warm.
Then I could not find the button for flushing. Or rather it was difficult to decipher which of the many buttons on the wall was meant for flushing the loo.
I took a closer look. The first one, I figured – because the Japanese writing had me baffled – must indicate a flush to the front, the next one the middle and the next the back. Ahh.
Then followed another button for music. For just in case I am bothered with the neighbours and needed some privacy. And finally, eureka, the flush button. I tried them all. And then again!
Okay, this is five-star hotel-type stuff. Yet, in a toilet at a station, I encountered the same thing.
In a park, the same. In a museum, more so. Nowhere in Japan did I see a loo where there was water on the floor, paper strewn about, not to talk about a basket full of smelly papers in the corner, or a toilet that was not equipped with the heated seats and the various options of cleaning yourself.
This cleanliness is carried out onto the streets of Tokyo. Streets that you could eat off. Never did you see a piece of discarded paper, yet there are no rubbish bins in the city. The Japanese take their rubbish home.
Once we saw a young woman eating on a train in Tokyo. “She must be from out of town,” our guide whispered, because it is not the habit to eat in public outside of a restaurant.
The same with cell phones. Although they are attached to their phones, they do not speak on it in public. Or, if they must, they whisper behind their hands, looking very apologetic.
A lot of visitors to Japan talk about the food. I think we might have been a bit over-ambitious with our kaiseki experiences (a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner).
Because we were there to celebrate an 80th birthday, we thought we should do it in style and had chosen a formal dining experience.
Well, the raw eel and then fresh innards of some strange sea animal did us in. For other people, this might be a highlight, but for us, a simpler meal was much preferred.
Yes, you can find raw fish and lovely sushi everywhere, but there are also noodles and more noodles and very good beef. And the interesting thing is that some of the best eateries are on the lower level of the stations.
If you have the time, do not miss a visit to the Fish Market in Tokyo. There is a well-known sushi-restaurant, but also all kinds of seafood with not even a hint of a fly or a whiff of fish smell in the air.
Patriotism and The Rugby World Cup
We travelled to Japan in March just as they started gearing up for the Olympic Games in 2020 – new taxi drivers were being trained, and everybody was brushing up on their English.
You could also find more and more signposts in the city in English, which of course makes it so much easier for foreigners to get on without a guide.
This year is also Rugby World Cup. Not that it mattered that much to the man in the street until we saw a bigger-than-life-size poster in a street in Tokyo of Springbok locks Eben Etzebeth, Lood de Jager and flanker Francois Louw emerging from a scrum.
We were overwhelmed with pride for our country and had to pose in front of the poster.
A couple of days later, out of some misshapen place of patriotism or loyalty, we asked a taxi driver to take us past the World Cup stadium in Tokyo.
It was impossible to see anything past the high outside walls. But still – we were there! Because the Boks might just win the World Cup.
Something that I was not looking forward to before the trip was the crowds of people.
But even in the most crowded places, nobody pushed or bumped against me. And we went to many busy places. The underground in Tokyo is huge, much bigger than Paris or London or even New York.
Yet it is colour-coded, ordered and easy to understand. There are even carriages for women only to protect females from unnecessary attention in peak hours on crowded trains.
The famous Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo was equally thrilling. And we were there at five o’clock human traffic.
After posing for a picture with the Hachikō dog memorial statue, we crossed the crossing together with what felt like thousands of Japanese.
It was so special and easy to walk across the street with so many others that we did it again. And again!
Japan In The Spring
The Japanese say people in the know travel to their country in one of two seasons – the spring at the time of the cherry blossoms, or their autumn when the leaves are falling.
Those are also times when the weather is more accommodating – not too hot, not too cold but warm enough that you could experience a naked dip in an onsen (public hot tub, often to be found in hotels) or a walk in one of their lovely parks.
The one question that I wondered about afterwards, is if you could measure the level of sophistication of a nation in the way they look after their toilets. Because you would go a long way to do better than the Japanese.
Words by Irna van Zyl