So we flew from the permanent dusk of Delhi, with air so polluted you could chew it, to Tokyo. We landed in the Land of the Rising Sun at 8am, with said sun that icy winter white that hurts your retinas and the air…. mmmmminty fresh in a way that Delhi-dwellers dream of. People with respiratory problems are actually dying from the smog where we boarded and yet this equally massive city, only 7 hours away, is so clean you’d think you were up the Matterhorn in a basket of Lindt bunnies.
So far, so good: Japaneasy. We are all set for a whizz-through airport experience, but a good ninety minutes later and we’re only just leaving Narita. Bureaucratic, bustling India and bonkers little Bhutan were both a breeze to immigrate into (sic) in comparison. Then at the hotel (schmancy, pricey, beige high-rise, next to the Imperial Palace) it becomes clear there are more 19th century overtones in this 21st century city than in any tumbledown Maharaja’s kingdom in India. All the hotel staff we met on the subcontinent behaved as though there was pretty much nothing we could do/say/eat/wear/drink that would’ve rattled their cage. But here, we get bows and apologies and words we don’t understand (I’m guessing different types of apology) but breakfast has very much just finished, our rooms absolutely aren’t ready, we definitely cannot sit inside for afternoon tea, we obviously couldn’t eat a cake bought in the hotel shop in the hotel restaurant… and so on.
It’s a thing here, methinks. You could call it ‘apologetic intransigence’. It’s basically someone saying ‘I’m terribly sorry but there’s absolutely no fucking way you’re doing that’ whilst bowing and doing praying hands and backing away from you. We’ve since experienced it to the max in a ryokan (guest house) in rural Nagano prefecture (definitely no lunch available, most certainly cannot check in for 25 minutes, absolutely have to wear hotel slippers to breakfast, grin grin bow bow) and… rules is rules, innit, but after where we’ve been, it feels a bit like you’ve got your mum’s strictest aunt babysitting, directly off the back of the one that let you stay up late, watch Bergerac and eat crisps. The contrast with laid-back jumble-stumble smoky-steamy India is massive.
We’re getting used to it though. Etiquette is details and details rankle. But etiquette also leads to some lovely things, including the quite astonishing practice (and I’ve only just learned that this is why it’s done) of Japanese people wearing those paper face-masks when they’ve got a bad cold TO PROTECT EVERYONE ELSE. This totally blows my mind. Imagine making yourself look like a total tit to stop a complete random getting a cough? So beautiful it’s akin to madness.
And the flipside of etiquette, details, punctuality and intransigence is a glorious heterogeneity of attitude towards the big stuff, like religion and sex. Take our guide for the two days we toured Tokyo, Megumi. She took us to the city’s biggest temple, Asakusa, and then straight to the Shinto shrine next door, explaining that her family – like most Japanese – believe in Buddhism and Shintoism without any conflict and also celebrate Christmas, Halloween and Easter to boot. Then we sat in a ‘Maid Café’ in Akihabara and watched barely pubescent girls dressed like something from Allo Allo play Connect Four with middle-aged men. It was SO creepy I actually did a little sick and couldn’t finish my drink. Go figure though: woe betide you taking your shoes off 3 inches onto the mat in a ryokan but absolutely feel free to pay cash to ogle a kid with her tits out in a café. Talk about ‘land of contrasts’. Yin and yang: hold my beer.