The little differences

In Japan:

  • Buses cut their engines at bus stops and traffic lights, presumably to reduce emissions.
  • Taxis are very swish – drivers wear hats and gloves, and the seats all have lacy coverings. But don’t try to open the doors yourself – they’re all controlled by the driver remotely.
  • People with colds or other transmissible lurgi wear surgical masks in public so as not to infect others.
  • When it’s sunny many people (mostly women) wear elbow-length gloves so as to avoid getting a tan, as pale skin is considered more attractive (this is why geisha paint their faces white).
  • Convenience stores are everywhere, and more often than not have English names, like Lawsons, 7-11, Circle K, Ministop and Family Mart.
  • Current girls’ fashion is for knee-length (or even longer) black socks or stockings, very short, very tight shorts or skirts, and floaty, lacy blouses. And wavy, dyed-brown hair.
  • People in the street are constantly handing out free packets of tissues, plastered with advertising (the packets, not the tissues).
  • Lifts are very aggressive. You have exactly two point five seconds to enter or exit, after which time the doors will slam shut. Unlike lifts over here, they don’t seem to be able to tell (or maybe they just don’t care) if something or someone is partway through the door at the time, so they’ll continue to close, necessitating much struggling, pushing and stabbing of the “doors open” button. Needless to say this requires coordination and lightning reflexes when you’re travelling with a baby stroller and a toddler (whose presence made the lift preferable (in theory) to the stairs in the first place).
  • Yes, vending machines are everywhere, but I only ever saw ones selling drinks and cigarettes. No sign of the fabled “Schoolgirls’ soiled underwear” machines… On the other hand rubbish bins are practically non-existant, which can be a little inconvenient.
  • Nevertheless pretty much everything is spick & span and clean & tidy. And hyper-organised. On the train platform you’ll see signs on the floor telling you which carriage will stop where, exactly where to stand so that the train door will be in front of you when it stops, and a line indicating where to queue. However doorways are very narrow, and there’s often little or no space to store large items of luggage or prams on the train.
  • People bow, but not as much as I’d been led to believe. An animated lady bowed to me from the screen of a public phone once I’d finished my call. The woman serving drinks and snacks on the bullet train bowed to everyone when entering and exiting the carriage (no-one bowed back, but I guess bowing’s not so easy when you’re seated). I saw a group of about a dozen business men in a train station stood in a circle all repeatedly bowing to one another, but of course by the time I’d unpacked and turned on my camera, they’d finished. (This reminds me of a documentary I saw sometime back about Henri Cartier-Bresson, in which he extolls the virtues of his small Leica camera, which he can hold in the palm of his hand or slip up his jacket sleeve, to be whipped out in the blink or an eye to capture one of his trademark “decisive moment”s. Mine is unfortunately a little slower off the mark (although speedier than my last digital compact)).