Tokyo: 1994 to 2012

Posted in Japan
I JUST BOARDED the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Kyoto Station all the way back to Narita Airport near Tokyo. Its my last day in Japan and I head out for Seoul, Korea this evening. I cannot believe 10 days have passed since I left home. I have a feeling these 5 months are going to go terribly quickly.

I had a fantastic time in Japan and I realize it was a good place to begin this journey. Traveling in Japan is fairly easy, even with the language barrier.  Although I must add, I am happy I remember even the basics from my college Japanese language classes. It made figuring my way around even easier as I was able to decipher signs and train station names. But even without that knowledge, an English speaking traveler in Japan should be fine. 
While in Japan I have taken note of how things have changed over the 18 years since I last visited.  18 years ago I saw the country through the eyes of a college student who was taking her first trip outside of the United States. Now I’ve traveled to over 40 countries and have a lot more experience with people and cultures from all over the world, so clearly I’ve done a lot of changing myself. But here are my observations of the changes I’ve seen on this trip.
Surgical Masks:  When I arrived in Japan in 1994, it was unnerving to see people walking around with masks covering their nose and mouth. That’s the kind of thing I’d only seen on sci-fi movies when a deadly virus had been released into the environment.  Not the normal, everyday walking around kind of thing. In 2012, those masks still exist and are even more prevalent.  I see them almost everywhere on people of all ages.  I asked my Japanese friend if the mask wearers were sick and didn’t want to spread their germs or if they were healthy and were trying to avoid getting sick. It sounds like it’s a little of both.  Plus now there’s the added worry of radiation poisoning from the nuclear plants damaged in last year’s earthquake that leads to even more masks on the street. 
Smoking:  When I arrived in Japan the first time, they may as well have handed me a complimentary pack of cigarettes at the airport. Smoking was so common that I almost couldn’t avoid it.  A friend used to joke about requesting the non-smoking section in restaurants because he knew full well there was no such thing.  You just did your best to sit by the occasional non-smoking group or by a window.  Now, Japan has taken on the policy of many other countries – no smoking inside buildings and outside only in designated areas. It was only in the bars where I noticed a few people smoking indoors, and even then the smokers were in the minority.
Enclosed smoking area outside Takadanobaba Train Station

Technology: In 1994 it seemed like Japan (and especially Tokyo) was leaps and bounds ahead of the US in terms of technology. I noticed car styles that I’d never seen in the US, and everything from rice cookers to parking lots had some contraption that seemed very high tech to me.  I’d say that now things appear to be a lot more equal between Japan and other parts of the world. I was actually surprised by how few smart phones, like iPhones and Androids I saw on this trip. It was mostly the foreigners that I saw with smartphones.  Many of my friends still were still using older style flip phones.
And before the mobile phones, these were all that we had in Tokyo

Staring: I remember being a regular item of curiosity when I was in Japan years ago. Many people would openly stare at me on the streets. Not only was I a foreigner but I was a Black foreigner which added to the uniqueness.  I didn’t have much happen other than stares and the occasional pointing, but another Black friend  received a bottle of sake in exchange for letting a Japanese man touch her hair, which was in braids.  I was expecting the same type of reaction on this trip, but I was like a B list actor who’d suddenly dropped down to C. No one cared, no one noticed – or if they did they have gotten very covert and hiding their curiosity.  I have to admit, though, I did notice a few more stares when I was in Osaka.  Even though Osaka is a big city, I somehow regained my B-list status while I was there.  My 9 year old friend Maya, who is half Japanese and half Jamaican and lives in Osaka must be getting the same treatment.  When another little Japanese girl openly stared at her, she copped a little attitude, put her hand on her hip and stared right back at the little girl until she finally turned her eyes. Nothing like confronting a situation straight on, Maya! 
Of course some things in Japan haven’t changed a bit.  Two of my favorite constants in Japan: everything runs on time and the country is extremely safe.  I have unfortunately gotten used to just leaving my belongings lying on tables or unguarded on trains because no local would ever think of stealing something.  I had to laugh a little bit to myself this morning. I went for a walk to get some coffee and saw two policemen standing on a busy corner of the sidewalk.  What were they doing there? They seemed to be standing guard over a man who had gotten completely drunk the night before and was just passed out right in the middle of the sidewalk.  They weren’t trying to wake him or arrest him or anything. Just make sure that no one stepped on him as he finished sleeping off the night before. Even in your worst moments in Japan, someone is there to watch out for you and make sure you’re safe! 
I’ll miss it here, but on to the next! Seoul, here I come. 


2 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Rio April 13, 2012, 5:01 am

    Ah, to be that safe everywhere.
    How did you take the photo of the two on the train? Ask permission, sneak a shot? They did not seem to notice.

    • Nailah April 13, 2012, 8:34 am

      The magic of the iPhone camera. Sneak attack!

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