Here’s Looking at You, JP | Why Can’t We?

By Gustaf Berger

Special to the Gazette

After a day visiting the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and Park, we boarded a bullet train and whizzed at speeds exceeding two miles a minute through tunnels, past forests, farms, small towns, and dusky mountains on our way to Osaka where we debarked to change for the train to Kyoto. On the way to finding the right track, it hit me – my fanny pack had taken refuge under the seat and was on its way to Tokyo. I stopped, held my breath, reached into my pocket and pulled out my passport and train pass. I exhaled relief and searched my memory for what might be in the bag besides my water bottle, napkins, tea bags – a chill shot through me – my driver’s license, my debit card and, worse, my travel notes.

We had 20 minutes to catch our train, so we went looking for lost and found, hoping it would still be open. In a station large enough to house five Penn Stations, we had to ask directions three different times. My legs couldn’t keep pace with the pounding in my chest as we scurried through immense spaces and down long corridors jammed with travelers. The clock was ticking.

We lucked out. Open and not busy. After I described my bag and showed my ticket with the car and seat numbers to the official behind the desk, he made a call. After hanging up, he looked at me and smiled. “Your bag will be here in 10 minutes.” And it was. I was stunned. What? How? We dashed out the door, calling thanks over our shoulders and made our train with a minute to spare.


I’d been avoiding Japan because of my perception of the people as a harmonious chorus of sheep who wouldn’t cross an empty road until the walk signal flashed. Me, the independent – I’ll do it my way, on my time, New York City kind of guy – just wouldn’t fit in.

I got over that and for three weeks in April I bathed in the luxurious modernity, friendliness, and beauty of Japan. And the food was great. On returning to Boston, I thought, why can’t we copy the things they’re doing better than we are?

Japan is clean. A sign in the Kyoto Botanical Garden’s café says, “Please take your rubbish home.” There are no trash receptacles on the streets and no litter. People recycle. Truck tires leaving construction sites are hosed off before entering a street. No one eats while walking. People sweep their sidewalks.

Cities are quiet. The most ubiquitous sound is the cawing of crows twice the size of their American brethren. Sirens are rare. Motorcycles are muffled. People avoid honking their horns. We heard no raised voices, no arguments.

Trains are fast, smooth and quiet. The train trip from Kyoto to Hiroshima (the distance from Boston to NY) takes less than two hours and that includes making a change. They run on time. A conductor was fined for leaving a station 30 seconds early. Busses also run close to the schedules posted at bus stops. Efficient and extensive public transport, with signs in Japanese and English, relieves road congestion even in Tokyo. Train personnel bow when entering or leaving car.

Bicycle usage is widespread. There are bicycle parks at RR stations, schools, apartment houses, and office buildings. Bicycles are locked but not to anything. Apparently, bicycle theft is rare. Bicyclists share sidewalks and are respectful of pedestrians, slowing down or riding around them. Few ring bells or ask folks to move.

Well-tended gardens are everywhere. Ornamental trees, shrubs, and flowers cover all dirt surfaces in the cities. Trees line most streets. Otherwise uninspiring modern buildings are surrounded with well-planned landscaping. More benches would be nice; there are few outside of parks.

Free, modern, clean public rest rooms are readily available. Urinals reach near to the ground, suitable for men and boys. One urinal in each bathroom has handicap bars. Almost all toilets have built-in bidets.

Cozy mom and pop eateries flourish. Restaurant prices are cheaper than comparable restaurants in Boston. Taxes are included in the price, not added to the bill. No tipping. Bill is usually left when food is served. Staff greet clients as they enter and leave.

People are courteous and go out of their way to help, walking with you if necessary. Unbidden, they offer guidance to confused looking foreigners, especially concerning transportation and restaurant translations.

There are no panhandlers or homeless on the streets. We saw only a couple of people with shopping carts full of stuff. Japan takes care of its citizens. Contrast that with our 4 million homeless (for all or part of a year) and 18-million empty homes.

Unlike some building projects in JP, we witnessed one home and one commercial building being constructed with alacrity.

Granted our cultures are different, but why can’t we do some of these things?

10 things you may not know about Japan

  1. Few Japanese women wear sunglasses, tattoos or body piercings.
  2. People bring pop-up tents to picnic in the park.
  3. Botanical garden playground has kiosks containing hundreds of children’s books.
  4. There are no buskers in stations and few on streets.
  5. Rare in restaurants: paper napkins, salt, pepper, bread, butter, sugar.
  6. Smoking allowed in restaurants.
  7. No graffiti or defacement of property. No murals either.
  8. Phone booths are still used.
  9. Parking lots have automated wheel locks and no attendants.
  10. Five letters not used when translating Japanese to English: L,P,Q,V,X.

(Based on three weeks of observations, mainly in Tokyo, Kyoto and Takaoka. “No” means we didn’t observe it. Comments welcome. [email protected])

Gustaf Berger is a writer living in Jamaica Plain. He is the author of “Death Postponed.”

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