David and Lili's World Tour


  • October 2016 - Japan

Konnichi wa. Visiting Japan completes our epic journey around Planet Earth - and 30 months living out of a backpack. We arrived where we started, on a Pacific island. To complete our World Tour loop, we flew from Colombia to Maui to Tokyo. Now we're finally back in New Zealand, and wow, we bought a house! Holy cow. Stuff! One benefit from backpacking for 30 months is that we appreciate stuff more than ever while simultaneously knowing that we don't need it. Another benefit is that our stuff includes cool artwork, with African masks and protective spirits. Also, we are hardened by cheap hotels, noise pollution, air pollution, overcrowded public transportation, blatant corruption, and aggressive street hustlers, so our new home seems like a castle. Mostly we've been working in our new garden building terraces and stairs, planting fruit trees and veggies, and spreading around our existing bamboo and banana trees. Yea!

Oh yeah, Japan... Primarily this was a family visit. My uncle Bob lives in Tokyo, and we were able to stay with him and my lovely aunt Mutsuko, plus cousin Shepherd from Colorado joined us to visit our Japanese cousins around town. Great! Highlights include the gigantic Halloween party in Shibuya, touring Kyoto by bicycle, eating amazing food, and slowly improving our ability to speak bad Japanese.

Good news: smartphone technology has made it a lot easier to study foreign languages, and we were impressed with how quickly Shepherd learned to read Katakana (Japan's phonetic alphabet). This is a key skill for any traveller in Japan because the language has borrowed thousands of English words, including beer and coffee, but they write these words in Katakana (ビール is biiru and コーヒー is koohii). With basic language skills mastered, we set off to find Tokyo's best raamen and bargain sushi.

Japan is amazing! Merely listing some cultural topics reveals the diversity and uniqueness: anime, manga, pokemon, hello kitty, karaoke, kimonos, geishas, sake, samurai, salarymen, sumo, shinto, zen.

Despite the ubiquitous temples and shrines, this is not a religious country. A common saying is that 80% of the people are Buddhist and 80% are Shinto, and yet it is common for people to get married in Christian churches. In other words, most people are neither Buddhist nor Shinto religiously, but follow certain traditions, culturally. Unlike the USA for example, the Japanese simply do not care about other people's religious beliefs. Great! This attitude not only eliminates a major point of stress from society (as seen elsewhere in abundance), but also keeps so much fact-free religious bullshit away from Japan's mainstream psyche. For example, Japan has the highest percentage of people in the world who know that climate change is caused by human activity. The Japanese understand and trust the Scientific Method, whereas in other countries, religious groups (and corrupt politicians) manufacture doubt. We need reliable knowledge now more than ever thanks to fake news and alternative facts; Science is good.

One Japanese friend of mine put it this way: the people's religion in Japan is being Japanese. This implies that the Japanese understand and trust certain cultural rules. For example, greater Tokyo is the world's largest metropolitan area (with 37.8 million people), and incredibly, it is clean, safe and organized, proof that the population overwhelmingly follows the cultural script. This includes being friendly to foreigners, but good luck getting a stranger to share their true opinions about anything controversial.

Speaking of foreigners, yes there is racism, especially against the Korean and Brazilian sub-cultures, or so we've been told, but it is not OK to be blatantly racist against individuals, as this does not follow the script.

Another example: in Japan one does not tip. If a foreigner tips someone out of ignorance of this rule, confusion might follow as this does not follow the script.

In other words, the Japanese society creates order by ensuring predictable behaviors. This strong cultural cohesion explains why the Japanese salaryman has such a strong sense of teamwork and group harmony. In Japan, nearly everyone is fashionably dressed. In Japan, the ancient and modern coexist seamlessly. In Japan, the details matter; this includes how food is presented, how presents are wrapped, and how people work for the welfare of society at large. This humble pursuit of perfection is what makes Japanese hospitality legendary.

I had a job in Tokyo when the Nikkei stock market crashed in 1990, and yes I wore a tie to work every day. Meanwhile I needed a group in order to socialize on weekends so I joined an Ultimate Frisbee team. When drinking beer in Tokyo with my teammates, I loved the fact that everyone is responsible to top up everyone else's glass, so that one's glass is never half empty, and one never serves oneself.

When Japan's bubble burst, I bailed. Now almost thirty years later, Japan's economy is still stagnant, even with negative interest rates. Say what? In what some economists call a desperate move, negative rates provide an incentive for banks to lend money to stimulate investment. But Japan's economic problem today is largely demographic, the experts say, with too many old people supported by too few young people. Plus of course there's good old-fashioned corruption. Why for example should Japan have nuclear power plants?

It might seems surprising that Japan has one of the world's lowest birth rates, and a lack of interest in sex in general, but this explains the population statistics. Perhaps an aversion to intimacy follows from always being polite by the script, because one should not display one's true emotions generally (note that Japanese people don't hug, they bow). Perhaps the low rate of sex also follows from the economic transformation that followed the bursting of the bubble in 1990. Salarymen are less secure at work, and this is getting worse with AI and automation. Also women see marriage as the graveyard of hard-won careers, because the cultural "script" has traditionally stated that married women should be stay-at-home mothers. Furthermore, the cost of living is high. In Japan, individualism is on the rise. The mainstream media says this constitutes a crisis, but the long-term future for Japan might be a modern utopia, a relatively small population with great infrastructure and robots.

In summary, visiting Japan is always delightful but especially after a grand tour of Earth's largely dysfunctional cultures. We want to go back already, especially if it coincides with Halloween in Shibuya! And yes we want to travel more, but our priority now is to enjoy not-travelling, to work in our garden while exploring our adopted city of Tauranga and the surrounding Bay of Plenty. Life is good, and the adventures continue...