Views of Japan: First Impressions From New Arrivals
As you will probably know by now, dear readers, it will soon be 10 years since I first moved to Japan. In that time, the country has changed in some ways and remained exactly the same in a great many others.
What has been fascinating for me to watch down the years is the way in which my friends and family have reacted to being in Japan for the first time.
Whilst their reactions and impressions have been overwhelmingly positive, it has been fascinating to observe the different aspects of Japanese society that stood out to them in particular.
Take the case of my father for example.
As someone who grew up in Glasgow in the 60s and 70s, my dad is no stranger the rough and tumble that comes with being a working class man in a relatively poorer European city.
So, when he came to Japan for the first time, back in 2007 he was amazed at the courtesy, kindness and elegance with which Japanese people conducted their daily business.
I remember as I met my dad off the plane at Narita Airport. We had had some disagreements over the preceding few days. He felt that I should perhaps come back to Scotland and “get a real job” as it were.
It was amazing how quickly he changed his tune.
We got on the train at the airport, ready for the hour or so train ride into Tokyo, where I was living at the time.
As we sat down, two female staff from one of the airlines who, even by Japan’s high standards, were drop dead gorgeous, sat across from us.
My dad was, as one would expect, exhausted from his 16 hour flight from Glasgow, with a stopover in Paris, and in a momentary loss of concentration, dropped his wallet on the floor.
One of these two women, who were the very definition of elegance and natural beauty leaned forward, picked up the wallet, smiled and said in very heavily accented Japanese-English “Here you are.”
My dad said thank you, turned to me grinning and said “Ok son, now I understand why you want to live in Japan!”
This was a recurring theme throughout the 8 days of my dad’s trip. He was continually amazed at how kind, helpful and friendly the Japanese people that he encountered were, despite the fact that they were, essentially, complete strangers.
About 2 years later, the next time my father came to Japan, he brought my mother along. She was also mightily impressed by the hospitality of the Japanese people she met. However, call it women’s intuition or whatever, but she picked up on some other, less obvious points with regards to the way service, in particular food service is conducted in Japan.
As someone with more than a quarter of a century of experience in the food and hospitality sector, my mother has the unfortunate tendency to over analyze and be hyper-critical towards any restaurants, bars or such establishments whenever we eat out.
However, for that week in Okayama, plus a weekend trip to Okayama, even she couldn’t find any fault.
“It’s amazing the way all the restaurants are so open-plan.” She remarked, “You can look right into the kitchen and see all the immaculately clean staff, preparing the meals and keeping the system running.”
She also thought it was “really cute” the way that izakaya staff always collectively bellowed “irashaimase” (welcome) whenever a new customer enters the shop.
“Somehow I can’t see this ever becoming a thing in your typical Glasgow kebab shop!” she quipped.
It's the politeness of the Japanese that is the most captivating to foreigners visiting here. When tourists come here and are greeted with the polite manners and kind behaviour associated with Japanese culture, it becomes not only a noticeable difference but also an experience they remember forever.
Later, after returning to Osaka following my 3 year “sabbatical” in Hong Kong, I was fortunate enough to welcome some of my Hong Kong friends to visit.
One such friend, who has lived in the bustling metropolis that is Hong Kong her entire life, made an interesting and somewhat unexpected observation upon her arrival in Osaka.
“Wow, this place is so quiet!” she exclaimed.
Now, I’ve heard Osaka described in many colourful ways down the years, some of which, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate, can’t be repeated on a family friendly site such as this one!
But never, ever, had I imagined that anyone would describe this city, Osaka, as “quiet”.
However, as in all things, it really is a matter of perspective. To someone from a small country like Scotland, whose entire population is only about 60% of that of Osaka Prefecture, Osaka seems like a massive, densely populated urban sprawl of seemingly endless tall buildings, offices and train lines.
However, for someone hailing from Hong Kong, the opposite extreme is applicable.
Hong Kong’s total habitable landmass, not including the mountains, forests and national parks that make up the bulk of its area, is only about 30% of that of Osaka City. And yet, it boasts a population of almost 8 million, which is more than double that of Osaka City, which has a far more modest population of less than 4 million.
So, Hong Kong is far busier, far more crowded and, dare I say it, a whole lot noisier than Osaka. My friend’s remarks, on reflection made perfect sense. What she told me was true, from a certain point of view.
It has been amazing to watch the various reactions of my friends and family over the years as they experience the beauty, wonder and magnificence of Japan for the first time.
In many ways it takes me back to the first time I stepped off a plane in Tokyo back in 2005 to begin my first, 2 week vacation in Japan.
As I have remarked many times on here before, that was an experience that completely changed my life and set me on a path that until then, I had never even contemplated, that, in truth I doubted was even possible.
For various reasons, it’s unlikely that any of the friends and family I have mentioned here would ever actually come to live here in Japan. Nevertheless, it is nice to think that, at least in some small part, this wonderful country has left an impression on them, and touched their soul in the same way it continues to touch mine every day.