They say that travel broadens the mind. It also feeds the imagination, delights the eye and, in my case, blew my mind.
For a graphic designer, the Japanese flag is probably a perfect example of a stripped-back, minimal symbol that expresses an idea perfectly.
I have recently returned from my first visit to Japan taking in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. I have travelled to many places, but Japan completely overwhelmed me in so many ways.
First off, it was the people. The British are renowned for their courtesy, but the Japanese far surpass that. They are the most well-mannered, gracious and law-abiding race I have ever encountered. I was amazed and very moved by it. There is a natural modesty in their behaviour that is utterly endearing.
And they take enormous pride in whatever they do. They live by a set of rules that are centred on thinking of others around them.
Now this is going to sound like a promotional commercial for Japan, but it is exactly how I experienced it.
Me along with my daughter-in-law on one of the immaculate trains.
The trains, buses and taxis are immaculate. There is no tipping. Everything is punctual. People queue in line, and no one seems to shout.
Not a soul on the crossing.
No one eats on public transport. No one crosses the road unless the light is green.
If you have a cold in Japan, you wear a mask to avoid spreading it to others – so considerate. Can you imagine people doing that in the UK?
While staying with my daughter-in-law’s family, we visited a local ‘onsen’: this is a natural hot spring bathhouse. There is an amazing washing ritual before taking the hot spring.
It involves sitting in a little stall, scrubbing copiously and ladling masses of water to rinse off. During the process, various soaps and shampoos are topped up by female attendants – a little disconcerting for a European.
The lavatories in Japan are fantastic. Most WCs are electronically controlled to include a heated seat that lifts and closes automatically on entry. When you are finished, various jets of water spring forth strategically aimed, and all is topped off with a warm air dryer. A delightful hands-free experience.
Before entering a house or restaurant, you remove your shoes. Here in the UK, we can step in spit, mud, vomit and dog droppings and after tersely wiping on a door mat or not, we trail it around the house. Japanese visitors to this country must be revolted. And when you go to the loo in a Japanese house, you wear shoes specifically for that purpose.
Wherever you shop, service always starts and finishes with a bow, along with much smiling and thanking. It is so wonderful and always seemed genuine to me.
There is far more uniform wearing in Japan, and these are worn with great pride and are always immaculate.
Penny loafers abound.
School girls have a strict uniform code consisting of white sailor tops and navy skirts or tartan kilts with white shirts and navy socks, and all seem to wear American-style penny loafers – the latter being, I guess, the influence of the US occupation during 1945 to 1952, along with their baseball, golf, Coca-Cola, and workwear.
Ready for work in orderly fashion.
Office workers wear a crisp, white shirt and a two-piece black suit for women and navy or dark grey suits, a white shirt and a tie for men, and always with a briefcase.
Me in Tokyo
There is an overwhelming use of neon and animated digital advertising on poster sites in cities looking like scenes from Blade Runner. Sound too is widely used: jingles, cutesy melodies, speech and bird songs assault the ears on the underground, on the streets and in the shops.
And the Japanese love little cartoon characters: they pop up everywhere in a very kitsch, child-like way that is very alien to what we have in the UK.
The crime rate is relatively low in Japan: guns are illegal and the much-coveted ceremonial swords have to be registered with the police. Capital punishment is still carried out in Japan. You can leave your mobile or laptop on the table while getting a coffee and it will still be there when you get back – do that in London and it would all be gone in seconds. And there are also baskets placed beside tables to put your bag in to keep them clean. Traffic and pedestrian police are a pleasure to watch, using a kind of illuminated rod in a series of graceful moves to conduct people and traffic.
Making in Japan is a craft tradition, and there is much evidence that it is still supreme. Their pottery, fashion, furniture, lighting, flower arrangement and gift wrapping are all stunning.
I had the great pleasure of visiting many of the traditional temple gardens in Kyoto, and they are breathtakingly beautiful.
In a Japanese garden, everything has a meaning and is painstakingly put together to echo nature.
Bamboo is used for fences, gates and building materials, making everything in harmony with its surroundings.
My granddaughter looks out.
Traditional tea houses are often to be found in the gardens, where you sit on the floor, take tea and look out onto the tranquil surroundings. You can clearly see where the inspiration for modernist architecture came from. Japanese buildings are all about simple function, beautifully formed.
Beauty in everything.
Being a vegetarian, it was a little tricky for me, but the presentation of Japanese food makes the European nouvelle cuisine chefs, with their concocted presentations, look frankly pathetic. Food presentation in Japan really is an art form. Restaurants tend to be on the upper floors in city centres rather than at street level, where rents are far higher. Generally, they tend to be small and intimate. With space being a premium, the Japanese are experts in making the maximum out of the minimum.
Rubbing shoulders with traditional Japan is a young, energetic creative community designing and making products, graphics, furniture and fashion items that fit harmoniously into all that has gone before, retaining that special Japanese aesthetic.
The Japanese still don’t allow immigration, and I can only assume that is why their customs and culture are so intact and not diluted by other cultures. With 126 million people packed in this group of islands, this is understandable.
However, Japan has an ageing population that is gradually outnumbering the younger population, and this will create an issue in the future with the increasing budget for caring for the elderly, so immigration may need to happen to maintain the workforce required to generate income.
Was there a downside in all of this? Well, just two odd things: they still allow smoking in restaurants, which was a bit of a shock. And bicycles aren’t allowed on the main roads in cities, so they ride on the pavement, weaving in and out of pedestrians, so you have to be mindful of that.
On my last evening in Osaka at my daughter in law's home, her mother gave me the full tea ceremony. It was so special.
Arriving back in the UK and sitting on the Piccadilly line, I was instantly depressed by the spectacle of a messy carriage, with people speaking too loudly on their mobiles with others stuffing food into their mouths. Such a depressing contrast from the behaviour of the Japanese.
Japan’s impact on me had a profound effect, and I will definitely be returning. I sincerely hope that the Japanese retain their unique, delightful character, and all I can say is that if a set of rules can make such a gracious race, let’s introduce some rules here.
Visual post script
Some additional memories...
above and below, loo heaven.
I hope that this has given you just a little taste of the magic that is Japan.