The Way

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

“Chuo-Ku, Shirogane 1 chome 8-10, onegaishimasu” [take me to this inscrutable address, please]

“Doko?” [where?]

I show the cab driver the address, in English and in Japanese.

“Doko?” [where?] “I still don’t understand this address.” The driver switches to English, as if somehow the completely impossible to use Japanese address system would become easier if we spoke in English. I call up the address on my iPhone and even show it on google maps (thank goodness for the portable wifi hotspot which has already saved me on numerous occasions.) Still nothing.

The ryokan was in the middle of Fukuoka, a bustling city of over a million people, and was only ten minutes from the Hakata station, but it might has well have been in Burundi at that point.

“Denwa bango ga arun desu ka?” [Do you have the phone number?] I call the ryokan, the traditional Japanese inn where we will spend the rest of our vacation in Fukuoka. That however, leads to an entirely new confusing conversation between the taxi driver and the ryokan owner. “It’s by the Family Mart.” “No, not that Family Mart, the other Family Mart.” “Do you see a Lawson’s?” I cannot even believe that they used a Lawson’s convenience store as a landmark – it’s like saying “You should be able to see my house – it’s the one with the door in front.”

It’s easy to be stunned by Japanese hospitality and the intense devotion to customer service everywhere you go. Parking lot attendants race into the street to clear traffic as you pull out, the airport security staff load your bags into trays for you, attendants at the convenience store literally run to the front of the store if the line at the register is more than one person deep.

But there is something else at work here – more than just slavish devotion to you and your needs. In Japan, everything has a Way. A Way to serve food, a Way to pack your purchases at a store, a Way to use the bath.

And if you want to disturb the delicate balance that permeates your surroundings, try to go against that Way. I do not advise it. There is a Way to serve and eat sushi and sashimi, and if you try to upset it there will be consequences. At Sam’s friend’s sushi place, Annie’s request for a side of wasabi was met with consternation. The waitress did take the time to explain why wasabi was unnecessary, as it was already in the sushi, but Annie pointed out that she simply wanted more. This response was not appreciated and led to another explanation of why her request was inappropriate. Finally, of course, I pulled the confused Westerner card and prevailed.

It makes no difference whether another person notices or appreciates the Way or not. A train conductor will bow when entering and leaving the train car. An airline attendant will bow when opening the departure gate. The girl on Yakushima island who ran a tiny snack stand at the base of a mountain spent 10 minutes carefully cutting a slice of cake for Annie, washing the knife before each cut, then carefully wrapping it and arranging it on a plate. She was completely out of sight and had no idea I was watching her from the reflection on the glass. Even in a remote café, there is the Way.

The Way is sometimes looks like the it’s just the way it’s always been done, but do not be deceived into thinking that it is simply about making life easier or customer service. Korea abandoned its archaic address system and it has long ago become clear that Japan would be well-served to do the same. Our cab driver was not a moron – he asked local residents if they knew how to find the address and they couldn’t do it either.

But without the Way, and the old Ways, would Japan really still be Japan? No matter how much modern technology, English lexicography, and foreign fashion finds its way into Japan, they retain their unique identity. Sometimes they don’t even recognize that what they’ve taken from others was foreign in the first place. Like the hot dog. In Japan, a hot dog is Japanese. An American Dog? That’s a corn dog.