Back for 2013

by Kensatsukan Gaijin

It's been a while since I've posted, even though we've been here for days, but the wifi in this ancient temple we are staying at is really pathetic, and you wouldn't believe how poor of a signal I get on my portable Internet hotspot on the top of this mountain. When Kobo-Daishi founded this collection of temples 1300 years ago he probably didn't anticipate that it would really inhibit getting a cellphone signal.

Still, Japan is an amazing place. You know that you are riding a local train when you see the conductor hold the train for a couple that he can see in the station buying tickets. They were running like their lives depended on it but I've seen the VRE conductor pull away when someone was 10 feet from the door.

I spent five years riding a commuter train every day, a metal box that served as a rickety palanquin for an hour and ten minutes, and often longer, from home to work. Not once did it ever occur to me that every station could have its own theme music, to rouse the sleepy and exhausted commuter who might otherwise tune out the station announcement.

Nor, if I were choosing the theme music for my train station, would I consider it possible to select Anton Karas' zither-infused theme from Carol Reed's 1949 classic "The Third Man". Apparently, however, someone at the Ebisu station on the Yamanote line is a bit of a film buff.

Little touches make Japan so different. Airport Customs has its own mascot, a cute and friendly creature that advises you on what fruits, vegetables, and explosives are prohibited. The Shinkansen bullet train employs a uniformed woman whose entire job is to patrol the cars and hand out pre-packaged moist hand towels when you arrive and take your seat. When she leaves the train car, she turns, faces the car, and bows.

Every time I am here a new feature fascinates me. This time it is the silence. No doubt, the streets of Shibuya are innundated with sugar pop and boy-band blarings, layered with salespeople proclaiming the superiority of their establishment's karaoke offerings. Yet time after time I've noticed that people here are fastidiously quiet. The subway and train cars I've boarded could be mistaken for the Amtrak quiet car at 5 am, but for the absence of the one douchebag on his cellphone who "makes his own rules because that's how he rolls." The amazing complimentary breakfast in the lobby at the tiny business hotel was attended by children, travelers, and nary a sound over 40 db. Are we the only people who feel the need to tune the TV to Fox News and blast it through the dining area while eating our powdered eggs and Wonderbread toast?

The staff (well, monks really) at the temple we stayed at were almost uniquely lacking in a desire to please or attention to the guests. It was almost refreshing to be completely ignored for once. It must be part of their training, Annie speculated, to almost completely ignore the guests. Yet the temple was cleaner, the food was more delicious and exquisitely prepared, and the experience more meaningful that almost any other place we've stayed.