Change in Time

On the Bench
I arranged to meet Kiyomi Tsurusawa on 10th June this year on one of the longest benches in the World.  Yes, really.  It is 460.9 meters long and is located in Shika, facing the Japan Sea.  On that day we had a wonderful panoramic view over the glistening waters of a sea that can really be very rough especially in winter.

As Kiyomi and I were talking about the Noto Peninsula, we both found ourselves remembering how Japan used to be and how different it is now.

I was reminded just how much it has changed when I was there in 2014.  I was walking down a street in Kyoto when I suddenly realised that I had walked down the same street forty years before!

In 1974 it was extremely rare to meet another foreign national, so rare that it was customary to say hello and even to exchange stories about a country that was still pretty much off the regular route for travellers.  After all, many people in the UK back then still did not really know where Japan was on the map of the world.

Lou and I in 1974.  My how we have
Travelling around Japan by train that summer, Lou and I would often be the only foreign nationals on a train and could even be the only foreigners visiting temples or other interesting spots.  At the time those among the Japanese population ready and willing to speak English were very few.

Some train station names were not in Roman script either.  Despite this there was no sense of bewilderment or even anxiety.  The locals were always ready to help.  It was an adventure and therefore something to be excited about.  Using a Japanese rail map and matching the characters on the station signs with those on the map made it possible to know where we were on the extensive railway system and only added to the sense of adventure.

Steam locomotives were still running in Kyushu in 1974, ten years after the Shinkansen line between Tokyo and Osaka was opened.
Kashiwajima located in the south-west corner of Shikoku.
We tried to stay in Youth Hostels, simply because they were cheap.  Those with a short telephone number were rural and the best.  At Kashiwajima on the island of Shikoku we were the first foreigners to ever stay there.  At another on Kyushu we arrived at a brand new hostel to find that we were the only guests.  The manager apologised for the fact that we would have to bunk-down on different floors—separation of the sexes.  We said we did not mind.  “But aren’t you on your Honey Moon?”  No, we had already been married for five years, a fact that really seemed to surprise the hostel keeper.  We must have looked like newly weds.

So at the time Japan was still “exotic” and mostly uncharted territory ready to be discovered.  But what about now?

On the river at Arashiyama this scene has not changed for hundreds of years. Most tourists seldom venture this far from the shops and temples.
When I arrived in Kyoto in 2014 I went straight to Arashiyama on the western outskirts of the city as the cherry was in full bloom.  And so were the people!  Compared to 1974, when most of the tourists in Kyoto were Japanese, last year Asian tourists predominated.  This was a great surprise, especially as I was one of only a few Caucasians.

1974 at Nikko Toshogu Shrine.  Even on a large screen I can only see one non-Japanese.  I would like to bet that everyone else in the picture is Japanese.
Somethings of course have not changed—the friendliness of the people, the quality of food in restaurants, the quality of service, the punctuality of the transport system as a whole and so much more.

Crowded trains—in 1974 and even now its still the same.
Sharing such thoughts with Kiyomi, she too was able to add to this catalogue of change from her own experience as a licensed tour guide and interpreter.

Kiyomi too confirmed that in the last few years the number of Asian tourists has increased enormously, many of whom come from China.  Of course in April last year many had come to see the cherry blossom as well as the famous temples and historic sites in Kyoto and elsewhere.  And they were not going home empty handed.

“Many Chinese visitors take home rice cookers, washlet toilet seats and cosmetics by the boxful” Kiyomi told me.

It seems the cosmetics are often for resale back in China.  Most readers will be familiar with the automatic rice cooker but some may not know what a washlet toilet is.  Simply speaking it is a heated seat with washing functions to do away with having to use toilet paper and it also functions as a bidet.  If you would like to know more do a search with “Toto washlet toilet and bidet” to be enlightened.

A Western style loo in a new house, 1974.
Yes, forty years is a long time in which things can change.  But these changes need to be seen in the context of how things were back in the 1970s or even more recently.  Kiyomi remembered one instance when she met a tour group at Haneda Airport, Tokyo’s only international airport at the time.  She was really embarrassed by the pungent smell wafting from the toilets.  These days the cleanliness of toilets both public and private is exemplary and can hardly if ever be faulted.

It should also be remembered that in 1974 Western style, sit-on-toilets were still something of a rarity for the Japanese.  So much so that many had little illustrated signs and explanations in Japanese on how to use them.  These days when using a toilet in Japan we are expected to realise how a washlet toilet functions or at least be able to rely on a minimum of helpful lables in English to safely get the job done.

For the benefit of the Japanese.  How gentlemen should use a Western style toilet to the left, and how a lady should use one to the right.

The urinal above and the squat-toilet
both date from the late 19th or early
20th century.  Civilised!
Kiyomi has often been puzzled about one thing—a complaint that showers in Japan are not usually set up to supply water from directly overhead.  This is true in hotels, guesthouses, at public bath spas and in private homes, too.  For many overseas tourists this is apparently a problem.

We discussed the possibility of opening more home-stay venues, or even some self-catering facilities on the Noto Peninsula to accommodate long-stay foreign tourists, who could then better savour the delights of Noto and its wonderful natural environment.

For so many people travelling is an adventure and even a short-term tourist would, I hope, be excited to be somewhere where things are done differently.

There is no need for Japan to be too accommodating, however.  Signs in at least English and announcements on trains and buses in other languages not withstanding, surely in the end people visit Japan to experience JAPAN and not some slightly watered down exotic Asian variant of what they have in their own country.

Inevitably the problem is how to strike a perfect balance.  Some people visiting Japan are not adventurous and only want to do touristic things.  That’s fine.  Others really do want to experience the country as it is and to eat what the locals eat, for instance.  Just for a short time they want to be someone different.  I must admit that all kinds of settlements in Japan from the biggest cities to the smallest hamlets can be engaging, exciting and stimulating for many different reasons.  But if you don’t have a fixation on modern rampant urbanism, which is slowly consuming so much of Japan, then the Noto peninsula is just the place to visit.

A sight now almost never seen on the streets of Japan.  Back in 1974 is was a surprise to see ice being delivered to bars and restaurants.

Bill Tingey Photo © Copyright

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