Although I’m glad to be back, there’s one small detail I already miss about Japan: the providing of washcloths at every meal. While in Kyoto and Tokyo, I could be anywhere from a nice restaurant to a fast food outlet, but I would always be given some kind of wet cloth or paper to wash my hands with before eating. Now, I realize getting excited about hand-washing apparatus may sound unusual or even funny. And I’ll grant you that as a longtime restaurant worker and also one sometimes given to obsessive-compulsiveness, I’m probably a little more zealous than average. But I’m not scrubbing my hands with bleach and steel wool, either. I really appreciate how much attention the Japanese pay to cleanliness. Michael Rubenstein, the photographer with whom I was traveling, said something I’d long thought: that the difference between Japanese and Americans could be summed up in wearing masks over their mouths. In Japan, people do it to prevent spreading germs to others. In America, where the wearing of these masks happens much less frequently, it’s done to avoid catching something from someone or something else.
This next point is a related one, I suppose. For some reason, the one conglomeration of homeless people I saw in Japan was encamped on the sidewalk in front of City Hall. I don’t know if it was some kind of political point or the fact that there was also a freeway overhead providing shelter. I’d guess it was the latter. Michael and I walked past these three or four encamped homeless men often, because the location was on a major road between our hotel along Shinjuku-cho (a city park) and the neon-ensconced rabbit warren of narrow pedestrian lanes adjacent to the city’s largest train station, Shinjuku Station. One time, as we walked by the men, Michael pointed out that the homeless men kept very orderly quarters. And he was so right. The men had the same modest array of possessions you’d see in their kind in the United States: cardboard for shelter, a few empty cans, maybe a transistor radio. But it was arranged symmetrically, with each item in a clearly defined space. Most of all, though, I was impressed by the tent-like structure one man made with some pieces of cardboard. It had four walls and a sloping roof, made to sleep in like a doghouse. But I don’t mean any of this in a condescending way. In fact, it occurred to me as I walked past this man’s makeshift sidewalk sleeping quarters that it constituted real architecture.
As in Japan, just like anywhere else, each person is unique and yet there are intra-cultural tendencies that to varying degrees most people living in one society share. Japan is certainly no utopia—they have their problems too. But being there was, however temporary, a refreshing antidote to the mores and rhythms of home. It always takes me a few days to adjust when I travel abroad, both psychologically and physically. But once I get the lay of the land, I feel an almost spiritual connection to Japan. My grandpa and dad both visited there before me while in the military—one at the end of WWII, the other on friendly terms during the 60s and 70s, although still in uniform. But I go as an asthete, a tourist, a neophyte, and happy to have made many new connections.