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How a trip to Japan can provide what’s missing back home

Shiraito Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the pleasures that await visitors near Mt. Fuji.

MT. FUJI ECOTOURS/TNS

By GEORGE HOBICA | Tribune News Service | Published: March 4, 2019

Whenever I fly a long distance I read a book or two rather than watching the in-flight movies and TV shows. Without realizing it, the two books I brought on my recent trip to Japan, neither of which mentions Japan, helped me understand why I was going there again.

By the time I landed I had read “Talk to the Hand,” which bemoans the lack of civility and mutual respect in modern life, and “How to Travel,” which tries to explain why travelers choose to visit one country over another.

In “Talk to the Hand” author Lynne Truss, who previously wrote “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” a book on punctuation that has sold over 3 million copies worldwide, decries people who talk long after the movie has started, groups of friends sauntering four-abreast on the sidewalk, people spewing vulgarities in public, and other incivilities too numerous to mention or rail against. Amen to all that.

In “How to Travel” the anonymous author explains that, “Every destination has a character. It emphasizes and promotes a particular aspect of human nature. The destination we are drawn to reflects an underlying sense of what is missing in our lives. We are seeking to become fuller, more complete beings. The place should teach us lessons that we know we need to hear.”

Both books got me to thinking why I like Japan: What aspect of human nature does Japan emphasize? What does Japan’s culture have to teach me? What is missing in my life, in our lives, that Japan could offer?

After several visits, I began to figure it out: Wherever you go, Japan is well-mannered, polite, kind: on the trains and in the airports, in the cities, and in the mountains. Even when you visit a post office.

Standing on the platform as our Shinkansen glided into the station I noticed that the driver was wearing his hat and I wondered why. Surely he doesn’t wear it between stations? He makes the gesture for the same reason that the conductors on these trains bow ceremoniously upon entering and leaving the coaches. When I was in the Japan Airlines lounge on my departure from Tokyo, I noticed the phone booths without phones in them. They’re used for making mobile phone calls without disturbing other passengers; but they can also be used, I noted, by a mom with a wailing baby. In she goes and the baby’s cacophony is no longer an issue.

In her book on manners, Truss, who is English, decries the rudeness of London shop assistants and describes the typical dynamic this way:

Shopper: “Excuse me, do you work here?”
Clerk: “What?”
Shopper: “I said, excuse me do you work here?”
Clerk: “Not if I can help it. Har, har, har.”

Contrast that to my visit to the Japan post office. A clerk called out a greeting (“Welcome to the post office!” according to Sumiyo, my friend and translator). I paid for some stamps and expected to take my postcards and be on my way. But this is Japan, so no. The clerk carefully detached the stamps along their perforations, moistened them, and with equal care affixed them to my mail. And then he thanked me. And I thanked him. And as I exited he thanked me again for visiting the post office.

In between noticing Japanese manners, I managed to see some of the countryside around Mount Fuji, about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo. I climbed part way up Mount Fuji (you don’t have to go far to see scenery worth the effort); I visited the Itchiku Kubota Art Museum, which owns 80 beautiful tie-dyed silk kimonos that were Kubota’s lifelong passion.

Early one morning, I visited Shiraito Falls, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A monsoon had blown in the day before my arrival so a dozen or more chutes gushed and roared into a small lake. I was the only one to witness this spectacle when I stumbled upon it. Eventually, a few people trickled in and had it not been for these interlopers I would have stayed longer. How often do you get to enjoy a World Heritage Site all by yourself?

After a long day of hiking, I arrived at the Kaneyamaen Hotel, where my room came with a large private onsen -- a plunge bath fed by hot springs -- on the room’s terrace, from which there was a view of Mount Fuji. ?I was neck deep 60 seconds after the man who showed me to my room had left. I rushed back from dinner so I could marinate in it again in the moonlight. And I steeped in it again before breakfast the following morning. I couldn’t have asked for a simpler pleasure.

The Hakone region percolates with some of Japan’s best hot springs, a gift from the Earth’s molten core. Some of that gift is less pleasant than my onsen was; you’ll see why when you take a cable car ride over the Owaku-dani Valley, dotted with active vents of sulfurous steam escaping and hissing throughout the volcanic landscape. Owaku-dani translates as the “valley of hell.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.

For a more pleasant landscape, I took a bike ride with En-Ya Mt. Fuji Ecotours (mtfujiecotours.com) through the farm country around Mount Fuji, along roads empty of people and vehicles, the only sounds provided by chirping birds and water rushing along irrigation canals and small streams. My friends and I encountered a very old woman wearing a quilted lavender kimono, shuffling along in the middle of the road. She greeted us by spontaneously singing some folk songs about the joys of the nature in these parts. Her impromptu concert finished, she smiled, bowed, and sent us off with a ”domo domo” (which means different things depending on the context, such as “thanks” or “good day,” but each time I used the expression later in my trip people laughed; I’m still not sure why).

I toured the Naurkawa Art Museum (under-rated in the Michelin Green Guide to Japan, I think) and the Yukio Mishima Museum (over-rated, I think, in the same guide, at least for those of us who don’t read Japanese). I stayed one night at the lovely Hyatt Regency Hakone, where the free happy hour included real French Champagne (highly rated, by me).

When I returned to Tokyo I spent two nights at the Park Hyatt Tokyo, the hotel that shares top billing with Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in Sophia Coppola’s Academy Award-winning film “Lost in Translation.” That Saturday night, a friend and I had one of those magical experiences that make life grand: sitting by the window in the hotel’s New York Bar, the Tokyo skyline glittering 52 floors below, while we snacked and sipped cocktails, and listened to the resident jazz quintet.

Nearly 30 million foreigners visited Japan in 2018 and last year the country was anointed as the “it” destination by Travel and Leisure magazine, and now the Japanese media are using words such as “tourism pollution” (their version of over-tourism).

But regions not far from Tokyo looked like they could use more tourists, not fewer, I thought during the 35-mile, hourlong drive from Tokyo to Narita Airport. As I looked out the window, I noticed there was no graffiti on bridge overpasses or on the concrete retaining walls. And not because they had been painted over, in the way that tags are religiously blotted out in a quilt of gray patches along Los Angeles’ freeways.

Japan may be one of the few graffiti-free countries left. And I noticed there wasn’t a single bit of trash along the highway. Why can’t every country show such respect for others and for the environment? ?My hope is that many of this year’s visitors to Japan will ask the same question and bring home a better way of treating others. Truss doesn’t mention Japan in her book of manners, but perhaps she should be one of those visitors. It could change her world view, or, in the words of “How to Travel,” it could help her find what’s missing in her life.

A drone view of the area around Mt. Fuji.
JNTO/TNS

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