Japan on $1000 per Day
Day 9: The Inside Scoop
Day 9: We were wakened at 8:00 sharp and guided to a 60 tatami combination breakfast, lunch, banquet, and karaoke room, where we were served a Japanese breakfast at another decidedly-short table. Seated on the floor nearby were actual Americans, the first we had seen in two days. We tried to act casual, as though we didnt particularly want to talk to these gaijin. We instead lavished our attention on our good friends from Kobe with whom we had bathed (see Day 8), seated on our other side. But, though we fought it, we were drawn towards the Americans as if someone had slipped giant electro-magnets in our yukatas. It was a good decision. They had some excellent gossip.
One of them had taken a phone call from the United States. (The United States actually was trying to call the innkeepers, but the innkeepers people spoke no United States, so they naturally turned the call over to some random American who did.) It turns out the caller was a minion for one of the Supremes, Ruth Bader Ginsberg. (The court Supremes, not the Motown Supremes.)
It seems Ms. Ginsberg had decided to visit our own little Ryokan just a month hence, and her minion was calling to reserve for said visit. As it turned out, Ms. Ginsberg was fresh out of luck: one month hence would be the middle of August, and every living creature in all of Japan goes on vacation simultaneously on the very same day right in the middle of August. Alas, Ms. Ginsberg was destined to spend her nights down at the Howard Johnson-san, if she could get a booking.
Julie and I set out for a bicycle rental shop and then rode out to the Hida Minzoku Mura Folk Village. Crossing the river, we looked down to see dozens of colorful koi swimming in the shallow summer waters below. Since colorful koi are relatively rare (the vast majority of koi are born gray/black), we imagined they must have a way of keeping the fish from swimming toward the sea in winter, but we did not discover how. We did learn later on that they had not developed a way to keep their koi from committing suicide. During our visit, Japan hit such record-breaking temperatures that the koi were literally leaping out of the water to escape the heat. Several hundred rare old fish died.
Later, as we boarded the train out of town, we again met up with our two new American friends. Morris turned out to be a history professor at Temple University Japan, where his wife, Ruth, was a psychology professor. Both were teaching in Japan for one year and were soon to return home. They were living through their second steaming-hot summer, but both agreed it was better than the winter, when they practically froze to death inside their own home. Apparently paper is not as good an insulator as we have all been led to believe.
Their two sons had made the pilgrimage to Japan with them. Their fourteen-year-old son took to Japan like a koi to water. He quickly discovered that the drinking age in Japan is shortly-before-birth and fell in with a cadre of Japanese kids that would visit the hottest spots of Tokyo nightly. Along the way, he soaked up Japanese like a sponge.
Their older son, in his late teens, had not faired so well. He didn't like the food, he found the culture shock overwhelming, and he found no aptitude for the language. He just seemed to be slumping along until the fateful day when, walking down a Tokyo street, he spotted "The San Francisco Chinatown Donut Shop."
He dashed inside on winged feet and ordered up the most beautiful glazed donut you have ever laid eyes on, along with a genuine glass of Coca-Cola (ask for it by name). Life could not have been sweeter! But it turned out the donut could have, for when he bit into the glorious confection, he discovered they had filled it with fish.
Be forewarned: The Japanese fill everything with fish. They even serve octopus pizza, with a giant octopus draped over the entire affair so that each of the eight slices sports a severed leg and just a portion of the severed head.
The boy never really recovered from the fish donut and fled home the day the school year ended.
Morris told us a little statistic that was shocking to us, even though we had read all the articles for years about how far the Japanese were ahead of us in education: he said that when they take their senior high-school tests after their compulsory five years of English, they score higher in English than do United States kids. I knew they would score higher in their native language than we do in ours, but they even score higher in our language? Then he went on to explain one extra little fact. Even though they score consistently higher, theres just one tiny problem: they cant speak English. They cant speak any English. They cant even write in English. They can read English, sort of, and they can take English tests real good.
He said this problem permeates the Japanese educational system: they dont learn history; they memorize it. They dont learn mathematics; they memorize it. They dont learn science; they memorize it. Its drill, drill, drill, discipline, discipline, discipline. Then, in the more progressive schools, they spend the last six weeks of high school learning how to think and be creative. Except it doesnt work, because it is far too late.
After high school in Japan, your education is pretty much over. If youve been accepted into the right college, you will get a plum job when you get out. If youve been accepted into the wrong college, you wont. In many cases, your college professor will decide what company you will spend the rest of your life working for. And how you do in college doesnt matter much, so college is mainly a time to play. (Not so different from America, no?)
Morris explained that the Japanese just love to work. At his school, they stay around until 9:00 or 10:00 at night, even though there is no particular work to be done. No one wants to be seen leaving first.
The Japanese are known for quality, but it is achieved by redundancy, not naturally superior ability. Their systems are designed to catch problems that other countries, notably the United States, let slide.
This fact was borne out by the instantly high-quality the Japanese were able to achieve in their electronics and automotive products manufactured in the United States. As long as it is done in the Japanese way, any group of workers can build a quality product.
On Domestic Life
They live in little tiny houses, so small that no one has anyone over to their house, as there is no room for visitors to fit. People always meet at restaurants, hostess bars, and theaters.
Entertaining is almost always associated with work. Salarymen, just as they did during their college years, stay out late, but they aren't necessarily working. Instead they are enjoying the nightlife in the company of other salarymen, stumbling home to their wives and families after the clubs wind down.
The Japanese have few worldly possessions, because they have no place to put them. They buy each other $150 melons and $50 boxes of grapes because any gift that cannot be consumed becomes an obligation instead of a pleasant surprise.
Typical $150.00 melon
Ironically, for a nation where gifts are an instant storage problem, the Japanese give at an incredible rate. Gifts are required for every event right up to and including a hole-in-one. No, you don't give something to the golfer who scored a hole-in-one, rather, he gives something to you. And your friend. And your ex-brother-in-law. And the elevator girls at the office. And on and on and on.
The average cost of achieving a hole-in-one is $15,000. Really.
The prudent golfer, of course, does the only reasonable thing: He purchases hole-in-one insurance. Score a hole-in-one and the gifts will be bought for you.
Even with such extravagances, the money in Japan tends to pile up at a crushing rate. They invest it. Overseas. In United States Treasury Bonds. They are underwriting the American National Debt, so Americans, who have no compulsion to work until 9:00 or 10:00 at night and who live in big houses with tons of storage space, can go out and party, party, party. A perfect system. Everyone was happy until the Japanese banks started going bad, and now that the USA is the only place with a rock-solid stable economy, the Japanese are investing heavily again in the USA, even though their own economy could use the influx.
We separated from Morris and Ruth in Nagoya and made our next train in less than 5 minutes, being experts now. We arrived at the Kurashiki Kokusai Hotel in Kurashiki late that evening, grabbed some food, and quickly fell to sleep, never imagining that the next day would find us at the site of the world's first atomic bomb dropped in anger.
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