Feeling Japan, “Fast Relax” and “Human”

 

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Tokyo, Japan; November 2015

Why am I so content? Is it the tiny serving of much needed caffeine I had earlier from the “Fast Relax” coffee station at Circle K? Might it be the mild scented incense I watched float and curl up to the heavens at Tokyo’s cherry red accented Senso-ji Temple? Perhaps it’s my fortune from the revered temple, which maintains that, in addition to basically succeeding at every thing I attempt in the near future, I also, “will gradually become famous and peaceful.” Or is it the surprisingly soothing, heated toilet seat at McDonalds?

It could be that I’m on a silent, spotless Tokyo metro heading to a Shinto temple set among ginkgo trees dotted with their gradually goldening split-fan shaped leaves and then on to the ultra hyper Harajuku neighborhood for some shopping, which is another type of worship for me.

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No one talks on the metro car — not even my sister, Suzanne, and I.  There is only white noise — the humming of subway sounds and the soothing voice of the conductor. Not able to understand, I only halfway tune into his calm Japanese instructions, yet I appreciate his soft, reassuring tone. Between coming and going, the commuters — students, businesspeople, working moms, shoppers and elderly riders — doze, read anime books and text away on their smartphones.

After the metro arrives at our desired stop, Suz and I quickly exit the subterranean hub. Back up in topside Tokyo, it’s busy, buzzing with energy from people, vehicles and hundreds competing neon lights. To clarify, I’m content but now exhilarated from this electric pace.

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It’s this same driven pace that inspired the creation of the Shinkansen, the bullet train, in addition to elevators that can rocket you from the Tokyo Skytree’s fourth floor up to floor 350 at a rate of 600 meters per minute. (Total transport time is about 50 seconds). Even sushi restaurants feature conveyor belts revolving at a consistent clip to move the constant parade of plates featuring various raw and tempura-battered fish selections.

Yet the pace in Japan also slows to the rhythm of an onsen’s gurgling hot springs; the traditional, symbolic stages of a tea ceremony; the meditative bow to a statue of Buddha; and the simulated tranquil trickling waterfall sounds coming from the console of, again, a McDonald’s toilet.

bowing to buddha

The reason for this dual personality pace seems simple. It’s just Japan. That’s why I’m both exhilarated and content. I’m feeling “Japan.”* Indeed. In my estimation, Japan is a state of mind or even a state of being.

Really, Japan is “Fast Relax.”

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I love stopping at Tourist Information Offices — especially to find uniquely written English brochures.

Actually, the Land of the Rising Sun, itself, suggests this seemingly contradictory way of life — in English. And it’s not just the Circle K coffee station proclaiming Fast Relax. English language travel publications and signs found at train stations, hotels, grocery stores, convenient stores, visitor centers, shopping malls and museums, present the Fast Relax theme in the text of brochures, leaflets, advertisements, posters and banners.

Japanese copywriters, who tout the message of Fast with facts about high-speed trains and elevators along with innovative industries, heavily embellish their text with high-energy, enthusiastic exclamation points. However, the writers also highlight the idea of Relax by characterizing Japan as a place of  tradition and serenity by using descriptions and phrases that include “tranquil”, “break”, “satisfying”, “sincere care”, “pleasant”, “nostalgic”, “old time”, “time traveled”, “nurtured” and “enjoy a breather.”

It’s worth saying again: Japan is “Fast Relax.”

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Do I Call it a “Homestay?”

Steph doing a shot

Northern Vietnam, near Sapa: May 2014

Sitting in a Hmong living room in remote Northern Vietnam with ten other freshly showered tourists doing shots of rice wine while cellphones charged and Eminem blasted from iPod speakers on the shelf above a cooler containing multiple cans of Coca Cola, bottles of Aquafina and six packs of Tiger beer, I wasn’t sure I could call the scenario a “homestay.”

The idea of a homestay, of course, is to stay with locals to get an idea of their culture and lifestyle. In all fairness, the Hmong family who owned the home was with us. Sa and Hang sat with ramrod straight posture and their one-month-old baby in chairs a bit away from the dinner table, which had become the station for drinking games. Crouched in a fairly well lit corner of the large open room, their 10-year-old daughter did homework by using a plastic chair as a desk.

Her long ponytail flitted back and forth as she divided her attention between her workbook and her answer sheet. Meanwhile, two of the tourists, César, a twenty-something Frenchman who wore a jaunty fedora, and Londoner Richard, otherwise known as “Trini” since he was born in Trinidad, fashioned a plastic two-liter 7-up bottle into a makeshift bong. They resorted to smoking pot since our Li, our 4’ 8” no nonsense Hmong guide – or rather, her elderly mother — couldn’t hook them up with the opium they had requested earlier on the 15 kilometer trek we all took to get here.

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First Impression: Homestay or Hostel?

I’m not going to lie. After emerging Deet and sweat soaked from the bamboo lined dirt path that wound around multiple coliseums of mountainous rice terraces and intersected with water buffalo hubs, I was surprised, yes, but ultimately, relieved when I first saw a tiled bathroom, complete with a flush toilet and shower near the entrance of the Hmong home we had finally reached.

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The bathroom opened to a cement patio that extended in the front of the house with several plastic chairs and stools like the kind found on most sidewalks of Vietnam’s cities. The interior of the house offered a dorm-like setup with an open communal space and a ladder leading up to a loft full of wooden bunk beds. Several electrical outlets lined the walls and the fully stocked cooler featured a beer sticker, resembling Pabst Blue Ribbon, emblazoned on the side. Clearly the home had been modified to accommodate several guests who leaned toward Western tastes.

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Signs of the Times: At a loss for words….

cloud signs DIAThese “clouds” or “thought bubbles” are stationed along the exit of Denver International Airport in Colorado, USA. These have the potential to be really cool signs and make people think about….SOMETHING. But they are blank. Empty. Random.

The State of Colorado or City of Denver could easily use them as marketing tools. For example:  Cloud #1: It may be really flat right here… Cloud #2: But just wait…Cloud #3: We do have mountains, seriously.”

Signs of the Times: “Leave your fancy footwear behind — oh, and your feet, too.”

© Sue Browne 2013

© Sue Browne 2013

Yangon, Myanmar. I love this sign, and it’s actually pretty famous in terms of funny mistranslations from around the world. Good family friends visited Burma earlier this year and took this photo. I’ve since seen it in Lonely Planet’s Signspotting and other blogs. I think it goes particularly well with the photo below.

© Stephanie Glaser 2013

© Stephanie Glaser 2013

McDonald’s, Colorado Springs, CO, USA. This completely cracked me up. I can’t imagine running in heels after toddlers in the first place. In fact, I only started wearing wedge sandals and heels occasionally when with my kids about one year ago (and only on completely sturdy surfaces.) Being a geeky English teacher, I also noticed that an unnecessary apostrophe appears with Moms. The poor apostrophe — it’s so misused. However, that’s a different post.  

Signs of the Times — Please and thank you kindly, Pain-In-The-Butt People!

 ©Stephanie Glaser 2013

©Stephanie Glaser 2013

So many signs are straightforward, indifferent and lack personality. The following messages are actually quite polite and even include script writing or a fancy insignia (above at the Mandalay Bay, Las Vegas). However, there’s just a slight edge in the voice that borders on sarcasm — a sort of yes, we must be polite to you imbeciles. Or I could just be reading way too much into these signs. It’s entirely possible since I just spent the last ten years teaching high school literature.

© Stephanie Glaser 2013

© Stephanie Glaser 2013

East Bentleigh, Victoria, Australia. I can just hear what the sign maker of this Coles store really wants to write with this one: okay, hooligans, no joyriding, no racing or using as a moving van.

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“I Have a Problem with the Blood of a Woman…”

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Barcelona, Spain. 1995

Stationing myself next to Ba-Ba-Reeba’s restroom, I stopped every woman who entered and asked, “Perdon, tiene usted un tampon? TamPONE? Tampax? Playtex? Kotex?”

Just moments earlier while enjoying a beer and tapas at the Barcelona bar with some Americans I had met on a train from Madrid, I discovered the added company of my period.  Yikes — my supplies were a few miles away back at a pension off Las Ramblas. I asked my new friend Allie if she had a tampon. Nope.

Back in the bathroom, there was no dispenser in sight, and no one who came in seemed to have any spare tampons or pads. Didn’t anyone carry backups?  It was time to act since I didn’t want my only pair of jeans to be ruined. Leaving Ba-Ba-Reeba, I searched the streets near Plaça de Catalunya. Surely, Wal-Mart had invaded Catalunya.

It was siesta time, and the nearby shops and stores were closed while shopkeepers observed the afternoon break. It seemed inevitable. I would have to approach the intimidating women of Iberia on the streets.

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Signs of the Times — Fun in the Sun? Maybe Not…

© Stephanie Glaser

© Stephanie Glaser 2011

Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. I’m sure when the town and cruise promoters developed this sign, they were completely confident in the certainty of the statement. After all, most of the time Cabo is brimming with sunshine. However, on those off days, the contradiction of the sign really screams out to you and is quite funny.

Travel Oops: Oh Yeah…I’m a Yank

from: Herbert Hoover Library, National Archives and Records Administration

from: Herbert Hoover Library, National Archives and Records Administration

During my first parent teacher conferences at Le Fevre High School, I met with the parents of my one British student, Jessica. They had just moved to Adelaide, and, like me, they were adjusting to the Australian school system. So we discussed our observations about the differences in education.

For some reason, they seemed to forget with whom they were talking and shared an interesting insight with me. “Well, I don’t know what to think many days. Australia is getting closer and closer to a new America,” Mrs. Ford confessed while shaking her head. I believe she actually wrung her hands, too.

The observation didn’t seem quite charitable toward the US nor Australia.

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Despite that mild statement, which one would generally expect from a British subject, I never encountered any outright US bashing. Always, I felt welcome and accepted in Oz.

In the beginning, I was aware of being a “Yank,” and Australians have some definite opinions on Yank tendencies as well as our activities. For the most part, Aussies strongly dislike American football, which they have dubbed, “Gridiron.”

“Ah yeah, a bunch of pussies out there with all that armor. They think they’re these bloody gladiators, but then take all those breaks,” said my colleague and friend Brad. “Sooks!” he calls American NFL players.

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Friday Funny Sign: Walk-ins Welcome but Leave Your Saddle at the Door, Please

© Stephanie Glaser

© Stephanie Glaser

Colorado, USA. The west may be wild, but you can still look good — even if you’re a horse, right? This part of the country does love their horses and people have a tendency to name anything from bars to beauty salons “Wild Horses.”