Most tourists traveling to a foreign country are looking for a guidebook vacation.
That was my intent as I planned a recent family trip to Kyoto and Tokyo to visit our son. He has been living on the northern island of Hokkaido since July. I imagined visiting the serene shrines of Kyoto, the tall towers of Tokyo, and viewing the scenery from the high speed bullet trains. While I did enjoy these experiences in Japan, the memories that will remain with me are the details I discovered along the way.
Take umbrellas, for example. Rain is a part of life in Japan, so it is dealt with in a practical manner. When it rains, everyone uses an umbrella. Outside most buildings, there are umbrella lockers on wheels that are set up to accommodate the drippy devices. Simply place your umbrella in a slot, shut the clasp, and remove the key. If you would like to carry your umbrella into a store, insert your umbrella into another contraption that covers it with a plastic sheath. No more wet floors!
Have a taste for a steaming bowl of noodles at a neighborhood restaurant?
A clever ordering system allows a person speaking any language to purchase a quick meal. When you enter the restaurant, a machine next to the door has buttons accompanied by small pictures and the price of each menu item. Insert your yen into the machine, push the buttons of your desired foods, and tickets are dispensed. Hand your tickets to the person at the counter and your food is made to order.
Much has been written about the bathrooms in Japan. I have traveled to quite a few countries, and I can vouch for Japan being ranked first in the bathroom department. Toilets have more apps than your smartphone. The seat can be warmed, various sprays can be used to rinse delicate parts, and a noise button can be activated to disguise … well, noises. The bathrooms are simply divine.
As in the States, people in Kyoto and Tokyo love their communication devices. Headphones, cellphones and gaming devices are all part of the culture. But one small detail makes a huge difference in Japan. Very few people talk on their phones in public.
I overheard only one phone conversation on a city bus, and the woman speaking had her hand over her phone to muffle the words. The result is less extraneous noise in the crowded environment.
On the last day of the trip, we walked to a Tokyo park, where I observed another interesting detail at the playground. Parents were watching their children play with obvious affection. They stood close enough to comfort them if they fell, but far enough away to let them explore on their own. Later, while hugging my son goodbye, I realized that the love between a parent and child crosses all borders.