Anecdotes from my time living in Japan.
The woman with the fan at the coffee bar
Summer 2022, 8AM, Tsukiji Peppers Cafe.
100% humidity, 35 degrees Celsius. I sit down on a wooden crate stool at a coffee bar in a narrow, intimate alley of the famous Tsukiji fish market. I'm sweating bullets, just like everyone else. I order an iced coffee, hoping to kill two birds with one stone: beat the heat and jettison my jet lag.
A fashionably-dressed woman in her mid-thirties wearing a flowery dress and a decidedly dignified air sits down to the left of me. The owner gives her a warm welcome. She must be a regular. She pulls out a fan and starts fanning herself without reserve.
Her gaze wanders to the foreigner sweating bullets on her right and she opens a conversation in an all-too-familiar way: 暑いですね (it's hot, isn't it?). You hear this phrase all the time on hot days. Usually it has the same semantics as "how's it goin'" or "howdy" — it's a polite way to acknowledge the existence of another human in your space, but doesn't signal a desire to open up a conversation. But something about the way she said it was different — she wanted to chitchat.
I gave her my agreement that it was indeed too hot today. Before I could say anything else she snapped her fan closed and held it out to me. "Fan yourself, you're too hot." I was taken aback by the directness, but I wasn't about to disagree; I accepted the fan and the task. As I fanned myself for 5 minutes or so, we chatted while we waited for our coffee. She asked all the usual questions: where are you from, how long have you been here, what brought you here, and so on. We had a fun chat. She introduced me to the owner and the other regular patrons.
In a lull of the conversation, I offered her my thanks for the fan and held it out for return. She studied my face with a suspicious furrow in her brow. Rejecting my outstretched arm returning the fan, she said "I still see sweat. You're still too hot. Keep fanning."
As it would happen, it was the owner's birthday that day. Just as I was finishing my coffee and egg sandwich, the whole family rained down on the place, a good number of them, as far as I could tell, still drunk from last night. The old man of the family, smartly dressed in a pin-stripe suit and Tag Heuer tells his son, the owner, "a round of champagne for everyone, on me!"
"Everyone?" he says from behind the counter, eyebrows raised.
After a small pause, "Yeah, everyone."
The old man taps me on shoulder with a wry smile, losing his balance a bit and leaning on me. "You drink alcohol?" I glance at the clock. 8:14AM. "Yeah, here and there." The old man starts gleefully rubbing his hands together and makes hurried hand gestures at his son to send the next glass my way.
That's the story of my first morning in Japan: delicious coffee and breakfast, a flat rejection of an attempt to return a borrowed fan, and a glass of champagne, all before 8:30AM.
The wallet and passport at the Ginza hotel
Fresh off a 10 hour red-eye from the U.S., I was checking into a business hotel in Ginza, Tokyo. Sleep deprived and just through the coronavirus precautionary checks in NRT, I was a bit exhausted. After checking in, I was in a bit of a hurry to collapse into the bed, and booked it to the elevator. Ninth floor.
As I'm fumbling with the key card to open the door, I hear the sound of the phone ringing in my room. Well, that's a tad bit strange. I figure out the door and find my way to the phone, picking it up.
"Hello," I answer, as I hear a knock at my door.
"Hello, I'm calling to let you know that you left your wallet and passport at the front desk. We're running it up to you now."
"Oh, thank you so much."
I go to answer the door. The other front desk staff member had ran the wallet up to me. As I profusely thank them, they hand me my wallet and passport with both hands, apologizing for the interruption.
The Yukata in the department store
On the way to Meiji Jingu Hanabi Taikai (big fireworks festival), donned in Yukata with my girlfriend, we make a stop at a department store on the way for the restroom. I'm waiting outside and an old man walks by me and, noticing my Yukata, says 「かっこい！」(basically the equivalent of "badass" or "cool").
Generally, Japanese are very happy to see foreigners in traditional Japanese clothing. It is seen as an appreciation of the culture, not appropriation.
The confused woman in the elevator
Bic Camera (dept. store, kind of like Target I guess). I'm alone in the elevator. (The store has 8 floors.) I'm on my way up to the 8th floor and the lift stops at the fifth floor.
A middle-aged woman gets on, and presses the button for the fifth floor. Confused at the lack of it lighting up, she presses it again. Then again. I tell her, in Japanese, "that's our current floor". As if being the victim of a terrible jump scare she jolts her body, looking at me and says, 「日本語上手！」 ("Good Japanese!"). With a nervous laugh, she selects another floor.
The girl in front of me in the ramen line
I queue to select my order from a ramen vending machine. It's quite late, maybe 10pm. The young high-school girl (it's obvious because uniforms) in front of me hesitates for perhaps 3 seconds before making her order. She collects her change and food ticket, then turns to me and says 「済みません」(sumimasen), as if to apologize that she took 8 seconds instead of 5 seconds while in front of me in line.
The school girl that crosses the street in front of a taxi
A young school girl waits to cross an intersection. Unexpectedly, a taxi stops and waits for her to cross. She bows deeply to the taxi, sprints across the street, pivots on a dime to face back towards the taxi with a pirouette form a ballerina could be proud of, and bows deeply again to the taxi, as it drives away.
All of this occurred in just a handful of seconds, on a rainy evening in Tokyo. I watched through my window, seated in another taxi waiting at the red light on the orthogonal street.
The elderly customers leave a boutique in Ginza
An elderly couple walks out of a boutique store with a shopping bag of purchased goods. A man and woman, staff of the store, see them to the exit. In extremely polite language, they thank the elderly customers, and deeply bow, holding the bow. The elderly customers accept the thanks and take their leave.
The staff of the store continue to hold the bow together, not looking up, not moving, not speaking, standing in the doorway of their store. The elderly couple keep walking away, getting smaller and smaller in the alleyway. The staff hadn't moved an inch.
I began to feel uncomfortable with how long I had been watching, even though I was confident my observation was undetected. I walk away. I steal a last glance before I turn a corner. The customers were long gone.
The two staff hadn't yet moved. I never did see them rise from their bow.
The office workers at the entrance to the train station late at night
After a night of heavy drinking with teammates, a gaggle of office workers clogs up the ticketing gate flow late at night at Higashi Ginza station.
In the politeness hierarchy, it seems there are some trump cards. To prematurely depart a group outing without the protracted "goodbyes dance" is, it seems, a worse offense than inconveniencing and impeding the ticketing gates of a train station.
Everyone keeping bowing at each other, saying goodbyes in various forms, planning further meetings, more goodbyes, more bows. They take a few steps away, then turn back, start saying their goodbyes again, more bows. This process can repeat quite a number of times. To me, it seems to be almost a game of chicken: Who will blink first and finally depart without looking back?
The only customer at a brunch restaurant
Lunch. Kagurazaka, Tokyo. Saturday afternoon. I'm the only customer at a brunch cafe, eating my food. The waitress stands near the cash register, eyes fixed on me, standing at attention with hands folded neatly behind her back. She's waiting to see if there's anything I need, so she can pounce upon any request I have with sub-second response time. I try to pretend I cannot feel her gaze.
Service in Japan is impeccable, and you come to love aspects of it. But sometimes it has a palpable intensity.