Tuesday, September 20, 2005

If You Can't Stand the Heat...

Let's get one thing straight: it is hot in Japan in the summer. Like fires of Hell hot. For example, my thermometer currently reads 29.6 degrees (that is Celsius, of course; approximately 85 on the Fahrenheit scale), 74% relative humidity. Of course, by Williamsburg, Virginia standards, this would be a cool summer day. Too bad I was in Columbus, Ohio long enough to grow acclimated to the slightly more reasonable summer weather!

We do have an air-conditioning unit (ku-ra- in Japanese), but it is only for emergencies, like when heat stroke claims one of the two of us. Said air conditioner, like all Japanese models, has a remote control.

I mentioned in a previous entry that central air is not something that the Japanese seem to be in any hurry to implement. I think this is because the Japanese enjoy being miserable. Anyone familiar with Japanese literature or film has probably already come to this conclusion. Fortunately, one area where central air is in heavy use is in department stores. In fact, department stores really crank the air conditioning, to the point where a 10 square-metre area of sidewalk in front of the main doors is approximately 10 degrees cooler than the surrounding air. This is A Good Thing!

"So," you may be wondering, "other than the lack of climate control in Japanese homes, what other things strike you as different about Japan?" If you are not, in fact, wondering this, now would be a good time to stop reading.

In Japan, cars drive on the left (i.e., wrong) side of the road. Other than the obvious risk to life and limb imposed when the unsuspecting American or continental European looks to the left first when crossing the street, this seemingly innocuous fact has deep cultural impact. People tend to walk on the left side of sidewalks. The escalator going in the direction you want is almost always on the left. Same deal with stairs. This basically means that Lyani and I spent our first week or so here running into people, before we were able to reprogram the part of our brains that controls walking.

A lot of people probably know this, but Japan is a very service-oriented country. This means that when you walk into any store, you will immediately be treated to a hearty chorus of "irashaimase!" (welcome). Contrast this to American stores, where you are lucky if a clerk so much as looks in your direction (and does not heave a world-weary sigh at your "imposition"). This also means that clerks in say, department stores, never come up and ask you if "you need help finding anything" (translation: "are you going to buy something, or what?"). But if you should actually need help, a clerk materialises with uncanny speed (I am fairly sure they drop, ninja-style, from the ceiling).

Furthermore, you can ask store personnel any question that you would like answered, whether it relates to their enterprise or not, and they will discover the answer. For example: Lyani had purchased an international phone card, but could not figure out what string of digits she had to dial to instruct the phone that she was trying to make an international call (no, this was not printed on or near the public phone). So we pop into a random Circle K (one of the big convenience store chains in Japan; the others are Family Mart, Lawson Station, Sankus, and (of course) 7-11) and ask the cashier how to dial out. She has no clue, but summons the other employee to the counter. This employee has the answer, which she gives to us, and then both clerks thank us for stopping by to ask them a question. Note that we did not spend any money in this store at all.

An even better example: I was walking to Yokohama Station the other day. I had a vague idea of how to get there, and when I thought I was in the neighbourhood, I stopped by a Family Mart to make sure I was on the right track. I told the clerk at the counter where I was trying to go, at which point he actually dashed out from behind the counter and out the front door of the convenience store, to better illustrate the route. He stood outside the store for about a minute, explaining the directions to me in typical Japanese detail (the way to reach the station from where I was was basically to go straight for a kilometre; but he gave me no less than five landmarks that I would encounter along the way). At the end of this exchange, I thanked him, to which he replied, "sumimasen"--literally, "I am sorry"--presumably for not walking me to the station personally.


carey hall said...

Another perfect example was when I was using a taxi to come back from a train station. They taxi driver told us how much it was going to cost, we were alright with that and got in. As we were driving there we got within 2-3 blocks of the university however the price on the meter was going to go over what he said, at the point it hit the price he had told us he turned the meter off!

Nuts, so strange that they are so service oriented and yet banks close at like 3pm and hospitals aren't open past 6pm. Now if you can make it there by god they will serve you well.

rzoz said...

I believe the remote control is for use when you are panting to death on the floor in a pool of your own sweat and can't reach the unit.