The politeness is overwhelming. Nothing prepares you for the impeccable good manners of the Japanese. And it’s not some paddywhackery aimed at extracting the last yen from a visitor to the country. You only need to look at how they interact with each to realise this is a society unlike any other.
If a template exists in how human beings should co-exist, it is probably written in Japanese. They need to get on. There are over 127 million of them crammed into a small segment of land broken up into islands. The population of Tokyo, a city with a footprint the size of Connacht, is something like 23 million, rising to 37 million when the greater conurbation is taken into account.
And yet everything works like clockwork. Just about everyone is employed and in a communal spirit of generosity, each person tends to leave for work in the morning with the firm intent they will do that job at 100%, irrespective how menial the task.
They have rules and laws and they obey them; they are punctual to the second, there isn’t a scrap of litter to be found and from the bullet trains to toilets which are like spaceships, the highest technology is at work.
And then, amidst it all, are several huge contradictions. Wi-fi is a major problem, especially outside Tokyo. The infrastructure is not in place for it, although it is slowly being addressed. There was wi-fi in one room for us at the Ecopa Stadium yesterday for the captain’s run; it’s promised to be better today. And this at a stadium that staged a World Cup quarter-final between Brazil and England 15 years ago and which will be one of the venues for the 2019 Rugby World Cup. And it’s a venue awesome in absolutely every other respect.
But Japan, yes Japan!, has a major problem in sorting out wi-fi. And then there is the issue with credit and debit cards. Well, no issue with debit cards, as it turns out. They just don’t exist in Japan and you can come with a wallet full of them and none of them will be accepted.
Credit cards are starting to be accepted, but still very few places accept them. They are trying to change that, but progress is slow. Cash is king and it’s a cash society (personal debt is frowned upon, so any Japanese with a credit card pays it off in full each time) and several times this week we had to find an ATM to pay for restaurants, trains and other items.
You might be concerned about walking around with a wad of cash — 1,000 yen is about €8 — but this is a country with virtually no crime, or at least none of the sort of stealing and thuggery which is a blight on so many areas.
The reality is that if you lost your wallet all you had to go was to one of the police booths in due course and you’re almost guaranteed someone would hand it in.
It is surreal to watch women leave their handbags on seats while they went upstairs to order coffee, or people leave their smartphones on a table to book a spot and wander off looking at the menu.
It is into this conforming society thousands of rugby fans will come in 2019 and then a year later for the Olympics. They will love the country, the food, drink, the buzz of a big-time city that never sleeps, but it is the welcome on the mat which will blow them away. And it’s infectious.
I arrived into the city late on Monday night after a journey from New York which was measured in days rather than hours, a trip which went north over Alaska and the Artic, down through eastern Siberia and China and into Hong Kong for a stopover, before another four-hour flight to Tokyo. It’s a journey which will no sense if you look at it on a flat-screen map — get out an old globe and the route is obvious.
It’s safe to say I have been fitter in mind and body at other times than the shape I was in when setting out to tackle the spider’s web of the Tokyo rail map late on Monday night, so help was appreciated in negotiating the journey. What could not be envisaged was the scale of the help. I merely asked a young man and what turned out to be his sister, if I was walking towards the correct subway line? The pair of them took it upon themselves to not just point me in the correct way, they changed their own travel plans and insisted on accompanying me the entire journey, changing lines a couple of times before walking me to my hotel.
It was 11pm on a Monday night, they wouldn’t take a penny from me and were just anxious to help. And here’s the best part; they weren’t even Japanese, they were from Brazil and moved here a decade ago and quickly got into this way of life. Maybe that’s what The Vapors meant by ‘Turning Japanese’. And this conforming, law-abiding, always wanting to help attitude becomes infectious. I found myself standing at a red pedestrian light at a small junction, with not a car in sight, the other day and did not cross the road. The Japanese only cross when it’s green, you stick out like a sore thumb if you step out of line.
Every gesture — paying in a shop, walking into a restaurant, meeting in the lift … is greeted by a bow. Each time the steward came through our carriage on the bullet train from Tokyo the he would turn around and bow to us before leaving.
When you stop someone in the street looking for directions the first thing you are met with is a smile — not suspicion, not aggression, just an endless willingness to help.
I think we are all really looking forward to our final week in Japan when there will be less travelling — the jetlag has killed players, coaches, alickadoos and hacks — and more time to explore. I have never looked forward as much to really seeing a city.
Irish fans should do their utmost to come here for the World Cup in 2019 or the Olympics the following year. It would be almost impolite not to do so.
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