By Robert Langford Ph. D.
Recently my wife Doris and I spent an interesting 2 weeks in Japan. We
were the guests of three different Japanese families. This allowed us to
become well acquainted and to develop lasting friendships.
Both Doris and I had read a great deal about the history, culture, and
government of their country and our visit made it all come alive.
Lying to the east of the Asian continent, Japan consists of 4 large
islands: Hokkaido, in the North, Honshu, in the middle where Tokyo is
located, Shikoku, and Kyushu. It also includes about 3000 smaller
The climate is generally temperate and the land is very mountainous. The
remaining land leaves only about 12 per cent that can be cultivated.
This is farmed intensively, much of it in wet rice. The remainder is in
a wide variety of vegetables that are grown in two crops a year.
Chemical fertilizers are used intensively. Most of those who farm do it
with small plots and on a part time basis, supplementing their income
with jobs in town.
The population is 125 million and the geographical size is slightly
smaller than California. One fourth of the population lives in and
If you have an interest in traveling you might like to know about our
You might ask, what would be a typical day for a Japanese family?
Katsuhide, the husband, leaves on his bicycle around 7:00 am for the one
and a half hour commute on the train to his office. He may not be home
until 8 or 10 pm. He works hard and only recently has a 5 day
Hiroko, the wife, prepares the meals and gets the children off to school
on bicycles, walking, or by bus. They will have more schoolwork and
homework assigned than American students. After school they will have
clubs and sports activity. When they get home there will be home work
and dinner. Many schools require uniforms.
Hiroko will clean her house and do daily food shopping and errands.
Sometimes she will have lunch with friends. The afternoon might be an
English class, flower arrangement, music lessons or volley ball.
Now 1/3rd of the work force are women so they have the problems of wife,
mother, and wage owner.
On the weekend Katsuhide may work on his rented plot of ground where he
is growing corn, tomatoes, beans, potatoes, and melons. The family
may use their car to go to a sports, or music event on the
weekend. If they go shopping at the big department stores, they
will be able to buy items that are not available in American department
stores such as real estate, funeral plots, tour an art exhibit or visit
the basement and have a meal or watch chefs decorate food or desserts.
One may even get married.
Our arrival in Japan was at Narita International airport and we went
into Tokyo on a shuttle bus which took about an hour and a half on a
three lane highway through many tunnels. Tokyo highways are crowded and
traffic moves sedately with slow steady driving. No graffiti is
observed and the country side and streets are kept clean.
Tokyo is hot and humid, the climate similar to North Carolina.
We took the subway and electric trains to one of our guest homes.
The trains are crowded and holding on to the vertical bar or the
overhead handles can help you to minimize the swaying of the train. The
public transportation in Japan is good, clean, and on time.
At the station we noticed the large number of bicycles. This is the main
way the Japanese get from home to the station. The bicycles are left in
parking slots without locks. Crime is low and stealing is not common.
Our first two homes were small, but well planned and the space fully
used. Both consisted of two levels accessed by steep stairways without
You remove your shoes just inside the door. No one walks with shoes on
the highly polished wood floors. Several of the rooms will have tatami
mats in the floor. These are woven mats which are the sleeping surface.
On these at night you spread a futon, which is a sheet covered quilt
that covers you at night and is rolled up and put in a closet in the
morning. Pillows are filled with cotton or, in my case, Buckwheat hulls.
It was firm but comfortable. Sleeping on the floor was not an
although for some it might be.
Room air conditioners are now being used during the summer months.
In the winter thermal underwear might be worn and home heat comes from
portable kerosene heaters.
In Japan you still find squat toilets. These require centering yourself
over them without touching them and assuming a down hill skiing
position. We had western style plumbing throughout our trip. If you stay
in hotels, you will have Western plumbing.
The toilet will be in a separate room about four foot square. The bath
room is separate and it will have a shower to rinse off, soap up, and
rinse again. Then, time permitting, the hot tub soak is next. It is
highly desired by Japanese. Here you relax and forget
the cares of the day. The hot tub is used by the whole family so make
sure that you are clean before you enter. Do not let the water out.
Others will use it when you are through. Cover the tub again when you
leave, conserving the heat.
Our meals were good and a little different from our usual. Breakfast may
include fresh fruit, yogurt, eggs, ham, rice, soup, fish, sea weed,
kelp, sea urchins, green and/or black tea. A nice feature is the damp
cloth instead of a napkin. We had our choice of silver ware or chop
sticks. Since chop sticks are largely hand/eye coordination, I stuck to
Lunch can include soup, vegetables, rice, fish, noodles, tofu, pickled
vegetables, mushrooms, fruit, and green and/or black tea. There will be
garnish and each plate will be presented with color and appearance
You will have heard of Sushi. Here was my experience. There will be many
plates that you keep shuffling to have the one you want in front of you.
Soup broth that you drink from the bowl. Several thin warm slices of raw
tuna or other fish on seasoned rice. Vegetables and fruit with green
tea. There will be a dollop of very hot horse radish. I took a little at
a time. Other sauces are available. It is a different eating sensation.
It will cost $12 to $20 per meal. Enjoy.
A meal that you may not have heard of is Buckwheat noodles called sorba.
They make the noodles in the restaurant. It is chopped by hand into thin
strips and you have it in many different ways. I had a bowl of it in
sauce with fish and other things. Buckwheat is a grain, but it is not
Japanese do not eat many sweets beside grapes, peaches, plums, melon,
kiwi and pineapple. New to the traditional meal is ice cream which comes
in all regular flavors. I found some different ones such as sweet
potato, sweet red bean, green tea, and melon. They have a special
dessert that I liked. It is sliced melon, peaches, pears, plums,
pineapple and on the bottom black beans cooked in a sugar sauce with sea
weed in gelatin cubes.
Our trip to the supermarket showed us many fish and sea selections such
as eel, sea weed, and kelp. Rice could be bought in 40 pound bags. At
the checkout counter cash was used more than credit cards, then every
one bagging their own. A counter was available at the exit for
leaving laundry and dry cleaning.
The public library had story time and care for the children while
selections were made. No fines for late books. You get a telephone call
if you have a book more than 3 weeks. Japan does have a national Braille
and recorded book program.
The sports program is wide. Differences would be the national interest
in sumo wrestling. 300 pound wrestlers try to force their opponent to
touch the floor with an arm or leg. The ring is lined with bags. Forcing
the opponent outside the ring is also a victory. Martial arts get
attention from an early age. Judo, Karate, and Kendo are a few. These
arts stress both the physical as well as the character building
Pinball games are a national passion. Ping pong, volley ball, and board
games get attention.
Walking and running are popular. Running alone is not as popular as
marathons or group running activities.
Doris and I attended a middle school sports day. Girl and boy teams
competed by class. In T shirts, shorts and bare feet they competed in
traditional three legged races, piggy back with one on each side trying
to throw their three man opponents, throwing yarn balls into a 10 foot
high basket, and relay races passing the baton, all part of the all day activity. The large gathering of
parents and friends sat on padded mats on the ground.
Trees and plants are very similar to ours. At the arboretum we found chrysanthemums, peonies, morning glories, iris, hollyhocks
and crape myrtle. The Japanese will travel great distances to view the cherry blossoms each spring. In the fall, the Japanese maples
turn a colorful red.
In religion 80 per cent of the Japanese are both Shintoist and Buddhist. They will go to the Shinto shrine to pray for luck,
success, and weddings. They go to the Buddhist temple for funerals and to pray for deceased loved ones. Christianity and Confucianism
have small followings.
The Japanese are different. National, prefecture, and local political and family decisions are made with group involvement.
The head of an industrial company would not make a decision unless he felt that everybody including the janitor was involved in the
They are warm, friendly, polite, and respectful of your needs and wishes. They work hard and study hard.
Doris and I feel fortunate that we had the opportunity to be a part of the lives of three families. We have made good friends and hope
that they will come to visit us soon.
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