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Wednesday, March 29, 2000
Houston, Texas
Volume 65, Issue 121

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Different Worlds

A trip to Japan reveals a nation redefining its tradition

By Tom Carpenter
Daily Cougar Staff

During Spring Break, I leaped upon the back of the amazing technology that is sweeping us into the 21st century, sank my spurs deep and rode hard and fast into the distant past.

The Internet and a cell phone got me aboard a gleaming new Boeing 777 in Houston that made the sun stand still until the jet landed in Tokyo 14 hours later. In Tokyo, I took a bullet -- a bullet train, that is. I didn't hear it coming, but I could feel its power as it raced down the track from Tokyo to Kyoto, Japan's ancient imperial capital, at 200 mph.


People gather around the steps to the shrine houseing the Buddha of a Thousand Hands in Kyoto. The shrine is only oopen to the public every 30 years.

Mt. Fuji dominated the skyline south of Tokyo as the train swept through the endless towns and cities that lined the Tokyo-Kyoto corridor. One of the most surprising aspects of my whirlwind tour of Japan was the existence of what seemed to be one endless city.

Seventy-five percent of Japan is mountainous, so the entire population of 130 million lives in only 25 percent of an already small area. That arrangement creates what is essentially a continuous city along the coast of the beautiful island nation.

It was amazing to see not only how the Japanese deal with living so close to one another, but how obedient, respectful and clean they are.

I remember standing at a corner with about 40 other people, waiting for the light to change on the other side of the street. No traffic was coming, so I did what Americans usually do -- started to cross the street before the light changed. No big deal, right?

Everyone on the other side stared at me. A quick glance behind showed me no one else was crossing yet either. I gave a nervous laugh and continued across the street. No one said anything, but it was an enlightening experience for me.


The author poses in front of a sign pointing the way to some of Kyoto's shrines and temples.

It boggled my mind that everyone waited so patiently for the light to change when there wasn't a vehicle in sight in either direction. That was the last time I crossed a street against the light, although the impulse was with me at every intersection.

Another fact that amazed me was the absolute absence of litter in each of the four cities I visited. The Japanese are unbelievably clean and neat. In Yokohama, I watched from the small apartment I staying in as a homeless man sweept his small area clean every morning.

A Japanese citizen explained to me that in Japan, everyone sacrifices some personal liberties for the good of the entire society. It's the only way such a cramped society can function.

The people I encountered in Japan were extremely polite and helpful. Many of them spoke English well enough to direct me to the places I wanted to see. I was told the Japanese view one another as members of one big family and are thoughtful of each other's needs at all times.

Although I believed it, I had some doubts when riding the subway at rush hour. The trains are so crowded that subway employees wearing white gloves push people into the cars with great vigor to ensure they are used as efficiently as possible. It was a bit strange to see a subway train leave a station with people's faces squashed against the windows.

Japan is also the most automated country I've ever visited. My entire tour went without a hitch because the machines that run everything from trains to telephones operated flawlessly. It is a remarkable example of a smoothly functioning society using the cutting edge of technology in everyday life.

Another interesting difference between Japan and the United States was the televised weather report. Not only did it show the weather all around Japan, as well as tides and wave heights, but at least six earthquake epicenters were visible on each night's weather map.

Japan is part of the Pacific Rim, where the Earth's plates grind against each other, causing earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The Japanese pay little attention to earthquakes that register 4 or less on the Richter scale. As one tour guide explained to me, "We continue to sit and drink our tea during minor earthquakes."

I could go on forever describing the shrines and temples in Japan. Kyoto alone has 1,300 Buddhist and 30 Taoist shrines and temples within its city limits. However, the Kinkakuji Temple in northwest Kyoto deserves a brief mention because its second and third floors, as well as the roof, are covered in gold. Yokio Mishima's book The Golden Pavilion of Kinkakuji is a good resource for information about this fascinating temple.

The highlight of my visit to Kyoto, and Japan, was spending a night in a traditional Japanese inn. The Takao Yamazaki is off the beaten path, but within easy walking distance of several Kyoto temples.

The price was a terrific bargain because the inn is a distance from normal tourist hotels. The food, tempura and sushi, was delicious, and the hotel boasted a beautiful Japanese garden that could be seen from every room.

Every morning, the inn was immaculately cleaned from top to bottom, and every season the flower arrangements, paintings, kimonos and curtains are changed to maintain harmony.

Rooms are equipped with Western appliances: a deep tub and shower and a Western toilet, a real luxury after visiting Japan's public rest rooms.

After the Yamazaki Inn, the rest of my trip was spent visiting shrines like the Great Bhudda in Nara and then hustling back to Yokohama to rest and pack before returning to Texas.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and a great way to spend Spring Break. Oh, and one more thing: The Japanese are incredibly honest and do not accept tips. Try finding that kind of service in Paris.
 

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