The Japanese do “clean” well.
When I left during spring break with 27 high school students and two other teachers, I knew our 12-day stay would be packed full of seeing temples and shrines, shopping, staying with the host families, and visiting high schools. What I didn’t realize was how many elements of Japan I’d want to bring home. Especially its tidiness.
Slippers, for example. After the 11-hour flight on Air Canada 35, we dragged our luggage through several train and subway stops and were grateful to finally exchange our shoes for the slippers that await all travelers at the entrance to the Kyoto youth hostel. I think it was the slippers that gave us the energy to drag our luggage up three flights of stairs to our rooms. Again I exchanged my shoes for slippers when I arrived at my homestay in Gunma Prefecture, and again at Isesake High School, and again at the church I attended on Easter Sunday.
Raised in muddy B.C., I’m accustomed to removing my shoes when I visit a home. Rarely have I been offered slippers, however. I’ll miss having toasty feet, especially on wood or linoleum flooring. Sure, I can bring my own when I visit, but somehow that’s just not the same as having slippers provided, even if they are one-size-fits-all.
Wearing slippers got me looking at the gleaming floors, especially in the high schools. Since I enjoy conversing with janitors and even married a former janitor, I know how hard school janitors work; I’ve witnessed scraping gum off linoleum, and seen my share of brooms. Imagine my surprise when I tried to find a janitor in the high school . . . and found none. Every day after homeroom, Japanese high school students clean the floors, the desks, the toilets, and the outside of the school. Students learn to take responsibility for their own messes: imagine that. And teachers monitor their efforts. I saw no graffiti, no litter, and only a few dustballs gathering in the edges of the stairs in the Japanese high school. Sounds good to me.
High school is a microcosm of Japanese society: yes, there are janitors, but ultimately everyone is responsible for cleanliness. With approximately the same number of people living in Tokyo and its outlying districts as in all of Canada approximately 33 million), Japan has chosen to be pro-active with its recycling programs. The subways, trains, and streets are close to spotless, even though it’s difficult to locate garbage receptacles. And when you do, there are different ones for plastic, paper, and food. Home refuse may be separated into 11 different categories, and each household drops off recyclable-bagged garbage at central locations.
Maybe that’s why Japan feels uncluttered, even though it’s a sliver of the size of Canada. The homes we stayed in were almost empty by Canadian standards. As I sat on the floor at the traditional, low dining table in one home, I thought about the stacks of dishes, unnecessary plates, nicknacks, bookcases of never-to-be-read again books in my dining and living rooms at home. And as I watched Tonka-like vehicles and bicycles zip through the streets, I thought of my Dodge Dakota 4 door, the mammoth beast whose bulk takes up a large chunk of my garage.
Yet despite scarcity of stuff, a culture of gift-giving flourishes. Just where the Japanese put all the gifts they receive is a mystery, but give they do — freely. Upon arrival at a host’s home, out comes a gift, as it does upon departure. When my homestay teacher and I surprised her mother-in-law with a visit to her home, I commented on the beautiful dolls she had (hard to miss, as they were basically the only items on display). I arrived later that day to my homestay, donned my slippers, and entered the kitchen. There, on the table, sat two dolls — gifted to me simply because I had commented on them.
I have to admit I wasn’t crazy about the traditional Japanese urinal-in-the-ground toilets. However, their version of the Western toilet, where available, made up for it. The Sino commode comes with on-demand flushing sound (to cover up those particularly unpleasant noises) and a heated toilet seat. Isesake High had only one Western toilet, but true to form, it was magnificent: a true throne. For anyone who doesn’t usually sit on a toilet seat, all I can say is, in Japan, it’s worth the risk.
Now that I’m back, I welcome being able to once again enjoy words in the newspaper (I got a sense of how frustrating illiteracy must be as I depended solely on pictures in the Japanese newspapers), to be back on the familiar side of the road (the first time I got in a car in Japan I sat in the driver’s seat accidentally), and to eat cereal for breakfast (fish at 7:30 a.m. was a challenge). But I will miss those pristine streets. And the people? Thankfully it’s an exchange — we’re looking forward to reconnecting with the students and the teachers we met when they come to B.C. next year.
Maybe I can convince someone to bring along a portable heated toilet seat.