One of the best reasons to travel is to expand one's mind and discover how others at far reaches of the globe live. I encourage everyone to go where they don't "blend in." Whether that's 3 or 300 or 30,000 miles away from home, it's important for us all to experience entering an environment where we feel out of place, misunderstood, and/or uncomfortable.
As a planner, I enjoy researching a place before visiting. Even for me, however, the idea of traveling to Asia was daunting. I spent weeks pouring through information on Tokyo and Japan, reaching out to those who had been there recently, and reading blogs and articles into the late hours of the night. Compared to other destinations, however, no matter how much I learned about Tokyo, I still had this frustrating feeling that I had still no idea what to expect.
Days before I arrived in Japan, I read a blog post instructing me "don't eat while you're standing or walking" since it's bad manners. It told me not to point at people or religious things. Don't blow my nose in a handkerchief; it's even more polite to sniff. Speak quietly on the train, since many travel long distances and often sleep or rest there. There aren't many trash bins in public places, so one should hold rubbish until home or find one at a coffee shop or department store but don't litter. The ground is considered dirty, so don't sit on it. People wear surgical masks to avoid getting sick or passing on their sickness to others. Don't talk loudly in public, and definitely do not gab away on your cell phone while walking the Tokyo streets.
Stepping off the train platform into Tokyo Station, I marveled at the efficient processes and social code as swarms of people made their way through the station. Tokyo felt three times as large as New York City with less than half of the noise. On the train, a peaceful hum of quietude greeted me despite the crowds. I knew I stood out as different, and I studied those around me in order to fit in as best I could. The quietness allowed me to be with my thoughts.
And yet, a simple nod from strangers felt friendly and personable. Buying a bag of chips at the convenience store felt special because of the dramatic hand gesture the cashier made to present me formally with my receipt. Purchasing anything from the department store felt important because they unwrapped and checked the items I wanted to make sure they were in good condition and wrapped them back up with care, even taking off the price tags. I didn't worry about my pocketbook placed in a small holder on a cafe floor because I knew no one would steal it. A tiny bookmark that I bought my grandmother was packaged by the clerk with stickers and emblems worthy of a much grander buy. A woman on a crowded street in Kyoto struggled in broken English for 10 minutes to help me find a suitable dinner option once I asked. The toilet in my tiny hotel room even had a luxurious warming seat function to provide some ordinary comfort. Taxi seats were covered in fabric doilies and their doors opened and shut automatically to escort me to the curb.
Of course I felt happy to return home to the United States. However, I felt a strong contrast that is worth considering. I am not saying that the Japanese liked strangers more or were more hospitable than those here in Boston. But I can say that the way they treat each other and their public environment is unequivocally more outwardly respectful on the whole than the way we do here.
I think that there is a lot we can learn from the Japanese respect. I wish there was a stronger social code in Boston where we acknowledge each other on the street, hold our rubbish until we find a trash can, respect those trying to rest on the train, admire nature and ceremony, and take pride in our purchases and jobs. One cannot mistake respect with kindness, but the allusion of kindness to me was just as powerful, and I find myself longing for it here in Boston as well.