It’s the strangest thing, but every time I leave Japan it makes me realize how much I love living in Japan and also how incredibly and truly bizarre it is. I’ve heard people say that Japan is not “truly Asia” and I had an inkling of what they meant but I never truly understood it until we ventured to Thailand this past week. Japan truly is an entity of it’s own. I have been living in this bubble and 7 months have gone by in a flash.
As soon as we arrived at Bangkok airport and I stumbled into the ladies room, I realized that I was no longer in Japan. This realization came not because of the fascinating writing all over the place, or because of all the palm trees I could see through the window, or the fact that they had both a “Buddhist Monk Prayer Room” and a “Muslim prayer room” within steps of getting off the plane.
What gave it away was that suddenly it was VERY loud. The other major warning was as I entered the bathroom, there was a Thai woman standing there stripping her shirt off and bathing in the public sink half naked. I entered the toilet stall and stared in wonder thinking, “Where is the high tech seat? How is my ass going to get fresh? When is the last time they CLEANED this place?”. After the initial shock of seeing naked people and remembering that ONLY in Japan will you find such sanitary bathrooms, I was on my way.
I’m not going to bore you and share my vacation stories with you about the luxurious resort I stayed at. Never have I felt like the upper middle class WASP that apparently I have become until this vacation. And , admittedly, I really enjoyed not cooking, cleaning, or trying to hard to fit in for a whole week. I basked in the luxury , the quiet, and the stunning scenery. I enjoyed the company of my two men, big and little. It was pure indulgence and pure amazing.
More interestingly, let me tell you about the things I saw when we left the oasis of the resort. Stray dogs roaming the streets, entire families riding on one moped (I’m talking 5 or 6 people including babies and kids smooshed on here), and people driving portable cafes made from home made carts attached to mopeds. There were men riding atop ladders that were strapped to the back of trucks, kids sitting piled 3 high in the back of Tuk Tuk’s while carrying baskets of things, and school buses going by at high speed with legs dangling out the back door and arms and heads peeking through the open slats. I even saw a school bus that had a roof deck (no children were on it thank GOD, but I’m pretty sure that sometimes there are).
I saw monks in beautiful orange robes, with tattoos, talking on cell phones. There were temples that were painted in the most bright colors and intricate patterns. Gold was everywhere you looked. Commotion and movement in every single corner as far as the eye could see. There were wild monkeys, who inhabited a hill atop the city, owning their kingdom and snatching ice cream and cookies from any children who dared to get too close. They were just as comfortable approaching a human and taking what they desired as they were swinging away with it into the treetops.
The highways were littered with stand after stand after stand selling pineapples. Fruit spilled out from people’s moped carts , all of it for sale. Kitschy shops popped up every few feet selling bright tapestries, wooden elephants, and silk scarfs. These alternated with food stalls serving everything from smoothies, to noodles, to mangos and sticky rice, to whole fish. The road sides were a rainbow of colors due to all the fresh fruits and vegetables.
After living in Japan for 7 months, if I were hard pressed to describe the country and it’s people in 5 words, I would have to say “Disciplined, Simple, Safe, Clean, and Polite”. My 5 words for Thailand would have to be, “Spicy, Loud, Hectic, Pulsing, and Vibrant” .
Allow me to give you some comparisons. I spend much of my time visiting temples and shrines here in Japan. It’s one of my favourite activities, truth be told. Here, they are often very simple, wooden structures, with some elaborations in the roof and beautiful clean nature surrounding them. People are always quiet and respectful and they are immaculately kept. In Thailand, the temples have stray dogs roaming and barking every where and you had to do a special kind of dance not to step in their shit or be attacked by one. Inside these fascinating and garish temples, there were bright flashing lights, gold everywhere, and even a strobe light, lighting up Buddha on top of a garish tower. Nothing says “BUDDHA” like a strobe light, right? I also saw a monk playing what seemed like Thai hip hop music on his cell phone while chatting to some local workers.
In Japan, you can rarely find a café with outdoor seating, and if you do, it is likely in a garden or some lovely tranquil spot. It’s been explained to me that “eating outdoors is too dirty and hectic”. People do not walk and eat and if you get “take out” what that means is “Take your ass home and eat it there because I don’t want to see you eating in public”. In Thailand, you can have the opportunity to eat anything, anywhere, anytime. We sat in a small café for an afternoon beer and it’s door sized windows were all thrown open. We watched herds of mopeds go by. Pollution and smog filtering in through the opening. It was loud, bustling , and made for great people watching. We later ate delicious crispy duck for about 1.50 USD while sitting on the sidewalk.
I found in Thailand, people were loud and friendly and almost rowdy in nature. So many people came up to my son and put their arm around him or tousled his hair. We went on a beautiful kayaking trip and our guide , Noi, picked him up and called him “boy” all day. At the end of the evening, he set up a hammock for “boy” and chatted with us under the stars in his very limited English. He asked me if I had been to the “Torture Farm” and I was slightly horrified and said, “NO” and he said, “You should take your son”. After several odd looks between us, and some awkward silences, we managed to sort out he meant “Tortoise Farm” and I felt slightly better about letting this guy touch my kid all day. He really was just trying to make a connection and that was more important to him than saying the right thing. I cherish the time we got to spend with this local man sharing our stories and trying to connect.
Here in Japan, people often approach my son but it is tentatively and with shy smiles. I’ve had elderly people ask a younger Japanese person to translate “Is it okay if I speak to him”. People are very polite but reserved and careful about their interactions with us. As soon as we boarded the plane to come back , we realized we truly were “the foreigners” as where we live, there are so few people NOT from Japan. And though I love living in this place, each month I understand a little more about the fact that Japan truly is a “closed” culture that has maintained it’s sameness for centuries. They enjoy having foreign visitors, but you will never be part of it. We are not part of it, but we are pleased to be allowed to be on the fringe for now.
Now lets talk food, since we all love it. My taste buds are still screaming from all the delicious foods , both simple and complex, we ate in Thailand. My intestines are also still screaming a bit. Every morning I awoke to fresh mangoes, passion fruit and pineapple. This alone, made me want to stay forever, to forfeit returning to Japan where it costs two dollars for an apple and one that is not that good. The dishes were laden with citrus, and spice, and cilantro and herbs. My mouth is watering just remembering it all. There were vegetables in everything. I would trade a million bowls of ramen for just a few stir fried dishes from Thailand.
After a week, it was truly time to go back “home”. You know ,the home that isn’t really our home, but will do because we have no “home”. It was hard to leave those tranquil blue waters, those delicious mangos, and all those people who just wanted to get to know us. All this being said, I am still madly and deeply in love with living in Japan. After a long flight, we had to board the train and we were oh so tired. Paul got off and as the doors were closing, he realized he had left his back pack on there. We watch the train pull away. If this had been anywhere else in the world we would have been in full scale panic. Sure enough, as only can happen in Japan, he was able to go retrieve it this morning at the same station and every single cent and item was still in it’s exact place. This could ONLY happen here in Japan.
My week in Thailand was like I had an affair with Japan’s spicy, dirty, younger brother. It was so good I may go back for more. Maybe I’m just old, but I really do love simple, quiet, and respectful in the end. I am just grateful for the spice and variety of my life. I look forward to our next foray into the “real Asia” , Taiwan, here we come!