Text & Photos by Tony Lee
Travels with Tony
I have been in Japan for nine days. I find that I can learn a lot about a country from observing the children. Japanese kids are well-cared for, healthy and extremely well behaved. A normal school day starts around 8 o’clock but often times the kids don’t go home until 6 or 7 o’clock. When I wandered my neighborhood one evening just before 8 PM, I came across a private tutoring service that was still open. I peaked in and saw 10 kids ranging from elementary to high school doing their homework. There was no tutoring going on as the only adult present sat idly by at her corner desk. Two of the youngest kids, ages 9 or10, were obviously working on math, judging by their use of an abacus. That’s right! No calculator but an abacus.
Is this the way the Japanese help their children get ahead? By using ancient traditional methods? Is this part of the common core curriculum? As in many other Asian countries where education is highly valued, Japanese parents push their kids to do well in school. But somehow, twelve hour days must take a toll on kids, especially the younger who don’t have time to sleep, rest or play.
Japanese society reflects this kind of regimentation, but with good results in many areas. There is virtually no crime in Japan. Gun ownership is not permitted. Young kids walk to and from school by themselves. Middle and high school students take buses and trains on your own. Unaccompanied Women head home at midnight without fear. And I went everywhere with impunity.
The Japanese follow rules fastidiously. I jaywalk all the time and got odd looks from the locals who wait patiently for green lights and there is never any cutting in line. Conversations and phone calls are held quietly so as not to disturb others. And the Japanese are polite to a fault, bowing endlessly and expressing their gratitude. Kyoto bus drivers thank their passengers individually as they pay and get off the bus. And shopkeepers were constantly apologizing to me for not speaking English.
In planning my trip to Japan, I spoke to Margaret Peterson, the assistant principal at my school. She lived in Japan for six years and speaks the language fluently. She gave valuable information to me and John Fong, a fellow counselor who surprised his wife with a Thanksgiving trip to Japan for her birthday. We met up in Tokyo. twice but missed connecting in Kyoto.
I was leery of Japan as an expensive destination. This fear seem to be well founded when Margaret told us about the time in Japan when she had an insatiable craving for a burrito. For one she had to take a train from her home to Tokyo ($80). Then there was the cost of the food. When it was all said and done, her Mexican meal cost around $200. In San Francisco it would have been less than $10. But I found that by avoiding expensive sushi and Kobe beef dinners,I could get by with a daily food cost of $30. A neighborhood the hole-in-the-wall tavern or izakayas offer noodle, rice and combination plates for less than $10. And typically they offer counter seating only with 4 to 10 stools. But the food is delicious and make an excellent snack or a filling dinner. It’s just not the place to take someone on a date.
For accommodations I stayed at Airbnb apartments in Tokyo and Kyoto. In both cases I got a self-contained apartment instead of the typical spare room in someone’s house. The units were the size of a regular hotel room(250 ft.²?) and while it doesn’t sound like much space, it is a normal studio apartment in Japan. I never paid more than $75 a night for my accommodations so everything turned out to be quite affordable.
After three days in Tokyo I headed to Kyoto with the intention of staying for two days and then visiting nearby cities and Nora. But there was so much to see and do in five days in the city, I left wishing for five more days. Kyoto is on a broad plain surrounded by hills. Two rivers flow through, one of them passing the downtown area. Unexpectedly I came in time for the fall colors.
But for now it is on to Taiwan as I promised to meet my cousin’s son from Hong Kong. He’s the one who introduced me last month to the best dim sum restaurant there. But there is so much more to see in Japan that I am already thinking of a return trip where I can stay a month or more. I have really come to like Kyoto, the city named by Travel & Leisure magazine for the past two years, as the best to visit. Now I see why.
And as Douglas MacArthur and Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “Ngoy woy fahn Loy.” At least that’s what they would have said if they spoke my Toishan dialect. I’ll be back. Maybe I could even retire to Kyoto part of the year. I could supplement my pension by teaching English or maybe math, which was my best subject. But I would start lessons by getting rid of the darn abacus.