Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Mt. Fuji, Hakone, and culture shock

Today's trip was to Mount Fuji and Hakone. Mount Fuji is a volcano that hasn't erupted in 300 years, which is roughly a blink in geological times. It's usually cloudy, but we got a glimpse of the north slope.

At altitude, though, we were in the clouds:

which later turned into a rainstorm preventing a planned cable car trip.

By the end of the day, we landed in a hot spring resort in Hakone. This evening, culture shock started settling in, or at least that's what I'm calling it. No one particular thing precipitated it, it's just that feeling that you get when you realize you're on a boat and far enough out to sea that you have no hope of swimming to land if the thing sinks. It's one of those adjustment processes I'll have to get through.

Tokyo, at least, and much of the rest of Japan seems very western on the surface, but there are some profound cultural differences. I used to think the breakdown was along the lines of convenience versus presentation, where the U.S. is more focused on convenience while Japanese culture values presentation more. Now I'm beginning to change my mind. I think the real difference is that U.S. culture places a strong value on flexibility, while Japanese culture more strongly values order. For example, trying to find a coin laundry in Japan has proven exceptionally difficult, unless you want one associated with a hotel, in which case it's most likely available only to hotel guests. Similarly, getting a doggie bag from a restaurant here is pretty much unheard of (and if you ask for one you're likely to get an excuse along the lines of it being a hot day, and they don't want to endanger you with possible food spoilage--translation: you're bucking the trend and they have no idea how to deal appropriately with the request.) As long as you go with the flow, things flow beautifully, but if you (say) would rather not pay 60,000 yen (around $60 U.S.) for the hotel buffet, and would rather make your own arrangements for dinner, or you simply didn't have dinner reservations, you may have a lengthy search for available food that goes beyond Cup Noodles.

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