The tiny police car comes to an abrupt halt as it is about to turn into a side street. Two officers inside the car smile and signal that I should cross the side street first. Still some metres from the side-street, I stop and wave them on, but they insist, with even larger smiles. Meanwhile, traffic on the main road banks up behind the police car. Not a horn is sounded, not a shout is heard. Everyone waits patiently, while I cross the side-street. What incredible politeness.
That encounter reinforces what I had already experienced countless times: the sense of profound orderliness, politeness, hospitality and quiet of Japan. I had been in Japan for more than a week, arriving by ship in Osaka and travelling north. Being keen to skip past the packed metropolises of the southern islands, I take to the trains. The Shinkansens (literally ‘new network’) are so-so, not as good as the vaster Chinese network of high speed trains. I prefer the slower trains, although they still have fancy names. Super-Hakucho or Super-Hokuto or Super-whatever, but the ‘Super’ really means a slightly faster affair that actually stops at most stations and takes on local passengers. I guess they are ‘super’ in relation to the ‘local’ trains. These are single-carriage diesel rail motors, occasionally hitting 40 kilometres per hour in between the stops. And stop they do, at every tiny platform and remote village of the northern island of Hokkaido. I glory in their rattles and bangs and lurches, in the feel that they had not changed all that much for the last century or so. They take me to parts of Japan – Wakkanai, Nemuro, Samani – I had not imagined existed: open countryside with sparse villages huddling together in the face of the constant cold winds of these northern latitudes.
Yet, even in these villages the politeness and orderliness is pervasive. Compact houses sit neatly beside one another, with not a weed or a scrap of rubbish around them. On the roads, local people drive well below the speed limit, stopping at lights almost before they have turned red. Pedestrians too stop at lights and wait for them to change, even if not a car is to be seen. In lines, people wait patiently. At building sites a special sentry with an orange baton smilingly assists any passers-by as to where they should walk. On trains, the conductor and even the food trolley woman bow politely as they enter the carriage, muttering a smiling word of greeting as they do so. In hotels, shops, on the street, in homes, people bow, nod, smile and are utterly helpful. Even more, excessive noise is a no-no. You can speak on a mobile phone in a train only in vestibule of each carriage. Hotel regulations make a big thing about quietness. Every word is spoken softly.
At times the polite helpfulness can be misdirected. In Tokyo I have a tight connection to the next train, heading north to Aomori. In the midst of an unfamiliar railway station, I see an older man in uniform. He watches the crush of passengers, ensuring order (although he has little to do since Japanese people are innately orderly). I step close to him and show him my seat reservation. ‘Hayabusa’, he says. ‘Quick! It leaves soon. Platform 18’. He rushes forward, whistle in hand and beckoning me to follow. Up the stairs we run and onto the platform. He directs me onto the train and, as usual, bows and smiles. I find my seat and settle in, only to find upon departure that I am headed in exactly the opposite direction – southward to Osaka, from whence I have just come. Fortunately, the next stop is five minutes away, so I disembark and return to Tokyo. Now I take some time, carefully locate the train I want and arrive in plenty of time on the platform. This time I do not ask for help.
In retrospect, this little slip says far more than I had anticipated, for it was the first sign of the underside of Japanese niceness and order. After my rail journeying in northern parts, I settle for a few days in the port town of Tomakomai on the island of Hokkaido. In Tomakomai I encounter not only the polite policemen and yet more obsessive order, but also a whole world seething just below the surface.
In a corner shop, I notice a section with leaflets festooned with scantily clad women and large phone numbers. The lobby of the hotel sports a rack with similar looking leaflets. Intrigued, I take one to see what it means. Soon I decipher ‘Deriheru’, short for ‘Deribarii herusu’, which translates as ‘delivery health’. Apparently, the idea is that a woman will visit a hotel room or a home, or anywhere really, to provide ‘health services’. Intrigued, I begin to research further. I read of the ‘soaplands’ which may be found in any city in Japan. Such establishments provide one – usually a male – with an extraordinary washing experience. Both outer and inner parts are washed carefully and thoroughly by a woman. She then covers herself in oil or a lubricant and slides all over the body she has just washed. Apparently the service is provided naked.
After such a wash, one may – if that is one’s inclination – rest at one of the ‘leisure’ hotels that festoon the city landscapes of Japan. The tell-tale sign of such a place is that they offer two types of rates: a ‘rest’ for a couple of hours and a ‘stay’ for overnight. Regular travellers may stay only after 10.00 pm, although they need to be out by 9.00 am. In fact, a journey through Japan can be made staying at these garish establishments with their discrete entrances, especially since there are about 30,000 of them in Japan. In an effort to provide a somewhat different experience, the rooms may have themes, such as pirate ships, churches, trains, classrooms, hospital wards, under-sea or even a water-slide. Inside the room, you may find a VW Beetle, a merry-go-round, chains descending from the ceiling, or a small garden with a bridge. And check-in is entirely anonymous.
Is this world of ‘health service’, ‘soapland’ and ‘leisure’ or ‘love’ hotels entirely concealed? No. Is it simply an accepted part of everyday life, as the ubiquitous American-style fast food outlets or the pod hotels? No. It hovers in between. Officially, prostitution is illegal in Japan, and this impossibly polite and ordered society simply cannot allow it as part of the surface fabric of life. Hence the euphemisms, the efforts to make it appear as though it is something else that actually contributes to the order and neatness of life. The catch is that such a life would not be possible without the intimate closeness of its underside.
An Intimate Moment
The Japanese seem to accept this fact. Let me give another, unexpected example: the ubiquitous toilet seat, in which repression and release function side-by-side. These elaborate seats come with a curious panel of buttons.
Initially, I ignore such devices, but then I become intrigued. How do they work? I try pressing the buttons, but to no avail.
However, after sitting upon such a toilet a few times, I notice that a green light goes on after some water noises. I then press the ‘bidet’ button. At this moment, a phallic like tube emerges from the back of the toilet.
And before I know it, a stream of water shoots right into my nether regions. Actually, it strikes the bull’s eye.
After the initial surprise (mixed with a little pleasure), I decide to try the shower button. What will it do?
This jet of water seems designed for cleaning the ceiling, since it jets almost straight up with significant force.
Freud would have been absolutely thrilled. Return of the repressed – with a vengeance. But as I dry off, I also realise that Japanese cleanliness goes a long way, since it seems to me that anyone who uses such a device cannot help but having one’s whole internal system washed clean.