Japanese Anarchy in Tokyo and Kyoto
We spent the summer in Tokyo in a local community of young salary men and women who were fed up with Japan's traditions, norms, and rules. They had chosen to live in a shared house, which is not a common form of dwelling in Japan although it is increasing in popularity among young single people thanks to the high cost of living in Japan. However, most Japanese prefer their privacy, or they live with their families.
Shared living offers many advantages: cost savings, more space — an advantage which is not negligible in big cities where most apartments are like shoe boxes — and companionship. It inevitably also includes some responsibilities. In our house, responsibilities were viewed as restrictive. Although this was liberating and we highly appreciated the freedom it brought along, it also resulted in a number of small inconveniences. For example, not everybody bothered to wash their dishes, switch off lights from toilet and bathroom to indicate that they were unoccupied, clean the common areas, or buy consumables like toilet tissue. The contrast with the world outside was significant as Japan is very elderly, orderly, and sterile. There is no rubbish in the streets, except on garbage collection days and even then it is neatly placed in collection areas, wrapped in multiple plastic bags, and often protected with a net so that animals or birds do not break the bags and start scavenging. One day, on our daily walk, we even saw a woman vacuum cleaning the sidewalk in front of her shop! The only thing that shocked us in these tidy surroundings was smoking. The Japanese smoke everywhere, inside and outside, even in hotel rooms, restaurants and kitchens while others are eating and cooking. The Western propaganda of smoking killing people just hasn't reached Japan yet; smoking is still considered hip, pop and cool.
Many Japanese people are afraid of talking to foreigners and in general bothering others. They might apologise even for a minor potential inconvenience or for something which is not even their fault, and even thanks is said in the form of an apology. Conversely, in our house everybody was allowed to do whatever they wanted, for example not to mind about others when taking a shower. This was not a minor problem as there was only one bathroom for up to 30 people. When inconveniences became unbearable, a new system was invented instead of introducing rules. When the shower queues grew at some point so long past midnight that some people had to wait for their turn for hours, a reservation system was introduced but even then nobody wanted to restrict the time spent in the bathroom. Sometimes some people were soaking in bath for an hour, or ladies were doing their make-up and hair occupying the whole bathroom for the process. Somehow, however, all these inconveniences were sorted out nicely and politely, as is customary in Japan.
Capricious weather, lovely people, and long walks
Summer weather in Japan is very unpredictable. In June, it was the rainy season. Sometimes it drizzled, at other times it rained cats and dogs, and most days were overcast. Houses were cold and damp, and we didn't even want to imagine how they would feel like during the other, colder seasons, particularly the winter as houses had no insulation and the heating systems looked rather inefficient. In mid-July, the long awaited heat wave arrived. It was around +35 Celsius and very humid. Many Japanese don't like summertime at all. Houses have air-conditioners in every room, sometimes even in bathrooms, although the summer season is very short, just a couple of months.
What we enjoyed most, again, were people. On our previous visit, we stayed in a zen monastery familiarising ourselves with the lives of Buddhist monks, and this time we got to know the mundane everyday life that included parties and dating. As usual, we didn't visit any world-known sights although we also stayed three weeks in Kyoto that abounds historical buildings and Unesco heritage sites. Instead, we enjoyed our walks in the surroundings. In Tokyo, we were staying near Komazawa Olympic Park, which is an oasis in the densely built, noisy, and rather boring urban area. The park has separate lanes for walking, running and cycling, various sports fields, and a dog park. Most of the dogs were very well-mannered and you could see they had attended dog schools. What a shame it would be for Japanese dog owners if their pets would cause any annoyance or harm to others! In Kyoto, we found a beautiful route at the foot of one of the hills surrounding the city. It had little winding alleys, bamboo forests, and dozens of temples, some of which did not collect any entrance fees.
Cost of living
Japan is as expensive as northern Europe but there are also bargains to find. Wine, for example, is almost as cheap as in southern Europe and in the US. You can get a decent bottle of Italian or American red wine for 400-500 yen (~3 €). Tofu is also affordable, and even the cheapest rice is amazing. The best of all was okara, which costs 150 yen a bag (no matter how full) in Tokyo, while in Kyoto we got it free of charge.
Japanese food and products are of very high quality, and the Japanese master the art of details. Futons are comfortable to sleep on and duvet covers have strings on the corners to tie them to the comforter so that everything stays nicely in place. The hindsight of shopping is that everything is wrapped in plastic, and food packages can contain 2-3 layers of packaging creating enormous amount of trash that is "recycled" by burning it just like everywhere on earth.
Going to the supermarket to buy something is a challenge for all of us who do not speak Japanese as everything is in Japanese only. Fortunately our friend Rieko from our first visit nine years ago helped us. All the Japanese we encountered were very helpful, too. When we got lost one time on our way to a new supermarket, we asked for directions and got a ride instead.
Japanese people pay a high price for the quality of life. They work hard and while this means long working hours, it does not necessarily mean being effective and getting results. One of our housemates described the Japanese working culture saying that it's like pushing shit uphill with chopsticks. It takes a lot of time and effort, but eventually the shit will reach the hilltop and work gets done. Based on our experiences in Japan, long-term deflation and degrowth (negative growth) are bad for the economy but good for humans. They encourage people to seek alternatives and cherish other values in life rather than eternal growth, money, and wealth.
For more information, please visit the website we created: http://jamhouse.info/english/.