Japanis a very safe country, something people hardly know. When we travelled fromEurope two months ago, dragging our luggage around airports, in trains and finally in buses, we kept an eagle eye on our suitcases and handbags. We are used to do so while travelling and at home as well, shopping on our famous Saturday market inEindhoven. InJapan there is less need to be so vigilant. You can relax.
People are very courteous, will patiently wait for you until you passed in a supermarket or on the streets. They get into lane on the reserved spot on the platform, waiting for the train or bus. They will treat you with respect and greet you politely: “konichiwa!” and bow slightly. One day, while walking an old pilgrim trail with lots of shrines and temples nearNara, we met with a bus-load of pilgrims. This resulted in forty times greeting and bowing: every person individually and face to face.
There are many pottery shops in Shigaraki. All of them have an indoor sales area, with a lot of the ceramic wares on display in the spacious yard in front of it. Sometimes there are special items to attract attention, like a huge tanuki (a mythical raccoon bear), a line of four meter high Buddha’s, or a moving display with big, colourful ceramic animals. Often you see rows and rows of tanuki’s, pots and other ceramics. At night all the shops leave their merchandise outside. In the morning, At half past seven in the morning the owner will arrive and unhook the string in front of his parking ground. In the evening he closes the lot by hooking the same string again.
When we arrived from Holland, we were amazed. In our country it would be impossible to leave all these ceramic merchandise outside: it would be stolen or vandalized. As artists we had some bad experiences showing artworks in public space. Mels’ work was vandalized several times – that is: in Holland. Sometimes the culprits had the nerve to drive a four-wheel drive some kilometres through a plantation of young trees to destroy and steal his artwork. Another time the vandals went to a lot of trouble in the middle of the night in a desolate place, and had to cut an 8 mmsteel cable to bring down his work. These criminals actually had to work to destroy his art.
It is not at all like that in Japan! During the nine weeks we stayed in Shigaraki, the pottery displays in front of the shops changed only when an item was sold (which was pretty rare).
For Dutch visitors like us, there is an even more telling example: bicycles. In the back of the accommodation centre at the SCCP there is a small shed with several bicycles, to be used by the artists. They are not locked. In front of the supermarket you will always see unlocked bicycles. No bicycles skeletons in the small river, next to the road. No bicycles in lampposts or bushes. All bicycles seem to be in good repair as well.
Usually we worked until quite late in the evening. We had to rent an apartment on the other side of Shigaraki, due to a rule that children (under 20) were not allowed to sleep in the SCCP. Cycling at midnight on small or major roads in Shigaraki was completely safe. One stiflingly hot night, I saw something you will probably only encounter inJapan: a man was walking his dog, holding a fan. But he was not fanning himself – while strolling along, the man was slowly waving his fan over the back of his dog!
We travelled to the active volcano Sakurajima, covering some 1000 kilometres to the south by Shinkansen, the bullet train. When we looked out of the window, passing through big cities like Hiroshima and Kyoto, we never saw a single bit of graffiti. We have not visited Tokyo, though. It may be different there, since Tokyo is a huge (9 million) metropolis. But the places we saw in Japan were safe and without a trace of violence or vandalism. In my eyes, this is something very valuable – it is something to be treasured in a country. In Holland we lost this treasure a long time ago.
InJapan it is quite obvious that there is a crisis, and the economical decline has been going on for a long time – in fact for about 20 years. Business is down, prices are up and people have a hard time to make ends meet. The paint is peeling from many buildings and many facilities in public space need to be repaired or replaced. The pavement and streets are uprooted and weeds grow everywhere. But somehow, the Japanese disposition is the cement of the society and people are guided by tradition and rules of behaviour.
I admired the way the Japanese volunteered after the tsunami in theFukushimaarea: teenagers and adults took some days off and came from everywhere to clear away the rubble and restore what they could. This happened within two weeks after the disaster took place. They made their own personal contribution to society, simply to make the world a better place.
On the way home, toHolland, something remarkable happened, which is a perfect illustration of this Japanese character trait. We couldn’t reach the airport in one day from Shigaraki and had to make a stop-over for one night inKyoto. Our airplane left from Kansai airport at the end of the next morning. We had a fool-proof schedule for the trains to take, leaving us some hours to idle away in the departure section of the airport. We were on time (Japanese trains are incredibly punctual) until the Haruka express fromKyototoOsakahalted at a small station, where we weren’t supposed to stop. Some explanation followed in Japanese over the intercom. All people around us took it in resignation. We waited for a while, than some more Japanese over the intercom and the doors opened. We gazed around in panic. A young woman on high heels told us, in good English, there had been an accident and this train wasn’t going any further. We had to make a detour and catch a succession of other trains. She asked where we were going. She was also heading for Kansai airport, since she worked for the FedEx office there. She promised to take care of us. The accident turned out to be a suicide. The detour involved hopping from one to another of at least three or four different trains and dragging our90 kilogramsof luggage from platform to platform – once even from one station to the next, two streets away. Our Japanese guardian angel started to phone the airport right away, in an effort to warn our Air France desk. She carried our suitcases on stairs, while reassuring us that we still would be able to make our flight. She sprinted to the other side of the platform to a waiting conductor to inquire about destinations and timetables. Then she got us running again from one train to the next, in the meanwhile making phone calls to the employees at the airport. Finally we reached the check-in desk at Kansai airport. The employees were already waiting for us, papers ready and we were rushed through the security checks. I tried to give our Japanese helper some money for all the phone calls she had made for us. She wouldn’t hear of it and answered: “It is my duty”. We hereby thank you. Without your efficient way of dealing with this and without you sticking to us and guiding us through the maze of Japanese railways, we would never have made it. Just before take-off we entered the plane toParis!