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It’s Easy To Fall In Love With Japan

State-of-the-art technology, Manga, bullet trains and culture - why Japan overawed me. Moshi Moshi. Yes, that insufferably over-cute phrase was ringing all around me as I landed in Tokyo.

brunch Updated: Oct 13, 2012 15:38 IST
Rajiv Makhni
Rajiv Makhni
Hindustan Times

Moshi Moshi. Yes, that insufferably over-cute phrase was ringing all around me as I landed in Tokyo. I have to confess though, my expectations before I had even got to Japan were incredibly high. I’ve grown up hearing about the fascinating culture, the incredible innovation, the awesome use of technology, how most modern gadgets and devices were born here, how robots played a role in every aspect of daily life, how space was at a super premium, that hotel rooms were just squeeze-in boxes, how incredibly expensive it was, the faster-than-light bullet trains and the strict code of conduct when you meet someone local. My mind was reeling with information overload and I was actually fairly nervous as I got off the aircraft.

When reality hits
I almost expected a robot to greet me as I got out. Unfortunately, it was a real-life person who was bowing 30 degrees (see box) and calling me Lajiv San (pronounced Sun, and see sidebar for more on that too). Next was the car (pretty small car, but as I was to

A whole new world: Japan is fascinating, complex, intriguing and very, very mind-blowing

discover – small cars are the big thing in Japan) that took me to the hotel (nope – no capsule room and bed, they do have hotels with normal rooms in Japan). In the first 60 minutes, most of my home-grown fantasies about Japan came crashing down. While the room was great, it was just what you expect any room in a good hotel to be worldwide. I had expected a robot butler, a 300-inch full-wall TV, voice-activated lighting, a bathroom that swivelled out from within the floor, a shower and sink that could read my thoughts and needs, and a bed that was fully motorised and automated. Heck, even getting WiFi in the room needed you to call reception and get an access card! And this was one of the best hotels in the city.

Shinkansen: faster than fast
Trying to stem my disappointment, I readied myself to go down into the city when it hit me. Literally, hit me. One of Tokyo’s worst typhoons. Blinding rain and wind that lashed around like a Godzilla and made pretty circles on my hotel window. I ended day one in Japan in a disappointingly large, totally non-techie hotel room with a swirling typhoon around me. Not the greatest of starts. The next morning I was to leave for Morioka, a city almost 600 km away. I was all set for a quick flight when I found myself being driven by ‘Best Driver in Tokyo City San’ (see box again) to the railway station. It was Bullet Train time! The Shinkansen is one of the most fascinating transport systems in the world. Trains run at speeds of about 300km/h (tests are on to get them to 450 km/h), look very high tech and amazing (some do say the front looks very phallic), carry about 190 million passengers every year and have almost eradicated the need for airlines within the country. Zip, zap, zoom – one Japanese green tea and one hour and 57 minutes later I found myself in Morioka. Man, do we need these in India (Delhi-Mumbai in four hours!).

It’s all about the behind
I may have been totally disappointed by technology and the fact that the Japanese as a people don’t like things that are in your face and hate flashy luxury. Except in one department. Their backside! Let me explain. I was in Japan for seven days and in this time I went through airports, railway stations, public areas, malls, streets, hotels and quite a few other places. And being on the move – I did get to use bathrooms everywhere. That’s where Japan really splurges. Not in the shower, not in the bathtub and not around the sinks. Just the WC. In there – all hell breaks loose. Each is a state-of-the-art machine that has settings for warming the seat to the level that it can fry your behind (as I did find out when I hit the wrong button), each has digital controls for the temperature of the spray, multiple angles you can choose for the spray to hit you, the intensity of the spray, the aroma of the water, the flushing mechanism – and half a dozen other settings. I don’t know why and I don’t understand the reason for it – but I can tell you one thing emphatically. The Japanese truly like state-of-the art technology and extreme luxury when they sit down in the morning to go about their business.

I meet the Astron
Things were definitely looking up. And they only got better. Next up was a factory visit to Seiko watches. The truth is, I’m not really a watch guy. I mean, I like my watches, I do stop and look at a magazine advertisement for a nice-looking watch and I own some. But I have no passion for them. I don’t really care what ticks inside and I don’t get how some people get all hot and flustered at the mechanism and the features.

That was about to change in a hurry and all because of one watch. The Seiko Astron.

This one little device has some serious technology built into it and may well be the next big thing in watch technology. In fact it almost pulls off the impossible. This is the world’s first analogue hand movement watch with a GPS built in. It recognises all 39 time zones on the planet, it works for six months on one shot of light (solar or artificial), it’s accurate to 1 second every 1,00,000 years and the calendar is correct on it anywhere in the world till Feb 2100. It does all this by dividing Earth into a million squares.

As soon as you land in a new city, point your watch towards the sky, the GPS locks on and the hour and minute hands (as also the date) start to do a little dance and within a few seconds displays the local time, while another hand gives you home time.

And if you keep the watch in a dark cupboard, it’ll conserve energy by not moving the hands but will immediately go to the right time as soon as you take it out. Very cool. But even more cool was the fact that I came out from the factory totally fascinated by classic watches – specially mechanical. I’ve met a few watch fanatics in my life and was typically dismissive about them waxing eloquent about the handcrafting, the precision, the movement, the spring, the balance. It was all hogwash till I was subjected to it myself and I was hooked. A full-blown 101 on that coming up soon.

Luxury of another kind: If nothing, Japanese bathrooms will surely catch your fancy, with their state-of-the art technology and extreme luxury. The Shinkansen, the bullet train (above) runs at a speed of about 300km/h

There’s a lot more that I experienced in Japan that totally blew my mind. The fanaticism for cleanliness, the aversion to anything that can bring dust into a home, the over-the-top fashion that most teenagers there seem to love, the fact that almost anyone from the age of 12 to 19 has at least two streaks of colours in their hair, how Manga (a culture built around comic book characters) is a national obsession that consumes more adults (they wear Manga tee shirts under their suits!!) than children and a whole lot more. All of that coming up in another column soon.

Till then, may I just close by saying that Japan the country is fascinating, complex, intriguing and very very mind-blowing. Yonde Kurete Arigatou (time for you to figure that one out).

Japan: How to blend right in

It’s a fascinating culture with some amazing little idiosyncrasies. It’s also a culture miles apart from ours and makes us stick out like a sore thumb. Here’s a quick primer on how to blend right in from the minute you land.

The Japanese bow a lot and smile a lot and wave a lot. But there are degrees to it and there’s a technique. Straighten your legs and stiffen your upper body, now keep both arms on the side and bend straight from the spine. No slouching and keep that head in line with the spine.

If you are meeting friends you bow 15 degrees; if it’s a bit more formal hit 30 degrees. But if it’s somebody very important – hit the full 60 and remember – smile brightly all the way down and on the way up.

Name cards are like a religion in Japan. It’s very rude to not have one. And you don’t just fish one out of your pocket and hand it over. Hold it in both hands – almost like you are serving it. Now exchange (you have to sync it) at the same time as the person you are meeting but remember to try and keep your hands and card below the other person’s at the time of the handover as it shows respect. Yes, it can get funny as both of you try and outdo each other in the ‘downmanship’ but do it anyway. Now hold the other person’s card in both your hands and read it – all of it. Make appropriate noises that show you are very impressed and keep ooohing and aaahing for a while.

The Japanese will come out to greet you when you arrive and come out to drop you off. And they’ll stay there till your car disappears over the horizon. Don’t just sit back in your car. Bow with your neck, smile a lot and wave and wave and wave.

The Japanese language is a tough one, but not if you can get a few things right. First of all master the word ‘Hai’ (Ha-Eee). This is the most versatile word in the world as it means – Yes, No and even Maybe. The secret lies in the smile at the time of delivery. Thus you can go Hai for anything and mean anything. Also, it’s said in a sharp straight tone. Say Hai as you expel your breath out almost in a gasp. Try it. There you go. You’re almost Japanese now.

Living in a box: Unfortunately, I did not get to live in a capsule hotel (above), one of the many things Japan is known for

A few other phrases that will always help. Other than the nauseatingly cute moshi moshi (greeting someone, especially on the phone), here are a few phrases in English that you can learn by heart and have completely different meanings in Japanese. Start off with ‘Ohio’ (like the city) which is Good Morning. Follow up with ‘DoMo’ (like DoCoMo without the Co) which is Thank You. If you ‘really’ like someone there, you could try ‘I can see my shoe’ (ai kan shi ma shu, which means I Love You) – but don’t blame me if you get a tight ‘kette’ (am sure you can figure that one out). Just before a meal say ‘Eat a Darky Mouse’ which is like a goodwill prayer before you dig in. And of course, end the day with the famous ‘Sayonara’ – just try not to sing it like the song.

Whoever you meet is a San (pronounce it as Sun). You can take the first name and put a San at the back, you can take the last name and put a San behind or you can take what the person does and put a San on it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman – it’s all San. Thus if your bus driver’s name is Koji Tsukahara – he can be Koji San, Tsukahara San or even Best Bus Driver in Tokyo San. It’s all good.

Now bow 60 degrees towards me and say DoMo and I can see my shoe. It’s the least you can do after I’ve made you almost Japanese in a few seconds.

Rajiv Makhni is managing editor, Technology, NDTV and the anchor of Gadget Guru, Cell Guru and Newsnet 3. Follow Rajiv on Twitter at

From HT Brunch, October 14

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First Published: Oct 12, 2012 20:09 IST