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One week after arriving in Japan, I was perched precariously in front of the Belle Mer Guesthouse on Sado Island, writes Rukmini.

india Updated: Feb 04, 2007 00:58 IST

Etiquette and the slipper

One week after arriving in Japan, I was perched precariously in front of the Belle Mer Guesthouse on Sado Island. Wobbling a bit, I tried to toe my sneakers off without letting my socked feet touch the ground, then hopped on to the hotel’s wooden threshold. My friend was going through the same routine. The proprietress, doubtless relieved that we had managed to enter her hotel without committing a social solecism, gave us a big smile and pointed to the indoor slippers.

The Japanese are all about correct footwear. You take your shoes off before you enter the house proper, switching to ‘inside slippers’, but you only walk on tatami mats in socked feet. And, of course, you wear a different set of slippers in the bathroom. Walking around the rest of the house in bathroom slippers is a faux pas roughly equivalent to picking your nose at the dinner table.

Determined to see as much of the country as we could, we set out with guidebooks in hand. Japan is probably the easiest country in the world to travel in. Violent crime is rare, the transportation network is superb, and the Japanese are excruciatingly polite. This is a country where people are so reluctant to refuse a request that the polite way of saying ‘no’ is ‘un, chyotto…’ — ‘It’s a little…(difficult).’

Young wolves flaunt in packs

Many Japanese people’s closest affiliations remain with friends they met in school. The groups an individual belongs to — her company, her neighbourhood, her clubs — defines her identity possibly more deeply than in any other country. Politeness notwithstanding, this makes it more than a little difficult to really connect with Japanese people.

On visits to Tokyo, I often travelled the subway late night in the company of suit-clad salarymen, many of who were wrung out and visibly exhausted by their efforts to blend into Japan’s workaholic culture.

There are indications that the younger generation is questioning the benefits of this aspect of Japanese life. If you wander outside Yoyogi Park in Tokyo on a Sunday afternoon, you are bound to come across leather-clad greasers with Elvis-style pompadours dancing like John Travolta; androgynous young men with pink hair belting out punk rock; and scores upon scores of ‘cosplayers’ (a Japanese portmanteau of the words ‘costume’ and ‘play’) dressed in gothic French maid outfits and vinyl catsuits. The older Japanese often find them embarrassing, but I love the unusual ways these kids find to express their individuality. The funny thing is that you will never find one of these violently styled teenagers by themselves: they are always in twos or threes. Rebellion, indeed, is tastier in a group.

Vegetarians beware

Before going to Japan, I had been an ‘eggitarian’ for two years. As we walked into the student mess the first night, I surveyed my options and my heart sank. There were two meat dishes and one fish preparation. There was a gooey mess of fermented beans in a small bowl. There was soup, but the stock was probably fish-based. I tried to quieten my growling stomach with rice and soya sauce, salad and a minuscule portion of cooked vegetables. It would be good for me, I told myself. I needed to lose weight, in any case.

Yeah, right. By the third day, I had leapt on the non-vegetarian main courses like a ravening beast and never looked back. At the International University of Japan — an English-medium graduate school housing 40 different nationalities — there were many who shared the problem. There was a boy who had lugged several kilos of rice and dal all the way from Meerut. “I’ve never cooked before, but how hard can it be?” he said with disarming confidence. A month later I found him sheepishly eating chicken “curry rice” in the mess. A gruelling MBA schedule is not the best complement to a daily cooking routine.

Rukmini was at the International University of Japan as part of an exchange programme with IIM Ahmedabad, where she studies.

First Published: Feb 04, 2007 00:58 IST