JAPAN IS THE WORLD’S most polite place. Ninety per cent of utterances consist of the phrase “thank you”. Many residents live their whole lives without saying anything else.
The tricky thing is that “thank you” in Japanese is 12 syllables long. “Dou-mo a-ri-ga-to go-zai-ma-shi-ta.”
I tried repeatedly to say it on my recent visit to the country, but only succeeded in getting all the way to the end once—by which time, the train doors had closed and the person I was thanking was several kilometers away.
That’s because Japanese trains move at the speed of light. You’ve barely sat down when the train announcer is saying:
“We will be arriving in Tokyo in one minute. Stay on the train for a further minute if you wish to get off at the following stop, Australia.”
Any train driver who puts his brakes down a fraction of a second late ends up screeching to a halt in Antarctica.
It’s vital to learn to the words for thank you, because Japanese people express gratitude for everything and expect you to do the same. Whether you buy something, eat something or stand on someone’s foot, the person will bow and express deep gratitude. “Thank you for standing on my foot.”
Japanese bank robberies proceed as follows.
BANK ROBBERS: “Thank you for the loot we are stealing.”
TELLERS: “No problem. Thank you for choosing us for your stealing needs. Come again.”
The bad thing is that robbing banks is pretty much a must. Everything in Japan is so expensive that foreigners really cannot get by for long without considering major crime sprees.
To buy a one-day rail pass, you have to remortgage your house. For a two-day rail pass, you have to additionally give up your first-born. (Some parents are delighted.)
(Small bunch of grapes costing US$130 – pic by abram22)
In fact, even during periods when the Yen exchange rate falls, the whole money thing remains a serious problem. Japan has one thing in common with primitive human societies such as the jungles of Papua and the bars of Queensland. You can’t buy anything with cards. Only cash is accepted.
Since I spend most of my time in Hong Kong, where money is not accepted in many places, it was a shocker to be in a place where the hotel manager wanted a cash payment equivalent to the Eurozone debt before he agreed to release my lunch (a live octopus) to me.
I asked him to point me to an ATM machine.
“There’s only one in this town,” he said. “And it closes at 2 pm so you’d better hurry.”
I would have said thank you, but by then the ATM would definitely have closed.
The only disaster was the day I took my two daughters skiing, completely forgetting that none of us could ski. We proceeded acrobatically down a mountain on heads and bottoms until we ended up at a cliff edge.
A blizzard hit the mountain and all the chair-lifts stopped. There was no way up, and going down or staying still was certain death.
What to do?
Luckily a man with a skimobile appeared and whisked us to safety. I tried to say thank you but he was home and in bed before I was halfway through.
I love Japan.
The main reason for visiting the country in the dead of winter was to allow my deprived children to encounter snow for the first time. Below is a two-minute video of the Small Portions finally getting to touch the stuff – and then having their butts frozen off as the pretty snowfall turns into a slushy blizzard. (Bonus: Glimpse of frequent commentator Chamin included.)