Japan may have great food and stunning landscapes, but what makes the country one of the most enjoyable places to visit is undoubtedly its people.

May 1st marked a new era in Japanese history celebrating the ascend of Crown Prince Naruhito onto the throne, making him the 126th emperor of Japan. Consequently, we officially entered into the calendar year of令和 (Reiwa), meaning fortune and harmony respectively. The cultural concept of Wa, meaning harmony, is an integral part of the Japanese ethos. Wa emphasises creating and maintaining a harmonious relationship with others through reciprocity and fulfilment of social obligations. Children from a young age learn the importance of belonging to a community and to practice empathy. They are taught that if each individual understands their personal obligations in the group and empathises with the situation of others, then the group as a whole succeeds.  

Children from a young age learn the importance of belonging to a community and to practice empathy.

This is a reason why I feel Japanese children are so well behaved. And most importantly offers an explanation to the behaviour of an old lady I encountered in a shopping mall, who accidentally dropped her umbrella in my presence. She might have thought she startled and disturbed me, therefore apologised to me profusely with a frenzy of bowing, while retreating backwards to disappear behind a door she came from. I was pretty sure she intended to go forward, across to the next room.  

Wa is not just an ideology but a practice that seeps into every corner of Japanese behaviour. When Henning and I toured Japan in Toyotoro for four months, to try and shed some fast-gaining pounds, we visited many municipal gyms across the country. These local gyms came as quite a surprise for us because we don’t really have them in UK or Germany because you don’t need membership to use their facilities. The size varies but they normally consist of a small workout area with machines, space to play badminton, practice yoga and some have pools etc. They are often free or cost as little as 100-500 yen (1-5 euros). 

Out of all the ones we’ve used, we noticed two features that were consistent in every local gym: one, the equipment was always pretty dated, but they were well maintained and, most admirably, after every use every single person wiped it with a towel, so it was clean for the next person. Two, it was always quiet. Except for the sound of the machines at work, no one spoke loudly in fear of disturbing others.

This was a huge contrast to where we were only a few weeks ago in China, where people have no concept of personal space and harmony was fought through heated battles of conflict in the omnipresence of noise. However, I did miss the directness of speech and easy intimacy of interacting with strangers in China. In fact, I will go as far as to say, I missed confrontations. 

To give you an idea of what I mean, you can ask a Japanese person how to say “no” in Japanese. The shortest answer they might give you is “ie” but if you dig a bit deeper you will discover that a direct translation of our “no” does not exist in Japanese. That is because they have created a thousand different ways to beat around the bush to convey the message of no but not actually saying no. This can lead to some funny but very frustrating situations, such as the story of jibaiseki hoken.

Jibaiseki hoken stands for Mandatory Vehicle Liability Insurance. As it says on the tin, we had to get it in order for Toyotoro to be road legal in Japan. I won’t go into it here (check here for details) but the problem is that we don’t really meet the requirements to get it. After going to several dealers in Sapporo we popped into a Toyota store thinking we could win some brownie points with our car being the same brand. Mistake uno. The salesman warmly welcomed us, and we explained the situation to him in my struggling Japanese. It seemed like he understood us, but we kept on going back and forth for an hour for some reason. Many awkward silences ensued. He eventually said he will check with his colleagues and asked us to come back in two days. His smile and enthusiasm were so convincing we went away with hope. Second mistake.

Many awkward silences ensued. His smile and enthusiasm were so convincing we went away with hope. Second mistake.

When we came back, we sat down for another hour of more back and forth talk. We eventually figured out he could not sell it to us, but he was unable to tell us that because he is well, really Japanese. Jibaiseki is now a code word between Henning and I to stop the other person from going blue in the face for trying something that will not work due to a specific cultural hinderance. In the luxury rays of hindsight, we can both laugh about such encounters now, and there were many. We miss you Japan.

During our trip Henning and I encountered many Japanese people who warmed our hearts with their kindness and warmly welcomed us into their families. Firstly, there’s the ever so charismatic Masa-san of CocoCruiser from Kyushu, who generously let us stay in his back yard amongst his treasured “junk”, like the old Land Cruiser 40 series. We miss drinking biru (beer) with you and your family (cute Masaya-san and my Japanese mother Yasuko-san). Henning misses going to the onsen with you! 

Masa-san introduced us to the crazy and passionate community of Land Cruiser lovers. We would like to full-heartedly thank Takumi-san for organising and hosting us at the Land Cruiser 40 Series 2019 event! The event really was an eye-opener. The people who came to visit Toyotoro at the event showered us with their knowledge and fervour for Land Cruisers, we would like to thank them all! We really felt like we were part of the family. Finally, to Dai-san, who kindly published an article about us in the prestigious Cal Magazine in their Special Edition, 31st issue 2020. What an honour! And what a pleasure to have met you all. Until we meet again, my friends.


Photo courtesy of Takumi-san and Ayako Katsumata
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