Day 19: The Final Observation: 16th May 2017

I am writing this on the plane home. It is a long flight, almost, 12 hours. So I thought I would offer some final observations and conclusions.

Before this visit to Japan my impressions, for what they were, came from James Clavell’s novel, Shogun, which I read a very long time ago. This and listening to and seeing the Opera Madame Butterfly when I was a teenager! Not much to go on really.

I really did not know what to expect. And yet many of the experiences we had were unexpected. Probably the most striking was the simplicity of life in rural Japan. The dwellings, by and large, are very small. Most have no gardens. Some dwellings do have nice arrangements of potted plants around the entrance, many do not. Because of the cramped nature of the houses, much of the bric a brac of their lives is kept outside. The only place we saw, what I think of as traditional Japanese gardens with stones or sand and winding paths, was in the big formal gardens surrounding shrines or temples. In the cities the dwellings are even smaller.

Because of the cramped nature of the accommodation and the density of the population Japanese people have worked out a way of avoiding each other in the most polite way.

We spent a lot of time on trains so we feel somewhat expert in the Japanese railways system. It is absolutely superb. From the tiniest two carriage local train to the twelve carriage Shinkansen bullet train, they were always on time. They were spotless. The railway staff, without exception, were helpful and smiling. Even if you had exited the station and were standing looking lost someone would come out of the station to try to help. The smallest station has an indicator on the ground of where the carriage door will be. People waiting for the train queue up one behind one another at these points. When the train arrives those boarding move forward and stand to one side of the door until those alighting have departed. This even in Tokyo!! We never saw anyone push or queue jump. Of course, we did not travel in any of the big cities at rush hour, but even at busy times and places, like the famous five way street crossing in Shibuia, the thousands of people seem to manage. The only time we experienced any issues was when young men were moving around together, like many young people today, they tend to ignore others especially older people.

So, even though the politeness is very obvious, maybe it is changing.

I think we are all aware that bowing is extremely important in Japan. But the whole ritual is fascinating. On the trains, for example, the guard exited the carriage backwards and once outside the carriage door he bowed deeply to all the passengers. Airline staff arrive at the check-in desk and turn towards those waiting and bow. Try getting Iranrod Eireann staff to walk up and down the train instead of sleeping in the first class carriage!!! Our host in Togura, the seven foot American, had perfected this art of exiting backwards while bowing, he needed to do it carefully, being his size meant all doors, exits and entrances are a challenge. Leaving wherever we were staying each morning involved several bows. I just love this custom. It is so respectful.

Talking of respect, people respect one another. Each person seemed to take pride in their work. The lowliest of jobs, like cleaning the train station, was respected. The staff member had a sparkling clean uniform. His or her implements were spotlessly clean. In every occupation this appeared to be the case.

As I have indicated throughout this journey cleanliness is a priority. Hence the ritual before using the onsens (hot baths). The onsen itself can be any size or shape. Some are round and some rectangular. Some are small and some are quite large, some are indoors and some outside. But whatever the size or shape the pre usage washing ritual is the same. You don the Yukata to visit the onsen. Before stepping into the hot bath you sit on a low stool in front of a shower. You wash every part of your body, including your hair, thoroughly, using foam soap or shampoo and rinse. Every sud must be washed off! Then you wash down the area where you have just showered including the stool. The towel situation is a bit like the slippers… There is a special small rectangular towel for use in theo nsen. We really enjoyed this experience each day and have never been so clean. I cannot imagine what Japanese think when they come to Europe.

All of these are very personal observations and yours might very well be different. But in conclusion Japan is a really interesting country to visit. It is not at all difficult to get around even if you do not speak Japanese. The people are delightful. We feel very privileged to have had this experience. The one absolute necessity is to get a rail pass before you go, they are not obtainable once you arrive in Japan. The pass gives enormous freedom to come and go and you see a lot more of the real Japan.

We found the food to be a little bit hard to fathom. Like many foreign foods, the exported version is not quite the same as what is available on the ground. Sushi is everywhere in bewildering varieties. However, there are a myriad of other dishes, soups, noodles, fish in profusion, but also, the inevitable McDo, pizza and French specialities. The influence of French cuisine really surprised us. There are boulangeries everywhere.

One disappointment, in Tokyo airport this morning, the shops were only the well known, expensive, stores, Bulgari, Hermes, Rolex, etc. It is not representative of what you see on the streets, there are millions of big and small shops selling everything you can imagine, as well as the big names. But none of these small traders are present in the airport.

Zone Rouge

Yet again our little cinema offered this documentary by Laetitia Moreau & Olivier Dubuquoy. It was about the production of Aluminium at Gardanne.

Gardanne is a sleepy town which lies to the north of the Calanques which is the beautiful rocky region which runs along the south coast  to the east and west of Marseille. We have passed through it on the train to Marseille. The presence of the Aluminium works dominates the area. We remarked on the red dust covering the vehicles around the station area. Little did we realise what was hidden behind the hills surrounding the town.

In the documentary we see an areal view which is like an alien landscape with its red mountains and lake.

Aluminium is not a metal which is found in its pure form. It is always found imbedded in bauxite. Bauxite is mined along the Equator. The process of extracting the aluminium is the problem. It takes 30 to 40 tons of bauxite  to create a single ton of aluminium. The material left behind is full of toxins.  The plant at Gardanne was set up in 1963 and the mountains and lakes of residue have been building ever since. At one time it it was decided to create a tunnel from the production plant to the Mediterranean and flush the red lake through into the sea. This was done for many years causing the fish in the area to die at worst but to live with a coating of red dust at best. The fishermen were irate but they were powerless against the might of the aluminium producers. Eventually the practice was stopped but the mountains of red dust grow ever higher in Gardanne while the great minds of Europe try to work how how to make it disappear and the area of the Mediterranean sea where the effluent rushed out for years is now dead.

For those of you who understand french here is a link to the documentary:

Pour ceux d’entre vous qui comprennent le français, voici un lien vers le documentaire

What is to be done? The other metals could be extracted from the residue but that would be too costly so the mountains grow ever higher. The documentary interviewed some of the people living in the area who talked about their own ill health and that of their neighbours. The number of cancers among the people in the immediate area of the plant is very high but no one seems to be paying attention. The French government talk about the loss of jobs in the area if the plant closes but no one is talking about the fishermen who cannot fish the area where the red liquid killed the fish. No one is talking about the people dying of cancers which are apparently being caused by the red dust which whips up when the Mistral blows.

France needs aluminium but it does not need this growing mountain of bouxide as it is called. Over the years the authorities have tried to come up with names for the toxic material which are less alarming but the fact remains people are being poisoned by this material.

A solution needs to e found at a worldwide level or at the very least at a European level.