A small cheesecake beckons from behind a glass enclosure in a small patisserie in Mejiro, a district in Tokyo. I struggle. I concede defeat. I order one, just one, but the lady working the equally tiny corner shop spends a few precious minutes putting my single order in a box, tying a ribbon around it, attaching a bow, and sliding it inside a fancy-looking paper bag.
Just when I think she’s done, she places an ice packet to make sure my order does not melt on our way home. She hands the package over with a cheerful arigatou gozaimasu, lips curving into a sweet smile while tilting her head into a slight bow.
Nowhere else is the same amount of care given even toward seemingly trivial objects than in Japan. Nowhere else have I ever felt that I was not just a passing traveler, but an esteemed guest worthy of the most impeccable service.
This attention to detail is one of the many things that I miss about Japan. A country whose unflinching commitment to quality, affinity for the quirky, and reverence for quietude make it an endlessly fascinating destination even for repeat visitors like myself.
The Japanese have long been known for their uncompromising meticulousness (komakai) and unwavering dedication to quality (kodawari), that a simple “Made in Japan” label is enough assurance of topnotch quality. To the Japanese, a breach in the standards is unacceptable and compromise is intolerable.
Komakai and kodawari are two very closely intertwined concepts, and are at times used interchangeably. So I asked my former teacher in Japanese, Prof. Michael Manahan of the UP Diliman Department of Linguistics, to help me better differentiate between the two.
Komakai can be directly translated to the (oftentimes) painstaking attention to detail, a meticulousness that eventually leads to kodawari, which is the uncompromising pursuit of perfection.
Even a run-of-the-mill ekiben (bento sold at train stations) is an excellent example of komakai and kodawari—everything is in its proper place. Whenever I buy an ekiben for a long train journey, I find myself reluctant to dig into it right away. I spend a few minutes admiring how there is not an element out of place—not a stray daikon or a dent in the box. A simple lunch box is not so different from a work of art.
One of my earliest brushes with komakai and kodawari was a trip to an outlet store in Odaiba. We purchased a few clothes and when the cashier was packing our items, I was confused why she enclosed the paper bag in another (perfectly fitting) plastic bag. Lo and behold! It was raining outside! The additional plastic covering served to protect the paper bags that held our purchases inside! That gesture, that preemptive kind of service blew my mind.
Perhaps, one of the most fascinating manifestations of the Japanese adherence to the highest standards are its so-called “couture fruits,” specifically the crown melon. Each melon could cost as much as JPY32,000 or almost P15,000! But when I did some research, I learned how much hard work, care, time, even love is devoted to each of these crown melons for a total of 100 days, with farmers culling those with the slightest, inconspicuous bruise.
But we don’t have to buy a $300 musk melon to have a taste of Japanese perfection because even fruits and vegetables sold at the neighborhood grocery are near flawless! The mundane indeed takes on near-mythical qualities in Japan.
Komakai and kodawari are also manifest in Japan’s railway system that runs like clockwork, impeccable service from the most luxurious sushi bars to the humblest izakaya, and convenience stores that sell food that I can live on for weeks.
Part of the irresistible charm of Japan is that you get what you expect inasmuch as it thwarts expectations. You expect Blade Runner cities, it gives you exactly that. You expect exquisite food, it gives you exactly that. But every so often, Japan throws something your way that you don’t exactly expect.
A trip to a Don Quijote branch, Japan’s beloved 24-hour department store, yields all sorts of unexpected—teeth wipes, ramen cooling chopsticks, the most outrageous costumes (giant emoji poop, anyone?), and there’s this shrimp neck pillow that until now, four years later, I still regret not purchasing.
I do not think there is any other country in the world which can rival the quirkiness of Japan. The world of Japanese subculture is oftentimes amusing, sometimes disturbing, yet always, always fascinating.
One of these quirks that I’m most fond of is their love for yuru-chara (literally “relaxed characters”) or mascots. Japan is overrun with these creations ranging from the kawaii (cute) to the kowai (scary), in all shapes, sizes, and species.
They are used to promote all sorts of things—food, toiletries, clothes, regional towns. There are even mascots for prisons! These cute characters have become so ubiquitous that in 2014, officials tried to cull some of these characters for fear of oversaturation, much to the chagrin of many a Japanese.
In Japan, almost everything is given life, they have a penchant for taking things from nature, animate or otherwise, and give it form—a practice that’s deeply rooted in Shintoism where everything is thought of as possessing a spirit. This also partly explains the enduring popularity of anime and all things kawaii.
Another signature quirk of Japan is the osoroi code or the wearing of matching outfits. You can observe osoroi in its full, unapologetic glory in Japanese theme parks. You don’t have to spend all your time falling in line for popular rides when you’re in, let’s say, Tokyo DisneySea or Universal Studios Japan.
People watching is more than enough to amuse you. Groups of friends come in themed outfits—there’s a whole gaggle of Minnie Mouse (or is it Mice?) in one corner taking selfies, and a horde of Elsas and Annas on the opposite side waiting for their turn in the Tower of Terror.
This quirky side of Japan is not only purely aesthetic, but can be functional as well. Japan’s creativity translates to so many innovations that make life more convenient.
The perfect example of this is the Japanese washlet bidet toilet that can confound even the most tech-savvy traveller. Once you get the hang of it, every button in this contraption serves a purpose that makes going to the toilet a more comfortable and, yes, a more enjoyable experience. It even has a function that mimics the sound of flowing water to drown out whatever business it is you are doing.
Japan can be overwhelming—the wild riot of neon lights, indecipherable signages, the occasional blast of anime OST or JPop. But even in the busiest of districts, there’s a strange order to everything.
Rush-hour Shinjuku train station, the world’s busiest, is a seething mass of humanity, but surprisingly, there is a sense that everything is choreographed.
Every movement has a purpose. There’s hardly any noise. Just the steady staccato of footsteps, the faint rush of commuters whooshing past trying to make it to work on time. No pushing, no shoving, not an elbow sticking out—just the calculated, well-rehearsed carving out of space on a jam packed train as the doors close shut.
Travel writer Pico Iyer, who has lived in Japan for the past 38 years, mused, “Japan has taught me how deeply the truest things lie beyond the reach of any language.”
Japan is indeed a place where silence speaks louder than words and shapes so much of how other people behave.
That is why Japanese gardens aren’t defined by a wide variety of colors. Japanese gardens, as opposed to European, only have a handful of colors in varying hues so as not to overwhelm the senses.
You go to a Japanese garden not just to open your eyes but also to close them to better take in the silence. A visit to the famed Rikugien Garden one chilly late autumn afternoon as soon as I arrived in Tokyo, exhausted after a four-hour flight and a 3 a.m. wake-up call, made me realize the truth in what friends in Japan say—you don’t enter a Japanese garden, rather it enters you. And once you leave, you take it with you and all the peace it holds.
I asked a former student, Megumi, why the Japanese value silence so much. She talked about how Japan is not a “thank you,” but a “sorry” culture. Meg-chan explained the term meiwaku no kakeru or simply meiwaku which means “to trouble or bother other people.”
At a very young age they are taught to avoid causing meiwaku, resulting in what one would recognize as hallmarks of the Japanese consideration for others or what is called omoiyari—standing at only one side when on an escalator, avoiding the use of smartphones in public transportation, making way for someone who is in a hurry.
When family and friends ask me, “Japan na naman?” Marcel Proust’s words come to mind, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.”