Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Perfect Picture

My first visit to Japan was for a one-month vacation and to meet my (then) pen pal and future husband face-to-face for the first time. My husband had arranged for us to do some typical sight-seeing in Japan during my stay. This included, among other things, the obligatory trip to Tokyo Disneyland and a bus tour of Nikko. For those who don't know, Nikko is one of the more temple-rich areas of Japan.

In the opinion of most Japanese people, the best time to visit Nikko is in the fall because it's got a lot of trees and the leaves change color at that time of year. Of course, part of the reason the Japanese get so excited about it is that they don't seem to realize that people in other countries also have heavily-forested areas which also see a burst of autumnal colors annually. In my home area, there's an Autumn Leaf Festival each year because of the rich concentrations of trees. I guess that the whole "Japan has four seasons" notion also plays into it because they don't seem to realize that other areas actually experience a picture perfect autumn. Given that my vacation was in March (1988) and the fact that colorful leaves, appealing as they may be, aren't exactly a novelty for me after at least a decade of Autumn Leaf Festivals which I was old enough to attend, I saw Nikko in spring-like weather.

If you've never taken a bus tour in Japan, the experience itself is a very good reflection of how things work in Japan and what sort of experience people will pay for and accept with good grace. The tour guide runs around with a little flag and all the patrons are expected to dutifully follow her as she sets a brisk pace. If you're interested in seeing anything for any length of time, you can forget about it as the tour moves on unhindered by your desire to spend more than two minutes at each point of interest and the guide prattles on at break-neck speed in Japanese. Back then, we didn't understand a word she was saying so the entire tour was pretty much conducted with us ignorant of the historical details she was (no doubt) offering. At one point, we lagged behind a little too much and got separated from the group. There was a famous temple at the top of a huge amount of steps which the group was permitted to climb up to and we caught up with them there. I don't know what would have happened if we hadn't been able to reconnect with them, but I'm guessing they'd have had no compunctions about leaving us behind, particularly because we were always trying to linger and actually have a good look at the blur of landmarks the tour was trotting us past.

The temples in Nikko are interesting and the landscape lovely. It's a good spot for anyone to visit on a stop to Japan. There are wild monkeys roaming about in some areas and we saw a few in the trees as the bus sped along to one of it's multiple destinations. The whole experience was quite exhausting though and rather un-fulfilling because of the speed with which we were shuttled past everything. Nikko is simply far too vast an area to really be enjoyed completely on one of these types of structured tours and I think we'd have been better off venturing there on our own. However, we didn't have the skills to manage it at the time, and we haven't had the impulse to return.

At one point during our whirlwind tour, we (my husband and myself) and about 25 Japanese tourists, were grouped together for a tour group picture. That picture is currently in storage in the U.S. so I don't have it on hand to post. The group was crammed relatively close together to get us all in the shot and my husband (who wasn't my husband at the time, mind you) put his arm around my shoulder and I put my arm around his waist. After we did this, the tour staff bustled over and chattered away and indicated with gestures that we were not to do this in the picture. They made us stand there with arms at sides like everyone else. The resulting picture is of a large group of Japanese people looking somewhat grimly at the camera and two smiling foreigners in the back row. Not one of the Japanese people in the picture is smiling.

In this day and age, I believe that people would smile though I don't know if the age of the people being photographed is a factor. It's my feeling that the photographer objected to our display of affection in the picture, and perhaps people didn't smile, because it was a group picture of which everyone was going to get a copy. Perhaps he felt that it'd be distracting or offensive to the mostly middle-aged folks who would be getting the picture if there was a wanton display of lust as evidenced by my husband's arm around my shoulder.

While I often see personal photos from my students' vacations, I rarely see any with couples expressing affection for one another in the shot. However, one of my students was showing me her vacation photos from a visit to Yosemite in the U.S. and she and her husband had their arms around each other. I remarked that I thought it looked very sweet. She told me that she wouldn't have done it if the picture had involved anyone except the two of them and she wouldn't have done it in front of other people in Japan. I got the impression that she felt that the picture would be spoiled for other people if they expressed affection physically in the photo. I guess this is why my husband and I were restrained in the group photo that was taken of us at Nikko.


tornados28 said...

You should get back to Nikko, not during a holday or weekend of course. It really is a great place to visit.

Jon said...

That sucks - the Japanese are going to have a hard time with my girlfriend and I, then, when we go. We always show "affection" in pictures.

Shari said...

While I'd love to give it a visit under better circumstances, I can hardly walk around in a store the length of time it takes to buy groceries before crippling back pain kicks in. Physically, I couldn't manage anything as ambitious as a trip to Nikko.

Shari said...

Hi, Jon, and thanks for reading and commenting. I would be very curious to see how they'd react to a couple of gaijin putting their arms around each other in a tour group photo now. I think they may be more flexible based on the changes in the behavior of young people that I see. While it's still not common, I do see young folks holding hands or with their arms around each other while walking now and then.

The funny thing is that it's far more common to see two girls or an older woman and her adult daughter holding hands than a man and woman doing so in my experience.

Roy said...

I was driving in Nikko last month on what was supposedly THE best autumn leaves weekend. Nikko wasn't our destination but rather we were passing through. The traffic was as bad as I expected and by the time we go to Irohazaka which is where the best view is, it was nighttime.

I also found the "Japan has four seasons" thing strange when I first heard it. To me this is just a given. But after visiting Singapore and other equatorial countries which have only "one" season I don't think it's as strange to say this anymore and makes perfect sense. It's like if someone said it's hot in summer and cold in winter. But in Australia is summer hot or cold. I mean is the season defined by the month or the temperature? I would guess that summer is defined by months because when I was in Singapore I heard a local say "In summer..." refering to August in Singapore. Maybe it's different in the southern hemisphere. I'll have to ask my Aussie friends.

Shari said...

Hi, Roy. Long time, no see. ;-) Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I know you're trying to limit your blog reading these days and appreciate that you take a peek at mine. I hope you're having a good holiday season and doing well.

Seasons are determined by the position of the earth relative to the sun. When the axis is tilted away from the sun relative to a location on the planet, it is cooler and the days are shorter (making it winter). While seasons are subjectively seen as being based on weather, they are objectively based on the relationship of the earth and the sun.

My Australian boss referred to the winter season in Japan as summer in Australia and vice versa.

That being said, even a person like me who came from a small rural town in western Pennsylvania knew that there were other places on the planet with 4 distinct seasons and places where the weather was always cold or hot. The Japanese are worldly enough to know better, but some perception that they are special and unique shuts out the obvious information regarding other locations with distinct seasonal weather patterns.

The interesting thing about Japanese psychology is it tends to be opposite the conventional notions of western psychology. We tend to assume the rest of the world is just like ours and are surprised to find otherwise. They tend to assume their world is unique and unlike everyone else's and are surprised to find otherwise.

Kanagawa G said...

I think the arguement could be made that Japan has five seasons.
Rainy season

However, some of these "seasons" only last about a week or two.

From my understanding, the "Japan has four seasons" concept came from classical Chinese poetry that was introduced to Japan via diplomatic relations between China and a young Japan.

Still, whenever someone drops the "Japan has four seasons, how about your country?" bomb, I need to resist the urge to go "D-UH!"

Mari said...

My family and I have always wondered about that no smiling in official pictures. I always smile and have been told once or twice not to do so...

I've also joined a couple of bus tours, and there really is no time to look around. The last one I was on though, the tour guide was really good. He let us watch a video of the place before the actual tour and explained everything beforehand. After, he gave us the entire time to explore on our own.

Emsk said...

Hi Shari! How are things?

Yes, the affection in public thing. My Canadian friend and now ex-co-worker's boyfriend came to join her from Toronto, and at first they were subdued in public. But after a while they strolled along arm in arm and it seemed to be okay.

However, when I was taking photos of myself and my students before I left Kansai they rarely responded to me putting an arm around them - and that's just the women! I did think that things might have been different, but no.

However, I did have one student and it's true that I liked him a fair bit - although that's all I did when he was my student, like him - and when I left I got a photo of the two of us together. Quite naturally, I put my arm around him and he immediately responded. The resulting photo was the two of us with huge smiles, so hopefully things have moved forwards.

lina said...

I always hated group tours and group photos. Reminds me of taking photos for my school clubs.