Friday, June 30, 2006

Behind The Tweed Curtain

Reference to the map on the pervious post will show the area covered by a mysterious and little-known cloaking device known as The Tweed Curtain. It drapes across the Malahat Mountains on the very southern tip of Vancouver Island, and embraces all of the Greater Victoria area, including my little town of Sidney, which is located on the northern tip of the Saanich Peninsula.

Safe behind The Tweed Curtain that conceals it from prying eyes, an alien culture thrives in the warm Pacific Ocean waters that protect the area.

A visitor stumbling across the area would find many familiar things to all North Americans such as MacDonald's restaurants, the ubiquitous strip malls and the usual profusion of Tim Horton's doughnut shops, (although the Starbucks - Satan is quite dominate here), but there are also a number of things that are not common. I always thought that Victoria's Secret had to do with skimpy women's underwear, but not so. Victoria has a secret all of its own. The local culture is heavily influenced by the use of strange language and expressions, behavior and customs not found elsewhere in Canada, and even a different cuisine.

One of the first things I noticed on arriving was a sign at the side of a road that proclaimed "Concealed Interchange". Examining this closely, I eventually figured out that the sign was warning of what the rest of Canada would call a Hidden Intersection, but used an archaic language not found elsewhere on the continent. The locals sprinkle their language with other similar expressions, but almost never use the classic Canadian intonation, 'Eh'. Like, for sure, Eh!

Instead, one hears such expressions such as, "Wot", "Gawd", "Cad", and I heard one older gentleman refer to another as a "bounder'. Even the bureaucracy appears to be in on this little Secret Society; the Drivers License is referred to as an Operators Permit, a Restaurant License is disguised as a Victualing Permit, and Round-Abouts are quite common here. There are even those who still count 14 April 1923 as a black day in the history of the area. That was the day that British Columbia switched from driving on the left side of the road to the right. This, I have been assured, was a sell-out to the Americans, who, when making forays into Canada, would occasionally forget to switch sides of the road, an

d ended up causing some horrific crashes.

There is a profusion of specialty tea shops tucked away behind The Tweed Curtain, one of the most famous of which is Murchies, which occupies a large store in downtown Victoria and offers its customers exotic imported teas, and associated accoutrements; like egg coddlers and tea strainers, for example. High Tea has been transformed by this secret society into a ritual, full of customs, tradition and hidden meaning. It has even become one of the handful of Canadian Icons that tourists must see, thus placing itself alongside the likes of Niagara Falls, The CN Tower, Anne of Green Gables' Cottage, Banff, Lake Louise, The Musical Ride, the doughnut shop, a fight at a hockey game, a BC Burger at the White Spot Drive-In with their secret Triple O Sauce, poached salmon sold for cash out of season by a native, the Stubby beer bottle, and a cardboard box of Old Dutch potato chips. One of the most famous landmarks in Victoria, the Empress Hotel on the Inner Harbour, has parleyed this curiosity for High Tea into a profitable side-show for tourists.

Within the ivy-cloaked brick walls of the Empress, for a mere $70, a perso

n can sample the elegant cucumber finger sandwiches, nibble the decadent tarts and sweets, and sip the high quality tea, while being served by a white-gloved server in a tuxedo. However, the locals sniff, they have very much debased the dollar. Where High Tea used to be served among the potted plants and little old ladies in big Wing Chairs in the lobby, as a sop to the hoards of tourists that now tramp the baroque tweed carpets of the Empress to gawk at the civility of it all, the Empress now serves what passes for High Tea on folding tables in the Conference Room at the back! Oh the agony of faded empire! Tea at the Empress is so crowded that nobody goes there anymore.

It is a world of hanging flower baskets, cricket and croquet games in the park, horse-drawn carriages, red-coated guards with black Busby caps, double-decker buses, and even the black English cabs that service the tourists who flock to the area. Most Canadians think of a club being somewhere you can buy things cheap, like bulk toilet paper or a years supply of toothpaste, but here The Club is an exclusive establishment, usually located downtown in a fine old mansion. There, the elite can socialize, dine, drink, (gin and lemonade in summer, martinis anytime), and congratulate themselves on being of a higher station than the mini-van rabble running the steets and generally ruining society with their crude language, ill-manners, tattoos, slovenly dressing habits and crass be

havior. One of the most prominent of these is the Union Club, which is 130 years old, and demands that its male members wear ties within its confines, or 'smart casual' at the very least, and even features a Ladies Night. [However, even some cherished institutions must adapt to the world rather than the other way around; the Union Club allows women to become full members). No tank-tops, loud slogans, commercial lettering, blue jeans, cutoffs, or runners allowed, thank you!

There are subtle signs of this secret society everywhere behind the Tweed Curtain; like you are riding an elevator, notice that someone behind you is softly humming a tune, and you then identify it as Rule Britannia! Or, over scones and tea your company tips you off that the price of Port is going to rise sharply because there was an outbreak of black leaf virus in Portugal. (Good Grief - dispatch Jeves immediately to lay in a case or two for the larder!). Or, you notice an awful lot of Fox door knockers on sale at the local hardware store. Many retailers operate 'shoppes', There is an over-abundance of gardening supply stores, Marks & Spenser outlets, Fish & Chip restaurants and pubs. Specialty stores stock Chutneys, jams and marmalades, English crackers, pickled herring, specialty mustards, and exotic sauces

like HP & Worchester.

And, speaking of pubs, they have raised that culture to a higher level, backed by centuries of tradition back in The Old Country. The area pubs have quaint names like The Beaver, The Canoe Club, The Swan, The Snug, The Sticky Wicket, and The Penny Farthing. Within the usual dim-lit room with faux-Tutor trim that resembles your great-grandfathers cottage at Brighton, you can order beer by the Slipper, the Sleeve, or maybe even the Hog's Head for all I know. However, I have noted that there is a significant portion of the local population who favour cider over beer, and there even those whose drink of choice is mead! Besides the usual Fish & Chips, also available for the hungry patrons are generous portions of Shepherds Pie, a Ploughman's Lunch, Rack of Lamb, Beef Dip, and even Bangers and Mash. Photo: the Oak Bay Hotel - home to the Snug Pub.

The town of Sidney is rather pale in comparison to nearby Victoria, but the Tweed Curtain drapes the sea-port as well. We do have our own little bandstand down by the harbour for the summer lawn concerts, we have our own Victoria Day and Canada Day celebrations, (complete with fireworks), and we, too, fly the Union Jack on special days. Sidney even has its own official Town Crier, (come to think of it, so do most of the other towns in the area), who, dressed in Old English costume and standing on the steps of City Hall, loudly proclaims the official Day of Mourning for Indigent Slugs, or whatever else the town council has deemed significant to memorialize with a day of tribute).. (This I well know; I live only a half block from there and I can hear the bellowing from my back patio.)

Local pubs include The Waddling Dog, Dickens, and The Blue Peter, (it is located on a wharf right next to the ocean and the locals tell me the winter winds there are fierce!). There is a specialty tea shop on the main drag, and even The Candyman, who specializes in old fashioned treats like Macintosh Toffee, candy sticks and Liquorace All-Sorts. Flower baskets are a common sight on our streets, there is a local Lawn Bowling Club, we have the latest fads in the competitive and fast-moving world of Smuf or Hobbit Lawn Kits, (or whatever else you thought might enhance the curb appeal of your trailer), and our bakeries have ample stocks of scones, english muffins, pigs-in-blankets, and raisin pudding. (left; the Waddling Dog Pub).

There is a Round-About on the road to the airport, so that all visitors can become suitably disoriented upon departure and arrival, the double-decker bus offers local service, and we even now have our very own horse and carriage waiting for hire at the Sidney marina. Portraits of the Dear Old Queen, (which some smart-alecs call our Queer Old Dean), gaze down on her subjects from such important places as the Licensing Bureau, the hospital waiting room, the local RCMP detachment, and even the local library; (a most disconcerting sight when you are trying to read the latest edition of the Anti-Monarchist News) (Below is a snap of the speciality Tea Shoppe in Sidney.)

Yes, the Tweed Curtain can be a warm and comforting old sock for those cold and drizzly winter days. They say it is a slice of Home; an island of civilization out in the wild boonies of the untamed Colonies. Too bad not everyone appreciates the virtues of bygone days or even pauses to reflect on its passing. However, the Tweed Curtain protects the last vestiges of empire left in North America.


Sited Along The Way:

  • The horse and carriage awaiting customers in front of the Sidney Marina. Note the ubiquitous Hanging Flower Basket!

  • Below: the Union Jack flying proudly over the Sidney Marina. If you enlarge the photo, (by double-clicking on it, you clot!), you might just be able to make out Mount Baker in the lower right hand side, just above the last bit of land, which is Washington State.

  • Below: the specialty Tea Shoppe in Sidney.

  • Below; Town Criers cutting loose on the main street of Sidney. Looks to me like they are heading for the Rum Runner Pub for an urgent 'meeting' with two buddies of theirs - Ron Bacardi and Captain Morgan!

Douglas A.,

Out Sidney way

Saying ‘No Worries’ for now.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

By Gawd, It's Sidney!

I now live on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, in beautiful Sidney, British Columbia.

If you aren't from the area, you can be forgiven for not knowing where Sidney is. I admit, when asked where I live, I usually reply ‘Victoria’, which is the capital of British Columbia and just 22 kilometers south of here. Unfortunately, this convenient device sometimes causes additional confusion if the inquirer wants to know WHERE in Victoria I live. Then, I have to confess that I don’t actually live in Victoria at all; I live in Sidney.

Not that I am ashamed to admit that I live in Sidney. It is truly a beautiful little town. However, I have found out the hard way that by volunteering outright that I live in Sidney usually provokes either a blank stare and a stoic ‘Uh-huh’, or, more likely, a complete misunderstanding. When mentioning the town’s name, most people think I am talking about Australia. These people are impressed, until I have to explain that I do not live Down Under. A few people, recognizing and acknowledging my Canadian accent, might think that I am talking about Nova Scotia; and they are not [impressed, that is]. On one memorable Air Canada flight the nice lady in the adjoining seat learned that I live in Sidey, turned to me, and asked in all innocence: "Are you close to the Tar Ponds?"

First of all, to set the record straight, the name of the town is really Sidney-By-The-Sea. [Americans think that is really two phrases; [Sidney! Buy the sea!] Sidney is surrounded on three sides by the sparking waters of the Pacific Ocean. I can only assume that the ‘other’ towns with similar names are nowhere near water.

Furthermore, as the locals here will say with a smile and a nudge, “You gotta have an ‘I’ For Sidney!” And then they get quite a chuckle at their own little joke; a real knee-slapper! Unfortunately, they haul out this tag-line whenever and wherever they can. Apparently each one thinks it a refreshing and original contribution to the sociological fabric of the area. It seems that new jokes rarely appear in town, and, like most other occupants of the town, the raconteur of the little joke sees no need to adopt something new and original when the old tried-and-true still works perfectly fine, as far as they are concerned.

The fact is, ‘Sidney’ is spelled with an ‘I’; the other two interlopers are spelled with a ‘Y’, as in ‘Sydney’. Thus, ‘my’ Sidney, [By-The-Sea], is set apart from the other pretenders with a similar name on this miserable planet.

Sidney is a little sea-side town of 11,000 souls that huddles on the north-eastern end of the Saanich Penninsula, which is located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. For the geographically challenged, Vancouver Island is located directly to the west of Vancouver. Sidney is thus some 24 kilometers almost due south of Vancouver.

Originally primarily just a fishing and lumbering community at the time of its founding, and then a bedroom community for the ‘ne’er-do-wells’ who worked in Victoria, the town became a popular retirement community in the 70s, [the 1970s, that is]. Recently the town has benefited from its proximity to the big Schwartz Bay Ferry Terminal, (four km, to the north), and to Victoria International Airport, (.just 2 km to the west). Schwartz Bay is the island terminus for the busy BC Ferries Vancouver / Victoria route from the mainland, and is thus one of the prime gateways for visitors entering or, (more likely), leaving Vancouver Island.

In fact, most of the Camper-Car and Cycle crowd, (the locals, bad spellers all, call them the KKK crowd), bolting off the just-docked ferry, are determined to roar full throttle down the Patricia [Pat] Bay Highway to make up for lost time. Hands firmly clenched on the wheel while the wife unfolds the map into their line-of-sight, the drivers, between whacking the sugar-infused kids rampaging in the back seat, are invariably focused solely on belting out the 26 km south to Victoria just as rapidly as possibly. [In fact, one thing to which I was forced to acclimate is local Ferry Time. Every two hours, (every hour in the summer and on Long Weekends) the highway is instantly clogged for 15 minutes by the throng going Hell-Bent for Mile Zero. You either get outta town before the rush, or wait the 15 minutes for the smog to clear and for the broken glass, assorted auto parts and slow pets to be swept from the intersections].

At best the constituents of the rather indelicately named Ferry Dump might get a fleeting glimpse of the town if they are unlucky enough to get stopped by a red light where the town’s main drag, Beacon Avenue, intersects the Pat Bay Highway. Unfortunately, all that is to be seen of lovely little Sidney from the highway is a ubiquitous MacDonald’s Restaurant, in front of which is sitting the freshly painted but badly battered little fishing boat called the Wanda. As an ultimate disgrace, this once-proud and hard-working craft has been wrenched from the clear Pacific waters it once plied, dragged over town and dumped on the corner of the highway intersection. There, in forced retirement, it was abandoned and largely ignored, decked with potted plants, and left high-and-dry to rot and wither to a slow and miserable death on the baking asphalt and in the choking fumes from the busy highway just to the west.

Obviously somebody thought that this symbology was an entirely suitable welcome to the town!

And if this all were too subtle for the wary visitor who might be tempted to turn off the Swartz Bay Speedway to refuel, find something to eat and maybe see a little of the town, the scrolled sign erected right across the street proudly proclaims: “Sidney By The Sea”. In the background of the sign is a rendition of Mount Baker; an extict, (we hope), snow-capped volcanoe that is visible from here. Unfortunately, the artistic license taken with the water also shows what appears to be a giant Tsunami wave approaching the shore. Not funny if you live just two short blocks from and only 20 feet above sea level, as I do. (Come to think of it, we also live on an earthquake zone, surrounded by volcanic mountains - I better check the insurance policy. ) This work of welcome, which many residents sniff is not worth the $30,000 price tag, ranks right up there with the second sign that you see when entering the town, which is ‘Slow Childern Playing’.

A Myth-Take

A few quick myths to dispell. First of all, Sidney is Sunny. It averages 2080 hours of sunshine a year, which makes it the sunniest place in all of BC, and more sunny than the city from which I moved; Ottawa, Ontario.

Secondly, Sidney is a relatively dry climate. It rarely snows; just a skiff once or maybe twice a year in the winter and it is pretty well gone by noon. (There have been a few notable exceptions to this, such as the 17 cm snow dump they got this year). As for rain, Sidney is the dryest spot on the West Coast, and gets half the amount of rain that Vancouver does.

Moderated by the Pacific waters, Sidney has a very temperate climate. The average temperature in the coldest month, January, is four degrees centigrade, and rises to just 16 degrees in the warmest summer months.

Thirdly, there are more than 40 restaurants right in the small town (Sidney is only 1.2 miles wide and maybe 3 miles long). It is hemmed in by the freeway and the airport to the west, by the Pacific Ocean to the north and east, and by agricultural land and Indian Reserves to the south.

A friend of a friend, learning that his buddy was moving to Sidney commented: "Nice town, but it has no restaurants!" Wrong! Sidney has fast food, (Dairy Queen, MacDonalds, Panagos, 2 Starbucks-Satans, Subway & KFC), 4 Greek restaurants, at least 2 Fish & Chip shops, 2 Chinese Food restaurants, 1 Japanese restaurant, 1 Thai Food restaurant, 1 Swiss, 1 Mexican, 4 pub-restaurants, 1 Meditteranean restaurant, seafood restaurants, at least 4 fine dining restaurants, as well as many bakeries, deleis, sandwich shops, pizza shops, bistros, sidewalk cafes, the Legion Takeout window, The Big Moo Ice Cream Shop, (voted Best On The Island), and assorted eateries of all types right in town. Two of Sidey's restaurants were voted into the Top Five Best Restaurants by the Victoria Times Colonist newspaper. You could eat at a different establishment each night for a month and still have lots left over to try out next month.

Finally; they don't exactly roll up the sidewalks at night. In the first case, you must remember that Sidney is a retirement town. However, during the day there are lots of seniors walking about, doing their shoping, socializing and generally enjoying the day. So many, in fact, that I call the place Scooterville. (Some of the most vicious jostling to be seen anywhere occurs at over the plug-in outside the Legion parking lot just before Happy Hour on the day after the government pension cheques arrive.)

Beacon and Bevan Avenues, the main business streets, are a bustling place and anytime after noon it can be impossible to find a place to park there, as will be the case in the Sidney Foodliner, Thrifty's and Safeway's parking lots. In point of fact, the liquor store in the Safeways lot is consistently among the highest grossing stores per square foot in the whole province!

A happening place during the day, Sidney is 'a little quiet' at night. By 5:30 you could shoot a cannon off right on mainstreet, and nobody would get hit! Wall-to-wall scooters, bi-cycles, Smart Cars and Land Rovers are replaced by tumbleweed and blowing newspapers. Where does everyone go? Even the local restaurants shut their doors and turn out the lights at 9 pm! The only thing open after 9 pm is one Starbucks, and the four local pub-restaurants, (as well as the fast food joints and the chinese restaurants).

However; with the arrival of summer the Summer Market takes place on Thursday nights. The main street, Beacon Avenue, is closed-off, and a variety of small booths and mini-doughnut vendors take over. (Oddly; Sidney residents really go for the tastey little treats; there the usual snow-cones, hot dogs and hot nuts for sale, but the line-ups are at the three mini-doughnut booths).

Furthermore, with the many boaters now roaming around the town, the odd bus-load of day tourists from Victoria and the twice-daily ferry run from Anacortes, Washington, the downtown picks up the pace considerably in the evenings. There are now at least 3 coffee shops open until 9 pm.

Ah yes, dear old Sidney; I can hardly wait to tell you all about it!

Douglas A.,

Out Sidney way

Saying ‘No Worries’ for now.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Japan In Perspective

I was extremely fortunate in that my first visit to the fabled and mysterious island nation of Japan lasted almost four months. While we did many of the usual tourist things during our time over there, we also lived with Sandra & Jay in a very Japanese area, and thus had both the time and the opportunity to view everyday life in Tokyo intimately. As such, even the most ordinary things, a trip to the neighbourhood store, a stroll around the park, a meal at a local restaurant or just a ride on the subway system, would yield unusual and interesting experiences for the Western traveller. Now that I have been back home for a couple of months, I have reflected on the experience and offer the following personal views of the Japanese people and their culture.

1. The Japanese are geographically, linguistically, and psychologically very distant from North America.

It is obvious that Japan is on the other side of the world physically; it takes a 12 hr flight from Vancouver just to get there.

What was not so obvious is that at first glance many, many things appear "wrong" to the visitor from the West. A few examples immediately come to mind;
  • they don't shake hands, they bow; always from the waist and with arms straight; the lower you bow the more you respect the other;
  • 'Yes' means 'I understand' - not necessarily that I agree;
  • It is impolite to say 'No' to anythings and it is rude to phrase a question in such a way that it elicits a negative response;
  • they drive on the 'wrong' side of the road;
  • their year is derived from the reign of the current Emperor, not from a single historic date;
  • they have two different electrical systems in use, and 3 entirely different cable delivery systems;
  • rice is eaten with every meal, it is always the last dish eaten (always by itself) and should never be consumed with beer. Rice is so important in this society that it earns the revered title of O-Gohan, which roughly means The Honerable (Glorious / Holy) Rice.
  • tipping is an insult, not a favour, (note, this custom is rapidly being adapted to Western values in Tokyo);
  • when paying in a store the money always has to be placed in a little tray, never given directly to the clerk. However, your change will be given directly back to you; not put in the little tray.
Linguistically, Japan's historical isolation has resulted in a very different language system. I speak and read both English and French fluently; this was of little use in understanding their language. Some examples of the challenges faced:
  • Instead of the familiar Noun - Verb - Object structure of European languages, the Japanes use Noun - Object - Verb structure. (i.e. We, big red car, drive.)
  • There are no plurals; the speaker might be talking about one, several or many things and often you can never be certain. (examine the structure above closely);
  • they use different 'counters' when speaking about different things such as people, animals, objects, big objects, days of the week, etc. Thus you need to know at least 10 different counting systems to be able to refer to things correctly, and some of these counters have up to three completely different numbering systems in themselves. English uses a single counting system for everything.
  • to read Japanese you need to know three completely different alphabets. If you want to learn to read Japanese in Arabic text, (which English uses), you need to learn yet another system.
  • they read from the right to the left and from the bottom to the top; exactly opposite that of English;
  • the language you would use for someone of your status is different from that used with the boss, or different again from the language used with someone you consider your inferior. Thus, the very words that you use must be chosen very deliberately and carefully.
All the same, the Japanese are not reluctant to embrace a foreign word that denotes a concept or commodity that they did not have heretofore. Examples are Gift-o, Knifu, Forku, etc.

Psychologically, the Japanese are closely tied to the group; not to the individual, as is common in North America. This comes from the historical reverence placed on elders and from living closely together in small and tight spaces. Most Japanese families sleep together on mats placed in the daytime Living Room. There is almost no open space in the nation and no personal privacy for people. As a consequence, behaviour is rigidly controlled by cultural and social mechanisms in order to minimize conflict with the group. There is a Japanese proverb that states 'It is the tallest nail that gets the hammer'.

As a result of this conditioning and culture, the Japanese are unfaillingly polite, considerate and helpful to others. We experienced many, many overwhelming instances of their kindnesses and concer for other during our travels in Japan. One need only stop and look at signs or maps in the subway and someone will offer to give directions, take you there or make sure that you are able to resolve your problem. Complete strangers shared food with us, helped us order in restaurants, and even took us to their home for tea and conversation. Westerners are cold, indifferent and inconsiderate by their standards, but they do cut the Gaijin [foreigners] some slack in this regard. They tolerate us as being 'different' and self-centered, but would not accept this behaviour from fellow citizens.

As a result, Japan is a very safe and orderly society. Anyone can walk around Tokyo at night in safety. The streets are clean and tidy, people are orderly and there is almost no graffiti in evidence. I have noted that few bicycles are locked in the suburbs and I have even seem women leave their purse sitting in the front basket while inside a local shop. Murder is rare; a case anywhere in Japan will make the Tokyo newspapers.

2. In Japan, work is taken seriously and is an honourable endeavour.

Japan is a hierarchial society with younger people respecting the older ones, and workers respecting their supervisors and bosses. However, even the lowest of workers take their work seriously and believe it to be a vital and important function that must be performed to the best of their abilities. I have seen sweepers, flagmen and garbagemen dressed impeccably, working deligently and exercising great care and respect for the task at hand. Most of all, they respect themselves, with neat and tidy dress, polite manners and a dedication to their occupation that is not begrudingly performed if pressed. I once turned around to glance back at a display in a store to note that three employees were bowing deeply to me, the 'customer', as thanks for merely strolling by their wares! Gas station attendants bow to the driver, and will stop traffic to allow the person to leave. There is a phrase that the merchants will softly intone as you enter a shop that roughly means "Welcome". This is all very striking to a person who sees a societal drift to indifference and a general decline of standards of conduct and appearance to the lowest common denominator because it is 'easier' and nobody cares, anyway.

3. The Japanese admire and will pay for quality.

Ironically, for a nation that was associated with cheap knockoffs 50 years ago, the Japanese are culturally inclined to paying for top-quality items. Their electronics, cameras, lenses and automobiles have translated this trait into a global economic empire featuring such names as Sony, Toyota, Honda, Fujitsu and Fuji as emblematic of such high standards. In the local supermarket carrots, mellons and even oranges can be individually wrapped and of the highest standards; they would look upon much of our produce as 'garbage'. They view electronics such as TVs, cameras and computers as disposable items; they are junked about every 3rd year for the new, improved model. People mistake the small and minimal houses, vehicles and furniture for being cheap; not so, the Japanese demand the best and will pay for it. It is no coincidence that the only Canadian spirits that can make a dent in the market are Ice Wine, and high quality scotch and whiskey.

4. The Japanese view an absence of mistakes as perfection

The Japanese predelection to reticence makes them suspicious of verbosity, and also makes them reluctant to be exposed to the group as incapable. Thus, mistakes are to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, this obsessive concern has consequences. I have been told that the Japanese airline pilot uses actual 'stick-time' to practise for the simulator runs. They want to have a perfect score when demonstrating their skills to the Japanese Aeronautical Board. Westerners use the simulator to make mistakes so this doesn't happen in real flying.

Likewise, a professional hockey coach told me that domestic Japanese players who have never been overseas will practice fanatically until they can do the drills impeccably, and yet be totally incapable in a real game. Most Japanese, when asked, will sheepishly admit that they speak "only a little English" when they are quite capable, indeed. However, they will make the odd mistake, and that is seen as unacceptable.

5. Japanese Culture favours a 'Bottom-Up' approach

Westerners start with a concept and work downwards to the details. It is most important to get the concept right. The Japanese start at the bottom; get the details right, and then work upwards to derive concepts and principles. Their widespread belief is that understanding arises from careful attention paid to small details - something that is often overlooked in the West. This fact, as well as their attention to quality and the dedication of their workers, gave the Western automakers and electronics industry some tough lessons to learn when Japan broke onto the world stage in the 1970s.

6. The Japanese create communities on a human scale

Most people in Tokyo do not own, and do not need, a car to conduct their daily lives. They have a superb subway and rail system that can take people anywhere in Japan with speed, comfort and safety. The joke is that people will run to catch the subway car so they won't have to wait the 3 minutes for another one! I can remember once waiting for a subway for a long time and realized that I had been there for 10 minues!

Likewise, the entire city is built on a scale attuned to a human walking. Subway stops are placed roughly a 20-minute walk between. This means that most people can catch a train with at most a 10-minute walk. The Japanese build many, small shops to provide local service, rather than large but distant Big Box stores and malls that are so huge that you have to drive between the stores! In Japan there can be 5 or 6 restaurants in a single block; some with as few as 6 stools and a couple of tables. These are family owned and not franchise chains.

Most of your daily needs can be met by a short stroll in the immediate area, or by a short bicycle ride. The merchants will say hello to you as you walk by on the street, and your 'community' is your neighbourhood. Manufacturing is not zoned as it is in the West. You might find a car repair shop, a light manufacturing plant or a small lumberyard on the same block where you live. Even if you go downtown and make a large purchase, say a bigscreen TV, home delivery is cheap and efficient.

Contrast that to Western suburbs, which demand a multi-kilometre ride in the SUV land yacht just to pick up a quart of milk, and you drive from Big Box to Big Box to get all the 'stuff' you need.


Lest the reader think that I am enchanted with all things Japanese, I should also point out that there are things that Japan does not do so well. Their rigid social structure can confine creativity, results in cruel punishment for offenders and creates pressure on individuals who exhibit individualistic tendancies. Some institutions, such as their banking systems and the inability to use electronic payment methods, are outdated and archiac. Japanese do not like substitutions on the menu, and react negatively to any change in 'the plan'. The Japanese also believe that any non-native is not one of 'them', no matter how long the person has lived there.

However, the Japanese have a lot to teach us about living, working and playing together in large numbers within a confined space and with a limited use of resources.

The Japanese seem to have stuck a more appropriate balance between individual freedom and the group; between the right to consume and the consequences to society, and for workers and all members of society to be responsible and accountable for their actions. We would do well find ways to adopt some of their best ideas into our culture and society.

When speaking of humanity's first visit to the moon, which occurred in December 1968, one of the Apollo 8 astronauts stated that it was remarkable that mankind (read that as a simple contraction of 'humankind' for anyone who is obsessive about retroactively labelling people as chauvinists) had to leave earth in order to discover it. I totally agree. Having spent four months in Japan I think I now know Canada and Canadians a little better. I have had one of the most interesting and enlightening experiences of my life, and I thank Japan and the Japanese people for the pleasure of allowing Jean & myself to get to know them.

And a special thanks to Sandra and Jay for being the perfect hosts and allowing us to also discover the Japan that they are so fond of.

Doug-San (Not) In Japan

Saying Sayonara For Now.