For those who have never done so, and wonder about traveling to Japan, I would encourage you to consider it. You will do better if you develop some conversational Japanese, but you can get along without it, especially if you have a friend or a guide who has the language. We were fortunate to have a guide on most of this trip, which made our ambitious itinerary possible, owing to his grasp of not only the language, but the transportation system.
Many Japanese people who see that you are having a difficult time will step up to help out, if they are more fluent in English than most. In general, the people are extraordinarily warm and friendly, and sympathetic to westerners, especially if you are friendly with them. A smile goes a long way, as does any attempt to use polite language. Especially when they find out that you are there for something to do with Buddhism, or their culture, they seem to blossom. There were more than one instance where we spontaneously launched into chanting the Hannya Shingyo with some local women, notably at a Shingon monastery, and once on the train platform.
The infrastructure for traveling by train in Japan, from light rail to the bullet train, makes the US look like a third-world country. In LA airport, the litter and generally dirty environment contributed to the impression, and the sheer lack of alternatives to the automobile, there as well as in Atlanta, reinforces the idea that we have left true civilization far behind, by returning home. It is a weird feeling. In Chicago or New York City, the transportation system begins to level out, but the filthy character of the environment makes you shudder for the visitor from Japan whose first impression must be pretty disturbing.
Japan is so clean by comparison to our cities, there simply is no comparison. In Tokyo and other large cities, you will find areas that begin to remind you of home, but in the temple grounds and areas of national tourist sites, the places are just immaculate. Matsuoka Roshi was always extremely fastidious in his person and in the temple grounds and interior, which he referred to as the "Zen way." But it is obvious that this is also a major trait of the culture, and the question of whether it is attributable to the influence of Zen on Japan is an open one.
I think it best that we do not dismiss this attitude as a cultural anomaly, expressed as "keeping it empty around here" and "cleaning the (environment) temple is cleaning the mind," "taking good care of the practice place," and "leave no traces," but continue to regard it as a central part of our Zen training. It is one sure way to support the practice of the other members of our sangha, by taking care to maintain the Zen center and zendo, in particular; and if it can carry over into our lives at home and at work, it can have a significant effect upon our attitude wherever we find ourselves. The Zen monastery is one without walls.
Some cultural differences may take some getting used to in Japan. The hotels are also very clean, perhaps more so than we expect them to be in America. But the spaces are smaller, the bathrooms in particular. The manufacturing company "Toto" seems to have secured the contract for all toilets in Japan, as their brand is ubiquitous. One of our former members worked for them in America. Their models include warm seats, and a variety of choices for water-assisted hygiene. Which, for one who grew up with indoor plumbing, but accustomed to outdoor toilets at my grandparents' house, they took a lot of getting used to.
The main problem for me was the smaller space into which the modular plumbing units were tightly packed. The bathtub in particular is not designed for someone of my height, as it is meant to be a soaking hot tub (J. ofuro), in which one should be able to fit both knees under the water, and even to soak the whole body up to one's neck. Older hotels feature a square, deep tub of aromatic wood, in which one may kneel, but the newer version is molded from plastic, and is not quite as deep. For someone of my height, it forces a choice between soaking the legs and knees, or the upper body, but not both at the same time.
This compactness probably serves the Japanese body type very well, thought I saw several men who approached seven feet in height, and the younger generation is clearly taller than its parents. This shrinking sense of available space was reflected on the airplane on the way back, wherein it seems that additional rows of seating are being squeezed in, in order to maximize occupancy and profits. In general, this is not a major issue, but when you are in a middle seat, and the flight exceeds ten hours, it becomes noticeable. Our Zen training comes into play, through increased patience with these situations.
Currency is another small hurdle to get over. Yen are expressed in the thousands rather than the hundreds as in US dollars. Again, it takes a bit of getting used to. The exchange rate differs on a daily basis, but it is not worth doing the math. A simple shorthand is to move the decimal point two digits to the left, which yields an approximate value equivalency for calculating purchases. You do not have to worry about tipping, as it is simply not done in Japan. And the prices of meals, for example, are surprisingly modest. It is easy to find a more than adequate lunch, for example, for less than $10. And the currency is rather simple in usage. The key to relating to the extra zeroes is that they represent pennies, basically.
The most-often-used bills (which are slightly different in size, aiding the blind) are the 10,000, 5,000 and 1,000 denominations. They correspond roughly to 100-, 50-, and 10-dollar amounts, which is close enough for figuring how much you are spending for something. The exchange rate becomes significant when spending larger amounts, or when exchanging currency at the beginning or end of the trip.
The most surprising difference is the value of coins. While our currency includes the penny, nickel and quarter, which are not worth the metal they are minted on, and the half-dollar and dollar coins, almost never seen; the Japanese saw the wisdom of providing 100- and 500-Yen coins, which take the place of the $1 and $5 bills. I did not see an equivalent to the $20 bill, but a couple of 1,000-Yen bills add up to the same amount, roughly. All in all, the Japanese system seems fairly logical, once you get used to the calculation. Coins are a lot easier to use for the automatic concession machines found on nearly every corner, dispensing every kind of drink, from plain water to tea and beer, everywhere you go. They also offer bill-changing, but the higher-value coins seem to make a lot of sense.
If you plan to go to Japan, prepare to do a lot of walking. And stair-climbing. There are usually escalators, but not in every location. Travel light, as you may find yourself climbing seemingly endless stairs, and traversing miles on foot, from one destination to another. But the payoff is worth it. After my initial difficulties with blisters from ill-fitting shoes, and bruising my shoulder in a comic slide down temple steps, I gradually gained strength and stamina from the daily grind of getting from place to place on foot. It seems to be a part of the Japanese health system, along with a healthier diet than we promote in the USA.
If you want to experience Japan, of course you want to experience the cuisine. In the beginning, Japanese food is novel, but after a couple of weeks the novelty wears off. We were happy to find a great Italian restaurant, for example, just for a change. When you are in a hotel, and opt for the buffet breakfast, it is a good idea to watch what the locals do. Picking up your tray and following a native, you can see how they serve themselves rice and miso soup, for example, and what condiments they use to spice it up. If you control your portions, you can sample small bits of the diet without taking too much for you to finish. You will note that the Japanese do not take food that they do not eat, another example of leaving no traces, and contrary to the usual "eyes too big for my stomach" approach that results in the US throwing out enough food from our restaurants to feed a third-world country.
In some hotels, they have more than one restaurant. In one we stayed in, you could opt for the one that served the Japanese-American buffet; or Japanese only; and one American-style only. If you opt for the Japanese only, you should try to eat everything they give you. Usually, rice and miso soup are all-you-can-eat, but with the fish and vegetables included, you will probably not need seconds. If you order the seafood special on the flight, you will get a similar special treat on Japan Airlines or American, the two carriers we used.
In summary, let me encourage all to make the trip some time. It can be very rewarding if you do not do it as a tourist, but with a planned itinerary, to get the most of your efforts. If you go in a larger group, we have a great guide for you. The first time I went was in 1989, believe it or not. This is now 25 years later. Each time it was for three weeks, but this time was 100 times more productive and meaningful, thanks to the efforts of the senior teachers of STO who planned the trip. Hopefully the video documentary will allow you to share our experience more deeply, and will encourage you to make your own pilgrimage in future. Our connection to our immediate ancestors in Japan is important to maintain. And I feel fortunate to have been able to return to this country of origin for Zen, 75 years after Matsuoka Roshi came across the same ocean, the other way. It is definitely coming full-circle, in fulfilling his mission of bridging East and West.