Jim and I just returned from an exquisite three-week trip to Japan during the legendary Cherry Blossom Festival, and we are refreshed rather than exhausted, as we most often are after an international trip. We had not travelled to Japan before, so were not prepared for the beauty we would encounter either in the cherry blossom trees themselves or the Japanese people. If you have been to Japan in the winter, summer or fall, but not spring, you at least know what I mean about the inner and outer beauty of the people.
Since our return home a little over a week ago, I have had the conversation about the incredible service attitude of the Japanese people with lots of friends and family, including my nephew, who has been married to a wonderful Okinawan woman for ten years, during which time he has spent quite a bit of time working in and visiting Japan; a client who worked for four very happy years in Japan for an American company, a friend who recently visited Tokyo and Kyoto as Jim and I did, and a young American-born Japanese woman who works in the architectural office next door to Bell Investment Advisors who has vacationed in Japan twice. Every conversation has included unsolicited remarks about the kindness, beauty, thoughtfulness, and peacefulness of the Japanese people. While we’ve all heard about the earthquake and nuclear disaster in northern Japan, and frequent news reports about the sluggish Japanese economy, it is not apparent to the naked eye. The stores, restaurants, and countless shopping centers are full of very happy looking, well-dressed groups of people enjoying themselves.
Tokyo is the largest city in the world, but it does not feel stressful, like New York, for instance. The first thing we noticed was how amazingly clean the cities are! I kept snapping photos of cleanliness – of the streets, the cars, the taxi’s, the trains, the busses, the subways, the train stations. They seem to have solved the countless issues surrounding the question of how to handle waste, garbage pickup, and recycling (there are 18 ways of separating trash!). In the three weeks we were in Japan, both in the big cities and smaller outlying towns, we honestly saw no litter – not a can, not a Kleenex, not a paper towel anywhere. If there was one that didn’t make it into a trash bin, the first person to see it would stop and pick it up, so it wouldn’t be there long. There aren’t that many trash cans apparent in public places, which would seem problematic, but it just isn’t. The restaurants and bathrooms have avoided masses of napkins and paper towels by offering hot, rolled wash cloths at meal time and by installing Dyson or Toto fast-drying hand dryers in just about all of the bathrooms in Japan.
The bathrooms are truly incredible: clean, clean, clean. I recall three that had little meditation gardens to look at on the other side of the wall in the bathroom. I could go on and on about the toilets – clearly the best in the world – but may be going into a little too much detail. Let me just say that America is way behind the Japanese in this regard. It took me a week to learn what all the buttons on the arm rests were for, but once I got the hang of it, it was truly a pleasure. . . Returning to the average public restroom in America has been pretty dreary by contrast.
The work ethic in Japan is striking as well. The people are incredibly industrious and take their jobs – whatever they are – very seriously. Their “service attitude” is apparent at every turn. You get the distinct feeling that the shopkeeper, the sushi chef, the inn-keeper, the bartender, the cab driver, the ticket-taker, the information person at the train station, the barista, and the post office worker, truly care about you and just can’t do enough for you to make sure you are welcomed, you find your way, you enjoy your meal, your concert, your drink – WHATEVER! And whatever service they provide for you actually ends with a bow. We observed this on the many trains we took – sleek, clean, beautiful, bullet trains that arrive on time. When the ticket-taker completes the task, he/she stops at the end of the car and bows to the whole car with what appears to be sincere gratitude for the pleasure of serving you.
On our second night in Tokyo when we got into bed, with the window of our bedroom ajar, we suddenly realized how oddly quiet it was outside, and we couldn’t figure it out. I know the sound of big cities at night – especially New York City. It’s always noisy at night with people’s voices, horn-honking traffic, and machinery at work. We heard two horn-honks the whole time we were in the country. There are millions of new, clean, energy-efficient cars swiftly moving along both narrow streets, broad boulevards, and first class highways, but even the drivers seem competent and caring. The taxicabs are literally spotless, and to prove it, the seat covers are made out of – you won’t believe me here – white lace! The taxi drivers wear white gloves!
Jim and I both talked about and thought about the effect the pervasive service attitude of kindness had on us and realized that we did not feel stressed-out. It made us feel really good – relaxed, cared for, safe, grateful, touched, and happy. We thought about our staff at Bell Investment Advisors, and how they, too, have a positive “service attitude” – not exactly the bowing type as in Japan, but a distinct service attitude, nonetheless, and one that seems to make our clients very happy and us very proud.
Two days after our return from Japan, we joined a team of about 50 volunteers, for the second of two workdays in April on a Rebuilding Together-Oakland (RTO) project made up of Bell Investment Advisors’ staff, their family members, and clients, along with the staff, family members and clients of the Wendel Rosen law firm in our building at 1111 Broadway. We have participated in RTO for the past three years now, and we’re hooked.
RTO is a non-profit organization that rehabilitates the homes of low-income elderly and disabled people who are unable to provide adequate upkeep themselves. Donations to the organization pay for the materials required for the projects, and volunteers provide the labor. It’s always so much fun to work side-by-side with your fellow employees in a different context than usual, and to work side-by-side with your neighbors for the good of someone you don’t even know who needs and appreciates the gift of your labor. The owner of the home we worked on this year, who has owned and run a children’s daycare center out of her home for years, was thrilled with the results, and deeply grateful, especially for so many extras she didn’t expect, right down to the beautiful, colorful flowers in her garden. The smiles on the faces of the volunteers at the end of a long, hard day say it all: you can’t help feeling good about doing something good for someone else. Kindness multiplies. It’s the same the world over.