Since childhood, everything about Japan has enthralled me: food, traditional clothing, bonsai trees, ikebana floral arrangements and, of course, the people themselves. The poster in the window showed verdant, bucolic rice paddies being tended by women in traditional bonnets and straw hats. For dramatic relief, a snowcapped mountain hung in the background and the caption promised that I would “See the real Japan. Become immersed in the mysterious Orient by cycling the back roads of rural Shikoku – an island that outsiders rarely visit.”
It took about a nanosecond for me to walk into the travel agency and pay a deposit.
A few months later, in the baggage claim area of the Tokyo airport, a man met the luggage as it tumbled onto the carousel. Carefully setting suitcases upright, he snapped the tired handles to attention, briskly swished each piece with a white cloth, and then released it to rumble properly along, seeking its owner. He wore white gloves.
As my soft turquoise pack thumped limply to the bottom of the ramp, it exuded a cloud of Indonesian dust. The luggage man yanked it upright, but the bag sagged forward, weighted by its overstuffed outside pockets. He set it up again quickly and as he turned his attention to the oncoming pieces, mine slid onto its back with a slightly inebriated air. Threading my way through the crowds to claim it, I could see him do a double take; the horizontal piece must have offended his sense of alignment. He sprang into double time, sprinting along the carousel edge to catch up to the limpid piece. Jerking it up sharply and with a stern little shake, he wedged it upright between two stoic suitcases standing on their own. As I pushed my way through the throng, I saw him look down at his white gloves and, with compressed lips, clap them together to get rid of the dust. When he saw me, however, (and for some reason he immediately identified me as the owner) his face smoothed over and he gave a low, dignified bow, which I’m sure, in his mind, I ill-deserved for having such badly behaved luggage.
Had I known at the time, I would have recognized that this one incident told me much about the Japanese psyche.