Where to start . . . in the middle of this amazing second visit to Japan?
Maybe here: Our comfort level is way higher than it was on the first trip. Public transportation is a snap. While still a bull in a Japanese ceramics shop linguistically, I've also become more or less fearless. Smiles, charades, and the incredible good will of most everyone we encounter result in almost all situations being good ones. Two facts further mitigate my shortcomings with speaking Japanese: Remarkable numbers of Japanese speak a little passable English and are willing to exercise the little that they know. And Pam, always modest about her accomplishments, has substantially improved her skills, and can now read enough hiragana and katanaka to unravel at least some mysteries; and she speaks and understands much more than she did eighteen months ago.
To my own credit, I'm happy/fearless/foolish enough to be delighted to head out on my own, the Pollyanna in me confident that I can successfully undertake any assignment. So far, so good.
Starbucks and its coffee: Is the Japanese Starbucks roasted as dark as in the U.S.? I think not. While I'm not the greatest fan of the Starbucks' roast in the U.S., it'll do . . . and it has vaguely set the standard for the edge and intensity of American espresso drinks. The Japanese Starbucks' taste is milder -- lacks what some have described as a "burnt" flavor. And, in Japan, hot means hot -- much hotter than their American drink counterparts. A less litigious society?
Howard Schultz is known for his advocacy/marketing strategy of positioning Starbucks shops as "third places," gathering places that are neither work nor home, but comfortable, safe and neutral. This seems to be a successful strategy for the company most everywhere, but perhaps nowhere more than in Japan. While Japan is an affluent society, private domestic space is at a premium, and most socializing occurs outside the home. This was vividly demonstrated when we witnessed the tale-end of a little tyke's third birthday party at a nearby Starbucks late one weekend morning. The celebrant's family had reserved an alcove at the local cafe. Starbucks provided age-appropriate, kid-selected drinks and pastries, and also supplied each child with an insulated (plastic) cup as a party favor. You know--the tall grande size cups with covers that people sip their morning cuppa in when they go to work. The cups had removable, transparent outer sleeves. During the party, each child created a piece of artwork with paper and crayons. A Starbucks employee then gathered up the cups and the artwork, and inserted each child's artwork into the sleeve of one of the cups. The completed cup was then put into what appeared to be its own cloth Starbucks drawstring bag and returned to the appropriate parent. The Starbucks employees--all young people--were warm, funny, helpful hosts, and what could have been a messy, complex, stressful affair at a private home, was obvious good fun for both kids and parents, with the host parents completely relieved of any cooking or cleanup duties.
A final observation: Certainly some of the baked goods offered in Japanese Starbucks outshine their American counterparts. Starbucks' La Boulange could learn how to bake . . . from the Japanese?
Graffiti & Litter: In the Kyoto area, almost no graffiti at all. We noticed one example, but neither of us can recall what or where. We think it might have been a little "tag" on the side of a public trash bin . . . although that seems somewhat improbable as there are very few public trash bins in evidence. Eating and drinking on the street is uncommon. If you walk out of Starbucks with a beverage in a paper cup, you're stuck with it until . . . . We carry our own "litter" around with us, sometimes until we return home, because it's really hard to find a place to dispose of it. And I've observed Japanese pocketing their wrappers as well.