Each day I was in Japan, the more unfamiliar it became. In the jet-lag blur of the first hours, Tokyo had seemed like an unusually polite and efficient version of New York. Except, of course, with...

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Each day I was in Japan, the more unfamiliar it became.

In the jet-lag blur of the first hours, Tokyo had seemed like an unusually polite and efficient version of New York. Except, of course, with everything in Japanese, including the McDonald’s menu. And no litter, anywhere.

Yet as I explored Japan, traveling by train and bus from Tokyo to temple-studded towns and mountainous national parks, the cultural differences kept unfolding:

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Seeing sumo

I sat cross-legged on the floor within sweat-spraying distance of a dozen sumo wrestlers. These almost-naked mounds of flesh and muscle — some are close to 400 pounds — had been practicing since dawn in their sumo “stable, ” a house in a middle-class Tokyo suburb where they live and train.

At a sumo bout in Tokyo this fall, champion Asashoryu stands triumphant after hurling out Chiyotaikai. Sumo is a beloved, ancient sport in Japan with roots in Shinto rites.

The wrestlers fought in pairs on a small, packed-clay rink in the dim room. Their movements exploded from a silent circling into fierce grappling of torsos. Only their panting grunts and the thud of flesh crashing to the ground broke the silence.

Before I went to Japan, I wondered how anyone could enjoy watching very large men in loincloths wrestle.

After watching them practice, I began to understand what lures thousands to sumo matches. Despite their bulk, the wrestlers had a rippling grace. Their quicksilver changes in movement, from almost meditative to raw power, were mesmerizing. And centuries of Japanese tradition are embodied in the ancient sport — from the wrestlers’ ritual foot-stomping and top-knotted hair to their trainers’ steely, absolute control.

Big city, little room

Push, push, the hotel door seemed stuck. Oops, that’s the wall.

I knew my budget hotel room in Tokyo would be small since space is a luxury in the jampacked city. I just didn’t realize how small.

The door opened only halfway before hitting the wall. The room was barely big enough for its two single beds and one chest of drawers.

I opened the room’s curtains to check the view — and looked into a hallway. Mine was an interior room, surrounded by corridors, with its only window looking right into a hall.

But the hotel staff was as big-hearted as the hotel was small, serving tea at all hours; lending umbrellas when summer downpours hit; and somehow finding me in a nearby restaurant after I checked out and left behind a pair of binoculars.

High-tech basics

High-tech land: Using their camera cell phones, young women follow a speech by Japan’s Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. In Japan, technology pervades daily life.

At a comfortable business hotel in a small town, I absent-mindedly played with the buttons in the bathroom and set off a perfect storm of electronic toiletry.

Whoosh … a mini waterfall cascaded into the toilet bowl, the bathroom equivalent of white noise. I punched another button: A little fountain, aimed to cleanse the private parts, erupted. Other buttons on the toilet’s mini console warmed the spray water and heated the seat.

Conversations with other Western travelers almost always came round to bemused and enthusiastic comparisons of such high-tech toilets, found in some hotels and homes. Women, in particular, were grateful to have an alternative to the old-fashioned Japanese toilet — a squat-over-a-hole-in-the-floor model, still common in public restrooms.

The kindness of strangers

On a crowded bus jostling past farms and villages in central Japan, an elderly seatmate dug into her wrinkled paper bag and pulled out a home-grown tomato. With a broad smile, she handed it to my daughter. Then pulled out another, and another, four huge, luscious tomatoes in all.

After practicing English with a foreign schoolgirl visiting Matsumoto, students trade addresses.

It was a generous gift to a stranger in a land where an apple can cost $2, a fancy melon $20. But in low-birthrate Japan, foreign children draw lots of kind attention (and the occasional gift).

“Excuse, excuse, will you talk to us? ” called some giggling girls in plaid-skirt school uniforms in the mountain-foothills town of Matsumoto. They waylaid us by its 16th-century castle, a brooding, heavy-timbered, pagodalike marvel.

“What are your names, do you like Japan, where are you from?” they asked, seeking to practice their English as part of their high-school homework.

“From Seattle? Ichiro, Ichiro!” they clamored, all fans of the Mariners’ Japanese baseball star. Ichiro opened doors to conversations all over the country.

Eat up

With my chopsticks poised over a piece of deep-red sushi at a mountain inn deep in the Japanese Alps, I curiously asked what kind of raw fish it was.

It wasn’t.

It was raw horsemeat.

The cook/waitress hovered proudly as a Japanese-speaking Englishman translated her explanation of the set menu of local delicacies.

I gulped. Not wanting to offend, I reasoned that meat is meat is meat — and ate. It tasted like rich beef.

Thankfully, the cook returned to the kitchen so I could avoid eating much of another mountain-village specialty: minced wasps in a sugar and soy sauce.

Drink up

In the mountain valley of Kamikochi, three miles along a hiking trail, I stopped for a drink — a can of beer from a vending machine.

Vending machines are everywhere in Japan: on street corners, in hotels, train station and in national parks such as Kamikochi. They’re stocked with all sorts of tea, coffee and fruit drinks — and beer.

Besides drinks, the country’s estimated 6 million vending machines offer snacks — dried squid, anyone? — cigarettes, even sex toys.

Train time

The bullet train nosed into the railway station perfectly on time, like every train and bus I took in Japan. A flock of cleaners in bright orange jumpsuits hustled aboard, vacuuming, polishing, even wiping finger prints off windows and swiveling the seats so all passengers would face forward.

With the train rendered spotless, the travelers boarded. The white-gloved conductor bowed as he took tickets; an electronic notice board flashed stations in Japanese and English; and the train sped smoothly along at more than 100 mph.

Eat your heart out, Amtrak.

Spotting geishas

Two geishas pause to chat in Kyoto. Geishas are a fast declining vestige of old Japan, but some still live and entertain at exclusive clubs in the city’s traditional Gion entertainment district.

There’s one!

In her ornate silk kimono, a geisha glided along a narrow street in Kyoto, one of the ancient former capitals of Japan.

She paused and smiled coyly for a group on an evening walking tour. Her face was powdered dead white, her lips painted into a red rosebud, her hair lacquered in elaborate black swirls.

She was a creature of the Gion district, Kyoto’s traditional entertainment neighborhood, where private clubs and pricey bars tucked into low wood buildings still feature geishas, a remnant of old Japan.

She smiled for the tourists and, with a flutter of her perfectly manicured hand, disappeared around the corner.

That safe feeling

On a starlit evening, I walked among a half-dozen Buddhist temples, strung along a pine-tree ridge on the edge of Takayama. The dimly lit tile-roofed wood buildings, surrounded by gardens, were deserted except for a few monks praying or padding across the burnished floors. It was a glimpse of the spiritual tradition of the town, called “Little Kyoto” for its temples and streets of merchants’ old-style houses.

Walking back to my hotel through quiet streets, the calmness was shattered by two drunken “salarymen,” Japanese businessman who find relief from hard-driving jobs in hard drinking. They leered and shouted. It was one of the few instances of rudeness I encountered in Japan, a land where even the staff at a Tokyo movie theater lined up to bow at departing customers and where the crime rate is among the lowest in the world.

The salarymen, when ignored, quickly gave up and slouched off into the darkness.

Order, order, everywhere

Votive tablets containing personal prayers are hung at the Meiji-jingu shrine in Tokyo, a major Shinto shrine. Priests will offer the wishes to the deities in a morning ceremony.

Hurrying along a Kyoto sidewalk, an elegantly suited man dropped his cigarette butt on the ground. I almost scolded him.

Two weeks in Japan, a country that prizes order and cleanliness, can do that. Cleaners ride up and down the escalators in the Tokyo subway, scrubbing the hand railings. Hotels provide two pairs of slippers, one for inside the room and a separate pair just for the bathroom. Taxi drivers wear white gloves in their spotless, lace-draped cabs.

Even the homeless are orderly.

At Ueno Park in Tokyo, Japan’s downside is on view. Homeless men, the casualties of the country’s 1990s economic slump, live in the park, Tokyo’s largest, among the museums, a zoo, Shinto shrines and a little lake where families play in rented paddle boats.

By day, hundreds of the homeless sit on the park’s benches. At night, they retreat into dozens of makeshift tents, tucked among the trees in a tidy line and covered with the same blue tarps. Vases of flowers stand outside some tents. And shoes are lined up neatly outside.

Kristin Jackson: 206-464-2271 or kjackson@seattletimes.com