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Thursday, April 13

Our last day in Kyoto dawned clear and bright, with spring-like temperatures and cloudless skies. We gave ourselves the luxury of sleeping a little late and then rushed around to finish packing and preparing to ship my wife's bag and compressing everything else into mine. We then indulged ourselves one, last time in the buffet breakfast that came with our hotel. Even though it was rather late in the breakfast service, three hostesses hovered over the tables of food making sure that everything was neat and well-stocked.

We planned to spend this last day visiting my wife's old neighborhood in the Kushima ward in the south end of the city, but our first stop was Kyoto station to secure our bags in a locker for the day and pick up our JR passes which would give us virtually unlimited access to one of the world's best and fastest transit systems.

The passes are only available to foreign tourists and offer complete access to all JR trains and busses for a fee of roughly $240 per week for normal travel and about $100 more for access to the more luxurious and exclusive "Green Cars." Like regular ticket-buyers, we had the choice of obtaining a reserved seat in advance or opting for one of the cars with open seating. With our desire to remain in non-smoking cars, we chose the former whenever possible.

It took several tries to find the right JR office in the huge station to exchange the forms we purchased back in the States for the actual passes. This situation had us more than a little frustrated. Traversing Kyoto station up and down and back and forth with a load of luggage can be quite a workout. The kind of typical bureaucratic and commercial runarounds that are common in the US are quite rare in Japan and my wife was rather upset that a normally efficient organization like JR-West could be so problematic. I did not realize until we got home and I was sorting through all the brochures and paperwork from the trip that the exact location of the office we needed was written in plain English and illustrated with a very clear map on the folder that contained the form. So it goes.

Soseikai Hospital in Kyoto's Kushima ward, where my wife worked for over a dozen years. (photo courtesy Soseikai Hospital)

From Kyoto station, it took about twenty minutes and two different trains to get to Kushima. The train let us off at one end of the ward's popular shopping street, where we would return later, and we splurged on a cab to take us the rest of the distance to the hospital. We decided in advance that I would take the opportunity to talk to one of the doctors there about the problem I was having with my eyes to see if there was some sort of short-term "fix" available to help clear my vision for the rest of the trip. Soseikai General is a small but busy community acute care hospital and the mornings are open for walk-in outpatient consultations. The fee for the exam was assessed at a flat rate at just over fifty dollars. Even though the lobby was fairly full of patients waiting to see other doctors, the ophthalmology lab wasn't busy and I could be seen almost immediately.

A Doctor's Appointment

With the help of my wife as a translator, I explained the situation to the doctor and answered his questions. With some of the best American doctors, I still get the impression that they are always moving at light speed and their attention, no matter how well focused, is fleeting. The doctor I spoke to at Soseikai left me with the feeling that this would take as long as it would take and that I was the only patient of concern to him. After listening to my history and asking some more questions, he outlined some possible courses of action and offered to perform a more extensive exam at no additional cost (I had already paid the cashier before I went in). Because there was nothing that could be done in the short term and that the more complete exam would necessitate my staying out of the sunlight for the remainder of the afternoon, I decided to decline. Still, I felt satisfied that my condition was understood and that I knew what my options were.

From the outpatient area, we started our quick tour of the hospital to greet my wife's ex-coworkers. We still had several pounds of Ghirradelli chocolate to dispense. It was quite a bit of fun, just walking through the corridors and seeing all the surprised double-takes of people who suddenly recognized a familiar face they hadn't seen in over three years.

The facility did not give the impression of ultra-polished opulence of many American hospitals. This was a place where people worked hard to provide health care services and were not particularly concerned about appearances. When the hospital expanded, the new building was dedicated entirely patient care. The administrative and support staff moved into hastily converted patient rooms in the old building. We met with the hospital director who was one of my wife's managers. The "office" he shared with another administrator and an assistant was obviously once a four-bed hospital room. The small conference room were we had a chance to speak with the hospital's founder was once a private room with oxygen and suction fixtures still in place next to a sliding door that found in all patient rooms rooms. We later went down to the radiology department to visit with the staff of the state-of-the-art MRI facility. It provided the local community with the best equipment available run by a talented and experienced staff at a cost remarkably affordable compared to American facilities. It was clearly a place for work and not for show.

About the "Lived-In" Look

Whether it is the office space behind the counter of an JR ticketing facility or the switchboard room of a busy hospital, the Japanese workplace gives the clear impression of something that is lived-in rather than shown-off. It may look cluttered and even disorganized to an outsider, but it is a place where the workers have spent and will continue to spend their entire careers. They know where everything is and they will always be there to find it for you, so it doesn't really matter. It is a place where they will spend nearly as many waking hours as their homes, and a place where they feel as comfortable and secure. You don't often see evidence of workers personalizing their space with their belongings like you do here. (In my sterile, gray cubicle at work, numerous little toys cover my two monitors and a large poster from The Matrix hangs on one wall.) However, things are arranged in ways that are the most useful to the worker even if it's baffling to an outsider. It may appear to be a haphazard stack of paperwork and journals, but I felt certain that the owner could find anything they wanted in a moment.

I was deeply touched watching my wife experience reunion after reunion there. She had worked at the hospital nearly twice as long as I had worked at any job I held. I continually find myself wishing I could learn and understand more about the Japanese attitude towards work.

Next: A culture of shopping




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