same same, but different 

There’s a saying you can’t miss when you’re traveling in Southeast Asia or India. You’ll hear it from locals, from ex-pat hostel owners; you’ll see it written on flyers and on t-shirts; eventually, you’ll find yourself saying it — at first ironically, perhaps — until you realize that “same same, but different” is a very real part of your everyday lexicon.

As common as this expression is, it’s tough to explain its usage. I’d heard it so frequently that I thought defining it would be easy — but I found myself struggling; so, I turned to Urban Dictionary for some guidance:

Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 7.54.01 AM

It seems I’m not the only one who’s noticed the phrase’s open-ended nature.

Japan is the first Asian country I’ve visited in the last five months that doesn’t seem to have hopped onto the same same, but different bandwagon. Kim and I have been poking around the main island of Honshu for the last two weeks, and we haven’t encountered the expression once.

But you know what’s funny?” Kim says, a piece of Yellowtail sashimi poised between her chopsticks. “That’s how I’d describe Japan, at least in comparison to New York or other western cities.


Literally: same same, but different.

Exhibit A: Crossing the Street

Our world’s biggest cities are often trademarked by their major crossroads — Trafalgar Square, the Champs-Élysées, Times Square. Other than bright lights, towering skyscrapers, extortionate shopping and a disagreeable number of tourists per square foot, these hectic intersections are also famous for being just that: hectic. If you’re trying to get anywhere during rush hour, you avoid crossroads such as these like the plague. The horns are blaring, the cars are gridlock, and you never know when a hurried pedestrian will dart in front of you.

I’m one of those projectile pedestrians, one of those Nervous Nelly’s that has yet to master the art of waiting on the curb for the “Walk” sign. But New York, where stoplights and crosswalks are more decorative than functional, has taught me to cross the street whenever I can, however I can.

Given the number of 42nd Street-style intersections that speckle Tokyo and Japan in general, you’d think that jaywalking would be as rampant here as anywhere else, maybe even more rampant.

And you’d be wrong, just as I was.

In Japan, crossing the street is an urban ballet, an elegant tango between streetwalkers and the right of way. The moment the “Walk” sign flashes, pedestrians flood the intersection like horses unleashed out of the starting gate — all at the same time, at a similar pace, eyes on the prize. They walk only in the designated crosswalk (literally, on the lines), and if they don’t have time to get across, they wait until the next light. No pushing, no shoving, no diagonal trajectory to shave off that extra 2.5 seconds of walking. It’s a live-action homage to infrastructure; the countdown on the traffic light is gospel, the white paint on the asphalt a commandment.

We have heavy-duty intersections in New York, too; pedestrians pound our pavement with places to go and people to see in much the same same way. But it’s different — because our intersections would never be mistaken for a Cirque du Soleil routine.

Exhibit B: The Subway

London has the Tube, Paris has the Metro, New York has the Subway, and Japan has what CNN once called, “its supreme train network.”

Sounds a little on the classier side, doesn’t it?

That’s because it is. The Japanese subway is a masterpiece of efficiency. Kim and I had to channel Nancy Drew for a little while until we figured out the system —all the signs are in Japanese — but eventually, we got the hang of it.

Here’s how it’s like New York: we have a subway, too!

Here’s how it differs from New York: first of all, the cost of your ride depends on where you are going. It’s not a “one fare fits all” kind of system.

Above the ticket machines in every station hangs a giant map of the underground network, where each stop is listed with a specific price based on how far away it is from your point of origin. Find your destination on the map, and purchase a ticket for the appropriate price; insert the ticket into the electronic turnstile, and you’re in.

The ticket pops back out at you — make sure to collect it! You have to feed it back into the turnstile before you exit at your final station, so that the operating system can ensure you paid the right fare.

So, what if you decide to get off somewhere else, or you’re a 20-something American tourist who reads the spiderweb of a map wrong? Hakunamatata. They’ve got you covered. Each station is also equipped with a Fare Adjustment machine, so you can easily correct any mistake without having to stand in line to talk to the Station Master. The machine reads your ticket and instantly tells you how much more you owe; you pay it, and you’re outta there.

It’s well organized. The trains run on schedule and without sudden and allegedly “momentary” holds. The stations and cars themselves are also immaculate; the floors practically sparkle. I didn’t see a single rat — not even a vermin-shaped piece of garbage.

This codified cleanliness is probably due in large part to the fact that it doesn’t appear to be kosher to eat or drink in transit. There’s a very particular subway etiquette: don’t talk to each other, don’t consume anything orally, and don’t just stand on the platform like free-floating plankton, cue up to board the train, damn it.

That’s right. They stand in a line as they wait for the train. Boarding is orderly and methodical, even at rush hour.

Our Big Apple jaws were on the floor.


Exhibit C: The Movies

I don’t often go to movies in foreign countries, but when I do it’s because Star Wars Episode 7 came out.

Kim and I buy our tickets on a touchscreen machine that looks just like any one you’d find in the States. We’re handed a pair of 3D-glasses as we walk through the door to take our assigned seats. The movie is in English; even the popcorn tastes the same. For 2 hours and 16 minutes, we’re suspended in a liminal space; it’s almost as if we’re back in New York (except for the Japanese subtitles).

The movie finishes. Naturally, we start to gather our belongings so that we can make a swift exit – who sits through a whole credit roll anymore, especially one for a big blockbuster? The Star Wars crew outnumbers the populations of many small towns.

But as Kim and I start to put on our jackets, we notice that no one around us is moving. Everyone is still glued to the screen as intently as they have been for the last 2 hours and 16 minutes.

We wait, and we wait. Three minutes into the credits, and still not a creature is stirring.

Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you all have a friend that was 2nd assistant to the 4th make-up artist, or something,” Kim whispers to me.

Finally, the credits roll to a close. The production logos pop up, the copyright, et cetera. The screen goes black.

And still, not one soul budges.

A few heartbeats later, the lights come on. Immediately everyone stands up, like a choir in response to its conductor. They collect their jackets, purses and trash, and quietly exit the theatre.

Kim and I stare at each other in disbelief. A chuckle gets the better of us as we’re again amazed by the propriety and decorum that reigns supreme in the Japanese public space. Here we were, thinking we’d found an experience that was virtually same same, and in the bottom of the 9th, different bats a home run.


The subway that makes the concrete jungle navigable for entrepreneurs and families alike, the neon lights that ignite the bustling intersections, the movie theatres that show the most highly anticipated films — all of these factors make a city like Tokyo feel closer to home. The Japanese urban landscapes remind me and Kim of New York more than anywhere else we’ve been.

But we didn’t trot across the globe in search of another New York, and — thank goodness — we didn’t find one. Little by little, Japan’s singularities are starting to seep through the cracks of the astoundingly clean sidewalks, revealing to us a culture that, although remarkably parallel to our own is — well… different.






2 thoughts on “same same, but different 

  1. birthevdm says:

    I had to laugh at your first few sentences about “same same but different”. You’re so right! After spending over 4 months in Southeast Asia i actually caught myself using this expression!
    Japan is on our bucket list, looking forward to seeing their discipline for myself. Loved this post!


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