Urban Jungle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 May, 2008, 12:00am

This week: Respect for others

Today I am writing from Nikko, Japan. It is a two-hour train ride 80km north of Tokyo. The bitingly cold and wet weather only enhances the ambience of the place. It is known as the natural refrigerator of Japan and is a favourite summer resort to escape the hustle and heat of the urban jungle. This is a mountainous region covered with lush alpine forest, pristine rivers and lakes. It is a sacred place to the Japanese and is the site of numerous shrines and temples devoted to an eclectic mix of Shintoism and Buddhism and a memorial to their most glorious and honoured shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who unified Japan in the 1600s. In 1999, Unesco bestowed World Heritage status on the area and its shrines and temples.

The area was apparently settled by a priest named Shoto in AD735 through divine intervention. Many gods of the Shinto religion are closely associated with mountains, and the mountains of the Nikko region represent several important gods in the Shinto pantheon. Tokugawa Ieyasu was enshrined here north of Edo (the old name for Tokyo) because he wanted to continue to protect Edo after his death and because the north is the direction where demons dwell in Japanese mythology.

It is the last few days of my holiday and I want to reflect on what else we can learn from the Japanese. During my stay in Tokyo, I saw dogs of all shapes and sizes. Not surprisingly, the breeds popular in Japan are the same as the favourites in Hong Kong. There are lots of poodles, huskies, cocker spaniels and quite a few dogs that originated from Japan, such as shiba inu and akitas. What was pleasantly surprising was that dogs were allowed everywhere. They were in public parks, shopping malls and even some restaurants. This reflects not only the freedom of pet ownership but also the high level of tolerance shown by people who don't have or even like dogs.

The society has an underlying unspoken code of conduct, and it would seem obscene for a citizen to step beyond the invisible boundary of decent conduct and common sense. For example, no parked bicycles are locked, as it appears bike thieves are uncommon. In Tseung Kwan O, where bike riding is more common, not only are all the bikes chained up, lots of them are rusted with flat tyres and obviously abandoned. This is simply irresponsible, and even though Hong Kong is a generally safe place crime-wise, it is obvious that petty theft is common.

I witnessed someone walking a dog on the streets of Tokyo. Not only did he pick up after the dog, but he used gloves to put the droppings into a plastic bag before he deposited it into a bin. He then cleaned up the dirty smudge on the concrete with a wet towel. With such public displays of consideration for others, it is no wonder pet dogs are so much more tolerated there than in Hong Kong.

It is concern about others' well-being that is going to change the attitude of people to dogs in Hong Kong. It is no good just whining to the local authorities about the lack of public spaces for dogs. We should be reaching out to inconsiderate pet owners and teaching them respect for others. It is these few who wreck it for the rest of us and give pet owners a bad reputation. So the next time you see someone not picking up after his dog, scream at him.

Sitting in a park for a quick picnic, I observed a group of primary-school students on a field trip; I suspect it had something to do with identifying plants in the park. There were two families nearby that owned four dogs of various sizes. The dogs seemed friendly and after a while the teachers came over to the dog owners and had a short conversation. Then they went back to the students and brought them over to the dogs, where they began to talk about the animals. I didn't understand anything they said, but I was curious about the reaction of the students as the dogs meandered through the pack of children smelling their backpacks for food. None of them reacted with any fear, a few were cautious until the owner said something (I assume he said it was OK to pat the dog), others were obviously excited by this impromptu opportunity to play with new furry friends.

This would not be the typical reaction in Hong Kong. In Happy Valley I often pass several schools during my dog walks and most children are scared of them, despite my usual urging that my dogs won't bite and are friendly. Sometimes I go past as parents pick up their children, and some of them hug their children protectively as I walk past with my dopey-looking shih-tzu. It makes me want to shout.

Young people are impressionable, and teaching them to respect life and others is what is going to pave the way to a better future for our pets as well as society as a whole. We can start by introducing our children to the nature that we have in Hong Kong and acting as good role models for them by our actions.