I’ve been posting monthly about my learning Japanese project since the beginning of the year. The immediate reason for starting to learn the language was my first ever visit to the “Land of the Rising Sun”. Today, I flew out to Singapore after a week Fukuoka in the south, a day and a half travelling up through Hiroshima and Kyoto and a final five days Tokyo. I thought it would be fun to stray from the blog’s usual focus on language learning to share my first impressions of Japan. It’s a personal, light-hearted selection (no attempt at objectivity here).
In Japan, they drive on the right side of the road (that’s “right” as opposed to “wrong” 😉 ) and it was reassuring for me as a Brit to be able to climb into a right-hand drive taxi. It was great too to see that most of the taxis are angular Toyotas. I’m a 1980s throw-back too, after all, and they remind me of my car-mad teenage years.
Cab-wise not everything was familiar, though. The taxi drivers often wear uniforms, including white gloves. For some reason, it is derigueur for cab seats to be covered in a lace-style cotton covers.
Multi-storey, but not as I know it
As you’ll discover the minute you try to book a hotel room or AirBnB, space is at a premium in Japan. This seems to extend to parking.
Here’s what appears to be a multi-story garage in Fukuoka.
What, though, is this?
Beware of the bikes
At the bottom end of the transport food chain, Japan’s culture reminds me of Germany’s. Pedestrians like to stand at the “red man”, even if there is no traffic in sight.
Both Japan and Germany set store by convention and safety on the roads, except when it comes to cycling.
It kind of added to the frisson of my trip to know that I could be dispatched to the next life at any moment by a cyclist moving at top speed on the pavement, without lights.
Oh, and, talking of the risk of death, like Germany, the Japanese have a blank spot when it comes to the dangers of power points in the bathroom.
How come Germans and Japanese aren’t regularly electrocuted as they dry their hair while standing in a half-filled bath tub?
To that, another electifying question: how come I wasn’t singed at the nether extremeties during three weeks of plugging in unearthed, two-pin electric plugs and pulling them out again?
Great to be back in Singapore with it’s solid “British style” three pin plugs. Who could ever doubt the legacy of the British Empire’s civilising mission? 😉
Top notch public transport
After the usual panic the first time you have to work out a new system, the underground train networks in Fukuoka, Kyoto and Tokyo turned out to be very easy to use.
The ticket machines offered a choice of English and several Asian languages. The stations on each line are all numbered and colour-coded as well, which helped.
The machines take most coins and notes and give change.
The trains were frequent and (even in Tokyo) not as crowded as London’s.
One potential source of confusion in Tokyo was the difference between the underground, the JR national rail services and other, local private rail networks.
When you arrive by bullet train, you’re still on the rail station and need to go through the gate and enter the metro.
It’s always that way at home, too, but, with such labyrinthine transport hubs, thronging with people at all hours, I got confused several times.
For me, entering and leaving the JR station part of each complex (once I’d found it) was a matter of flashing the one-week Japan Rail Pass that I’d bought in the UK in advance of the trip.
Once this was “activated” it entitled me to unlimited use of most bullet trains, the JR lines in Tokyo (including the most useful Yamanote “circle” line that runs around the centre of town) and the monorail out to the airport at the end of my stay.
Taking the bullet
I took three of Japan’s famous high-speed trains: Fukuoka to Hiroshima, Hiroshima to Kyoto and Kyoto to Tokyo.
Even if you have a Japan Rail Pass, it’s recommended that you reserve a seat in advance for the “shinkanshen” as the bullet trains are known (it means, rather prosaically “trunk line”).
I went to activate my pass and make the reservations at Hakata Station (Fukuoka) three days before I was due to travel. It was already too late to get a guaranteed seat in for the first of my three trips. So, for that one, I had to slum it in a second class “unreserved” carriage, even though I had a “green” (first class) Japan Rail Pass.
The first two legs by bullet were overrun with rugby fans. I got a seat in the unreserved carraige at Fukuoka, but people who got on at the next stop had to stand to Hiroshima. The two England fans standing next to my seat never stopped talking (rugby-) “footbollocks” for the whole two hours.
The best leg was Kyoto to Fukuoka. There were no rugby fans and it very quiet. One of my favourite things is an outbound inter-city rail journey after dark in almost deserted carriage.
I was surprised that none of the trains I travelled on had power points, earthed or not. That’s a serious matter if you want to do some sneaky vlog editing en route and your laptop is threating to give up the ghost.
There wasn’t a buffet car in any of the trains either, only a refreshments trolly (so quick espressos for me en route).
Hi-tech toilets….low tech paper.
I’d heard about Japan’s toilet tech before I arrived but I was still pretty amazed when I first clapped eyes on these examples of “extreme civilisation”.
First, they come with a control panel, though you don’t have to press anything before you sit down.
When you do sit, it’s warm.
There are various types of bidet-style spray systems which usually seem to involve a probe emerging in a slightly disconcerting way from under the rim at the back. You can often set the strength of the spray, and “full power” may explain why there were showers of water drops around some loos I visited.
While Japanese toilets may be top notch, the toilet paper is, erm, shite.
I only ever found one-ply. In the UK a robust two-ply paper is normal. In German, natürlich, you can buy three- and even (if my memory is not playing tricks on me) four-ply tissue.
Plastic is king
Like many people in recent years, I have been very concerned about the amount of plastic waste we’re generating and how so much of it ends up in the sea, wrapped round turtles’ necks or inside fish.
Japan is into plastic in an even bigger way than western Europe. The stuff is thrust at you on all occasions and from all directions.
At a convenience store you buy some buns in an outer plastic wrapper. They put the goods in a plastic bag and slip in a little hand towel wrapped in plastic for you to wipe your fingers.
You get the thing home and open it. The three buns are in a plastic tray and then also each wrapped in plastic.
At least the plastic wrapping the manufactured snacks that I bought was easier to get into than the tough stuff covering my banana.
After two weeks in Japan, I’ve given up all hopes of any conservation breakthroughs. We will, indeed, die in a sea of plastic and take most forms of marine life with us.
There’s nothing to be done about it. So we might as well wrap, unwrap, disgard casually and be merry.
I do luuuuuuurve plastic in any case. It’s so amazingly useful.
Eating on the hoof?
One a more serious note, I have heard that Japan has a very developed domestic recycling system and I was struck by the scarcity of public rubblish bins.
Maybe this is partly because there are so many places to eat quite well, quickly and cheaply. At the kiosks and convenience store, there often a narrow counter (or glorified shelf) where you are supposed to stand and eat what you’ve bought. There’ll usually be a bin there too.
Otherwise, I presume people take things home to eat or drink and dispose of the packaging there. The Japanese don’t seem to snack on the move as we do in Britain.
In the food market in Kyoto there were even signs saying “Don’t walk and eat”.
On my last night in Tokyo, I bought a small plastic-wrapped rice thingy and a can of beer in the up-market Ginza district and after wondering for twenty minutes trying to find a park bench, I had to sneak down a side to for some surrupticious snacking.
The only way I could get rid of the evidence afterwards was to stuff it into the bin for the paper towels in a gents’ loo.
Public toilets are ubiquitous and clean in Japan, by the way.
Yes, the convenience stores had a range of useful snacks that kept me going when I was out seeing the sights.
I particularly liked the triangular rice numbers, though I never worked out how to unwrap them properly.
The multi-layered packing, in lovely transparent plastic, has three places to pull to remove additional folds of plastic in stages from between the seaweed and the rice. I’ll have to check for instructions on YouTube. Somebody’s sure to have shot something about it.
The convenience stores were weak, to say the least, in the fruit and veg departments. After two weeks in Japan I’m now gagging for a salad. Yet given Japan’s record-breaking life-expectancy, is all this “eat your greens” stuff actually overdone in the west?
You know from news footage that Japanese people like to wear masks to ward of the germs.
I read somewhere that it’s better to sniff away than to sneeze (into a handkerchief). Tosh. I witnessed a lot of public sneezing. All the more reason to wear a mask, I suppose. Have you ever tried that in glasses, though? They’ll soon steam up. I suppose in Japan you can buy spectacles that heat up to beat the condensation (just like the mirror in my Tokyo hotel room).
I do wonder why convenience stores stock not only a wide range of masks but also a selection of his and hers underware. Is this because your typical salaryman or woman works such long hours that there’s no time to do the laundry?
Talking of corporate types, I often returned to my hotel about ten or eleven at night and there were always groups of (mainly men) in business attire on the streats heading for the stations. I presume they had spent the evening in enforced corporate socialising together.
There were also a lot of teens in school uniform on the weekend which leads me to wonder: do they have weekends in Japan?
My third day in Tokyo was a wash-out. I got soaked making my way over to the National Museum, my little telescopic umbrella not up to the job.
The standard issue Japanese umbrella is a sturdier, see-through affair (plastic, of course).
When you get to the threshold of a shop or public building, you are offered a one-use plastic bag into which to slide your brolly.
One other fun thing I saw in one office block was something I’ve never seen before and don’t know the name of in any language. Let’s call it an “umbrella shaking screen”. 1) Enter building. 2) Fold down your umbrella without fastening shut. 3) Slide between walls of screen. 4) Shake vigorously.
I wasn’t previously a great fan of Japan’s famous cuisine. I’d never choose to go for sushi or noodles back home. I had some fabulous food out here, though. One one of the first nights in Fukuoka I had this tofu which tasted divine.
It sometimes feels a little awkward when you enter a restaurant and request a table for one. I know this because I do most of my travelling and exploring on my own.
No loner embarrassment problem in Japan. The society seems set up for solos. Most places seem to have a “bar” style counter where you can sit in splendid isolation facing the wall, lost in your thoughts, your phone and your meal. Just how I like it 😉
Don’t bother learning “menu Japanese”.
I don’t read much Japanese yet but I found that in the three large cities that I visited places very often either had a menu in English or there was in iPad on which you could order (with a language choice). Failing that, the plastic-laminated menus almost always have pictures of the dishes and to-scale models of the food are on display in the window. These are made of…..plastic.
In Tokyo, I found a shop specialising in model food. The stuff is, it turns out, is much more expensive than the real thing.
At a lot of popular fast food joints you choose and pay at a machine at the entrance. You then go to the counter with your ticket and wait for your order to be delivered.
I had some great, quick meals this way. It wasn’t expensive, either. Maybe Y400 for a dish and the same (or less) for a beer (under £3/USD4).
While the emphasis on convention, order and quality gives Japan a “German” feel. Yet is Japan really the “eastern Finland”?
Finns and Japanese share a reserved nature, not inclined to tell you what you should be doing or – even more alarmingly – what they are actually thinking, as the Germans are so disconcertingly inclided to do 😉
More than one I thought I heard people speaking Finnish but it was, of course, Japanese. I think it’s because of the “long” consonants vowels that are features of both languages.
Then there’s the huge emphasis on simple, modern design that you find in the architecture, furniture and packaging. This time I mean paper packaging. Like the Finns, the Japs are very big on paper.
Yep, it’s Finland. Finland on speed.
Shop, till you drop
As a London resident I had no problem with Tokyo’s crowds and endless bustle. It was similar to what I’m used to in London but made less stressful by Japanese quietness, manners and superior publilc transport. This desipte the scale in Tokyo being even greater than in London. The pinnacle was the the amazing Shibuya “scamble junction” I visited on my last night in Tokyo.
For the whole trip, I was surrounded by hyper-consumerism aimed at all pockets.
This isn’t just a Japanese thing, of course, but it did seem to be particularly intense here.
There’s another side, I know; a powerful counter narrative of simplicity, minimalism and conservation.
Like in the UK, there are also people sleeping rough in Japan, although I didn’t notice them begging on the streets.
Back to shopping: I generally buy very little beyond food and books. I was quite restrained this time and limited myself to a number of books for learners fo Japanese.
These were beautifully wrapped for my by the store assistants. Pity I didn’t realise till it was too late that you can claim a 10% sales tax back (you have to do it in store, you can’t at the airport).
Have you been to Japan? What first impressions struck you? Were they similar to mine or quite different? I’d love to hear in the comments below.
More on my trip to Japan here on the site before long and some thoughts on how I coped with the language.