Japan – My thoughts
October 5, 2019

So here are my summary thoughts (in no particular order) about Japan:

They are very organised. Everything runs exactly on time. There are specific places to leave and board trains. The train stops at exactly the correct spot each time.

They are very polite and respectful. They form orderly queues for everything. I think they beat the British for their queuing ability. I am pretty sure we broke rules or laws but no one would ever say anything to you. They probably just thought ‘idiot foreigner’. Bowing is a thing you do regularly. When a train conductor leaves from one carriage to another, he/she turns and bows to the entire carriage. You walk past a cleaning lady in the hotel and she bows to you.

They are incredibly helpful. Even if they can’t speak English they go out of their way to try and help you and communicate to you. They clearly want you to be happy.

They are very neat and tidy. There is no litter around at all. Even though it is pretty hard to find a public bin (some days we carried our empty bottles around with us for hours before we found a bin), there is no public littering. They have trash days when they put out their trash and then even they cover it with netting so nothing blows away inadvertently.

While they might not be litterers, they must be the biggest consumers of plastic in the world. Given how careful everyone else is in the world about plastic, the Japanese seem to love plastic and they don’t seem to recycle most of it either. Everything comes wrapped in plastic and often two layers of plastic. We bought cheese for lunch the other day and the cheese was wrapped in three separate layers of plastic and the biscuits had a plastic outer cover as well as plastic inner cover. They burn their trash using an incinerator so not sure what they do with the melted plastic in the end.

Japanese are rule followers. They always stand a red pedestrian crossing even if there is not a car in sight. We sometimes crossed and then only would they follow. We might have created some lawbreakers!

Their rail system is fantastic. You can basically travel anywhere in the country on the train. If you have read the blog consistently you would know that we often took 6-8 trains a day at some points. In the entire time we were in Japan (just over 2 weeks) only 1 train ran late and then it was only 1 minute late and they made a public apology for it. If you visit Japan, get a Japan Rail Pass before you come. It is definitely worth the money.

For all their technology, they are really backwards in the use of technology especially for things like train travel. You have to have a physical ticket – see our Japan Rail Pass below which you have to show every time we entered and exited. Compare that to London where you can tap & go to get onto a tube or train, it really is surprisingly backwards. In addition, the more outside of the main cities you travel, the less widely credit cards are accepted. You must have cash in those places.

The Japanese love vending machines. There are ones all over the place. Yes I really do mean all over the place. You are never more than 100m from a vending machine. But they don’t take credit card (see point above). You can generally get about 20 different types of drinks from a vending machine and there usually are two next to each so generally 40 different drinks available.

Japanese seem to like their coffee cold and not hot. Even at Starbucks you get asked ‘hot or cold’ every time you order anything. The majority of people are having iced lattes or something similar. The vending machines also always have some form of iced coffee drink. Besides Starbucks, forget about getting a decent coffee though. They are actually the 5th highest coffee consuming country in the world but they prefer to use the “siphon and pour over” techniques for making coffee (drip coffee). Apparently they drink more coffee than tea now but as I said, I reckon most of that is some form of iced coffee.

Japanese love muzak. In the elevators, in the malls, in the hallways of the hotel, outside shops, inside shops, as you’re walking down a random street …muzak playing. Generally it is some classical piano (think Richard Clayderman for those who know him) or some 60s/70s/80s/90s US song. They love Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley etc. Nothing recent or modern out of the US – must be 20 years or more ago it seems.

Japanese love kitsch. You could clearly see it at Universal City. Branded merchandise does extremely well here. Hello Kitty is massive. You see it everywhere. Apparently there are over 15000 Hello Kitty branded merchandise. Disney characters are also very popular. The queues at the World Cup merchandising stands were ridiculously long. You clearly must have merchandise for every event you attend. At breakfast they had the restaurant decked out in a Halloween theme. Christmas adverts already up.

You don’t see overweight people in Japan. They only have 4% of the population classified as obese. They must be the sumo wrestlers only because I never saw any of them. It is probably because they (a) walk a lot (b) cycle a lot (see next point) (c) eat a lot of fish.

Other things you don’t see a lot in Japan are petrol (gas) stations and banks. Besides one bank that I saw in each of Tokyo and Kyoto, I don’t recall seeing a bank. ATMs are prolific but not banks. I also wondered where everyone fills up their cars because you hardly see petrol stations and when we did there were not a lot of people filling up either.

Cycling is clearly the first method of transport anyone considers. They have paid bicycle parking. Cyclists don’t use the road, they use the pedestrian walkways. Even though the roads have markings on them for cyclists, no one seems to ride on the road. Helmets are entirely unnecessary. Never saw anyone wearing a helmet in 2 weeks. Mothers cycle with their children in seats behind them (sometimes even two seats for the children). You would think that Japan would as a result have lots of international cyclists but B reckons its because their legs are too short and their riding style wrong.

M’s pet peeve about the Japanese is they wander around and don’t walk in straight lines. People don’t really seem to be in a hurry ever. They are on their phones incessantly and maybe that is one of the reasons they wander seemingly aimlessly when walking on the sidewalks. It drives M insane. Their phone usage is a thing to behold though. At the restaurant 2 nights ago the man at the table next to us was on his phone the entire time except when he was eating – no conversation with his wife at all.

Japanese must eat out a lot. They have very basic facilities in their homes (from what we can see from the AirBnBs we stayed at) but there are thousands of restaurants around. It seems (from my quick google search) that what is quite common is that people buy pre-cooked food at a market, supermarket or restaurant and take that home to eat. Eating out though is expensive. Fast food will start at around R150 ($10) per person. Expensive restaurants will be very expensive – R3000 ($200) per person could easily be the cost for a good restaurant. The quality of the food is generally very good though. Their sushi is really in a different league to what I have eaten elsewhere but expect to eat sashimi, nigri and maki as the main items. The stuff we get at home isn’t ‘real’ sushi.

Every restaurant has chairs outside. Even if the place is empty they make you sit there first before they give you a table. Not sure if it’s because they just love queues (see point 2) or if it’s because they want everyone to think they’re busy or what. You should expect though to always be made to wait before you get a table.

Japanese toilets are a thing to behold. M has come to love the use of the ‘shower’ facility in the toilet. Don’t know how he is going to cope when he goes back home. Some of the toilets have a place to wash your hand on top of them. Very clever because when you flush the water runs into a bowl at the top and you can wash your hands. That water then flows into the cistern to be used for the next flush. That is a clever form of recycling and I wonder why we don’t have these back home. It really is sensible. The controls next to the toilet seats are amazing though. Still haven’t figured out what they are all for. Every Japanese toilet comes with a heated seat though. You can generally adjust the temperature as well. Now that is what I call unnecessary.

Japanese people don’t seem to feel the heat or sweat much. It was pretty hot and humid the whole time we were in Japan. Yet we would often see people wearing jerseys. Hardly anyone wear shorts. We were sometimes pouring with sweat and they were walking around like they were in Iceland in the winter!

Japanese woman dress extremely well. I don’t think I saw a poorly dressed Japanese woman – regardless of their age. Hair, makeup always done well. It is clear they take pride in their appearance. It was very noticeable and striking. I left this one for near the end of the blog for O’s sake (soon to become M’s wife) but I must admit it was one of the first things I noticed (M was well-behaved though O).

It also seems like there are a lot more Japanese woman than men. The ratio of women:men is 1.05 but it feels much bigger than that. It seems the women are often out and about. In restaurants you will often see tables of women meeting for lunch or dinner but never men. Apparently Japanese young adults are dating less and less. The men are socially awkward and some withdraw entirely from society. They are called hikikomori and they estimate that 600 000 young men (aged 18-30) now fall into that category. Young women are interested in pursuing careers and so dating has now fallen to an all time low. It is a further problem for the Japanese birth rate which is already pretty low at 1.45. Despite knowing all of this, we saw a lot of young families and young children in the main cities especially in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. It seems the older people live outside of the main cities.

Japan is very quiet. Eerily so at times. You wonder where the 140 million people are actually because unless it is rush hour, you don’t really see them on the streets. We saw the most people at the stations and on the trains. During the day they must be in their homes or at their offices and they don’t venture out a lot. But even when they are out, they are quite. They don’t talk loudly and their children are generally very well-behaved. Their cars aren’t noisy (many of them are hybrids) and I think we only heard someone use their hooter once. Once or twice someone on a bike would ring their bell at us but otherwise it is very quiet.

I know that is long but I hope it is worth the read! I certainly have enjoyed my time here and I know B & M did as well. It really was a great experience. If you have the means, I would say give Japan a visit!

P, M & B

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