After spending two and a half weeks wandering around Japan, I am, naturally,
an acknowledged expert on all things Japanese. Not. All the same, working the
"fresh pair of eyes" principle to its bones, I’ve decided to list
here some of the things which struck me about the country. Anybody who actually
knows what they’re talking about is more than welcome to correct me in the comments.
So, in no particular order:
Japanese men could be the best-dressed men in the world. Remember
when you found out that Paul Smith had, like, 400 stores in Japan and couldn’t
send enough of his clothes there? And when you thought that was just one of
those weird things like David Hasselhoff being big in Germany? Wrong. It’s because
Japanese men are incredibly well dressed. Hop on the Tokyo underground, and
most of the men will be wearing suits, and nearly all those will be super-nattily
dressed, with impeccably tailored shirts, ties, and suits. From afar, it’s easy
to stereotype the gaggle of Japanese businessmen in their identical dark suits;
look a bit closer, and you’ll find they’re not nearly as dull as you might think.
In fact, more broadly, average is much better in Japan than it is anywhere
else. Yes, Japan is an expensive country, especially if you’re spending
dollars: a t-shirt at Aizu Wakamatsu castle, for instance, can cost ¥7,200.
But, most of the time, you still get value for your money. The cheapest lunch
in town might be a ¥750 bowl of noodles, but what noodles they’ll be! And
although the fruit is insanely expensive, it’s also insanely delicious. Also,
lunch dishes are enormous, surprisingly enough. I was expecting tiny portions
of everything in Japan, but the ramen and the sake, for starters, come in huge
portions: three sake cups, and you’re definitely drunk. (Coffee is an exception:
if you want much of it, you have to go to Starbucks.) Nevertheless, there doesn’t
seem to be any concept of "bargain basement" or "cheap and nasty"
in Japan: if they’re going to do something, they’re going to do it right, and
For instance, not only does everybody have a mobile phone, but everybody
has a cameraphone. And uses it. I’ve already blogged
the sight of thousands of people celebrating the cherry blossoms in Ueno Park
by taking photos of them with their cameraphones, but it wasn’t just in Tokyo.
Everywhere you go in the country, people are taking photos of each other with
their phones, or else simply capturing the tourist sights. Conventional cameras
are barely to be seen any more.
I rented a mobile phone
for while I was in Japan, and the experience was wonderfully smooth and easy:
I got the number in advance, it was waiting for me in Tokyo, it worked everywhere
(even on the Tokyo subway) – such a contrast from the nightmares I always
have when I try to use my pay-as-you-go phone in England.
Even though mobile phones are ubiquitous, however, you never hear them
ring. Phones are clearly made for messaging other people first and
foremost: the vast majority of phone use is people staring down at their handsets,
either reading or tapping out a message. It’s much less common to see someone
walking down the street talking on their phone. In fact, I’ve heard
(and have no idea whether or not it’s true) that in some circles it’s considered
rude to call someone out of the blue: the done thing is to message them first,
asking if now might be a convenient time to ring them.
That said, the Japanese will message the whole time. In fact, personal computers
are much less common in Japan than they are in the west precisely because they’re
not needed for the killer app of email. I swear I saw one guy riding his bicycle,
messaging a friend with one hand, and holding an umbrella over his head with
the other. How he was steering I’m still not entirely sure.
It’s worth noting here that in Japan, bicycles are a bit like mobile
phones: familiar objects used in a unique manner. For one thing, they’re
ridden on the sidewalk, rather than the road. Which is great for cars, who don’t
need to worry about running over cyclists, but not so great for pedestrians.
Personally, if I moved to Japan and bought a bicycle, I’d go doolally crawling
down the sidewalk at about a third of my natural speed, dodging peds. But the
Japanese seem to consider a bike to be something which naturally goes at maybe
half or a third of the speed of the average bike in New York.
The vast majority of bikes, too, are crappy old things, which are so inherently
undesirable that they’re either left out on the street completely unlocked,
or else are secured with only the flimsiest of locks which wouldn’t deter any
self-respecting bicycle thief for a second. Seeing dozens of bikes lined up
outside a subway station with nary a lock between them is to feel automatic
nostalgia for the white bicycles experiment in Amsterdam in the 60s.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Japanese seem uniquely willing
to pay insane prices for certain items. The difference in handbag costs
between Tokyo and Paris or Milan is well known, and probably explains why Prada’s
epicenter was built in the fashionable Aoyama district. But there are fashionistas
all over the world who will shell out large sums for Prada gear. What I’m talking
about are the ¥11,000 musk melons in the food courts of all the big Tokyo
department stores, which look to the naked eye for all the world like your common-or-garden
cantaloupe. Or the ¥400,000 per person that salarymen spend on geisha-hosted
evenings in Kyoto. Or the ¥1 million bowl that I saw for sale in a ceramics
shop in Kanazawa: very simple, maybe four inches high, brand new, with a nice
white glaze. The sort of thing where if you saw it at a flea market you’d pay
a couple of bucks for it, and if you were told it was made by a famous Japanese
ceramicist you might think it was worth a couple of hundred.
The really crazy thing is that most of this stuff, even at the very high end,
is paid for in cash. The Japanese are famous for the amount of cash that they
carry on them, as well as for their honesty: stories are legion of wallets containing
seven-figure sums (in yen, but still) being left on the train and returned,
with all cash intact, to their owners at the lost and found. More generally,
Japan is surely the safest place I’ve ever been. I didn’t think
twice about leaving my bags – even containing passports and stuff –
in unlocked rooms, especially after seeing all those unlocked bicycles on the
street in Tokyo. And when one of the people we met explained that she used to
live in Sao Paulo but wouldn’t go back there because it was too dangerous, I
understood completely. While I generally scoff at such an attitude in westerners,
there really is a huge gulf between safety and security in Japan and Brazil
– one which most Japanese people might well feel problems trying to bridge.
Talking of culture gaps, I made the compulsory Lost In Translation pilgramage
to the Park Hyatt Tokyo to have a Suntory
whisky, and it turns out that the 17-year-old Hibiki – the one Bill
Murray shills in the film – is surprsingly excellent. In fact, I’ll go
as far as to say that this particular Japanese whisky is the best blended
whisky I’ve ever tasted. Caveat: I’m not a great fan of blended whisky,
and haven’t tasted all that much of it. In any case, the 17-year-old is not
even anywhere near the top of the range: in fact, it’s at the bottom of the
Hibiki ladder, and I assume that the 30-year-old, at ¥80,000 a bottle, is
significantly better. (The 35-year-old, at ¥1 million a bottle, I assume
is some kind of collector’s item.) Of course, I’m pretty sure I’m never going
to find out: even the 17-year-old was ¥2,300 a glass at the Park Hyatt.
If you want to see a real waste of money, however, all you need to
do is go travelling around the country by shinkansen – the fabled bullet
train. For while most Japanese architecture is pretty samey, the train
stations, even in minor, off-the-beaten-track cities, are ridiculously over-the-top.
I’m sure it’s all part of the various economic stimulus programmes that successive
Japanese governments have embarked upon over the years, combined with pork-barrel
spending on important political constituencies. But the result is that Japan
has reinvented the art of turning the local train station into the proud heart
of any city – something I had thought a relic of the Victorian era. Kyoto
station is a minor city unto itself, and Niigata station is easily the grandest
thing for miles around. In Tokyo, not much can be done to the old train station,
a rather charming brick building opposite the Imperial Palace, but they have
built the absolutely stunning Tokyo
International Forum right next door.
But in a way it’s easy to see why this should be the case: the Japanese
are justly proud of their trains. The shinkansen, with its slogan "Ambitious
Japan", is something any country would love. Just look at the numbers:
the Acela Express does the 190 miles between Boston and New York in 205 minutes,
while the Eurostar does the 213 miles between Paris and London in 195 minutes.
The shinkansen does the 229 miles between Tokyo and Kyoto in 142 minutes. It’s
an incredibly smooth, silent (at least for those inside the train) and efficient
ride, on tracks dedicated to bullet trains and bullet trains only. On a lot
of the trains, passengers sit five across – something I haven’t seen on
any other trains – in seats which rotate in seconds to face the opposite
direction, meaning that there’s no laborious turning of trains around at termini,
and no one ever needs to face backwards while travelling.
And once you get off the shinkansen main line, the lower-level trains are just
as efficient, and some are even more comfortable. The basic seats in the "Sonic"
class trains in Kyushu, for instance, put the first-class accommodations anywhere
else to shame. What’s more, you don’t need to worry about missing your stop,
since the trains literally run like clockwork: I actually set my watch by our
arrival at a station once. Just get off the train at whatever time it’s due
to arrive at your destination, and you’ll be in the right place. It’s not just
the trains, either: there was no trouble catching the 12:45 train from Aso after
taking a bus to the station which was scheduled to arrive at 12:40. Everything
in Japan, it seems, runs like clockwork.
Japan’s trains are so well run, in fact, that there are even private
train lines all over the country which, I assume, make a decent profit
for their owners. It’s a bit of a pain if you’re travelling on a Japan Rail
pass, but it’s still very impressive: I assumed that any system as large as
Japan’s trains must lose an absolute fortune every year. If private owners can
compete, however, then maybe not.
The rail system in Japan does wonders for national productivity, and they’re
still building it out: the latest stretch of shinkansen track, in southern Kyushu,
has only just opened. Other sources of national pride, however, can only be
a drain on productivity. One of the most obvious is rice. Wherever you go
in Japan, no matter how valuable the land, you’re never very far from a rice
paddy. The rice is farmed at huge expense: even with 490%
tariffs on imported rice, US producers (not even, say, Indonesians) can
still sell their product at prices 20% cheaper than medium-grade Japanese rice
and half that of top-grade Japanese rice.
Rice is, of course, the true staple of Japanese cuisine, and the Japanese can
taste subtleties I’m sure most of us would never dream existed. But the amount
of effort which goes in to the crop is truly astounding, for negligible economic
One of the more interesting sources of Japanese pride is how expensive the
country is: as I understand it, a staple of Japanese television programmes is
people touring the rest of the world and marvelling at how cheap everything
is. The fact that things cost much more in Japan than they do elsewhere
does not seem to indicate inefficiency so much as national superiority.
By far the most unproductive source of Japanese national pride, however, is
not rice, but kanji. In fact, Japanese orthography in general is a complete
nightmare, where certain words can be "spelled" in any one
of half a dozen different ways, using three different scripts – four,
if you include romaji, the transliteration of Japanese words into our alphabet.
Japanese kids learn 500 different kanji characters per year, every year they’re
in school, and then, if they’re keen, go on to learn even more after they graduate.
As Jack Halpern says,
"because of the large number of orthographic variants and easily confused
homophones, the Japanese writing system is an order of magnitude more complex
than any other major language, including Chinese."
What this means in practice is vast amounts of effort within the Japanese educational
system being put towards learning something of steadily diminishing use. New
kanji, as I understand it, are not being coined, and most new words are simply
borrowed from the English or some other foreign language and written down in
a more-or-less unpredictable way in katakana, one of those three scripts. Yet
despite the fact that people use less and less kanji, as references to mobile
phones outnumber references to whatever it was that Chinese people cared about
a millennium or so ago, everybody in Japan still needs to go through the laborious
and mind-numbing process of learning an entire ideographic system.
In fact, once you start looking for them, anachronisms are everywhere
in Japan, and I’m not talking about the geishas in Kyoto, although
they do still exist. Street addresses, for example, don’t exist: rather than
naming streets, the Japanese name blocks and districts, and even people who
have lived in a city all their lives normally need to ask for directions a couple
of times at the nearest police box before they can find a new place. And there’s
the rather disconcerting (to put it mildly) way in which large numbers of Japanese
women – including some youngsters in their 20s – seem to engineer
their lower limbs so that they walk in an extremely artificial knock-kneed fashion.
They’re incapable of running, but it seems to be considered attractive.
Independent women seem to have a hard time of things in general in Japan: chauvinism
runs rampant everywhere you look. The sheer number of hostess bars
in any major city boggles the mind: far from being the seedy kind of places
they’d be in the west, they seem to be the natural place for a group of salarymen
to go after work. (But not their female colleagues, of course.) The average
man’s idea of an ideal woman is far more subservient than in the west, it would
seem, and I was told that if a Japanese woman is serious about having a career,
she must basically give up any hope of ever finding a husband – just because
very few Japanese men in Japan would ever consider marrying such a person. Some
Japanese men who lived abroad for some time might, but they’re, well, abroad.
Even in 21st century youth culture, the cute-schoolgirl look and its variants
seems to remain by far the most popular look among girls, while miniskirts are
shorter in Japan, on average, than I’ve seen anywhere else – and not in
a postmodern "empowering" way, either.
But at least there are looks for young people in Japan. Urban
tribes are alive and well in major Japanese cities, despite having pretty
much died out in the west. The Japanese are the true heirs of the mods and the
rockers, the punks and the hillbillies. The kids in western cities are depressingly
similar most of the time, dressing to all intents and purposes alike, and no
new fashion tribe has emerged in over two decades. In Japan, however, youthful
self-identification through sartorial extremism is alive and well.
Maybe it’s because society as a whole presents more to rebel against in Japan.
When the Sex Pistols released "God Save The Queen", it was a revolutionary
and shocking act. Nowadays, we live in a much more anything-goes culture, and
the world is basically being run by people who turned 18 somewhere between 1968
and 1977. They’re not going to be too shocked by seeing a man walk down the
street wearing lots of makeup. In Japan, on the other hand, society
as a whole remains extremely homogenous, and not-standing-out is a
very important part of being Japanese. One of the reasons I think that kanji
is going to stay around for a long time yet is precisely because it helps serve
the purpose of keeping the gaijin out of Japanese society – and one thing
that seems to be usual among foreigners who spend a lot of time in Japan is
a feeling that they’re never really going to be welcomed into society.
Travelling around the country, too, you see a lot of bus tours and other groups
of people – much more than you would in the west. I had thought that the
buses full of Japanese tourists in Paris and London were a function of the language
barrier, and the fact that these people were at the mercy of their tour guides
to get them around and get them food and accommodation. Not so: such tours are
equally common domestically. You also notice that there aren’t big houses on
the hills or other forms of architectural ostentation: with the exception of
those train stations, most buildings in Japan are extremely similar. And just
look at the reception
that the Japanese hostages in Iraq got when they returned home: worse, it would
seem, than being kidnapped in the first place. They stood out, and so they should
Certainly, in the cities, things are changing: they have to. But they’re changing
slowly, and in the countryside, it’s still not uncommon to find public baths
where women are barred from entering if they have any tattoos. Outside the tourist
centers, things are certainly not geared up for tourists: I banged my head more
times than I could possibly count, and in the countryside we gaijin got our
fair share of stares from the local children. The thing which I never understood,
however, was the deal with slippers. I’m fine with leaving
my shoes at the door – but after doing that, I was inevitably presented
with a minuscule pair of slippers to walk about in indoors. Maybe it’s a bit
like chopsticks and you pick it up after a while, but I simply couldn’t do it:
my feet were far too big, and the slippers were very uncomfortable. But if I
tried just walking around in my socks, I got very disapproving stares and got
pointed to a pair of slippers. Are socks just as rude as shoes? Or did these
people think that they were protecting my feet from the cold floor?
And if Japanese customs make little sense, they’re nothing compared to the
western customs – real and imaginary – which have been imported
into the country. Japanese coffee shops, for instance, primarily the ubiquitous
Mister Donut, have taken to heart the idea that they should serve only cream
and no milk for people who want some dairy in their morning coffee. It’s an
annoying custom in the west, and it’s even weirder to find it in Japan. Even
more bizarre is the fact that you have to make reservations to eat at
KFC on Christmas Day in Japan, on the grounds that it’s so popular.
Apparently the Japanese think that westerners all eat fried chicken on Christmas
Day, so that’s what they do – in droves – themselves.
And while we’re on the subject of food and drink, I think it’s worth mentioning
that in rural Japan, the tap water is absolutely delicious
– the best tap water I’ve ever tasted. I missed switching to Volvic once
my water bottle of Aizu Tadaka tap water ran out, and the city of Kanazawa has
parlayed the quality of its water into a stranglehold on the country’s gold
leaf market. Meanwhile, in Beppu, a small town with lots of hot springs in Kyushu,
they even have water taps on the train station platform so that you can have
a last taste before heading out. The guidebook calls Beppu the Las Vegas of
onsens (spas), but this is the only real similarity I saw – analagous
to the slot machines in the departure lounges at Las Vegas airport.
The flipside of the tapwater situation can be found in Tokyo, however, where
it’s undrinkably disgusting. Yet the bottled-water phenomenon hasn’t taken off
in Tokyo to nearly the same degree as it has in the US: it’s available, but
not in large quantities, and normally only in the form of French imports, weirdly
Actually, there is another similarity between Beppu and Vegas, although it’s
a similarity that Beppu shares with the rest of the country. The neon signs,
just about anywhere you go in Japan, are of astonishingly high quality. And
more generally, the whole country is permanently brand spanking new.
Things which might get replaced every five years in the west are replaced every
two years in Japan – not only neon signs, but cars, too. The second-hand
car market is almost nonexistent, and if your car has any kind of dents or scratches,
you’ll probably need to pay someone to take it off your hands. Japan leads the
world in gadgetry, I think, largely because the Japanese will happily upgrade
to the latest and greatest model at the drop of a feather – and pay through
the nose for the privilege. Go to Akihabara in Tokyo, and the sheer quantity
of electronics available – from cellphone attachments to monoblock tube
amplifiers – is staggering.
And in general, the Japanese seem to have a very strong propensity
towards spending money – which is a subtly different thing from
the fact that there are lots of expensive things in the country. Everywhere
you go, for instance, you’re met with admission fees – ¥700 to get
into this little museum, ¥600 for a look around that castle. The pride and
joy of Kanazawa is its huge and gorgeous central garden, and yet locals can’t
go for a walk there whenever they like: it’s ¥350 to get in every time you
want a look around. Even the peace museum in Hiroshima charges a nominal ¥50
admission, which can barely cover the cost of collecting it. It’s as though
there’s some kind of shame or loss of stature to being free – major free
attractions like Tate Britain, or even Central Park, for that matter, don’t
seem to exist in Japan.
Of course, the most typical way of spending money is to do so in a
vending machine. We bought wishes from one, at a temple, food tickets
from many (rather than ordering your food directly, you pay for a food ticket
at a vending machine, and give that too the waitress, so she never handles the
cash), and even paid for one hotel room at a vending machine which took ¥10,000
bills and spat out a ¥1,000 bill in change.
And if vending machines are everywhere in Japan, so are disembodied
voices telling you everything you might conceivably want to know, and then some.
There are loudspeakers on the street, in trains, in buses – even in gondolas.
A voice, usually female, never seems to stop talking: where you are, what’s
coming up, fun facts and figures – actually, I have no idea what she was
saying most of the time, since I don’t speak Japanese. But the Japanese don’t
seem to have any problem screening it out: it’s just another information flow
which can be optionally accessed whenever you feel the need.
This kind of invasive and ubiquitous technology extends even to the very landscape
in Japan – at one point, I even wondered if the Japanese really
have any conception of natural beauty. Every last square inch of Japan
has been built on or cultivated in some way, and one of the walks we took up
a mountain was paved the whole way, much of it with actual stairs. In the cities,
the gardens are prized for their artificiality, and there are actually very
few English-style parks which are simply open space. There’s certainly a certain
amount of cognitive disconnect involved in standing on the top of a mountain,
looking at a beautiful smoking volcano, and hearing jingles from the strip mall
which was built to accommodate all the tourists who have come to look at (not
climb, mind) the mountain you’re standing on top of. In the thin mountain air,
sound can travel an astonishingly long way.
If I take away one abiding memory of my trip to Japan, however, it will be
of the people, and the many wonderful experiences I had both interacting with
them and just watching them. I think everybody who’s been to Japan has stories
of Japanese people going above and beyond what any other person would normally
do in order to help you out and make your visit as wonderful as possible –
I’m no exception. Helpfulness and friendliness at an extremely high
level is definitely the rule rather than the exception, and the country
as a whole is a pleasure to travel in.
It’s also interesting watching small children in Japan: they seem to be happier
than the kids anywhere else I’ve been in the world. The kids always
seem to be running around with enormous grins on their faces, benignly
overseen by their mother and/or grandmother. I was told that children are spoiled
rotten in their preschool years precisely because of the insane amount of discipline
and hard work which is thrust upon them once they enter the educational system,
but these kids didn’t seem spoiled rotten – just happy. Maybe it’s something
to do with the fact that most of them grow up with parents and grandparents
in the same house, I have no idea. Certainly it’s another thing which makes
travelling in Japan a very happy experience.
So weird, yes, and slightly alien, but a wonderful place to visit. If you haven’t
been, and you have some spare money (it’s certainly not cheap), I can highly
recommend Japan. Get away from the Tokyo-Kyoto-Nara tourist route, too: my best
memories are of places like Kanazawa and Kyushu. And the language barrier really
isn’t all that much of a problem: for one thing, most restaurants in
the country seem to have plastic food out front, complete with prices.
Just point to what you want, or pick something at random: it’s bound to be delicious!