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

charge accordingly.

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

second global

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

be censured.

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!

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5 Responses to Japan

  1. Matthew says:

    Boy, imagine how much you might have written had you stayed there a month.

  2. Simian says:

    Also, Japanese rock music has always been bizarrely fun but has recently gotten really, really good.

    Check out Melt Banana, and also Mad Capsule Markets. Just plain good. Scary good. Wacky good.

  3. Michelle says:

    Ah Japan… I’m hungry for noodles right now! I will never forget all the different flavors I tasted and know I will never taste them anywhere else except Japan.

    Next time I will walk into a noodle shop with pride as I dump my cash into the vending machine, grab my ticket, sit down at the counter and slurp loudly as I eat fabulous tasting ramen, omen, soba or udon… delicious!

  4. Robin says:

    Excellent. Better than my Lonely Planet guide book. Here in Trinidad, thousands of imported Japanese used cars flood the market every year, prized for the fact that they are so new-looking. They’re called “foreign-used” to differentiate them from “local-used”. So that’s where they go – to become luxury vehicles in the Third World.

  5. Ana Maria says:

    What a wonderful article! I was searching for some descriptions of a ‘typical’ japanese lunch, that is, not what we here in the states think of as lunch but what a salaryman might do, etc…and was rewarded with your upbeat descriptions of all sorts of sights. You sound like a fun travel companion. Thanks for the read, amg

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