Sunday, October 13, 2013

Japan, a refreshingly interesting place

Why We Went
A few months ago, We offered Leah the opportunity to choose our next holiday destination. Being a fan of Japanese youth culture, she chose Japan. Knowing very little about Japan, aside from positive reports from friends who had recently been there, and an expectation that everything would be very expensive, we agreed. So we had 2 weeks, with the bulk in Tokyo, some day trips to Nikko and Nara, and 3 days in Kyoto.

Japan seems very civilzed. Well organised, clean, and polite. Regardless of some minor discrepancies, it is very pleasant, and feels safe.

Some specific places were very crowded, such as Takeshita-dori (the teeny bopper shopping street on the weekend), but for the most part, Tokyo didn't seem like a densely populated space. In fact, at 8:45am Monday in the city, there seemed to be fewer people than in Sydney on a Sunday morning.

Politeness & Consideration
People are generally very polite and considerate, and forgiving of travellers who don't speak Japanese. This differs greatly from the rest of Asia. I would be keen to know where this comes from.

On the trains, there were announcements to switch mobiles to silent mode. People bowed from time to time.

Bicycles on footpaths
Cyclists seem to avoid the streets, even though traffic is relatively light, & ride on the footpaths instead. This feels very hazardous for pedestrians.

Pedestrian Crossings
There were uncontrolled (no lights) pedestrian crossings everywhere, but they didn't appear to have any effect on whether cars would stop for you. People didn't seem to jaywalk though, & many of the traffic signals were very slow to change, given the small amount of traffic. Many of the crosswalk lights had a visual indicator to show how soon the light would change.

Informative trains & lots of guide maps
Almost all of the train doors had some kind of indicator, showing direction of travel, upcoming stations, which side of the train to exit, time to stations, etc. The video screen indicators often displayed information on disruptions on other lines. There are clear maps showing the station facilities, exits and surrounding areas, including points of interest. Sometimes though, maps were not oriented with North up. Similar maps were frequent in parks and on streets.

Efficient Trains
The trains are very frequent and timely. On some lines, trains come every 3 to 5 minutes, even on a Sunday. Rides were smooth. The Suica tap on tap off stored value cards made ticketing brainless, displaying balance & charge when passing the barriers, but also made it too easy to ignore the sum costs of travel.

The 'bullet' trains. Very smooth and quiet when you are on one, but quite noisy when they pass you. Ours was moving up to 250kph, with reclining seats, plenty of legroom, a luggage rack above, tray tables, cup holders, power points, magazines (airline gadget type), and clean & spacious toilets.

Shell "Museum"
At Odaiba island we saw big signs for the Shell Museum, so we thought we might see some information on oil production, or perhaps some history of the company or the industry. This was at the ground floor of the Shell Oil corporate office building, so we expected a significant spin on the presentation. What we didn't expect was a couple of glass display cases (within the staff cafe) with some key chains for sale. That was it.

The "Takoyaki Museum" was a food hall, and the Drum Museum was a drum shop. I'm glad we didn't go out of our way to visit the Luggage Museum. The Parasite Museum, albeit small, was authentic & interesting, and I doubt we aquired any of their subjects.

Pachinko & Slot Machines
We passed by quite a few pachinko parlours on our travels. From outside one could hear a dim rumbling sound. Inside was thick cigarette smoke, along with the loud cacophony of tens of thousands of steel balls bouncing about at once, combined with the electronic noise from the machines. There were also floors of slot machines. The machines just seemed to be some non-sense video, with no actual game.  The patrons had zombie-like attention focus.

Cheap Eats
Food is generally quite reasonably priced, except supermarket food. It was easy to find small restaurants everywhere. Vegetables in dishes were infrequent though.

Ticket Food
Many of the smaller restaurants had ticket machines at the door. At these, one deposits some cash, then selects the meals/dishes desired (often with a photo in the button), and take your change with the ticket dispensed. The staff don't handle cash.

Vending machines
Vending machines are everywhere. They seem to sell mostly drinks (iced coffees & teas) for less than the shops. Machines often sell both hot and cold drinks. No shops or actvities seemed to open before 10am and most things were closed at 7 or 8 pm (except for 24 hour convenience stores).

There are a lot of smokers in Tokyo, and there are even cigarette vending machines (2nd most prevalent after drinks machines). They have smoking lounges in some stores. The pachinko parlours reek of smoke (as did our room, even though we were in a no-smoking hotel). We had dinner in a restaurant that was all smoking (where the waitress said there were no non-smoking sections)! Another place was no-smoking until 7pm, then it was dense haze after that. Cigarettes must be taxed very slightly, as a pack could be as cheap as 400¥.

Then again, it was rare to see any cigarette litter/butts, or any litter for that matter.

Basic hotel with no chairs
The budget hotels we stayed at were very basic (e.g BYO towels) lacking luxury amenities like chairs or towel rails. They were clean, with reasonably well kitted kitchens, & the toilets had those automatic bidet seats. The ryokan hotel we stayed in was very pleasant. The owner was friendly and helpful.

Lots of TV channels, but can only receive 3
The budget hotel TV was able to tune about 20 channels in Tokyo, but could only receive 3 digital channels. Probably because of all the tall buildings.  The content was abysmal, regardless of the number of channels.

Packaging Waste
Everything has at least one extraneous item/level of packaging added. But there are extremely few public places to dispose of all this waste. For a country where efficiency and conservation seem important, this seems odd.

It seems everywhere you turn, there is a shrine. And sometimes, you might just run into a portable shrine. In Nikko, there was a Temporary Shrine (built in 1639, talk about positive thinking).

Saving Trees
There was a clear effort in parks and gardens to preserve trees, where bamboo was used to prop up branches. And in most places you couldn't walk on the grass.

If extraordinary architecture could visually yell, the noise in Tokyo would drown out hearing most of the great buildings to be found. The outer suburbs appeared grey, dusty and dire, with little or no green space.

Industrial Suburbs
The suburbs of Kyoto seem to sprawl forever, with no rural area to be found. There were a few market gardens, & the odd small farm to be seen from the train, mostly factories and small, grey houses.

Power Poles
There seem to be power poles everywhere. The landscape outside Tokyo is flat in the valleys, with lots of mountains.

We spent half a day watching part of a sumo tournament.  We had only planned a couple of hours to watch, but it was so much fun we came back and watched more.  

Teen Culture
Because Leah had planned the trip, we had a lot of opportunities to experience teen culture.

Idol Band Trucks
In districts with lots of retail geared to teen culture, there were often trucks (pantechnicon) driving around and around with images of Idol bands on them, and the band's new album blaring from within.

We enjoyed the trip.  Japan has many cultural differences from Australia, and is very civilized and pleasant.