Japan is the closest thing to a utopia to me; in many ways it’s the perfect place for me to be. It’s my favorite country so far and that’s certainly saying something, as I’ve visited more than 18 countries (and counting). I loved Japan so much that the two weeks we spent here in April weren’t enough. I came back to stay for the entire month of September. Japan does have a few issues (which I’ll get to later), but overall, the Japanese have gotten so many things right.
Japan is 98.5% Japanese with the largest minority groups from China and Korea. While I frequently stuck out like a tall, blue-eyed, light brown-haired Caucasian woman amongst a sea of East Asians, I never once felt unwelcome. In fact, everyone I met was so kind, generous and hospitable. Most people asked me questions and were quite curious about the American visiting Japan. Even if they didn’t know much English, they did their best to converse with me. I was invited into homes, given food and alcohol, taught their customs and traditions and witnessed a few festivals.
Japanese culture puts heavy emphasis on politeness and respect. This article says it best just how “polite beyond words” the Japanese are. People tend to follow the rules and abide by posted signs. Nobody jaywalks. They all patiently wait on the sidewalk until the signal says “walk” even if there are no cars coming. As a native New Yorker, it took a little while for me to get used to this and it’s still difficult not to smirk when it happens. They’re also master queue-rs and can put the Brits to shame.
It’s very refreshing to someone coming from the States, particularly New York and Boston, to be able to get on and off a subway without being shoved or trampled, and enjoy a quiet ride. In Japan, you are not allowed to talk on your mobile or eat on public transportation. Even when the train is completely packed with people, it’s still relatively quiet, clean and orderly (that may partially be due to the fact that many people are sleeping on the train – the Japanese fall asleep everywhere!). If this was the way in the States, my commute to and from work would have been so much less stress-inducing.
The trains are extremely punctual. If the board says the train is coming at 9:07AM, it arrives at exactly 9:07AM. There is an announcement if the train will be running late, even if it’s only a few minutes. The transit company will issue riders “delay certificates” to give to their employers to prove that the train was more than 5 minutes late and it’s not the workers’ fault (punctuality is crucial in Japan). The trains are fast, too. In addition to the subways and extensive rail network, Japan has Shinkansens, or bullet trains, that run up to 320 km/hr (200 mph). They’re expensive to take, but they’ll get you to your destination in a jiff and it’s fun to experience it at least once.
The trains are technologically advanced … and so are the toilets. Most toilets in Japan seem like they were taken straight out of The Jetsons. They have so many functions and buttons, it can be overwhelming: heated seat (which I’ve found to facilitate the urination process), different kinds (and strengths) of sprays for your bum, a “lady parts” spray, a dryer, deodorizer, and even sound effects to play so people can’t hear you doing your business. Let me tell you, after using one of these toilets, I’ve never felt cleaner and more pampered down there.
Even the rest stops off the side of the highway are really nice – there are many delicious food options and they’re clean. Much unlike the rest stops in the States with the obligatory stinky McDonald’s and crappy pizza chain. There’s even free iced or hot tea and fresh water. When you go to the bathroom at a rest stop, there’s a chart telling you not only if the stall is occupied, but if it’s a Western Style toilet or an Eastern style “squat n drop.”
Japan seems to be the cleanest country I’ve ever been in (I have not yet been to Singapore, but I hear it’s up there, too). Even when walking around in cities like Tokyo and Osaka, I hardly found any trash on the ground at all (although ironically, it’s frequently difficult to find a trash can). Public places, including train stations and restrooms are well-kept. Upon entering the subway stations, you’ll even find people handing out free packages of tissues (with advertisements in them). The hostels and hotels I stayed in were some of the tidiest I’d experienced. This article provides some theories as to why the long-standing “obsession” with cleanliness. Either way, as someone who’s a clean and neat freak herself, I like it very much.
The Japanese go on vacations to Onsens (public hot spring baths, kind of like spas) and it’s obligatory to thoroughly wash yourself before entering the hot bath. And yes, it’s a bath, not a jacuzzi or hot tub, so you must be naked. I quickly got over my “Western shyness” and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Soaking in the onsen felt amazing – instantly relaxing, soothing and therapeutic. I slept very well the nights I took those hot soaks.
I really can’t rave enough about the food in Japan. Every meal for me was a new, exciting experience. Not only does the food tend to be extremely artfully and meticulously prepared, it’s absolutely delicious and frequently a really fun experience to eat.
My favorite place to eat is at a kaiten-zushi, or as I like to call it, a “sushi-go-round.” Conveyer-belt sushi places are just what they sound like – a restaurant in which there is an ever-changing assortment of sushi on a moving belt going by your seat, which you can grab as you like. Some places are fixed price – every dish is 100, 120 or 130 Yen, for example. Others color-code the plates according to price (red=100 yen, blue=120 yen, etc). If there’s something on the menu that you’d like and you don’t see it on the belt, at some places you can order it from the touchscreen at your seat and it will be brought to you by “train” in a matter of minutes. At the end of the meal, a worker counts your plates to determine how much money you owe. The quality of the sushi definitely varied depending on where I went (ironically, the 100 Yen [little less than $1] per plate restaurant was one of the best). I also love these places because you don’t have to understand Japanese to order – just grab what you like or use the pictures on the screen!
Another type of restaurant that can be “foreigner-safe” is what I like to call the “vending machine restaurant.” Outside the restaurant, there is a ticket machine and (usually) a display of food models or pictures of the dishes the restaurant offers. Each one has a number next to it, with a corresponding number and it’s price on a button on the machine. You put your money into the machine, select the dish you want by matching up the number (the dish names are all in Japanese) and out pops a ticket that you give to the chef. I’ve found these places to be quite affordable and convenient, as I’ve gotten good sized bowls of soba or udon for less than 300 Yen (~$3).
Japanese confectioneries are my favorite treats. Unlike certain American counterparts that tend to be completely devoid of nutritional value (think Twinkies, Funfetti cake, Hershey’s milk chocolate, or fried butter sprinkled with sugar on a stick), Japanese desserts contain at least some nutritional value, containing one or more of: green tea (antioxidants!), adzuki bean paste (fiber!), fruit (healthy for many reasons!), sesame paste (protein, fiber and healthy fats!), and soybean powder a/k/a kinako (protein!). Mochi (a chewy, sometimes sticky cake made of glutinous rice) is one of my absolute favorites. It’s very popular in Japan and each area has it’s own distinct variety. There must be more than 50 types of mochi, especially if you count the various fillings (red bean paste, green tea, chocolate, chestnut, sweet potato, sesame paste, taro, pumpkin [what we call squash], strawberry, cherry blossom…). Warabi mochi is a unique kind that has a jello-like consistency. It’s made from braken (edible wild plant) starch and covered in kinako and a little brown sugar. My friend and host, Yuko, liked to surprise me by bringing home a new type of Japanese sweet fairly often. Boy did she spoil me!
Japanese supermarkets are quite the experience. Think Whole Foods on steroids. The produce is all perfect, beautiful and thoroughly (overly) packaged (are they worried about it being sanitary?). The fruits and vegetables are very delicious, although they can be quite expensive. My friends bought a 2500 Yen ($25) bunch of grapes for us to snack on in the house – ridiculous! I will do a separate post on all of the delicious and unusual things I ate during my stay – there are way too many to list here!
One can get food and drinks just about anywhere, since there are over 5.6 million vending machines in Japan. That’s around 1 for every 23 people. To put it in perspective for my friends back at home – you’ll come across a vending machine in Japan way more often than a Starbucks in NYC or a Dunkin’ Donuts in Boston. The vending machines can sell a wide variety of things (newspapers, batteries, ice-cream, toys, cigarettes, dried meat, umbrellas, underwear, sex-toys…), but most often it’ll be cold drinks. My favorite ones sell beer and sake (and they’re usually reasonably priced). It is perfectly legal to drink alcohol on the streets of Japan (believe it or not, the result is not at all like Bourbon St. in New Orleans).
I really appreciate the Japanese sense of humor shown through their signs, advertisements and other cute and weird things.
Japanese architecture, both old and new, is absolutely beautiful. There’s just something so peaceful, relaxing and inviting about it. Gardens and parks are plentiful, which are meticulously tended to and it shows. When I was staying at a temple in the Koyasan area, I observed a man pruning a bush with what looked like a scalpel and another man in a tree scrubbing the branches with a toothbrush-like object. Again, attention to detail here is insane.
Most of you already know that I’m a cat person. I can’t pass a cat in the street without either meowing at it or shouting “kitty!” because I get so excited. It seems like the people of Japan share my enthusiasm for cats. Many Japanese cannot have pets in their tiny homes or don’t have the time to take care of one, so they go to “cat cafes.” Cat cafes charge you by the hour (usually around 1000 Yen) to come and hang out with dozens of cats. You can sit and drink some coffee, have a snack and pet lots of kitties. I went to one in Kyoto and seriously, if I lived in Japan, I would probably be a weekly customer. Or, I could just hope to run into a guy on the street with an entire carriage of fluffy kitties.
Despite all of it’s amazingness, Japan isn’t perfect. It’s usually first when it comes to new technology, modern architecture design, and transportation, but is so far behind on certain social issues. The country as a whole still has a long way to progress when it comes to same-sex rights. The first rule about homosexuality in Japan is that you don’t talk about being homosexual in Japan. Many of the Japanese gays and lesbians that I met aren’t out to their parents and coworkers, even though they’re living with their partners. There is an LGBT community in Japan and a gay area in Shinjuku, a neighborhood in Tokyo, which livens up at night. One of my Japanese lesbian friends said that it’s the only place where she feels comfortable holding her partner’s hand out in the open. I attended a “women’s night” (read: lesbian night) at one of the bars in Shinjuku. It seemed like any other lesbian bar I’d been to in the States – with one glaring exception: no photos allowed (except in a tiny area with a promotional background). There are no anti-discrimination laws for LGBT people in Japan, so they could be legally fired from their job if it’s discovered they are LGBT.
The Japanese are, by and large, a very hardworking people. Many that I have met get to work around 8am and don’t come home until 8pm – often times later. During rush hours, I’d frequently see hundreds of what are referred to as “Japanese salary men (and women)” in their “uniforms” of the white collar shirt and black pants (or skirt), flooding the trains and streets. One of my friends is a freelance presentation creator and when she is called into an office to do a job, she sometimes has to work for 48-72 hours straight without much sleep and only quick meals in the office. Working hard is so ingrained in Japanese culture that there are even brands such as BOSS coffee and Success shampoo. I wonder if there’s a correlation between long work hours and the fact that I’ve observed Japanese people sleeping everywhere (buses, trains, benches, living room displays in department stores…). I really wouldn’t want to be overworked like that; I value my free time too much.
Although Japan does have some issues (nothing’s perfect and the United States certainly isn’t), it’s still quite a wonderful country and I fully recommend visiting if you can. I welcome your questions and will do everything I can to make your Japan trip a memorable one. I hope you enjoy this country as much as I have!