Japan - a dive in the culture of the rising sun - first impressions
We started the trip to Japan with a long flight from Copenhagen: 11 hours with Scandinavian Airlines. We were not really in holiday mood due to all the stress with moving in the new apartment and especially the scares caused by Carmen’s strong allergic reactions. But we were rewarded with an amazing Aurora Borealis sight during our flight over Siberia. The scouting process was also rather quick, done in rush, started when we got the ok from the doctor to travel. But we were ready to have fun as much as possible during these two weeks, to enjoy a new culture and to explore exciting places.
We arrived on Narita the next morning, quite tired after not being able to sleep in the plane. The immigration and customs check went rather fast, we collected our luggage and we picked up the rental mini wifi modem and sim card. We decided to rent both a sim card and a mini wifi modem, but in the end it turned out that the sim could have been enough to have internet on the way, especially because, if kept open, the modem battery is dead in a few hours. There are plenty of choices to rent those items, and we decided to use a rental company called Global Advanced Communications, Everything went smooth with them, no issues in the process. The JR pass ( train pass on all the lines operated by JR) is also quite handy as you can travel as much as possible with some Shinkansen trains ( not the fastest and more frequent ones like Nozumi), local trains and some JR operated buses, and to reserve seat in advance. Hyperdia app on the phone has the ability to search for connection that use JR pass as much as possible, avoiding the large amount of private trains and metro companies whenever it is possible. However sometimes you can’t really avoid paying even with a JR Pass but in the end, if you have few relatively long train rides (like Tokyo to Osaka) and few smaller ones, JR pass is a very convenient choice, saving quite a lot of money. As an advice, I would recommend that you purchase it way in advance. We bought ours the weekend before traveling and we had to pick it up from the office of the tourist company that is allowed to sell it in Denmark. Also when you buy it, you only get a voucher that you can exchange in airports or main train stations to the real pass.
Our impressions about Japan were quite mixed, between things that are good and things that we didn’t enjoyed that much. All the major cities are over populated, especially Tokyo with its 36 million people in metropolitan area. There are millions and millions of people, going to work every morning in an endless stream, all of them either with their eyes stuck in their phones or napping while standing or sitting in the train (and some of them even while walking). However most things work quite well. The cities are extremely clean (Tokyo looks impeccable from this point of view, although, surprisingly there are very few trash bins in the public areas). The trains are always on time. There is some kind of well defined order in the chaos, a plethora of rules that makes things going alright although coming from outside it seems overwhelming and sometimes confusing. Last year we visited Bangkok, another overpopulated Asian metropolis that is far as clean and efficient as Tokyo. You could notice an obvious difference and appreciate the Japanese capital.
Japan is also the most service oriented country that we ever seen. The consumerism is at home here, there are tones of malls, shopping centers, department stores, convenience stores, fast foods, restaurants almost everywhere. From the cities we have visited, Osaka seems to be the highlight for all of these, with its kilometer long roof covered and pedestrian shopping streets, featuring all the major brands, luxury boutiques, small cake shops, pastries and ice cream stores. And again the endless stream of people, from dusk to late in the night, carrying huge shopping bags and enjoying it like a second job; or a main one for most of them. The Japanese are very good at decorating their stores (and gardens and many other places). The Christmas decorations in Japan look much nicer than in most of the European country, a bit odd given that Japan is not at all a Christian country. And the variety of products is overwhelming. Comparing to Denmark, probably you could find at least 100 times more products in Japanese stores. There are pet stores with hundreds of outfits for your dog or cat. The cake shop makes you drool immediately and it is always a very difficult decision when you have to choose. There is also a culture of cute little things. Pokemons and other small cute figurines, wearing pink and light blue are depicted everywhere. Almost every women is wearing one hanged on her bag or backpack. The dogs are all small and cute, with their fur trimmed and wearing nice clothes. Nicer then a lot of people in the world. There are so spoiled that they refuse to walk and they need to be carried in the hands of their owners or in small dedicated prams. The Japanese have less kids but they invest all this affection into their pets, treating them with dedicated spas and cafes.
The food in Japan is very varied. There are many thousands of restaurants in Tokyo, Osaka or Kyoto, from small street stands selling all kind of different fried things to expensive sushi or Kobe beef stake restaurants. However we didn’t resonated that much with the Japanese food. We enjoyed very much Thai food, however we will not really miss the Japanese cuisine. During these two weeks we tried few weird ( by our standards) things: raw tuna ( sashimi) , octopus dumplings, fried maple leafs and some jelly balls stuffed with different fillings, just to name a few. Some of them are acceptable but we can’t say that we over enjoyed any dish. Another thing that made us feeling uncomfortable is the lack of English menu in the most of the restaurants. We are simply not ready to order food just by looking at a picture, and knowing that most Asian countries are using all the parts of the animal while cooking does not help with this feeling. As an example, one street stand was selling yakitori (skewers) made of chicken ovary.
We don’t know if it was true or just a translation fuck up (like many others), but it sound really gross. Japanese seem to have a quite strong snack and sweets culture. The offering is endless from rice cakes with different taste, nori sheets, many different things on skewer, dumplings, pancakes, biscuits and many others. We randomly tried a few but there are so many more to try. We also had an interesting experience in a British pub operated entirely by Japanese people. We enjoyed some great cheese honey snacks together with our favorite Guinness, but we were amazed on how much the dozen of barmen and waiter can scream. Each time a customer is entering, exiting, ordering something, maybe even returning from toilet, at least 5 members of the stuff were screaming something in Japanese either same words all of them or different stuff in the same time. There was a terrible noise, that does not let you enjoy a pint with your partner of friends, but its typical Japanese way of showing the politeness towards the customers in a loud and very visible way.
The hotels are another interesting experience. We booked mostly business hotels in the cities, without doing too much research and we were surprised how small the rooms are. You could hardly find place to keep one large suitcase, yet alone two of them as in our case, so you have to be creative in rearranging stuff in the room to find space for your possessions. Imagine a 5 square meters room, maximum 3 square meters bathroom and a very thin entrance to be shared between two people and their luggage. That is quite claustrophobic isn’t it? Doing some reading on the internet we found out that this is quite normal, with people often being able to touch the opposite walls of their room with their hands, and this is not because they have long arms. They have skills of using every single corner and centimeter of the available space, stuffing as much as possible content in an unimaginable small area. The toilets are very complicated pieces of electronic equipment, with many buttons and a long page of instructions. The toilet seat can clean your arse, letting you choose the pressure and the temperature of the water, it can be warm so that you don’t freeze and can play some music. And this is not only in hotels but also in many of the public toilets.
As a photographer Japan is not very friendly. First of all , the major landmarks are incredibly crowded. Its very difficult to place a tripod and if you do so, you will get a lot of angry looks from the big army of selfie amateurs, willing to immortalize their faces with every single available spot. Most of the attractions close at 16 or 16:30 so no chance of sunset or blue hour shooting and they also don’t open before 9 am. The tripods are most of the time banned by the security guards which are present as a small army at each landmark; some temples (like Tofukuji in Kyoto) banned photography entirely during foliage season to preserve the sacred spirit of the place. Which doesn’t stop them to charge an entrance fee in a very sacred way.
The level of English even in hotels and restaurants is very low. I was complaining about Thailand, but Japan is worse. They have hard time to understand even the simplest question and some Japanese, even if above average in their English knowledge, seem to be very nervous and stressed when dealing with foreigners. One receptionist was sweating a lot during a 3 minutes conversation when we asked for some directions and to call us a taxi. Lots of street posters and announcements have very obvious and hilarious mistakes when translated in English, the most funny one being something like “if you want to eat a staff member, please contact a pork”, written just outside of a restaurant in Osaka.
To conclude this post, it was an amazing trip and we would like to return to other parts of Japan in the future. We were aware that we were visiting a totally different culture and we were expected to be stunned by it. These comments and impressions are coming from our western preconceptions and I am pretty sure that a Japanese visiting Europe might experience same feelings. This is the beauty of getting in a plane and landing to the other side of the world, getting the chance to know a culture so different than yours. And we should experience this as much as possible before globalization will turn all of us into identical clones on the altar of the capitalism.