Note: we left Japan for China on September 28th. Originally, I wanted to post this around October 1st. But China hates the internet, which made it impossible to upload blog posts. We’re now in India and way behind on posts. More to come! – Paul
As we arrived in Japan, Jacque and I remarked to each other how it felt like we were arriving in a mythical land. In the West, we have a perception of the country based on cultural snippets that have made it across the Pacific: ninjas and samurais; temples and bonsai trees; geishas and sumo wrestlers; sushi and teriyaki; Toyota and Nintendo; seizure-inducing anime and Harajuku girls. Japan held a position in our minds akin to the kingdom of Narnia, an imagined wonderland with vast treasures and exotic people. It didn’t disappoint. The very strong Japanese culture, and all that grows out of it, had a bigger effect on Jacque and me than any of our previous Asia experiences. In ways both expected and unexpected, Japan drew us in for much longer than our planned two-week stay.
Japan is known in the West for its historical architecture, for good reason. The temples and other sites of the old capital, Kyoto, are particularly incredible, but excellent examples are all over the country. What gets lost in the West is the uniquely Japanese take on modern architecture. (Modern, here, meaning “recent” and not any particular school of architecture.) From Nagoya to Tokyo to the heart of historic architecture in Kyoto, we found brilliant examples of inventive architecture by accident. Walking around a Japanese city is never lacking an interesting skyline.
“Cosplay,” short for “costume play,” materialized from the anime and gaming world in Japan. It’s no surprise that street clothes take on a very different twist from that in the States. In parts of town, such as Harujuku and Akihabara, teens sport knee-high socks with heels, lavender hair, and stuffed animal backpacks. Contrast that to rush-hour around Shinjuku: a stream of pinstriped suits, skirts, jackets, and pantyhose fill the business district streets. Hats are also very popular in Japan’s capital. Primary student uniforms include bright yellow safari-like pith hats, brimmed bucket hats are worn for sun protection, and those with a little more style sport derby, bowler, panama, fedora, or Trillby hats, even at night.
The Japanese are extremely polite and orderly. For example, we waited in a half-hour-long snake queue, like the kind they have at airport security, that had no barriers between the switchbacks! Nobody tried to skip the line. It’s simply expected that everyone will behave properly at all times. Behavior is enforced by shame – we saw a bus driver clearly shame another driver who had cut someone off – and any transgression is quickly noted by passers-by. (We get quite a bit of leniency as visitors for doing odd things, though we were confronted once or twice.) The net effect of this is a relaxing pace of life, even in a huge city like Tokyo. After four countries where pure chaos was the ruling philosophy of social interaction, our arrival in Japan gave us a chance to breathe.
The flip side of this order, which extends far beyond queueing into every protocol of life, is a bit of ugliness for outsiders trying to establish themselves in Japan. One of our Airbnb hosts in Tokyo was originally from Hong Kong and married a Japanese man. Despite the fact that she speaks both Japanese and English on top of her native Cantonese, she has difficulty finding full-time work. The order doesn’t allow outsiders or new ideas in easily.
Japan is, like, sent back from the future, I think. Not too far in the future, but a bit. The toilets…well, I don’t speak Japanese, so I’m still not sure what all they do. But I know some of them have been heated when I sat down and many have an automatic bidet or self-cleaning. Much more civilized. Then there were the robots at the Miraikan (Japanese National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation). Although they were right on the border of creepy, seeing a robot jump on one foot and controlling another’s facial expressions was fun. The cleanliness of the cities also feels like a utopian view of the future – no big city could be as clean as Tokyo in the present day.
Spending as much time as we do on the trains, we are attune to ebb and flow of people through the city. We initially tried to avoid rush hour in Tokyo, grabbing dinner around 6pm, only to find that the trains are busiest at 8PM. Our Airbnb host in Kyoto told us of her long hours working as a cheese importer in the city, earning great money, but staying at the office until 3AM. We walk past offices, still full of workers, well past dark, computer screens lighting their faces. It’s no wonder that passengers are half awake, with bobbing heads, sliding to sleep against the train car wall as they make the daily commute.
Baseball in Japan is technically the same sport we play in the US, but, man – it feels totally different as a spectator. During their team’s at-bat, the fans play brass instruments, drums, and chant incessantly. It’s the exact opposite of the heckling (“hey, batter, batter!”) that opposing players get back home. Aside from the baseball game in Nagoya, we also had the chance to attend a sumo tournament, a farmers’ market, an art aquarium installment, and Oktoberfest in Tokyo. From those experiences, we learned that the Japanese love tradition, don’t quite get the idea of a farmers’ market, are comfortable in very crowded places, and know how to let loose, respectively.
Those who read my post on Tsukiji market already know my feelings on this subject. I love it. Besides the market, we also went to a large conveyor-belt sushi restaurant. It was about the size of a Denny’s, and the belt went past every table. The fish simply rolls by, you grab what you want, and then put the plates into a slot to be carted off to the washer. (Again…the future!) You can also order special items on a touch screen, which arrive on a separate, super-fast, shinkansen-like conveyor belt. The conveyor-belt sushi restaurant was a chain with decent sushi, but we also had a properly-prepared sushi meal at a counter. The difference in quality was very noticeable (as was the difference in price). Watching the skilled itamae create our meal was a treat in itself.
Trains and Busses
We rode the public transportation every day in Japan. For 29 days, we took a train ride or two, on different companies’ lines, every day. We also took busses, both within and between cities. In all that public transportation, I know of exactly ONCE when any of them were more than a minute outside the scheduled time of departure. Once. And that once, it was only 15 minutes late. I honestly never realized how accustomed we are to public transportation’s unreliability back home and around the world until it became absolutely, unquestionably reliable. In some small way, by removing a source of uncertainty in getting around town, it made travel – even at rush hour with a 65L backpack – far less stressful. And every train and bus is immaculately clean. Amazing.
At home, we would call these “Japanese Gardens,” but of course they’re just gardens here. Every city has its share of perfectly-manicured, well-designed gardens. Some are meant to echo local geography – one that we visited in Nagoya, Shirotori Park, is a scaled-down version of Mt. Ontake and the Kiso River – and some are simply relaxing spaces within the city. Often, they have a small tea house overlooking the pond, and almost all have some wildlife such as turtles, koi fish, or blue herons. Visiting a garden became one of our favorite ways to explore Japanese cities.