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Japan - First Impressions from an European Point of View

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My wife and I have been traveling through Japan for two weeks: Tokyo, Fukuoka, Osaka. This is not a report on our trip. This posting is a mixed, incomplete and subjective collection of stuff that we found cool, exaggerated, quaint or just different from our situation in Austria (Europe).

Arriving

The first impression when arriving at the airport in Japan was not pleasant at all: just like the USA, I had to accept humiliation at the border control where I had to give away my fingerprints. They also took a photograph.

In Europe, this treatment is only done to a person that committed a major crime. Probably we should think of introducing a similar procedure for all people from countries which disrespect our privacy and silently throw away the collected data afterwards to prevent security problems. Just to teach them a lesson on respect. And yes, I know that "respect" is something sacred to Japanese people. Obviously not to foreigners when it comes to border procedure.

Some Japanese Properties

Other than that unpleasant experience on arriving at the airport border control, Japanese people are very friendly. Of course, as a Gaijin you will be always seen as an outsider but on the other hand side you will receive friendly service as well. Standing on a street, looking around for something is a good chance that somebody is going to ask you if you need help. Japanese people are probably world champions in treating you in a kind way.

Japan in-between trandition and modern world.

You'll notice quickly that you are the stranger. In contrast to almost any other vacation destination, there are hardly any foreign visitors visible in Japan. Some tourist spots might be an exception but for most spots, you are clearly the only outsider around.

Only few Japanese people speak English very well. However, if you happen to read something about the Japanese language you will know that it has to be very hard for a Japanese person to learn such a different language. Almost every concept is different between Romance languages and Japanese and they themselves spend ten years learning how to read and write their own language. Therefore, be grateful for every Japanese speaking broken English because your Japanese most probably is much worse than their English.

Once time, while strolling through a fish market, an employee said "Guten Tag" to us. She picked up our German while passing by. We chatted for a couple of minutes. She just returned from a multiple months trip which also brought her to Wien (Vienna), Salzburg, Graz and even Klagenfurt. Studying the German language, she had a really nice pronunciation.

If you need assistant with Japanese-only written text, I can recommend "Google Translate" as Android app. With the version as of 2019-08-06, I had a small usability issue that ended up in thinking the app doesn't work at all. Contrary to the bidirectional arrows between "English" and "Japanese" in the user interface, the app is not able to determine the source language itself. Therefore, the order is important. If you need to translate Kanji letters to English, "Japanese" has to be the first entry: "Japanese <-> English". The bidirectional arrow is just the toggle button for the order, not an indicator of bidirectional translation. It might not have puzzled you, but for us it was a initial showstopper since with "English <-> Japanese" settings, it actually produces an output for Kanji which is just random gibberish.

Japan has a very low crime rate even compared to Austria. The very small and numerous police stations Koban feature policemen (I've never seen Police woman so far) that look kind of bored considering the fact that Japan people are uttermost well-behaved.

As a consequence, approximately half of the bicycles we've seen in Tokyo were not even locked. We have only been checked once in a train for having the proper (expensive) train ticket. Many empty and unlocked cars with running engine stood somewhere while their drivers did leave for a quick stop. I read about people leaving for the bathroom in a bar, leaving their wallet and their phone on the table without worrying. Isn't that really awesome?

Detailed plan of a bathroom including Braille.

The cities we have visited do provide excellent support for blind people. Tactile paving and signs in Braille language are everywhere. Even the layout of public restrooms were explained that way. There was an elevator for every level.

Sign at a crossway with Braille.

In Japan, convenience or service beats environment. Just like in the USA, you will get tons of plastic bags when you shop around. Everything is separately wrapped in plastic.

I don't know why but I got the impression that Japanese men are very seldom bald and they almost never grow any beard. On the other hand side, there is almost no obesity at all.

In contrast to many other countries I have visited so far, there is almost no visible unsheltered person on the streets of Japan. As a matter of fact, in any country I visited so far except Austria, Germany and Japan there were much more homeless people around. Therefore, I assume they have a decent and working social system.

A large fraction of Japanese women always walk around with umbrellas. They either use them against the sun to avoid getting brown or they use it for the occasional rain. Many bicyclists have mounting equipment on the handlebars for umbrellas.

People on a crossway in Shibuya.

Also mainly female people are wearing face masks, covering their nose and mouth. I've read that this is not solely because of fear for germs. The seem to have a fairly large issue with pollen. And this is how they protect themselves. This is copied by the fact that I've seen several mothers with face masks while their kids did not use them. Further more, people seem to move the mask to their chin when being in the subway or in a mall. I wouldn't do this if I would be afraid of germs.

Whenever we were asked about or home country, we had to correct "Australia" to "Austria". Everybody just understood "Australia". "Austria" is pronounced by Japanese people more like "Ostoria". And so we adapted our pronunciation as well. But still, Australia is much more present in people's mind than Austria.

After clarifying the right continent, people put a big smile on their faces. Austria is associated with many positive things. We can be really proud of our country.

Transportation

In Japan, you drive on the left side of the road. This has also consequences for many other situations: you go on the left side of the sidewalk, you stand on the left side of an escalator. You need to get used to it quickly in order not to be an obstacle all the time because, boy, there are so many people everywhere!

Street life is always fast paced but without hectic. Hardly anybody is running for a closing train door, an almost red traffic light or an elevator that is about to leave. Japanese people may be world champions in being stoic and disciplined in any situation.

Disciplined in any situation.

This is also very pleasant as we have never faced a ringing mobile phone, annoying other people. Not a single time. They just care about others very much. This I will miss to great extend.

To get from A to B, public transportation is the best choice. Even in Tokyo, whose greater area is the most populous metropolitan area in the world, car traffic seemed to be even less than in Austria. We never have seen a total traffic breakdown because of traffic jam.

The busiest train line in Tokyo with its 29 stations is serving more people daily than all of the 468 stations in New York combined. This requires a huge amount of discipline. Everything is organized perfectly. You know where to stand in line for the door since it is clearly marked on the ground. People leaving the Metro do have their paths through the waiting people. Stairs are marked with "Up" and "Down" areas.

Rules: where to stand in line for the subway.

Subway stations may occupy large areas below the city so that you can reach almost any building in reach from below as well. This also comes with shopping malls and restaurants under ground. It gave us the impression that there is almost the same city ground below the surface - sometimes even more - compared to the sidewalks above.

Underground mall in Fukuoka.

The few bicyclists seems to have to share the sidewalk with the pedestrians. Therefore, they can't drive fast and have to find their way through the people. This did not look like a fun way of going somewhere by bike.

If you want to visit multiple cities, you definitively have to get a Japanese Rail Pass (JR Rail Pass) for one, two or three weeks.

Be aware: you can only order the rail pass from outside of Japan. So make sure that you order in time. JR Rail Pass is a flat-rate for any JR-operated line. Those include most Shinkansen bullet trains, many normal train lines and some commuter lines.

A Shinkansen bullet train.

The Shinkansen system is a really big asset. It's a dedicated high-speed system with no crossroads. Shinkansen trains never have to wait for other trains to pass by and go with full speed from station to station. For example, we did around 500 Kilometers in a bit more than two hours. Their yearly delay is calculated in seconds. Since the first Shinkansen lines that started fifty years ago, there is not a single fatal accident recorded. Not a single person that died in an accident.

Taking a Shinkansen is a pleasant experience. You just have to remember to reserve a seat for free upfront. For main connections, you can expect to have one to three connections per hour. Trains arrive on time, they don't have a delay, they travel fast, seats are comfy, more than enough room for your feet, they are quiet and you see more from Japan. With a Shinkansen train system available you really don't have to think about domestic flights at all!

I found it quite cool that at many trains, you are able to change the direction of your chairs.

Be aware, without the JR Rail Pass, Shinkansen tickets are quite expensive.

One thing that is not that great at train stations is the fact that you can only see the three upcoming trains for your current platform only. In Austria, there are always displays that show all train departures for all platforms. In Japan, when your train is not listed on the current platform display, you have to go back to the main building and look for the general display. Or you ask an employee and hope you can communicate your request successfully.

For that, you should check out the Android app "Hyperdia" and use its display output to communicate on train connection. It looks like a self-programmed Android app from ten years ago and its user experience is also quite bad. However, it's the golden standard to get connection information including subways and even domestic flights. Be aware that you have to type in the station names exactly - case doesn't matter though. For example, "Tokyo station" is different from "Tokyo-station". You won't find the connection when the station is not typed in exactly. There is no fussy search.

If you need to find your way when walking around, be aware that in Japan, public maps may have north somewhere else than pointing to the top. It is very common to have public maps that do have north pointing downwards or even oddly tilted map orientation.

A Tokyo subway station map.

When looking at the car traffic on the streets, you will notice that there are much more Toyota models out there than you know from your home country. Toyota also seems to be the number one car brand in general.

Buying Stuff

People do seem to prefer smaller, distributed grocery stores. Therefore, you always find a Seven Eleven (ATM!), Family Mart or similar nearby.

For other types of stores, it is the opposite. Electronic stores like Bic Camera or Yodobashi are really huge, consisting of many levels in big buildings. Most of the time, the big building is the store. Their price level is more or less the same as in Austria. It's the stuff they offer, which makes the difference. They are not only very huge but also very densely packed with much narrower space to walk through. You have at least(!) five to ten times more choices than I am used to.

Noisy and visually overloaded shop.

A word of warning here: especially the big electronic stores - but by far not only there - you will facing constant loud noises from everywhere. Some chains seem to have "a signature melody" for about twenty seconds which is played in an endless loop together with constant announcements of special deals and so forth. For example, Yodobashi is featuring an annoying version of the refrain of "Glory, glory, Hallelujiah". I pity the employees. Really I do. I couldn't work there for a day without going nuts.

However, there is not only a constant background sound. In Japan, there are always lights blinking and numerous colors are visible all the time. Epileptics can't grow old with all the lights effects and annoying sound background everywhere, especially in stores.

The extreme form of this annoyance can be found in the Pachinko arcades. This video gives you a sneak preview on the level of noise. Unbelievable, people are going there to relax.

A Pachinko arcade. The definition of noisy.

For paying your stuff, cash is still king in Japan. Most places accept credit cards but cash is a sure winner here. For public transport and so far, you need a large amount of 100¥ coins since they are accepted by any vending machine you have to use. You even use vending machines to order your food before entering a restaurant. Of course, these machines mostly also accept bills.

Senseless appearing things: mini trashcans.

You will end up getting more and more 1¥ and 5¥ coins. They are basically useless and take up space in your wallet for no purpose. My tip is to collect them in your hotel room and use them at the end of your journey in one of the many 100¥ stores. These 100¥ stores are also a very good source for souvenirs of all kind. Besides everyday items like socks, nail clipper or other house hold articles of all kind, they offer fridge magnets, beautiful chopsticks and all sorts of oddities.

Senseless appearing things: mini air-condition.

I briefly mentioned it in the previous section: Not only once, we have been looking for a simple underground passage to the other side of a busy street and ended up in a huge underground shopping mall. This is not only handy for switching sides of a street. Most people are using the underground connections instead of the sidewalks above. It's air conditioned, no traffic lights to wait for, independent from the weather, helpful signs with directions where to go to. These underground malls are very popular in Japan.

Food

Breakfast is a full meal. It consists of Miso soup, rice bowls, many other warm dishes. In one hotel, we even had BBQ. However, we are not sure if BBQ was a Japanese thing.

The breakfast is a whole meal.

Interesting to see that many people are going to breakfast in their pajamas.

In general, food is awesome in Japan. We loved the manifold Ramen, Sushi, Sashimi, Yakitori, and so forth. Food was probably the main reason why we ended up in this country for our vacation.

Japanese restaurant in Tokyo.

Small thing I noticed: when you are in a running sushi restaurant, the staff doesn't count the plates by hand. They are using handheld RFID readers to read the tagged plates on one quick go.

Unfortunately, you can hardly find fruit in Japan. And if you do, it's quite expensive. I love the little transparent cocos cubes which you get in fruit salad at breakfast.

Nata de Coco.

Our recommendation: try everything. We did and it was always a pleasant experience. Only once, we were surprised to get a nigiri with a live sea snail (Abalone) we really had to kill by biting onto it. This was our most irritating experience. Other than this, we were in food heaven!

Living Abalone in a sushi bar.

Restaurants are not expensive in Japan. The price range was comparable to Austria if not even cheaper. However, different to Austria, people are supposed to leave the restaurant when they are finished with eating. There is no culture of sitting down and enjoying a drink or two after the meal.

It is uncommon to give tip in Japan. Somebody told me that a waiter brought him his tip two streets away from the restaurant because he as a customer did forget valuable coins on the table.

Those Toilets

Yes, this is a recurring topic: Japanese toilets. They are not simple toilets like we do have in Austria. They feature a remote control with at least: washing your butt and a different one for female genitals including pressure controls for this, a sound feature which "drowns" the sounds you make when being really productive and a stop button. More advanced models provide the ability to control the temperature of the seat and the water. A fan for drying up your butt after being washed is also a nice thing some models provide.

Directions on how to use this toilet.

At first, we have been reluctant to use the washing feature. When leaving Japan, we both noticed that we really will miss this. If we would build another house, we definitively would buy one of these toilets for ourselves.

Remote for a toilet.

Because of the water cleaning toilets, Japan people seem to wad their toilet paper in contrast to folding it which is dominant in Austria. You only have to remove the last bits of brown mass and mainly get dry again.

It is noteworthy that you will find lots of public toilets everywhere. They are well maintained. And yes, they all feature a toilet model described above. As a matter of fact, you will find at least five times more public toilets than trash bins which are seldom seen.

Hotels

Renting a hotel room in Japan is comfortable thing. You could even think of renting a room spontaneously. They provide you with everything you can think of.

Provided slippers in the hotel room.

Not only the mandatory slippers are waiting for you behind the door. They provide you towels, a daily pajama, toothbrush including toothpaste, brushes for your hair, complete shaving equipment, Q-tips, alarm clock, a flat-screen TV set, and the essential air conditioning. For the latter, you may wish to pack a bonnet for the night: air condition is required for a good sleeping experience. We've been in Japan end of July and it was really hot. Hot and humid. No day that did not exceed thirty degrees Celsius.

A wide variety of goodies in the bathroom.

Of course, hotel bath rooms come with decent toilet models mentioned in the previous chapter. In one hotel, we even had a heated bathroom mirror. This way, the mirror did not fog after showering with hot water. And this is a handy feature since hotel bathrooms are tiny.

Double toilet paper dispenser and remote for the toilet.

Be aware that hotel rooms are small in general. Sometimes, you can't find a space for your open suitcase. The three hotel rooms we've got never provided a closet.

In one hotel, we even got an Android mobile phone which we could use also in town and for free calls within Japan. Different to Austria, we only got one single blanket for us both. New challenges came with that one. ;-)

Breakfast always was until 10am. This means that you are supposed to be there at 9:30 latest and leave before 10am. In one hotel, the checkout time was 10am sharp as well. Japan is not a country of late risers.

Rules

Japanese people love rules. Rules are ubiquitous.

Rules.

They tell you what to do, they tell you where to go, where to stand in line, they tell you what to avoid.

Most of the times, this is quite helpful for foreigners like us. Sometimes this is a bit ridiculous.

Rules: do not vomit on the tracks.

Signs with rules are everywhere. And most of them are also in Braille letters.

People in Japan are following these rules quite thorough. We have noticed only a few exceptions. For example, they were riding their bicycles - at slow speed - even when it was permitted to do so. Sometimes, they were standing on the wrong side of an escalator or going on the wrong side of a stairway, disobeying the omnipresent marks where to go upwards, where to go downwards and where the border between the two direction is located.

The urge to follow rules seems to be a necessary thing in order to make a society of many people work in so few space. We got the impression that this also refers to the behavior of small children. We never saw inappropriate of children, we never even heard a crying baby although we saw many of them. By the way, Japanese toddlers really do look cuter than our babies. ;-)

Jobs

There is this stereotype that in China, there are so many people doing low profile jobs or doing jobs which seem to be not necessary to be done by somebody. Well, I got this impression in Japan as well.

We have seen construction sites where there were more people guiding people around the construction site than actually working within the construction area. It is common to have one to three people standing at a parking lot exit just to help drivers find their way back to the road. On every train platform, there was at least one person checking the "don't cross the yellow line" rule (and probably more). In many situations, there were people just standing somewhere, showing the way where people should continue to go.

Everybody did a great job. Not a single person seemed to be annoyed or bored.

Final Words

Okay, this is our summary of "findings" from our trip where "the West" is in the east. I'm sure we forgot many things and you will probably make different experience. After all, Japan is also a diverse country with very different regions and complex social structures we - as western people - may not even start to understand. Most things were really impressive and positive. I hope that more people visit Japan to bring back some good manners to the world.

A word of warning to everybody who is leaving Japan. You will have to re-learn to pay attention when biting into food. Meat suddenly contains bones and fish bones reappear.

Hotels suddenly offer worse service although you have visited the same brand before. You may find it hard to find the way and you even miss the rules that makes life easier for everybody in Japan. When eating something spicy in a restaurant, there won't be a box of tissues waiting for you in easy reach. Many small things were not taken care of for you before you realize the need.

If you want to lean about Japan, the Japanese people and their culture, I can recommend the book from "A Geek in Japan" which is a best-seller since 2008. However, make sure to get the updated 2019 version I bought.

You'll read about much more interesting things than on this page and learn interesting stuff like why they almost sell more Mangas in a week in Japan compared to sold comics in the whole USA in a year.

Todaiji shrine with the great Buddha hall.

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