Japan round-up

We LOVED Japan. The scenery, the cleanliness, the quiet, the efficiency, the island full of rabbits… it was all delightful. If it hadn’t cost us three months’ worth of our travelling budget, we’d have stayed well beyond our allocated four weeks. But we left with so many wonderful memories, and a long list of places we’d like to visit or return to if we ever get the chance.

Environment and Nature

As we mentioned in our first post, one of the first things we noticed in Japan was how good it smells, even the cities smell like trees! The old towns and countryside abounded with earthy, leafy scents, and the many, many temples added musky incense on top. We were rarely confronted with the unpleasant smells that have followed us through the rest of our travels: sewage, petrol, burning plastic, cooking meat…

All the cities we visited had beautifully designed and maintained parks, where you could find tranquillity amongst the hustle and bustle. There was a clear consideration of the aesthetic of almost everything: even the drain covers were beautifully designed!

During a walk around a park in Miyajima, we read about the restoration work that had been performed following major flood damage several decades ago. The repairs were obvious, but highly sensitive to the surrounding environment: only local stone had been used to shore up the riverbanks, and native plants used in the gardens. This careful and sympathetic approach to the environment was apparent everywhere we visited in Japan.

We thoroughly enjoyed all the different climates available to us during the four short weeks we were in Japan: from balmy warm and sunny days (and sleeping alfresco!) to playing in the snow whilst wearing every item of winter clothing that we’ve brought with us.

We were so lucky to visit in early autumn, and to see the Maple and Ginkgo trees changing their colours. The change of the seasons is taken very seriously: along with the weather on the daily news were reports of where the best autumn colours could be seen. All the shops were also decorated with red and orange Maple leaves when we arrived, changing to snow and Christmas decor by the time we left.

The news also carried information about tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes, and cyclones. Extreme weather and disaster preparation are taken very seriously: cyclones are tracked and reported on daily, and we also saw signs on lampposts giving information about how high we were above sea level and where to retreat to in case of an emergency.

We were surprised to see that Halloween is a big deal in Japan: along with all the autumnal decorations in shops and town centres were many pumpkin and ghosty displays. This is a very recent import from the particular Americanised Halloween celebration. We described the British Samhain tradition to one family who were unfamiliar with any of the Pagan origins of the festival. Similarly, on the 1st of November we started seeing Christmas trees appear on high streets. Given that only 2% of the population practices Christianity, this is clearly just a commercial export to encourage shopping and overeating!

The variety of landscapes were an absolute joy to us. We often joke that our ideal home will be near the sea for Maeve, and near the mountains for Jay. Everywhere we visited was near sea and mountains! We hiked up an active volcano, trekked through vivid red forests, and paddled in warm inland seas. We didn’t even scratch the surface of the “Japanese Alps”: a mountain region with peaks that put the Scottish Highlands to shame.

Japan also has an incredibly diverse fauna. Unlike the UK, many of the animals can be dangerous. People coexist alongside black bears, and on the island of Hokkaido, grizzlies as well. Yet, despite their reputation they are responsible for relatively few deaths, unlike the truly horrifying hornets, which we took to calling “flying terror”. They are Japan’s most dangerous animals, responsible for more deaths each year than any others. If it hadn’t been for these various scary creatures and our inexperience with mitigating the risks, we’d have enjoyed the wilderness even more! Jay thoroughly enjoyed getting to know all the interesting new insects in Japan, and of course all the rabbits!

Servas

Although we had a few great experiences with Servas hosts in India and Hong Kong, Japan is where we really made use of the network. At first this was due to necessity: accommodation is so expensive in Japan that we simply couldn’t afford to pay for hostels the whole time. We had planned to do more camping, but found that it was generally too difficult to contact the sites to do the necessary pre-booking, and also that many campsites are only accessible by car, or are closed from September. So we initially relied on Servas when hostels were too expensive, but by the end of our time in Japan we realised how being hosted had been pivotal to the richness of our travelling experience.

In total, we spent nearly two weeks with Servas hosts and their families. We got to experience a range of Japanese homes, from modern houses with talking electronics in every room, to very simple traditional wooden buildings (though still with an in-built hot tub!)

We ate all kinds of amazing traditional Japanese food, much of which we wouldn’t have known to ask for if we’d only eaten out during our stay. We were absolutely blown away by the generosity of our hosts, who researched veganism, bought special treats that they thought we should try, sent us away with edible presents, and even took us to the supermarket to help decipher the confusing things available. We had a few cooking lessons too, so hopefully we can replicate some of the amazing food we had when we get back home. Thanks to Servas, we also travelled to places that we wouldn’t otherwise go, away from the tourist trail and into residential areas, which gave us a glimpse of ‘real world’ Japan.

Culture

On the whole, we found Japan to be culturally as we expected from how it is portrayed through popular representations and its official international image. People were exceptionally polite, everything was clean and well maintained, and public services were efficient in a way we can only dream of in the UK.

The whole culture is very pro-social: it is implicit and explicit that you need to consider people around you at all times. Signs on trains encourage people to be aware of the noise made by their keyboards, and to go into vestibules to make phone calls. Unlike the UK, people actually obey these signs! In India and China train travel was convenient and cheap, but also a source of stress and anxiety for us. Almost everyone would be playing music, making phone calls, or smoking, apparently oblivious to anyone around them. In Japan, trains were almost silent, as everyone aimed to make sure they didn’t impact on any one else’s journey. It was restful, relaxing bliss. Even though public drinking is acceptable, with people regularly nursing a can of beer or sake on the train, they still behaved with consideration of everyone else. Public health posters to discourage smoking included information about the negative impact on other people of passive smoking: not just on their health but also their enjoyment of the environment. Major cities also have whole areas where smoking is banned, even outside!

From some of our Servas hosts we learnt about the concepts of honne and tatemae: the internal and external self. It is widely accepted in Japan that your true feelings are kept hidden, and everyone has an official or public persona. We tried to approach this without judgement based on our own cultural values, but in western Psychology, repression is recognised as a source of increased pathology, and the sad fact of the high suicide rate amongst Japanese adults would appear to support this.

Japan as a whole has embraced the capitalist dream, and individuals are expected to sacrifice themselves at the corporate altar. Working until 1am on a daily basis is not uncommon. We were lucky to stay with some people who have opted out of that culture, choosing to get by on less in order to have time with their families.

We heard from some older Japanese people about how they struggle with the obedience and even apathy of the younger generation: they feel that that they fought hard for the freedoms they have, and they are now taken for granted by a generation who are happy to just follow the rules. We had our own frustrating glimpses of this on a few occasions, like when we asked to squeeze our tent into a spacious, half-empty campsite. It almost seemed like a cultural taboo to consider changing or bending a rule, even if the rule no longer applies or makes sense in the present situation.

Our faux pas with bath etiquette demonstrated to us how even the simplest things that we take for granted can be so different across cultures. Travelling (outside of identikit multinational resorts) needs a sympathy and tolerance; a willingness and acceptance of mistakes on all sides. In fact that’s true of all cross-cultural interactions (although the emphasis should be placed on those with the most power to work hardest). In Japan, bathing is still a communal pastime, thanks to the myriad hot springs throughout the country. We only experienced the public sector leisure centre-style onsen, but there are many other types: from luxurious spas in old-fashioned ryokan inns to open-air free-to-use springs, maintained by local volunteers as a public service.

The toilets were also amazing. Almost everywhere had heated seats, which really is a blessing in the colder climates. The high-tech facilities also include various jet streams for cleaning, and even a fake sound of water running to conceal any embarrassing noises you might make in the loo. Of course they were all also kept very clean, and always well-stocked with soap (something that we do not take for granted since being on the road).

We didn’t spend much time out at night or in the bright lights of the cities, but we caught a glimpse of the ‘weird side’ of Japan: sexualised cartoon girls, enormous gambling and gaming centres, massive inflatable shopfronts and video advertising being blasted out on street corners. We spotted a weird trend for couples to wear matching clothes: identical t-shirts or brightly coloured trainers.

Transport

It goes without saying that the public transport in Japan was amazing: clean, efficient and a joy to use. We were slightly shocked at the prices when we first started travelling by bus and train, however the quality of the service certainly made up for the cost.

Initially we were not going to buy the famous Japan Rail Passes, as they cost nearly £500 each for three weeks. We are so, so glad that we changed our minds. When we totalled up the journeys that we made and distances we travelled at the end of our trip, we found that we had made enough journeys to pay for the cost of our passes twice over. In total we travelled 4618 km by rail and spent 46 hours on trains over 25 separate journeys. Our one regret is that we didn’t manage to take Japan’s last remaining sleeper train, the Sunrise Seto Express. We concocted a ridiculous plan for our last full day to travel from the northern island of Hokkaido, through Tokyo and almost back to Hiroshima, just so that we could immediately board the sleeper train back to Tokyo. We came to our senses a few days before and just spent the last day enjoying Hokkaido instead!

We were genuinely amazed at the organisation and efficiency of the railway, even with the international reputation that Japan’s rail network has. At some major train stations we stood agog as bullet trains arrived and left within 3 minutes of each other. These trains would then whizz off to their next destination at 2-300 kilometres an hour, travelling the equivalent distance of Land’s End to John O’Groats in 5 hours. The efficiency was very strictly enforced: it is not really the done thing to run for a train, and potentially delay it by holding the doors open. People queue up very politely in advance of their train arriving at the allocated point on the platform. On the train, as it approaches a station announcements are made (in Japanese and English) to alert you and encourage people to get their bags together and be ready to alight the train. These announcements would specifically say when approaching minor stations that the stop would be brief and passengers should be ready to alight. On one train the announcement went a step further, encouraging people to “leave the train on the heels of the person in front”. Our favourite part of the train announcements came at the end when we were told that the English translations had been provided by Jean Wilson. Thanks Jean!

Train staff (and we assume other public sector workers) took their jobs very seriously. When a conductor entered the carriage they gave a small bow before beginning to interact with passengers, and we saw the same from staff selling food and drinks from a trolley. The front carriage of the train (apart from on bullet trains) was generally open so you could see the driver at work. They all wore very smart uniforms including white gloves. The driver would regularly perform a complicated series of points and gestures (presumably checking off the signal lights as they approached the station). This was done with care and grace regardless of whether they had an audience or not. The pinpoint scheduling was highlighted when we noticed the schedule of stops listed in the driver’s carriage on one train. This gave the arrival and departure time for each station down to the nearest 10 seconds. During our three weeks of extensive train travel around Japan, we can think of only two occasions where we saw a train being delayed on an announcement board; the delay was approximately three minutes.

We were really surprised at how prolific English was in Japan, particularly around the railway network where every station and train had English translations for place names and directions. This made getting around much, much easier than it had been in China. But similarly to China, there was the strange inclusion of piped birdsong at some of the train stations, and tinkley music played over the tannoy.

As well as taking advantage of the amazing public transport, we did a fair bit of walking: 283km including a few off-road hikes, giving us an average of just under 10km of walking per day. We cycled 69km, and Jay also managed to squeeze in 30km of running.

Shopping and Food

On the whole we found Japanese food to be absolutely fantastic. There is obviously a strong culture of eating seafood and this was apparent most places we travelled. As with everywhere else in the world meat consumption is also on the increase. However the Japanese culture towards a meal is to have several small dishes along with a bowl of white rice. Even without modification many dishes at a standard Japanese dinner table would already be vegan. The vast array of savory flavours is fantastic. There is a long history in Japan of pickling and fermenting vegetables and tofu, and we thoroughly enjoyed trying many different examples of them.

We had a much better time of it with acquiring food on the go than we have in other countries. A very common fast food in Japan is the “rice ball”: a triangle (confusingly) of white rice with a filling such as seaweed, pickled plum, soybean or seafood.

Jay is still traumatised by the experience of trying fermented soybeans. These are available to buy readymade in a small pot, with a sachet of mustard. The flavour was relatively inoffensive, mostly just vinegary. But the texture can only be described as snot. As you try to eat the tiny beans (with chopsticks, of course!), it leaves a long string of partially decomposing soy mucous, that sticks to everything. Every Japanese person who offered them to us prefaced it by saying “most Europeans don’t like this”. Maeve didn’t think they were that bad!

Bizarrely, outside most restaurants is a large glass-fronted cabinet with wax models of the main dishes inside. We also saw this for drinks outside pubs.

We did find shopping in Japan to be pretty challenging due to the language barrier. Our translation app – which has been a lifesaver with reading foreign ingredient lists everywhere else – really struggled with Japanese. Some memorable food ingredients it suggested were “spirit fungus”, “white” and “cloth stain”. We did eventually learn to recognise the symbols for milk and eggs which did make finding vegan food a bit easier.

During a visit to a budget supermarket we were overjoyed to find vegan ginger Christmas cookies and dark chocolate. We were then astonished to discover that the likes of Lidl do not have the quickest and most ruthless check out systems: at the till a member of staff rapidly whipped the items out of our basket, scanned them and put them straight into another basket. He told us the total and as we were fumbling over our Japanese currency trying to get the right change, he started scanning the next person’s items. We were slightly flabbergasted and didn’t know what we were supposed to do with our cash, until we realised that there was another staff member working the same till whose job it was to take payment and give change. In this way there was not even a pause for people to pay for their items before the next customer was served. It was ruthlessly efficient.

Every supermarket we visited played a truly bizarre playlist of Western song covers. Highlights (lowlights) include the worst cover of Last Christmas either of us has ever heard, and many different instrumental versions of Auld Lang Syne. When we asked one of our Servas hosts why on earth supermarkets played an ancient Scots song, she was genuinely surprised and thought that it was an old Japanese melody.

Round up

Overall, of everywhere we’ve visited so far, Japan is probably the country we’d be most inclined to live in. We recognise that a lot of what we liked was due to the relative ease of being in an economically prosperous country. There was a familiarity to the public services, and generally things worked in a way that aligned with our expectations. Of course, in many ways, Japan far outstrips the UK in terms of how smoothly things appear to run, and that was a delight to experience. But we realise that we don’t know what it is like to actually live there, and we did hear that a lot of migrants to the country really struggle with the rigidity of the culture.

Although we were only there for four weeks, we fell in love with the diversity of the landscape and the sheer beauty of the surroundings. The people we encountered were generally overwhelmingly generous, and made it very easy to navigate travelling around as clueless tourists. We will miss you Japan, hopefully one day we will be back!

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