Clichés exist because there is a grain of truth at the centre of the sentiment. When people say “Japan is a land of contradictions”, they’re not just being glib. They’re onto something.
Japan is steeped in rich culture, tradition and ancient history, and is one of the brightest hubs of innovation and technology in the world. It is this combination of traditional and futuristic that makes Japan an intriguing potpourri of discovery.
This is a country where a young woman wearing kimono boards a bullet train holding her Hello Kitty iPhone to her ear. This is a country where futuristic city skylines live beside 1000-year old shrines; where technology and gadgetry dominate, yet credit cards are routinely not accepted. A society where tradition coexists with modernity in easy harmony.
With a population of 127 million, this volcanic archipelago consisting of more than 6800 islands, just makes the top 10 of the most densely populated countries in the world (CIA World Factbook, January 2018). Its economy is the world’s third-largest (by nominal GDP). It is also the world’s fourth largest exporter and importer (Wikipedia). Despite having such a high population Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world and both Osaka and Tokyo feature in the top 10 safest cities on the planet (ceoworld.biz, 2019).
We arrived in Japan as the the cherry blossoms reached full bloom, adorning the cities in bursts of candy floss and eventually coating the pavements and waterways in a delicate layer of sugar pink.
Beneath the boughs of blossoms, the cities seem to be in permanent rush hour. We noticed little difference in the number of people piling into trains on say a Sunday morning as opposed to a Saturday night. This even though shops only open at 11!
We found ourselves reflecting on despite there being so many people, how there had famously been no looting during the natural disaster of 2011. It seems that social order and discipline are so enforced everyday that it’s completely natural for Japanese to maintain this through an emergency.
Japan has some of the longest working hours in the world. Nearly one quarter of Japanese companies require employees to work more than 80 hours of overtime a month, according to a 2016 government survey. Those extra hours are often unpaid (cnbc.com). Another reason the trains are always busy, even on weekends.
A “salaryman” is a Japanese white collar worker who shows overriding loyalty to the corporation where he works. Japan’s society prepares its people to work primarily for the good of the whole society rather than just the individual and the salaryman is a part of that. Salarymen are expected to work long hours, including the additional overtime. They are also expected to participate in after-work leisure activities such as drinking in saké bars, singing karaoke and visiting hostess bars, such as maid cafés with their colleagues, and to value work over all else. The salaryman typically joins a company after graduation from college and stays with that corporation his whole career (Wikipedia).
Because I guess they were heading for work, the commuters that we observed dressed the same way during the week as they do on weekends. They also dress remarkably similarly. Camel-coloured trench coats and black suits are like a uniform. Japan is a communal culture and it seems it is important to blend in. While a suit in Western countries often includes some variety in colour and design, in Japan both men and women stick to black or navy with a neutral coat, shirt and tie. On weekends you see the same.
The majority of people wear face masks. Interestingly, I read that it originated more out of respect to others and not spreading their own germs than it is to avoid contracting external infections.
I loved the fact that the Japanese seem to enjoy traveling in their country and make use of the beautiful parks, temple grounds, shrines and trails. In fact there appeared to be relatively few western tourists. On weekends and after hours (that’s if they’re not working!) locals are out and about enjoying sights with kids and dogs, on foot or by bicycle.
Having travelled in China, Africa and India, we were not unused to such intensely crowded spaces. What was particularly noticeable was the quietness and absence of jostling, despite the perpetual crowds. Politeness, patience and respect characterized all public activities.
Boarding a train was particularly noteworthy. Not until the last person emerges does anyone move to step onboard. My lawless South African tendencies had to be restrained and I struggled to prevent myself climbing on board before the last passenger had stepped onto the platform. Waiting patiently at a red traffic light when there isn’t a car in sight was also quite a feat. (I admit I struggled to reconcile the environment of perpetual deference and politeness for others, with the need for “Women Only” railway carriages. 😳)
Another startling discovery that sits uncomfortably with this deeply respectful culture, is that all mobile phones sold in Japan are customised for the market so that the built-in cameras cannot be muted. Astonishingly, this is because there are so many men who use their camera to take photos up the skirts of women (now known as “upskirting”🙊) especially in crowded places like trains and on escalators!
Let’s talk about food! Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than New York and Paris combined. And yet we found that even cafés and street food had the most delicious fare. I was surprised to learn that Japan has picked up awards for the best whisky in the world ahead of Scotland and Ireland. We found ourselves developing a penchant for their ginger highballs (whisky and ginger ale)🥃
As a rule, I’ve always steered away from restaurants that have pictures of their food on menus and even worse, when mocked up dishes are displayed near the entrance in attempt to entice you, only the congealed gravy and wilted garnish is completely off-putting! Japan has to be the only country where pictures of food are not a bad thing. In fact they’ve turned it into an art form and there is an entire industry selling wax or plastic molded replicas of popular dishes. What you see is what you get and it is consistently delicious. Fascinating are the casual diners, where no-one comes to serve you. You select your choice on an ordering machine’s screen, pay (it’s a bit like a parking payment machine that you’d find in a South African shopping mall) get a ticket, and your meal is delivered to your table or to a central point for collection. English is available on the machine, but three entirely different looking dishes may all say “Pork with noodles”🤨
Read more about our food adventures here.
It’s astonishing to consider that a country that has no public rubbish bins also has zero litter on the streets. At first it seemed counter-intuitive. The notion that you should take away the rubbish that you create, or bring, or purchase back to your own home was quite fascinating for me. If you take-away some street food, you learn to eat it close to the stall so that you can return the paper tray and wooden chopsticks to their recycling bins.
A particularly amusing contrast was highlighted when we stayed in a traditional hotel or Ryokan. The room floor was covered with customary tatami mats. The en-suite however was equipped with the most high-tech, jet-spray toilet that also keeps your butt toasty, while playing your choice of sound tracks. The signage was complex and possibly a bit alarming.
Even on remote hiking trails such as the ancient Nakasendo Way, the futuristic loos were in play, housed in the simplest wooden structures.
Public transport is beyond efficient. As a train departs with standing room only, an orderly new crowd forms in under a minute. No need to sigh if you just see your train pulling away. Another one will be along in two minutes. Also no need to be concerned if you can’t read Japanese and are uncertain as to which train to board. If your train is due at 8h41, then get onto the train that pulls in at 8h41. How to know when to get off at the correct bus stop? Check the time. If it’s due to stop at your destination at 11h48, resist the urge to alight at a stop at 11h45. Irrespective of traffic, it will make its stop at your destination at 11h48. It’s quite astounding.
Mind boggling in its degree of organization, is the system of moving luggage point to point. You simply trundle your suitcases to a convenience store, such as a 7-11, offering the Takkyubin delivery service (it is delightfully indicated by a symbol of a black cat carrying it’s kitten at the store entrance and they are everywhere!). Your bags are delivered safely and securely to your destination the following day, allowing hands-free travel on the transport systems.
It’s a sad indictment on society but we struggled to remain open minded when approached by someone ostensibly volunteering help, like the guy who pointed out a better photography opportunity. We had to recover quickly from the naked suspicion we showed when we realized he genuinely just wanted to show us a good time. It’s rare that this happens without someone expecting something (“baksheesh”) in return. It was so completely refreshing but made us feel disappointed with our in-built cynicism.
And no tipping! What a pleasure to be relieved of the stress of how much is appropriate and remembering to carry enough loose change. Apparently telling your taxi driver to “keep the change” can be seen as insulting.
Because so many people live virtually on top of each other in Japanese cities, there isn’t much room for animals. Instead of living their lives without a pet, animal cafés new born. These are small shops or apartments where people can spend time petting rabbits, cats, owls and even hedgehogs. Slightly more bizarre are the prolific maid cafés, where the hard-working, traditional salarymen may go to unwind. Its not a fetish den. No touching is allowed. Business colleagues visit on their lunch breaks. Guys bring their girlfriends.
Despite the perpetual crowds, there is no pushing or shoving. In fact touching others seems to be completely avoided. I struggled to remember not to hand over cash directly but to place it on the little tray provided in all shops so that finger tips aren’t unintentionally brushed. Perhaps this has its origin in the Edo Period (1603-1868), when only the lowest order of merchants took payment directly. Virtually all other merchants did business on credit.
Once an empire built on martial violence, that celebrated the samurai and the Shōguns, Japan has also given us Ikebana flower arrangements and haiku poetry.
We flew out of Haneda airport after a last nostalgic bowl of pork and ramen🍜, feeling that we just hadn’t had enough of everything the country has to offer. Most trips leave you sad to depart, but our fascination with Japan, our curiosity about the culture and history, the endless beautiful places still to visit and our insatiable passion for the food, felt particularly intense.