Soundbites from the land of the Rising Sun

Britgirl in Japan

Having wanted to visit this country FOREVER.

Having booked it one year before date of travel

Having had my trip cancelled because of the March 2011 earthquake

Having endured the tension of wondering whether Air Canada would go on strike 2 days before I was due to travel

Oh and having a travel partner and husband who DIDN’T want to go at all

The stakes were high and this had to be one amazing trip….

No amount of reading “DK’s JAPAN” and no amount of internet research could have prepared me for the what we were going to experience. It’s not as if I hadn’t visited exotic and unusual places before, but somehow this was different and I still feel that I have unfinished business with this country.

Every day was like opening a treasure-chest full of wonderful delights and new experiences, I still don’t know whether it was the country itself OR the fantastic tour company (Supervaluetours – through Signet Travel -) we used that made this trip one of the most memorable I have ever taken!

Or maybe it’s because on the surface this previously insular country (it didn’t open its borders to foreigners till circa 1854), presents as more western than its asian neighbours, yet underneath the western dress, has a deeply embedded sense of tradition. Once you have peeled away its “showy” exterior, it’s new fangled and genius technical developments, its history and current challenges, you don’t actually have to drill down much further before Japan’s many conflicting faces reveal themselves.

So a fast and furious list of most notable “stuff”:

Fast facts:

Japan has a population of 127 million; 35 million of which live in the Greater Tokyo area making it the most populated city in the world.

67% of Japan is mountainous with 124 (.65!) volcanoes.

Tokyo and other parts of Japan experience many earthquake tremors a day, some more obvious than others. Hello… I can attest to that personally. A night in a high-rise hotel in Narita; a sharp crack like a damaged wooden floorboard being stepped upon as the building flexed and then the shimmying of the tremor through the structure: I am out of those pj’s with my handbag packed with all the necessities for a quick escape – as fast as you can say “deck of cards” – stoopid!!! these are “normal” occurrences here.

You CANNOT find a garbage-can to save your life – this is since the Tokyo subway terrorist attack in 1995

The amazing Manga styled Himiko Ferry in Tokyo –

The “not a hair on your head move`s as it whizzes past at speeds of between 150-186 miles an hour” Bullet train.

Umbrella Wrapping receptacles – google it!

Banks of stocked un-vandelized vending machines lining pavements selling concoctions such as “Pocari Sweat”, presumably a sports drink

let`s downgrade this blog immediately by talking “toilets”: Japan has 2 types (as do many countries but without all the bells and whistles): there are 2 versions in most public places – the “stand-up” and the sit down. These latter are all-singing/all dancing miracles of modern plumbing featuring most commonly; a heated seat; a button you can push to “listen” to the sound of a flushing toilet (not the actual flushing of your toilet but the soundtrack of a toilet flushing – just wanted to clarify that). I would’ve understood better if it played actual music….. They also have myriad “proboscis” – depending upon which button you push, that extend horizontally, vertically or at an angle – I get two of these, but the third one !!!. Oh and note to self; when exploringthe various toilet mechanism options from the keypad on the side of the w.c., be sure to pop the toilet seat down or stand well back. There were quite a lot of other buttons with japanese text but no amount of pressing these released their secrets…another time maybe.

Small toddler/child seats in the corner of many public washrooms – genius!

Patisseries selling real dairy cream pastries – everywhere

Beer-pouring machines

Yum Plum Sake

Eating eel, octopus, and snake and kaiseki banquets.

Feeling obliged to take part in karaoke sessions (without any alcohol).

You will get walked into a lot as passers-by will always avert their gaze from you – eyes down seems to be the motto especially when passing foreigners. It seemed that once a path was set, an oncoming Japanese pedestrian – with eyes down – would never swerve to avoid anything in that path. Ironically if you stopped for just a couple of minutes looking perplexed or confused, Or consulting a map, you would be mobbed by people attempting to help you (many of whom didn’t speak any English – how brave is that?) .

Few people speak any English and though the street signs in the larger cities are often in English, buddy you are ON YOUR OWN. The subway is fun in this respect. Banks of machines/maps and charts explaining ( I think) the various fare combinations – it is totally unfathomable. So you go visit the man in the ticket booth – he doesn’t speak any English – so you start a charades game gesticulating wildly at your maps and the pictures in your guide-book. He will point you back in the direction you came from. You go back – he has disappeared, you look at each other in frustration and disbelief and then he appears through a hidden door in the wall next to you and does the whole transaction for you!

What we perceived as “Mobile brainwashing” – every 5 minutes or so a car/van drives past with some sort of public service announcement/advertising. These are also blaring from lamppost speakers strategically placed along streets. To be fair we had no clue what the “messages” were.


Onsen Spa’s “strictly nude spa bathing (indoor and outdoor varieties) are hellishly scary for a prude like me but had to be tried. Excruciating experience as one has to gingerly and self-consciously make one`s way (naked) from the “for all to see” showering area to the pool! Worse is that with some of these pools require you to climb a ladder into them! Be aware that however common this sort of experience might be to the young and old of Japan, and no matter what sort of state these Japanese are in bodywise. YOU ARE BEING JUDGED – Case in point: my husband got on the scales in one onsen, and as soon as he got off, a tiny wiry Japanese guy rushed over to see how much he weighed, and turned around to comment in awed tones to his pals in the tub.

Gift Giving: In Japanese society it is expected that when you are offered a gift; you will decline it – this shows modesty; you will be offered it again and you must again decline it. You may accept it at the third offer but it depends on the individual.

Addiction to Designer brands – continues despite the significant downturn in the Japanese economy, Millions of “label” stores; millions of folk flaunting “label labels”. I thought initially it was that the Japanese population had more disposable income because necessarily (space at enormous premium in the cities) they had smaller apartments and therefore less of their income was spent on housing/furnishing etc. Apparently this isn’t the case as rentals/cost of buying homes are relatively high. Our guide did mention that they do earn on average slightly higher salaries than in N America. Even so……….

Japanese mostly work 9am to 5pm – That was a surprise, I had always believed that the working population of this nation worked all the hours God sent – I did know that the Japanese tradition of “jobs for life” no longer existed but I hadn’t quite realised that this is a huge social issue in this country as the “team” ethics mean that work colleagues are like “family” – to my next point:

The Group: In Japan it’s all about the group not the individual. consensus rather than dissention: In the workplace the relationships are vertical. You will always be asked your age as you MUST show more respect to your elders. That way everybody knows exactly where they stand. Consensus is key; decisions are always taken by consensus. Nobody will ever be directed to actually “do” something. The call to action will go out to a given group from “on-high” and the group will decide who takes the lead – this obviously takes some time but the result is that everyone is in agreement with the decision, not disgruntled and therefore works within the team to achieve the given end.

If you are wandering along a busy city street, despite the millions of cars and pedestrians it is uncannily quiet (in comparison with any N. American city). Nobody uses a horn unless for safety. Pedestrians do not shout or talk loudly. It is a surreal experience.

The Japanese do NOT appear to “do drama” Irritation and anger rarely registers: courteousness is key. Joy however does feature; Our excellent guy Hide’s face was absolutely transformed during our karaoke sessions…..

Youth – currently “youth” appear to prevail although this generation is declining fast. This was the biggest eye-opener yet. You will find little or no graffiti ANYWHERE ( we saw one small piece and it was on a removable sticker). In trendy happening areas like Shibuya in Tokyo and downtown Osaka, there are whole generations of people missing from the streets. Where are the 30 somethings upwards. They are there, but the kids “shine” so brightly, they simply “disappear” amongst the razzle dazzle of youth.

Sex offences almost unheard of and Japan has a VERY low crime rate

Weird conflict between this `modest`society and the crazy Manga/Animé (almost) soft porn images in the hundreds of publications on sale and available to a teen near you!

But most of all, during the short time we were there, My enduring and indelible impression of Japan, is that I got a privileged glimpse of a beautiful country populated by equally beautiful people (on several levels); accompanied by a courtesy unmatched in most countries and a pervading sense of serenity ………………………. Simply my view.

The list could go on and on,. Some things you’ll have to discover for yourselves. I would love to hear comments from others who have visited Japan and enjoyed similar discoveries!!

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