Japan Summary

by - February 27, 2014

Somehow, more than any of the other trips that I have been on, Japan needed summing up.  Whether I am up to that task remains to be seen but I at least feel the need to try.  One of the many reasons that I enjoy travelling is that I have always felt that there are major systemic issues within western culture that we are often too self-absorbed to notice, let alone rectify.  Japan, as an economic superpower with its own unique, independent culture is, in my humble opinion, a place that we in the west can learn a lot from. It has been two weeks since I have been back and I write this from the homely comfort of Hertfordshire, a true world apart.  Japan is just an astonishing place - unlike anywhere else I had visited and an absolute must for any would-be world traveller.  In our week in the country we were only able to scratch the surface but from this scratching we were able to absorb a remarkable amount about the people, traditions and culture.

Dancing games in an arcade
The people, without any exception that we came across, were up with the most kind, helpful and respectful that I had ever met.  The Japanese bow of the head as a greeting is wonderful to behold and is readily used by a wide range of people including policemen and traffic wardens, shopkeepers and waitresses.  It doesn’t feel forced or overly formal - just extremely warm and respectful.  For the people that we actually came into contact with, there was no limit to the amount that they were willing to help people.  On my way from the airport a young girl sat next to me and asked where I was from and where I was heading.  When she heard that I was heading towards Kyoto she told me, in very broken English, where her favourite temple was.  Using her phone to help her, she wrote me out a full set of instructions to the temple - bus numbers, walking distances and all other useful information.  The temple was Kiyozimu-dera and was, of course, well worth the visit.  This tendency to translate and write out helpful information was repeated several times throughout the trip.

Relaxation Parlour, Kyoto
One thing that I really noticed was how different the attitude of the people seemed to be.  There seemed to be a kind of peaceful contentedness that I (maybe mistakenly) attribute to the Shinto-Buddhist religious traditions combined with the hardworking, pacifist tradition of the post-WW2 nation.  I might be totally wrong, and there are plenty of stories in the western media about the apparent breakdown of Japanese culture as people shun real world contact in favour of internet-based relationships.  The local people appear to get their kicks in completely different ways to what we are used to.  Games arcades are very popular and were found all over the major cities - as were outlets selling ‘anime’ magazines and cartoons.  Additionally, and slightly stranger for the western observer, are the 'relaxation parlours’ that are dotted all over the cities.  These places allow people to rent out a room with a sofa and TV along with some adult material, for between an hour and a whole day.  While these places almost certainly exist in the west as well, in Japan they were very common and people seemed to have no aversion to being seen entering or exiting.  Our initial reaction was to think of this as a bit weird - but frankly that was probably partly because of our western prejudice.

The Shinkansen (Bullet Train)
In terms of innovation, Japan was home to a range of things that I have never come across.  Obviously the Sony Centre was an insight into technologies that will be commonplace in decades to come, but I was most impressed by the little things.  The circulation of free umbrellas in Tokyo was a master stroke, requiring a small amount of external investment (I assume) but was a brilliant idea.  Another interesting thing that I had never seen before was the huge amount of electronic toilets that were found in maybe at least 50% of the places that I came across.  These toilets looked like a bit of a gimmick at first, but the heated seats were brilliant in the cold weather.  The pinnacle of Japanese innovation that we came across was, of course, the bullet train.  When looking at the above picture, the slow and clunky trains that I used to travel into London on seem almost farcical.  Sitting on the bullet train is more like being on an extremely low-flying plane than on any train that I had ever been on to date.  As well as being awesomely fast, the bullet train was also awesomely punctual and with the added bonus of unlimited use through the 'Japan Rail Pass’, travelling around the country was an absolute dream.

Wonderful genuine sushi in Tokyo
As a backpacker, Japan was of course very expensive - but that didn’t mean that it was impossible to find bargains and still have a good time.  Hostels were on the whole cheaper than the average I have found in western Europe and of a similar quality, though it is important to not sacrifice location TOO much in order to save money - because with Tokyo being the largest city on earth, journeys from the suburbs can be impractically long.  Food is expensive, but it is possible to get around this by having cheap sushi from supermarkets in the day and then being careful with restaurant choices in the evening - though having said that, the food is so excellent that we didn’t want to skimp too much on quality and had some great dinners.  All in all, which expensive, the combined cost of the trip was probably cheaper than a one way flight from London to Tokyo so a visit was an absolute must while I was in Hong Kong.

I admit that the above was a somewhat rambling and incoherent summary of my time in Japan and that there are many incomplete or not elaborated points.  I hope, however, that if nothing else I have got across what a wonderful place Japan is and what a real eye-opener my brief visit was.

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