AnneMarie and Andrew

Annemarie and Andrew – Trekking Asia

Second Impressions of Japan

10 days ago Annemarie wrote about our first impressions of Japan. Now we’ve been here a little longer I can write in more detail about why we still love Japan. I suppose I have to start by saying that my impressions of the country are somewhat altered by our experiences across the rest of Asia. Had we flown here directly from Europe we might have thought a little differently, but probably not much.

Japan reminds me of Germany. In fact, it is the Asian equivalent of Germany. Everything is clean, tidy and well organised. Nothing is out of place and everything has a purpose and works exactly as expected. Things are efficient and well thought out and everything has been considered. In everything we touch, everywhere we go and everything we buy we get the impression that someone has thought long and hard about the end user and their needs and requirements. In short, most things are easy to understand, work as expected and are clean. It’s almost perfect.

In China everywhere was crowded. Every street wound be filled with people and every tourist attraction ruined by huge crowds. I guess in peak season Japan will be far busier but so far everywhere is very quiet. The Chinese also talk loudly. Well, that’s an understatement, they shout. In Japan people talk at a normal volume making the streets and tourist places so much more pleasant. The Chinese, and most other Asian nations, walk around with no awareness of the space immediately around them. When the Chinese walk they don’t care and other people near them, for example people walking four abreast and clearly blocking the path for others. That’s the norm in China. They don’t care! But in Japan the people are incredibly polite and do their best to ensure the minimum impact on other people. They look behind themselves and consider others before taking an action. That may seem normal for most of the world, but coming from a month and a half in China, it’s brilliant.

The politeness doesn’t stop there. Everyone is helpful and polite in Japan. From the greeting when entering a store to the thanks when exiting. The same happens in restaurants. If the kitchen is open the chefs will also welcome new arrivals. Traffic wardens will bow a little and greet you as they stop the traffic to ensure a safe crossing of the road. We’ve even had people stop and put down all their bags to come over and ask take a photo of the two of us in front of a building.

Getting around is usually pretty simple. We walk into a train station and buy a ticket to the place we want to go. We can use our credit card to pay so there’s no hassle of always having to know the price beforehand and having the enough cash to buy the ticket. There’s no need to buy the ticket days in advance, unlike in China, just a few minutes before the train departs is usually enough. There’s no need to show our passport to buy a ticket and no massive queues to enter a train station. No baggage scans and pat downs. And finally there isn’t the chaos of been in a massive crowd of people all running and pushing and shoving to get on the train first. In Japan it’s back to small platforms with just a few people standing around waiting for the train.

Speaking of police and security checks, Japan is just like any other ‘normal’ country in the world. There is almost no police presence anywhere in Japan. We can get on a train without been checked, we can get into the subway stations without been checked, no police at museums or tourist attractions. No police on every street corner. No police stations. No oppression and constant reminder of the power of the state. People are trusted.

In Japan the number of vending machines is roughly the same as the number of police in China. The vending machines are located everywhere and usually provide cold drinks. Some have ice cream and quite a few in city centres have cigarettes. But this means that whenever you need a drink a vending machine will never be far away. Even on the small quiet back streets we have found vending machines. And the prices are only marginally higher than in the shops, so we aren’t paying much extra for the convenience. They are available 24/7 with zero human interaction.

The buses and trams often have flat rate fares making it easy to know exactly what the cost of getting around is. Some of the maps and guides can be confusing, but once we worked out how to read them everything became rather easy. In Hiroshima the trams were ¥160 each. ATMs only have ¥1,000 notes and above. In the UK drivers can and do refuse to take people who only have large notes and no change, a ridiculous situation! In Japan the solution is change machines on all buses and trams. Insert a ¥1,000, and it will give you change. No need to worry about not having any change or only having large notes.

Been on or near the roads in Japan is just like being at home. This wouldn’t usually matter but in Asia Japan seems to be an exception. In China no-one seems to obey the rules. Red lights are often ignored. The green man at a crossing does not mean it’s safe to cross the road. When we were cycling in Xi’an we were almost killed many times because as we cycled past a turn off, the cars would come across and straight into us or aim just in front of us. In most other counties the driver would be aware of the cyclist and wait, but in China the drivers either don’t care or don’t bother to look. In Nepal there seems to be no rules for driving and anything goes. Engines are unrefined, thrashed and old, resulting in huge amounts of noise and pollution. And finally there’s the impatience and selfishness, everyone wants to pass the car in front and is constantly on the horn, making the roads even louder. In Japan the cars are new and refined so they are pretty quiet. The rules are obeyed and everyone drives calmly, so no horn (I’ve heard a horn two or three times in 11 days here), no lane cutting or swerving, and the green man does mean it’s safe to cross the road. You want to know why most of Asia annoyed me, it’s because of little things like this. No-one follows the rules, no-one cares and the only way to get around when everyone is breaking the rules is to break them yourself. Police don’t uphold these laws and everything descends into chaos.

Japan is pretty pricey. Not quite European prices, but not too far off. For us, coming from 8 months of living cheaply it feels incredibly expensive. But this problem is easily solved with the convenience stores of Seven Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson. They are everywhere and they really are convenience stores. They sell all kinds of fresh ready meals, noodles, rice, pasta, curry and even salad. I know Japan isn’t exactly a sandwich eating nation but they even sell a small range of sandwiches. Microwaves are in every store so ready meals can be heated. There’s snacks, cakes, yogurts, cereal, loads of drinks, so we buy breakfast here too. In Seven Eleven they even have ATMs so we can get cash.

Is there anything bad about this country? I can only think of two things at a push. Normal ATMs won’t accept our credit cards. Only the Post Office and Seven Eleven stores are hooked up to the Cirrus Network, so when we need cash we need to find those stores. Apart from that only Kyoto train station has given us any grief. Getting totally confused and spending 40 minutes looking for a ticket machine and the correct platform is taking the piss and nothing has come close to that anywhere else on this trip! But that’s about it.

Everyone here is so helpful and polite. Today I paid to visit Hikone Castle. I had a lot of change in my pocket so I dumped it on the counter to count it and see if I could pay with the ton of coins I had managed to acquire. I couldn’t, and had to use a note anyway, but after putting away the tickets, handing Annemarie the map and info I still had a pile of coins to deal with. The lady in the ticket desk helpfully collected some of the coins and handed them to me to speed things up. I couldn’t see that happening anywhere else on this trip. Maybe that’s just normal and people are actually like this? I can’t remember, my only instincts now are to not trust anyone, keep my money well out of sight, and know every detail before setting out so I can’t be lied to or misinformed. It’s proving difficult to get out of that extreme mindset.

Another thing we really like is how smart the taxi drivers look. In Hiroshima many drivers wore a hat, in addition to their shirt and tie. Some also wore a waistcoat and white driving gloves. The taxis are Toyota Comforts and they look very comfortable. Maybe here it would be OK to take a taxi.

In 11 days we do really like Japan. It is a fantastic place to visit and we highly recommend you come. It has everything from Alpine scenery to large urban cities. It has a huge history and beautiful scenery. It has beaches and countryside, good infrastructure and really nice, polite people. When you book your next holiday consider Japan!

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