I’ve just returned from two weeks in Japan; my first time in the country and the furthest removed from Western culture that I’ve ever known. Packing in Kyoto, Kobe, Osaka, Yokohama, Nagoya, and Tokyo, it’s been an amazing insight into this fascinating country. Japanese history and their culture are fascinating, and here’s my condensed list of lightweight musings from the last fourteen days.
The first thing that jumps out at you in Japan is the fashion. There are a a few very select weekday styles:
– The Businessman. He wears an inoffensive simple suit, conformist tie, sensible shoes and an equally sensible haircut. Like the sort you see at London train stations every day, but without the bright tie, the flashy watch, or the zest for life. Most of these men look like they born in their suits.
– Working girls. Immaculately presented. Tight skirts, formal shirts, hair in a tight bun, strong stilleto game. (During their mid-twenties these working girls vanish and stay at home to bring up a family).
– The older generation. Slacks, very sensible shoes, usually a bodywarmer. Like your grandparents when they do their gardening.
But at the weekend, it’s all change. People wear whatever the hell they like. Fashion, trends, peer pressure, conformity and regularity are out the window. Tartan crop trousers and a T-shirt with Kermit the Frog on it? Why not. Pink trousers, purple shoes and a nautical top? Go for it. Multicoloured leggings with a camouflage polo shirt and liquorice allsorts for earrings? Nobody will bat an eyelid. This isn’t a culture that judges or jeers. Spend ten minutes people-watching in a major city and you’ll see more individuality and fashion brevity than a year in some of London’s most cosmopolitan boroughs. It takes a lot of confidence to be the first – or only – person to develop a totally unique style. There are 128 million Japanese people doing that every weekend.
You’ve heard the clichés a million times about the Japanese bullet train (the “Shinkansen”)… how it’s so prompt and fast and you could set your watch by it. But that’s only the half of it. It’s also clean, spacious, and quiet. With changing rooms, a wonderful trolley service, air conditioning, WiFi, more legroom than a Range Rover, and seats that recline almost horizontally without impeding the person behind you. For about £170, tourists to the country can apply for a one week pass, entitling the holder to unlimited journeys on the Shinkansen. This also includes countrywide local train services and select bus routes (JR Lines).
This week I’ve travelled 1093 miles with my pass, which would cost a Japanese resident over 16,000¥ (£230). To put that into perspective, Land’s End to John O’Groats is only 603 miles. The Shinkansen can cover that distance in four and a half hours, and you could nap the whole way without hearing a single announcement about delays due to a copper theft on the line at Clapham Junction, or hearing the tst-tst-tst bleeding from the headphones of the person next to you.
Most major cities have underground networks which are also clean, prompt, air conditioned, with WiFi, and the politest and most orderly queueing system anywhere in the world. (Brits love a queue. The Japanese love an orderly queue). There are women-only carriages, staff with peaked caps and white gloves, and a charming musical ditty plays before the train arrives. It’s quite close to “God Save The Queen”, but I suspect that’s more coincidence than an attempt at foreign relations. Travelling in Japan is a relaxed and punctual pleasure.
The first thing most Westerners might think a cause for concern when visiting Japan. I’m not a big fan of raw fish and was hoping there wouldn’t be too many scenarios where I would have no other options. Well in two weeks I ate new, healthy, tasty food every meal. The sheer volume of restaurants, noodle bars and takeaways is huge. A set menu option of a main dish with rice, Miso, salad, and vegetables is commonplace in Japanese restaurants, the majority of which are fairly priced. There is an abundance of French, Italian, Mexican, Indian and Chinese restaurants, plus your usual plethora of Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC… if that’s your kind of thing. The charming surprise is the selection of fresh and affordable food “to go” in convenience stores. Pop into any 7-11, Lawson, or Family Mart (as commonplace as Spar, Co-Op, and Tesco Express) and amongst the razors, yoghurts and bottles of milk, you’ll find dinner platters with curry, rice and vegetables, sticky rice balls wrapped in seaweed, noodle salads, eggs cooked a dozen ways, and a huge variety of iced coffee and tea that taste sublime. They fry chicken and fish in store, and there are also the typical sides like Edamame beans and pickled vegetables. It’s very well priced, adorned with the nutritional information, and there are microwaves and kettles by the exits to heat up your purchases, if required.
(Worth pointing out for balance that the entire country is terrible when it comes to fruit. Nobody eats it, nobody buys it, and this is reflected in the price… 250¥ (£1.60) for a single apple is cheap in Japan. Apples and bananas are all you’re likely to see. It was nine days before I saw grapes and a kiwi fruit in a high-end delicatessen in Tokyo.)
I started writing some of this in Tokyo, while it was still fresh in my mind. At 21.23 on Monday 16th May, a 5.6 magnitude earthquake struck Tokyo. I momentarily paused typing as the ground trembled, pictures shook on the wall and swayed on their hooks, and the various skyscrapers across the city flashed their red lights. This was followed by an announcement on the hotel PA in three languages about an earthquake. “This building is quake proof. Please feel assured.” So the cliché about Japan experiencing earthquakes every five minutes isn’t one I can dispel with total nonchalance. There were a further three smaller aftershocks in the days that follow, but small enough for a hardened sleeper like me to doze through uninterrupted. Once you’ve lived in British university halls of residence, anything less that 5.6 on the Richter scale isn’t any scarier than sharing corridors with eighteen year old students with big loans and low alcohol tolerances.
What’s interesting is the silence. The earthquake wasn’t accompanied by Hollywood movie sound effects, like the swelling bowels of Satan or the grumbling sound of destruction. It was completely silent, except for the tapping sound of the picture frames bouncing softly off the wall.
So this is an area that is so so different from the West and I’m really not sure what to make of it. The first place to start is young girls and their place in Japanese culture. History says that girls here are brought up to be “cute… otherwise their Daddy won’t love them”… which means frilly socks, short pleated skirts, pigtails and child-like anime characters on their clothes, bags and phone covers. But to Western eyes, it’s uncomfortable to see girls of eighteen years old dressed like this; women, attractive to adult males, dressing in a seemingly pre-pubescent manner. And this is offset by an apparent lack of adult sexuality on display. Women cover their cleavage, their arms, their straps, they wear layer upon layer, and hide in plain sight.
Sexuality on the whole is hidden away. There are advertising hoardings and boardings the length and breadth of the subway, digital signage in every city, posters on every pillar and in every window across Japan… but if sex does indeed sell, this country must be bankrupt. Whether it’s shampoo, cars, protein bars, or insurance, you can expect to see a wholesome teenage boy pumping his fist, or a middle aged man in a suit giving you the thumbs up. If there’s a girl on an advert, she’s dressed like Mrs Haversham on a particularly cold day. Even the cartoon people on Japanese adverts look like asexual droids with a Barbie-esque bump under their chastity belt. In the West we can’t advertise a watch or a pension fund or a funeral company without slapping a boob-filled bikini or a bulge or an oily bum next to it.
The total absence of adult sexual imagery, and the young girls dressing like six year olds does make for an uncomfortable melting pot. Anything improper is usually swept under the carpet, according to accounts of Westerners who have lived here for prolonged periods of time, as the shame of reporting sexual misdemeanours is said to be too uncomfortable for most Japanese. The popularity of lolicom anime, and the culture of not speaking out about sexual assaults makes Japanese sexuality en masse a bit of a Pandora’s box. And I don’t want to open it.
I don’t want to get bogged down in this topic for any longer than is totally necessary. You’ve no doubt seen on YouTube how much the Japanese love a good WC. They attach gadgets for spraying water where you might not want it, masking prospective unpleasant sounds with other less unpleasant sounds, putting buttons that are far too close to the business end of the toilets core function to ever make you want to press them too much… and they love absolutely love a heated seat. Which is my main reason for disliking them… in the culture from which I descend, a warm seat only ever means that somebody else was very recently sat there. And nobody likes that.
Spending time with your peers in Japan is exactly the same as in Britain. Provided you still go to primary school. Remember at lunch break when the boys would go out and play boy games and laugh with other boys at boy stuff? And the girls would chat about girl things and play games for girls, exclusively with other girls? Well Japan is like that, with grownups. On the subway and in the malls and on the streets are groups of girls who hang around and do their thing, and simultaneously but without any crossover, gangs of boys do the same. I have not seen any mixed groups spending time together. Even adults stick to their assigned groups of ‘businessmen hanging around and smoking together after work’ and ‘women going to the patisserie and getting the train home together’. As a teenager hanging around with a group of boys and girls from different schools every afternoon and weekend taught me so much about interacting with people, developing an understanding of the opposite sex, and breaking down social barriers to see other people as simply ‘other people’, not defined by gender.
But here’s what’s really weird… when Japanaese kids get together and socialise, they dress the same. Not in a coincidental way, like when you inadvertently turn up to work and there’s two other guys wearing jeans and a checked shirt, or when two girls turn up in a bar in the same top, and silently fume about it. I’m talking about groups of four or five girls breezing through Tokyo in the same skirt, the same top and the same hairband, like they’ve just come out of an audition for a girlband. This is not an uncommon sight, with boys reaching the sort of “squad goals” that would make Buzzfeed’s servers explode… same white jeans, same coloured t-shirts, same shoes. It feels like being backstage at a pop festival, surrounded by fivesomes in matching denim and giggling girls in the same dresses. Part of me kept hoping it was a big hidden camera prank on me, and they were all about to launch into a choreographed rendition of “Lay All Your Love On Me” and we’d all have a good laugh. I’m still waiting…
Not something that anybody hopes to experience on holiday, but somebody has to need a hospital when they’re travelling, and this time I got the short straw. I was greeted at the door and quickly appointed an interpreter who rarely left my side (she’s a Japanese linguist who works at the hospital, after a previous life as a ballerina that included a two week stay in Swansea many years ago. There was a lot of small talk). After explaining the problem to her and filling in some brief paperwork, I was put straight in the queue with the locals for a specialist in the exact field I was suffering. I was seen, everything was translated, I was X-rayed, evaluated, diagnosed, prescribed and presented with a fairly reasonable bill in under four hours. The specialist even let me take photos of the x-rays for the scrapbook, and the interpreter gave me copies of the notes and a medical certificate, transcribed into English and signed by the specialist for my insurance.
I am a massive fan of the British National Health Service and I won’t hear a word said against it… it’s stunning. But I’m hesitant to whether a Japanese tourist in London could wander into their nearest hospital and be seen and serviced in their native tongue at the drop of a hat. And for all the times I’ve been to A&E, I’ve never been whisked straight to a specialist, or been finished and back on the road with photo souvenirs of my x-rays within four hours. (I’ll be adding a poll at the bottom, if you’d like to vote to see the x-rays for yourself).
Locals have told me that Japan doesn’t like to pay income support for people who don’t work. Obviously they support people, by generating thousands and thousands of low paid jobs. So if they’re going to give people money, they’d rather the people work for it. This results in lots and lots of people doing unnecessary jobs; ticket collectors on buses, car park attendants waving people through the junctions like they were guiding a plane to land, traffic wardens working in pairs… even somebody at the airport with the sole job of attaching the sticker to a suitcase. Furthermore it’s crossed over to the private sector – which would theoretically look inferior if they don’t employ more bodies. It’s “Keeping up with the Joneses”, on a mass employment scale. I witnessed five people putting a plant holder together in a hotel lobby. Japan’s GDP is excellent, higher than the UK and in the top five in the world, so it’s not like they’re bankrupting themselves. As a local, one would be forgiven for harbouring unrealistic expectations when travelling outside the country… how they must pity the poor downtrodden British Airways staff in London, checking them in and attaching the sticker to the case.
There’s so much more to say; how well behaved the children are, the excellent shopping, the beautiful gardens and views. I could gripe too, about the unimaginative architecture outside the cities, the distinct lack of bins in public spaces, and the fact that nobody listens to the radio in this country. I took hundreds of photos, questioned things and read about them every day, and could happily breeze through another ten paragraphs of this. But to summarise, I had reservations about spending two weeks in a country where I can only speak about five words and read/write even fewer, but I leave feeling like I only scratched the tiniest of surfaces, and that I would really like to see lots more.
If you get the chance to say Konichiwa to Japan, do it.