What drives you travel? Why brave horrible airport security and cramped hours on a plane to go to a new place? Is it to immerse yourself in a different culture? Is it to see wonderful sights that you cannot find closer to home? Is it to taste a cuisine where it originated? After a recent trip to Japan, I’d like to argue that Japan is comprehensively the ideal travel destination when considering all the needs and the wants of a curious traveller.
First, let’s start with the practical things, the needs. Then, we can move onto to the wants.
Japan is one of the safest countries on earth. There is basically zero chance of you being murdered, shot, raped, robbed or pickpocketed. The streets are safe and feel safe for women to walk at night. The feeling of safety in Japan is next level. There are plenty of places which are safe enough to travel but you still have to employ a level of street smarts. Japan is totally safe even for people who are naive about their personal safety. Here are some examples;
- We inadvertently coincided with a primary school as it was finishing for the day. The pavement was crowded with children around the ages of 6 to 10. They were all chatting happily with their friends and walking home with their backpacks. There were NO PARENTS in sight! There was no adult supervision and these kids were not straying onto the roads. There was no question that these kids would get home safely because the community can be trusted. Why is this no longer the case elsewhere?
- We saw two girls of about 6 playing rock, paper, scissors on the subway until it was time for one of them to get off at her stop. She was happily waved off by her friend and all was well. Such young children are perfectly safe catching the subway home! And this is despite the fact that the Tokyo subway system is large and quite complex!
- Whilst there, we found perfectly good umbrellas left unattended on 3 separate occasions. They are not taken by another person as a lucky find because they belong to someone else! They are left waiting forlornly for their owner to return for them!
- A member of my travel party absentmindedly left a 500 yen coin in the change dispenser of a busy ticket vending machine and walked away. Five minutes later, she remembered and returned to the machine. It was still there!!!
- A train ticket vending machine malfunctioned. An attendant rectified the issue, so we bought our tickets and walked away. After a few minutes, the attendant taps on my shoulder and puts some coins into my hand. This was the exact amount of coinage that the machine swallowed up when it malfunctioned and he had ran after me to return it.
- In Japan, not only are you safe from bad food or bad people, you are even safe from bad germs! Masking is common in Japan. People mask up when they are feeling a little unwell to protect others in the community. How considerate and thoughtful!
Would this happen where you live?
One of the reasons why some people might avoid Japan is that the language barrier is too great. English is not spoken widely especially in the more rural areas and the written language is not in Roman lettering so you cannot even sound out the words to decipher their meaning. Here are the reasons why tourists should not be deterred by this;
- All the important signage, which tourists are likely to need, are bilingual with English e.g. train signage for both the local subway and national trains, signage for attractions, airport signage etc. Between the context of the situation and the sign, most people will work it out.
- Workers who are tourist facing will speak enough English e.g. the people exchanging your Japan Rail Pass, hotel front reception and the people at the tax free shopping counter.
- Young people are taught English in schools but many are not confident enough to use it but you will find that many of the staff in shops will work out what you are asking and will pop out with the odd English word, enough for you to get by.
- Most menus in Japan are pictorial. For people without allergies or strict dietary requirements, pointing at the pictures on a menu will ensure you get a delicious meal.
- Travelling places in a foreign language is so much less of an issue these days because of Google Translate. We used the camera function to translate signage, menus, labels on products etc. Whilst the translation is not perfect, it is sufficient to manage.
- For those who are still wary, stick to Tokyo. Most tourists go to Tokyo and as a result, restaurant and retail staff speak significantly better English than other places in the country. If you are worried about language, stick closer to the tourist trail.
- The Japanese people are super helpful and they will very kindly work with you to ensure you can manage all the usual basic transactions required by tourists.
- To better understand the history or context when in museums, shrines or temples, just Google it in your own language!
- When going to Japan, it’s worth learning two bits of Japanese. Sumimasen which means “I’m sorry” or “excuse me”. In such a crowded place, it’s often handy when trying to get past someone on a crowded train or shop. The other is arigatou gozaimasu which is loosely translated to “thank you very much”. When you experience how kind and lovely the Japanese people are, you are really going to want to thank them. Another handy word is “oishii” which means delicious. Watch for the big, genuine smile on the face of a hardworking, small restaurant owner when you compliment their food. You may hear lots of high pitched squeals of kawaii or “cute” when you faced with some anime type stuff. There is a great love of cute things in this country!
We all need to use it and when travelling, it’s really comforting to know that they will be plentiful, clean, safe and easy to find. This is a bigger concern for women rather then men who have the equipment and safety to urinate al fresco. For public toilets, Japan is the absolute best country. They are available in every subway station, train station, shopping centre, convenience store, museum and restaurant and they are clean! Some observations about toilets in Japan….
- The Japanese toilet with the heated seats and washing function are available very frequently. The washing functions will jet water (at various adjustable pressures and temperatures) to wash your bum hole or your lady parts.
- There were a minority of toilets which were still the old-fashioned squatting type but considering the high frequency of public toilets, you can just walk away from these, safe in the knowledge that you will come across another toilet not too far away.
- In a train station it was amusing to see the toilet signage include the exact distance in metres to the toilet, You can then judge how long you have to hold on before arriving!
- Perhaps sexist, but in the ladies toilet, there is often an extremely low urinal! I assume this is for young boys who go with their mothers to the ladies toilet.
A consideration for many about whether they visit a place is how much the holiday will cost. A holiday in Japan, once the flight costs are accounted for, is very affordable. Here are some examples of costs;
- A night at a business hotel close to the train station can be about $80AUD. This type of hotel is clean and comfortable albeit charmless and small. There will be plenty of unusual amenities like pajamas, toothbrushes, bedroom slippers and razors readily provided as is the tradition with Japanese hotels.
- A set meal for lunch or dinner which includes meat, soup, rice can be easily found for $8-10AUD.
- Entry fees to attractions such as a museum are either free or only about $3AUD.
- Bus or subway fare will about $2AUD.
- A ladies extra fine merino jumper from Uniqlo is $30AUD.
- The cost of household items, clothing and souvenirs are so well priced, most people will leave with their bags groaning with items from the famous Japanese shops of Uniqlo, Muji and Daiso.
One of the big attractions of travel is to delve deeper into foreign cuisine. Japan is a fabulous place as they have a diverse cuisine which incorporate lots of ingredients which are quite foreign to the Western diet. For many on a traditional Western diet, the Japanese diet is healthier so you may return from your holiday feeling better from the healthier food and all the walking that comes with sightseeing. Other points to consider about eating in Japan;
- Eating in foreign countries often come some caution around food safety. This is not a concern in Japan despite all the raw fish, prawn, chicken and horse being eaten as sashimi. You can order anything on the menu at any type of restaurant, cheap or expensive and KNOW that the food will be clean and safe. The taste, price and quality of the food will be excellent as well.
- The service at restaurants or food vans is excellent and the staff will always be pleasant and helpful and there is no service charge expected.
- There is a type of cuisine called Japanese Western food, yōshoku. It is quite amusing to try and originates back to the Meiji Restoration when the emperor actively promoted the incorporation of Western ingredients and influences into their cuisine. It’s Western food with a Japanese twist.
- Smoking is allowed inside some izakayas i.e. an informal small bar. We did not see indoor smoking allowed anywhere else. There may be a small, per person, cover charge in an izakaya which will come with a small portion of food that pairs well with a drink.
- A good rule of thumb when travelling is to avoid eating close to major tourist attractions as the food is usually abhorrent and the restaurant serving it well versed in fleecing tourists. This was not at all the case in Japan. There was no need to check restaurant ratings. Every place we went to served clean, tasty, well prepared food at a very reasonable price.
- Japanese food tends to be predominantly meat or seafood based so Japan can be tricky for vegans and vegetarians.
The Japanese culture is very different to the Western culture. It is more collectivist, more community minded, more respectful and polite, very considerate, hardworking and loyal. Perhaps it is this type of culture that has allowed Japan to function smoothly despite the high population density. The result is a very safe place for a traveller where the people are super helpful, law abiding, considerate and polite. Some examples which really blew my mind include;
- The people take pride in their work. Bus drivers have a microphone that allows them to speak to the people on the bus. They greet every passenger and thank each as they leave and offer helpful commentary for each stop. The train conductor enters each carriage and bows, then proceeds to check our tickets then thanks us all with a bow before moving onto the next carriage.
- Shoes have to taken off when entering the pristine changing rooms at a clothes shop. Changeroom curtains are annoyingly notorious for having a gap at the side but in Japan, they sometimes have a loop on the edge of the curtain and a hook on the sides of the changeroom walls so you can secure the curtain and be 100% sure that the curtain will be held in place, right to the edge, ensuring modesty. When you are finished trying on clothes, there will always be a shoe horn provided to help you back into your shoes. No one steals this shoe horn!
- Bicycles are allowed on the pavements without issues because riders cycle considerately and at a sensible pace so that pedestrians feel safe.
- Everyone including pedestrians, cyclists and vehicles obeys the traffic lights and the green/red person at all times. People wait until the green person lights up indicating that it is safe to cross.
- When arriving in Tokyo, Qatar Airways did not put our luggage onto the flight. When the airport realised, they sent a nice lady with our name on a sign to the baggage carousel to find us and to help us with the paperwork. She was so kind and diligent in taking down our details and giving us clear information as to when our bag would be delivered and how we can track the status.
- Prescription glasses are a good thing to purchase in Japan as they are good quality, a great price and for simple prescriptions, made for you in only 30 to 60 minutes! The machines to determine your prescription guides you through in English. When shopping for new glasses, I was impressed by the retail assistant. After valiantly trying with Google Translate to answer my queries, she got a tablet and video-called a live translator. We could then use this live human translator over video to translate back and forth between us. How great, how sweet, how considerate, what amazing service! I was immensely impressed and touched.
- There are vending machines everywhere, often in unsupervised locations. They are in complete working order and unmolested. They are not vandalised. There is no graffiti anywhere. This shows a respect for property that is so rare these days.
Many modern cities are clean enough but Japan is really amazingly spotless. They take it to the next level. Some examples include;
- At a major shopping centre, a cleaner was actively cleaning the tracks for the main entrance sliding door.
- At a train platform, a cleaner was doing detailed cleaning of the equivalent of the skirting boards using the skinny, detailed nozzle of their vacuum cleaner!
- There are no public rubbish bins around yet there is no rubbish on the ground. It is expected that people will carry any rubbish they generate home with them. There are rubbish bins at the convenience stores and street food vendors but those are intended for rubbish generated from items you purchase from that business. In Japan, you are not supposed to walk and eat. The idea is to purchase food from a store and eat it close to that business, dispose of any rubbish then move on. Most convenience stores come with handy sitting areas for their customers.
With the exception of Haneda Airport which we found to be the only aberration, Japan is an amazing efficient place when it comes to transport.
- When checking Google maps, there will be a recommendation of which carriage to use on the train for the fastest transfer if you are changing trains. Once on the platform, the train stops at exactly the correct spot adjacent to the platform where there will be sign indicating which carriage it will be. It is therefore easy to get onto the carriage which will enable you to do the fastest transfer! Amazing!
- Japanese shinkansen, bullet trains are fast and comfortable and are an efficient and easy way to get between the big cities. There is no need to splurge on the first class seats because even the normal carriages are clean, comfortable, spacious and come with generous leg room.
The Why of Travel
One of the best things about travel is to go somewhere very different, to feel some culture shock, to immerse yourself in a different way of life, to try and understand a different society. Japan makes for a fascinating destination that definitely ticks this box. It feels like a parallel universe and so different from other places. It is so safe and so courteous. My inability to read any Japanese characters added to the culture shock. We forget how much we understand of the world around us by being able to read signs, packages on the shelves, book covers etc.
The gardens in Japan have such a serene vibe but this is not by chance. Each plant is carefully tended and disciplined to give a zen feel.
Why is the Japanese culture and people like this? Is it the low immigration? Is it the way young Japanese children in school are expected to clean up after themselves and their classmates leading to a sense of interdependence? Is it family pressure or pride? Is it religion? Is it that the Japanese pride themselves on social harmony and community and they know that they can count on each other? Parents can feel easy about letting their 6 year old navigate home from school alone if they know that every member of the community will keep a watchful eye out, help their child and keep them safe.
How has Japan held onto to its core values despite the speed of the Meiji Restoration? The Meiji Restoration was when Japan transformed their country from a weak, agricultural, underdeveloped, feudal country to a nation with an elected government, developed transportation and communication infrastructure, thriving industry and highly educated people. All this was done over a period of only a few decades.
Another reason for travelling is to have fun. Japan has a lot of this too! The beautiful serene, Japanese style gardens, the major attractions such as Disneyland, DisneySea and Hello Kitty world, pachinko parlours, shrines and temples, the shopping, the food, the hot springs, Mount Fuji, the buzz and bright lights of Tokyo, the fascinating history and so on. The list is endless.
Japan is great place for shopping and consumerism with massive ranges of good quality things available for a reasonable price. In fact, the number of product choices available is quite overwhelming. Expensive items like prescription glasses are very cheap and fast to make in Japan. For a basic prescription, they can cost only about $55AUD. Remember that you can shop tax free if you buy more than $50AUD in one store, in one day.
Japan is famous for their 100 yen stores e.g. Daiso, Seria etc. You can buy so many things at 100 yen ($1AUD) at these types of stores and the quality will be very decent. Some example of items we purchased include a vegetable grater, sturdy kitchen scissors, phone lanyard, compact re-usable shopping bags, confectionary, large storage containers etc. Truly, these stores are a shoppers paradise with the sheer number of good quality items available for that low price.
Are you convinced yet that Japan is the ideal travel destination?
Some negative aspects, for some balance….
Thus far, this post has been overwhelmingly positive about Japan but no country is without its flaws. Here are a few although some are arguably not a big issue. Included are also some aspects which might make it trickier for certain types of travellers.
- The gardens are sometimes overly manicured and their natural attractions sometimes negatively adjusted for tourists. One particular example that struck me was a geyser in Beppu. They had built a rock wall to limit the height of the geyser for safety so that audience seating and a walkway could be located very close to the source and a souvenir building could be built just adjacent. After seeing the minimalist infrastructure around a geyser in Iceland, this felt a little sad.
- The hells of Beppu in general was quite commercialised and tacky but perhaps this is what is best for the area as the attractions were crawling with tourists.
- There is a pressure to be well presented in Japan. All the women looked like they had just stepped out from a hair salon. Each had a head of healthy, recently cut, styled and often subtly coloured hair. This is not an easy task considering the dry winter air. Women are well dressed and many wore heels with bare legs despite the cold and the amount of walking required. This is all very time consuming, cold and uncomfortable but unfortunately it is expectation placed on women.
- On the weekdays, there are hordes of salary men and women on their way to or from work. A vast majority will be wearing black suits with the odd person in a camel coloured coat. Japan has a culture of long working hours and the stress and pressure of this can’t be good. It was a relief to see the people on a Sunday wearing comfortable, colourful, casual clothing that expressed more of themselves. I could even feel their improved mood on the Sunday.
- The aesthetic for Japanese women are one of only two things. Most women will wear elegant, loose but well cut clothes in classy, muted, neutral colours. A small minority of young women will wear a child-inspired, anime based, Lolita look with lace and ruffles. Is this symptomatic of something deeper where a woman can’t even wear a bold blue, green or red?
- We wondered around the red light district in Fukuoka and noticed that the women and men on the posters lacked diversity. All the women were child-like, with big eyes and innocent elfin faces. All the men were quite feminine with their K-pop type styling. Is there only one look that is sexually desirable?
- Due to the high population density, people live in small spaces and the hotel rooms are often very small compared to Western standards. This might annoy some people.
- Plastic and especially disposable soft plastics are used a lot in Japan. It appears the environmental movement has not caught on here much.
- In a big city of Tokyo, not much space has been left for free public use such as parks.
- For some types of people, a crazy, busy city like Tokyo with it’s bright lights, sea of humanity and buzzy vibe might be too much. That being said, despite the numbers of people, I found that I am afforded more personal space than in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, people seemed to walk much closer to you. I felt crowded to the point where I had to escape to my hotel room to recover every few hours. I didn’t feel this way in Tokyo.
In conclusion, how does your country compare with Japan? Why is your country not more like Japan? Is there something that can be learned from the way they do things in Japan?
When in Rome……so when in Japan, you may find your behaviour changing to fit in. You may find yourself more polite, more considerate, more courteous because this is the way everyone is around you. Their good behaviour rubs off. If only we can export all the good traits of Japanese culture to other countries.