I have absolutely loved Japan, the people are lovely, the history is fascinating and the culture is incredible.
First thing to note for me personally is that I should only come to Japan in shoulder season or in the winter. I’m from a subtropical climate, but NOTHING could have prepared me for the humidity here – it’s phenomenal. People are walking around with mops, sponges and hand towels to constantly wipe the sweat off themselves. It’s positively stifling… the men in particualr are just about wearing Monty Python hankies on their heads to stay cool, and yet there are plenty of ladies walking around in stockings, heels, blouses and CARDIGANS! WTF is with that? Wearing a sweater or cardie when it’s 34C out. Urgh. Even when playing tourist in their own country, the Japanese women are teetering around on uneven pavement and cobblestones in stilettos, stockings, skirts and a twin set. Makes the rest of us in our sneakers and capri pants look excessively dowdy, but in comparison, we also look extremely practical.
Another thing we noticed was all the people wearing face masks to protect themselves from germs and toxins and what not. This is nothing new, we’ve all seen it in news reports, people have genuine concerns about the air quality so they’re trying to filter what they breather. But I have seen so many people wearing a face mask who have only got it on covering their mouth and not their nose. 🙂 Which hardly seems effective. Not to mention we have also seen plenty of these self same people, happily walk into aa crowded smoking room, drop their protective face mask to dangle around their necks while they have a cigarette. Absolutley absurd.
Some other things we haven’t quite been able to fathom is when to keep left, and when to keep right. It seems that in Japan, you drive on the left, but keep right when walking along streets or pedestrian access areas, EXCEPT when you get on an escalator… at which point you need to stand on the left. Go figure.
The public transport is excellent for the most part. Super fast, exceptionally clean, no bums begging for money in the subway (I’m looking at you fucking NYC and Washington DC) and people cram in here just as tightly as they do on the Tube, but with a bit more courtesy. I don’t take public transport much at home so I probably have no proper frame of reference for this – but nearly EVERYONE is playing little mobile phone games for their transit. Little Tetris type games, or puzzle games seem to be favourites, though I did sit beside one Japanese lady who was reading Pride and Prejudice on her phone in English (I saw fleetingly that Mr Darcy was asking Lizzy to dance and she had sworn she would never dance with him!) which kinda tickled my finely tuned sense of the absurd.
We noticed that our tour guides for the various city and ship tours we did, appear to be multi-talented … or wanted to appear to be multi-talented or something – but either way they wanted to show us what ever it was they could do. Not quite sure what was going on with this one, but the tour guides always wanted to ‘exhibit’ towards the end of the tour. One sang us a traditional Shinto wedding ballad in a very operatic style, another played some local music on a weird little Japanese style ocarina type thing… but the true highlight was the strange little dude who was doing magic tricks on the bus on the way back to the ship. LOL. I have no idea what all this was about.
Flip phones! Yeah, what’s with that???? Clam-shell mobile phones seem to be incredibly popular here (thse and iPhones of course). Haven’t seen many people with clam-shell phones for ages at home, and when you do they tend to be low on features, but here, loads of people have them. Didn’t bother going shopping to see what brands they were, but they seem to be everywhere.
Ummm… what else. Trains stations are fun. Like, literally — fun. Every time a train pulls in, various ding dongs and bells and whistles go off – they sound just like pokie machines. And I swear each station has it’s own different noises so that all the people dozing off on the train don’t miss their stops! 🙂 The trains here come in really fast to the station. I am not sure why they do – it’s kinda bizarre that they pull up so hard, but surely it must be a ‘person under the train’ risk. If you wanted to jump on the tracks as a train was pulling into any station, it would certainly do the trick, they’re coming in that fast.
We also loved the ‘No up skirt photos’ warning posters on a lot of escalators in train stations. Particularly prevalent around the Shinjuku and Akhiabara area where cosplayers are frequently spotted around the place. Mr K fell in love with escalators that went up… then go flat… then go up again. Sort of a blend of escalator/travelator/escalator type thing. Should be more of it I say. Some of the older stations that obviously haven’t been updated or renovated have only steps still, but most of them were very accessible (Not like the NYC Subway I might note).
One of my biggest peeves with Tokyo is the complete ‘no public seating’ policy that seems to be in effect. You can be at a station waiting for the next train, at a shopping centre just escaping the heat in the air con or even in a public park, and there will not be any seats anywhere that you can just pull up a pew and rest for a minute. I was told by one of the guides that this is due to the habits of salarymen who have a tendecy to stay in town after work and get drunk, then sleep in the city in their clothes and go straight to work again. Apparenlty it is quite common (and semi-acceptable) to crash for the night on a park bench… so no benches forces them into cheap tiny hotels or to pack themselves off home.
We have seen a bit of strange behaviour from the business end of town – one night in Shibuya when we were out for dinner with some of Mr K’s work colleagues, it was pissing down rain… and next thing you know the train stations and squares are full of businessmen in suits and GUMBOOTS. They look so ridiculous, but how tediously practical is that? To keep a pair of gumboots in your office for just such occasions. I love it. The other weirdness that business men are seen doing quite frequently is bowing while having their conversations. They will stand around and bow constantly at each other, deference flying in all directions, which is lovely and polite and there should be more of it I say… but man does it look strange to see a man on a mobile phone repeatedly bowing to someone unseen on the other end of the phone, just because he habitually bows saying the words he is saying. Plenty of bowing to invisible/absent people going on.
What else have we got? Loads and loads of push bikes everywhere, and hardly any of them are locked up… crime is very low. BUT, when you got to a restaurant, reception centre, or even some temples, there are long boxes for people to put their umbrellas while they are inside – and those have individual locks so no one can walk off with your umbrella! Yep, no locking up the bicycles, but definitely lock up your umbrella. 🙂 Speaking of umbrellas, Japanese cities are incredibly clean, but the one thing you can and will find littering the street from time to time, are broken umbrellas. You can pick them up from any train station kiosk for about $5-6, so it seems these sorts of umbrellas are sort of disposable. They are as cheap and nasty as they sound, but they do the trick for a while, so when they die, they get discarded and don’t stay in rubbish bins very well.
I noticed that the Emergency service vehicles here sound like air raid sirens – much like air raid sirens from WWII movies that depict people rushing around London grabbing their gas mask boxes, and heading for air raid shelters. It’s a little disconcerting.
Oh, this one is definitely weird. I took a cruise on the harbour around Tokyo while the others were climbing Mt Fuji, and I saw a Tokyo city ferry. The Tokyo ferries look like a UFO fucked a submarines. Weird. They look very weird.
In Kyoto, the bus drivers have a headset microphone on so they can address the passengers on the bus without raising their voice, which is fine seeing people enter the bus from the rear doors and exit by the front and pay as you get off. Only problem is that the bus drivers either forget they are wearing them or they just don’t care and when you hear the amplified snorting of a Kyoto bus driver hacking up a loogie from six different speakers, it really makes you wish they didn’t have them things on.
Somthing else we have been often amused and confused by is the ridiculous amount of over packaging that seems to come with every purchase. You might want to buy two lapel pins or three handkerchiefs, that are already in their manufacturers packaging and the store clerk will either wrap each, already plastic wrapped, item in paper, or place each item in another individual plastic bag and then put the whole lot in another plastic bag. Even if you are carrying a backpack or other plastic bag to put it in, they will still insist on giving you yet another bag.
Speaking of shopping – fucking no one, and I mean NO ONE, bar the local Seven-11 or Family Mart, takes credit cards. While many western countries have embraced using Visa or Mastercard for small purchases, Japan seems to flow on a cash economy. Yes, many departent stores, boutique stores and large chains will take your credit card, but most bars, restaurants, souvenir shops, musuem gift shops even, only take cash. Weird. So unless you’re spending a lot of money in expensive stores, or eating in a semi-western restaurant or picking up a few groceries, we found ourselves having to pay for nearly everything with cash.
We noticed that the bus drivers and taxi drivers all seem to favour white gloves while working. I have no idea why, but they’re often wearing white cotton gloves, like out of place mimes. Additionally, I reckon nearly all the Taxi drivers are Japanese. Which is unheard of in the UK, or Australia or the US. I didn’t meet any obviously foreign taxi drivers (though in fairness, some of them could be Chinese and I wouldn’t necessarily know from the back seat). Oh, this is gorgeous – most taxis seem to be quite old or rather modeled on an older style of vehicle, but are extremely well maintained and very well presented… I mean doilies on the seat and head rests and sometimes on the inside of the door frames. Pristine white doilies.
Get out of Toyko where most people rely heavily on the very fast, very clean rail, and you start to notice a few things about the Japanese people and their relationship to cars. Firstly – they’re all tiny, and the ones that aren’t are disproportionately narrow… I mean when you stumble across a Mini Cooper S and think ‘Wow that looks like a big car for some reason’, you know how small most of the cars on the road are. And because the population is so dense, parking is really creative. Many residential properties have car lifts so people can park one of their cars on top of their other car. There are so many of these double decker parking lift things in some residential areas you get the impression they must be a really affordable option for parking problems. Others have taken a different tactic and park their cars INSIDE what are/were shop fronts and restaurants… they initially appear disused but once the car is driven out it looks like itcould be business as usual.
The other car weirdness is peoples’ preparedness to stop anywhere. In Kyoto, we went down to Gion and a guy in a Mercedes was parked on the side of a busy road (near our favourite okonomyaki store) and when we came back after checking out the lights, the shops, the hanamiachi… he was still parked there! The driver was gone, but his buddy was in the front passenger seat watching baseball on an in-dash TV system. No one seemed to think he should move on, and people will just stop seemingly anywhere regardless of how busy the road is.
We had one ‘it’s a small world’ moment in Kyoto (I mean once we were on the ship there were Australians everywhere and we were meeting people from just across down every other day), but the first people we ran into was on a tram in Kyoto. There was a kid sitting opposite us wearing a Brisbane Lions cap and I pointed it out to the Small Child, who said, “I think he goes to my school”. I said hello to the familyl and yes, it turns out they are from right around the corner in Cannon Hill and the kid in the Brisbane Lions cap does go to the same school as the Small Child, just a grade level up. It is a small world… you always seem to run into someone when you are travelling.
And a list of Japanese weirdnesses wouldn’t be complete with an observation or two about the unusual toilets that you find here. Yes, they are very fancy, and they have a multitude of functions. The most amusing of the functions in my opinion would be the ‘water sound’ button. It seems hearing other people pee is so offensive that the toilet will play water running or flushing noises for you so you can empty your bladder and no one has to hear it. *rolls eyes* The other thing I noticed is that it can be 35°C and disgustingly humid and sticky, but someone will have the toilet seat warmer on for reasons beyond my ability to comprehend. Bizarre. And I think there is two types of toilets in Japan – the ultra fancy bidet with massage and spray and works and jerks, or the dreaded squat toilet with no paper. No in between.
And other than that – the only other thing I found truly, wonderfully, absurd was a Japanese man singing karaoke on the ship… he really should have chosen something other than ‘The Crocodile Rock’. We were laughing so hard we had to back out of Club Fusion quick.