Japan, a land of contrasts etc
I find flying an ordeal, and long-haul trips almost insanity-inducing. Exhausted after a day travelling, I arrived at Narita Airport in Tokyo and bought a coffee, drank it and stuck the empty cup in the side strap of my rucksack.
Staring at the metro map with a look of utter bewilderment and asking one of the many smartly-dressed station staff for help, I took a train which confusingly turned into another line.
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Within a few minutes I noticed with horror that some remaining coffee had spilled onto the carriage floor, in front of everyone; with my extremely low embarrassment threshold, I kneeled down and started cleaning up the spillage and a young man got out some wipes and started helping. That was my first impression of Japan.
For those of you who also spend too much time online, you’ll be aware of a variation of the Soyjack meme about how certain people are overly impressed by everything in Japan, even with things that would bore them at home.
I spent a lot of time walking around with soyface, I admit, caused by the mixture of cultural strangeness, extreme efficiency and technical wonder.
Architecture is the obvious example of Japan Soyface Syndrome. Tokyo is an urbanist dream – it has a near-perfect metro system and incredibly low levels of crime and incivility – but it’s not pretty; indeed, it has some quite hideous architecture, although the futuristic high rise does have a certain aesthetic charm.
This is strange considering the Japanese obsession with style, and how interior design is often painfully exquisite – there’s a reason why Japanese-style furnishings and gardens are very popular in the West. Yet they seem happy with exteriors that look like a Paris housing estate. Perhaps this is one of the benefits of living in a society with so little crime, which allows for a warren-like environment, so that many bars are found in an underpass, or on the fifth floor in some nondescript building via a lift. You might have over a dozen shops and restaurants in one quite small address.
Likewise, westerners often find density stressful back home, and Tokyo is mind-blowingly big and crowded – with 30 million people, probably the largest city in the world. You can travel for a long time and still see nothing smaller than six-story, something people in English-speaking countries try their best to stop (with disastrous consequences for housing costs).
This population density is most famously intense at the Shibuya Scramble Crossing, although a large percentage of people there are tourists taking videos of other people, but huge swathes of the city are similar. (The crossing is, incidentally, close to the statue of Hachikō the Akita dog, their equivalent of Greyfriars Bobby.)
There is noise everywhere. Screens play adverts on street corners, and shops are filled with jingles playing over each other, which in a western city would probably trigger psychosis, but here doesn’t feel agitating. Perhaps this is because the musical aesthetic is quite childlike: each subway station also has its own chime, which the train plays as it exits the station. (The childlike effect is also helped by the ubiquity of cartoon images.)
Japanese population density presumably further drives their extensive codes of politeness. The habit of people listening to music, or having phone conversations on speakers, has become one of many banes of London life, but here there are signs telling people not to talk on their phone on trains and no one does.
Similarly, you can’t smoke in the streets, where there are signs prohibiting it, but lots of bars allow smoking, and there are smoking areas on trains and in airports, and sometimes on little side areas on pavements. It’s not for health reasons, then, they just find it uncivil.
People even queue for metro trains, with arrows to the left and right of each carriage entrances. Almost no one jaywalks, and in my time I think I saw two people do it; after a while I found this frustrating, but was keen not to make my team look bad. As many visitors report, the people are incredibly honest, and civilized - even their football fans are known to clear up after games.
The politeness codes are also expressed through bowing, which is universal and becomes second nature; it’s quite pleasant, and when there is a language barrier it’s a convenient way to signal your good intentions.
Without wishing to say that it’s a land of contrasts, a mixture of the traditional and modern – this travel writing is really easy! - it is a mixture of the traditional and modern, indeed futuristic. In the first bar we went to you had to use a QR code to order a beer but they didn’t accept cards, and a lot of places will only take cash.
Japan has quite a lot of automation; in one restaurant a robot came along with the food, but it wasn’t as much as I expected.
In fact, it has an abundance of people doing jobs that in the West would be considered superfluous. At the airport, visitors are greeted by lots of people in bowler hats and masks who are there to guide you to the exit. On a visit to the Mori Art Museum, which is on the 54th floor and provides some great Godzilla-eyed views of the city, there were about a dozen young women who greeted us along the way.
The railway system also seems to employ huge numbers of guards, wearing smart suits and white gloves, and you see a lot of people cleaning, including men hoovering the stairs on the underground.
Similarly, at night you see lots of construction workers in colourful get-up and there are clearly more than they actually need, which is apparently the result of social pressure on companies to employ extra people. Many of them seem quite old, and indeed you see quite a few elderly people working, although one thing Japan isn’t short of is old people. Even in Tokyo, you see far more elderly than in London, and in Kyoto there are noticeably more.
If you like trains, Japan is basically Valhalla. Our hotel overlooked a four-line railway line and there was one every minute.
There are two separate underground networks, which is a bit confusing, but you can easily pass between them with a Suica card, and it’s relatively cheap. You can use it on Japan’s other metro systems, of which there are many.
Even smaller metro stations can be gigantic, with endless courtyard spaces and basement levels and countless shops and restaurants, but larger stations are stupendous. Tokyo central station feels about the same size as all of London’s mainline stations combined, with entire streets inside, including one with two dozen restaurants called Ramen Street. Food is surprisingly cheap in Tokyo, if you like quite basic stuff; ramen is normally about £6, ordered outside through a vending machine; in one ramen place we visited the food is brought through a little counter so there is precisely zero human interaction, although you can still spot the man bowing as he presents it, the perk of living in a shy culture. (Also, there is no tipping, which is apparently considered an insult.)
Obviously, I strongly object to any sort of national stereotyping, but Japan’s train system is exactly how you imagine it: if you search a route on Google Maps which involves three trains, you are guaranteed that they will all be there on time. Indeed it’s hard not to be demoralised by the system back home in comparison.
On the way to Gatwick the train stopped for a few minutes in south London and later the driver came on to announce that, because of this the train wouldn’t go to Brighton (he never explained the exact connection). A friend in Japan recalled that when a minor earthquake once hit while on the metro, the train stopped for a minute and the announcer came on to apologise profusely for the inexcusable inconvenience.
Japan’s high-speed trains are incredibly frequent, going from Tokyo to Kyoto about every four minutes and taking two hours, at speeds of 200 mph (for the equivalent of London to Newcastle). The seats are very comfortable and spacious, but they’re relatively expensive – about £70 each way (slightly less than one would pay in Britain for the same distance on the day).
Japan’s railway system is private, although if I was to offer any sort of explanation based on precisely eight days in the country, I suspect its superiority stems from the society’s very high levels of conscientiousness. Even the National Railway Museum promises visitors that they can ‘experience the burden of responsibility, the appeal, and the fulfilment of keeping railways safe,’ an angle that wouldn’t appeal to British audiences, and similarly, the Tokyo Metro Museum has a lot of emphasis on safety; there seems to be something in the Japanese character that, whatever you do, you seek to do it as best as you can, and take pride in it.
On the bullet train the immaculately-dressed inspector came into the carriage with great fanfare, made an announcement and then bowed, before inspecting tickets. As I sped along in the Shinkansen I received an email telling me that my train to Yorkshire this coming weekend was cancelled, meaning I must either pay more for an earlier train (which will be overcrowded) or miss the event I’m attending. Last summer, when I took my children to Ireland by ferry, I missed three connecting trains in the north of England because of earlier delays of cancellations. Visiting Japan, I was slightly worried that I would have a full-on nervous breakdown when I returned to Britain and first heard ‘see it, say it, sorted’ over the intercom.
I found the people working on the railways to be very helpful, even if English proficiency is quite limited (many people use tech by talking into Google Translate). This was especially so as I am quite an incompetent traveller - think Denholm Elliott in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade - and managed to buy the wrong ticket at one point, which they easily fixed.
I did get told off once. An Indian guy sat down next to me on the bullet train and we started chatting, I don’t think particularly loudly, and a salaryman across the way told us we must not talk loudly. The Indian lived there and whispered that this is the way that things work, and I gave my best attempt at a bow of apology.
The technology is very impressive. Japan does sort of feel like the place of the future as imagined in the 1990s, and I don’t mean that as an insult – it’s a very pleasing aesthetic, and a lot of people my age and younger were introduced to Japanese culture by electronic means through Nintendo, Sega and the games culture of the era (or via anime).
Japan was unusual among Asian countries in confronting western encroachment by actively choosing to imitate European ways. It embraced western science and medicine – ‘Dutch science’ as it was called – clothes, technology, the calendar and seven-day week. Japan’s rulers feared and despised Christianity, and once persecuted Christians, but many came to see that religion as useful for nation-building.
Today, Christians have a small presence – I saw a couple of schools with the Virgin Mary outside and an Anglican church in Kyoto – but Christmas is everywhere. The Japanese love the festive season, it seems. It’s not just jingles in department stores and Christmas markets but also adverts featuring not just of Father Christmas but even cartoon demons promoting the festival. The Japanese love cultural appropriation, and I love that they love appropriating it. My culture can be your Halloween costume!
Many bars are a jumble of different western things, cobbled together without any real logic; we went to one that served cocktails in mini-bathtubs and had pictures of French wine regions on the wall and played hip-hop artists like Bad Bunny. It felt like some people had tried to recreate a fallen civilisation from the random remnants they found.
Japan and Britain have a long history, two island nations famous for their reserve and difficult relationships with the local continental power, and British themes are pretty common. There is a British pub chain called The Hub, we saw a sort of John Lennon shrine of a café by one of Tokyo’s fish markets, and a Scottish pub celebrating St Andrew’s Day flags where one very friendly local man, wearing a jacket with a Tennent’s logo, explained how much he loved Scotland and had visited the brewery in Glasgow.
With all that, I rather agree with Feyi Fawehinmi in hoping none of these people visit our country, because Britain will prove a disappointment. Fawehinmi also touched on another important aspect: ‘Japan, by way of Sony, introduced the Walkman to the world in 1979 and went on to sell 385 million units of them across the globe making it one of the most popular consumer electronic devices in history. There were many other export hits reflected in the fact that Japan’s electronics exports went from $600m in value in 1965 to $60bn two decades later. So a question I kept asking myself while in Japan is why is the TOTO toilet/washlet not more popular across the world? Everything else just feels inferior once you’ve used a TOTO. They are amazing!’
Yes, the toilets really are something. Can I give a toilet a Tripadvisor review? Five stars.
Like Fawehinmi, I didn’t experience any xenophobia. Japan is apparently more diverse than it was five years ago, but nothing like the West. In a typical day in Tokyo I’d see about 50 white people, maybe two black people and a smattering of Indians and south-east Asians. But I’d also see about fifty million Japanese people. Kyoto has even more foreigners than Tokyo, overwhelmingly tourists, especially around the various Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines - the Fushimi Inari Taisha is especially beautiful and gives a sense of its history.
The Japanese clearly like their distinctive culture and customs, and who can blame them? They also don’t seem to suffer western guilt, if the Yūshūkan, the country’s national war museum, is any indication, with its hilariously biased take on the country’s wartime record.
The museum makes no mention of Japanese war crimes, not even when discussing Nanking, praises the courage of their soldiers, extensively complains about atrocities committed against Japanese prisoners-of-war, by the Soviets, and credits Japan with ending colonialism by inspiring Asian peoples to seek independence and oppose racism. Well, that’s one interpretation! I imagine that other Asian visitors would be offended by this, and presumably not many Chinese tourists visit, but our particular hatchet has been so deeply buried that it just seems perversely amusing. And anyway, I wouldn’t want Japan to change.
Anyway, I’m crossing England by train this weekend, so back to reality and, no doubt, a bus replacement service. And remember: see it, say it, sorted.
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