Exhausted after another sleepless overnight flight back to Australia, we tackled Sydney’s rail system. Cam struggled with a cocky ticket seller. What happened to “the customer is king” service we received in Tokyo? While conductors and drivers of trains in Japan were perfectly polished in shiny-buttoned suits, hats and white gloves, our train into Central featured a large hairy employee donning tattoos and a polo top hanging out of one of the front carriages yelling “Yep, we’re roooiiiight”.
We watched the graffiti whiz by. Haven’t seen graffiti, or names scratched into transport windows in 3 weeks. The loud crinkling and crunching of a guy eating a packet of salt and vinegar chips and gulping a chocolate milk for breakfast, and the large family (not in numbers, in girth) who bowled onto the train squabbling about which stop they were getting off at, peppered with choice expletives and that “ooooiiiiiii” vowel sound not replicated anywhere else in the world, reminded us we were home. I just thought “Man, Australians are loud. SO loud.”
As I’ve mentioned before, conversations are had at a near whisper in Japan. Quiet, respectable and polite with awareness of your impact on those around you.
BUT arriving home at the airport, I also heard groups of friends sharing stories and openly laughing. Joking and raucous. Hugging! I only saw this happen in Japan among groups of children.
There were loads of things that surprised us about Japan. It actually made us realise how little we knew about it before our trip. I think most people have an idea about maybe 5 aspects…sushi, kimonos, temples, the odd outfits of Harajuku and the bright lights and technology of Tokyo. But here are some of those “We weren’t expecting that” moments…
There are no rubbish bins. ANYWHERE! You might strike it lucky and find one at a train station, or in public toilets, but generally there are no bins on the streets. Apparently many of them were removed after Tokyo’s subway sarin gas attack in 1994. You are expected to take your rubbish home with you. And everyone must, because…
There is no rubbish . ANYWHERE! I am not exaggerating when I say there is more trash in the kids’ school playground after recess than I saw on our whole trip over 3 weeks. And it’s not because there’s an army of cleaners picking it all up. People just do not toss it. There’s a certain respect for their surroundings. Which must be hard though when…
Everything is WAY over-packaged. Buy a loaf of bread from a bakery, and it will be put in a paper bag, then in a plastic bag, then in a fancy bigger paper bag, and another plastic bag (for who knows what reason) is rolled up and stuck onto the original bag. This happens with every purchase. Bags and bags and packaging galore. Where does it all go? NOT on the streets!
One of the many over-packaged items are their sweets, and while I like to try, and enjoy, most foods, Japanese sweets are not my cup of (green) tea. Green tea cake, green tea biscuits, green tea Kit-Kats and green tea pancakes. And often mixed with hideous red bean paste. Eeeewwwww. Think Mexican refried beans, mixed with sugar. Mystery pastries MIGHT contain delicious custard cream…or bean paste. It’s hidden everywhere, like a cruel booby prize. But somebody must like it, because the sweet shops are packed with people buying over-packaged boxes and boxes of the stuff!
Some of the other dessert fails we tested included “mitarashi dango”, which looked so yum…round blobs with a toffee smelling sauce. But the texture was like thickened glue (the balls are made of rice flour, like mochi which I also cannot cope with), and the sauce is a sticky sweet soy glaze. Just horrid. We also found some wafers filled with a mystery filling (doh! red bean paste), and some mini pancakes filled with….NOOOOOO more red bean paste! On Miyajima we tried their local treats, “momiji manju”, steamed buns in the shape of maple leaves. They’re cute little sponge cakes with traditional filling of red bean jam (pass), white bean jam (no), green tea (nope) or custard (I’ll have three, arigato gozaimaaaaaaassssss!)
In the Kyoto Daimaru food court, a lady was giving out samples of a cake that people were lining up for, so we thought we’d give it a go. It was butter cake, tasting EXACTLY like the cupcakes (award winning at the Gosford Show thank you) Milana bakes for parties. Not a difficult thing to bake at all, but I thought, maybe most families don’t have ovens at home, and so a baked cake is a luxury? Both of our apartments had hot plates and grills, but no oven, and thinking about most traditional foods in Japan (which don’t include roasts or casseroles or lasagna, more’s the pity), and the lack of kitchen and apartment space in general, maybe they’re just not used?
Apart from the unusual sweets though, the food was delicious. Buying three meals a day for four can add up, so our breakfasts were bananas and yoghurt, toast with egg and tomato, and black coffee in our apartments. We’d then try to have one meal a day out, and one either cooked at home (salmon fillets to feed us all for around $8…not the $20 you’d expect at home), or a takeaway job from the supermarket or 7 Eleven. While the thought of that back home would mean a squashed pie from the servo or a vegie-free, tasteless curry from the supermarket, the Bento boxes or sushi platters at supermarkets in Japan were sensational. So many people take their meals home with them, or eat them in the office (never out on the streets…there are barely any seats outside of parks anyway to prevent loitering), that quality is expected. So for around $10 per person we’d pick up sushi trays with fabulous fresh fish (the bonito tuna my fave), plump roe or tamagoyaki (sweet omelette) sushi. Another cheap option was ramen, for about $8 p/p. But we were a bit over-ramened by the end.
Food was reasonably priced, but most other things were quite expensive. When I say “expensive”, I mean “Australia prices”, and you don’t generally site-see, buy meals out every day, and buy souvenirs and gather temple stamps non-stop for 3 weeks back home! You’d struggle finding someone to help you in a department store here for starters without getting a “I’d rather be Facebooking” eye roll or grunt.
Service in Japan was exceptional. So good you’d often look around thinking, “oh, you’re bowing at ME!?” The screech of “irasshaimase” (I’m here, ready to serve you) echoing through the larger department stores in a high pitched baby voice however was like claws down a blackboard. We have read stories of employees being sacked for not yelling that out ENOUGH to customers!
Like in my karate days where you’d bow in and out of the dojo, employees bow in and out of their work places. Train conductors bow as they leave each carriage. We didn’t realise all of this in our first few days there, and Cam thought two women bowing out at our favourite store, Tokyu Hands, were bowing at him, and he bowed back. They must’ve got a bit of a laugh in the tea room!
After reading a lot about Japanese manners, especially in regards to eating, I was so worried we’d offend people with our Western (lack of) etiquette; but we needn’t have been concerned. Nobody cared! Not that we’re yahoos TRYING to rock the boat; but if we did make any blunders, we were gently shown the way. I’d put my handbag on the floor, and someone would bring me the basket/bucket they use to put your bag in. We didn’t know how to approach our all you could eat Korean samgyeopsal feast on our last night, and with some Marcel Marceau actions, our waitress explained it all – frying fatty pork belly at our table and stuffing it into lettuce leaves.
I didn’t realise how conservative everyone would be with their dress. The only people with shoulders, or even arms showing were tourists. Even on hot days, and it got up to 30 degrees while we were there, women wore layers and layers of clothes. Hats (or mega visors for those riding bikes), shirts, cardigans, scarves, even long cotton gloves, mostly to keep their geisha-white skin out of they sun.
There wasn’t much individualism in dress (pop princess Kyary Pamyu Pamyu, above, a clear exception). The uniform of most 20-30 year old women consisted of a long pleated skirt, or 7/8 length culottes, runners (maybe Cons), a long sleeve blouse over a t-shirt and a cute little straw hat. Older ladies wore long sensible trousers, shirts, with another shirt (and maybe another), along with parasols, gloves and hats. In Tokyo, friends happily dress in matching outfits. The weird “Harajuku” type clothes are fairly rare on the street, especially out of Tokyo or Osaka, and it’s clear the Lolita and Decora girls are just dying to show a little personality through their clothing. Even then, none of the girls wore anything revealing or skimpy. I think I saw maybe 3 girls wearing tight jeans, and not ONE person in leggings as pants (alleluia…let’s spread the word to the Central Coast!). No bra straps, no butt cracks, no see-through or lycra.
We couldn’t work out when kids were at school, because there seemed to be school kids, at all hours of the day, any day of the week, even Sundays, out and in full uniform. Kids of about 5 would walk to school alone, with their enormous backpacks. A word about those backpacks…apparently grandparents buy them for kids when they start school, and they keep them their whole school life. They’d want to last. We saw them in department stores, and their average price was about $600!!!!
We were surprised to see women wearing kimonos as part of their everyday attire. There were the kimono hire shops near temples where younger girls, sometimes Japanese, sometimes tourists, would rent an outfit and have their hair done, and trot around for photos for a few hours. But we saw many older women wearing more subdued kiminos, with perfectly tied obi (belt) and geta (thongs) as part of their every-day attire, wandering through markets, or on the train.
We’re unsure if it’s the narrow kimonos, or the delicate little pointed inward steps the women have to make wearing them, OR the way they sit at home in seiza on their feet, OR potential vitamin D deficiencies with their obsession with staying out of the sun; but we were amazed at how many women were bow legged and/or knock kneed and/or pigeon toed! I noticed it on day one. Not that I’m generally sitting around on trains staring at ladies’ legs…but when you see girl after girl nearly falling over their feet, I had to consult Google. And yes, it’s a thing, and yes, there are many more wild theories bouncing around the internet about why Japanese people (women in particular) have so many lower leg issues.
We were shocked at the number of people wearing surgical face masks. Everywhere! I’d guess about one in ten on the trains in Tokyo, and one in twenty elsewhere. Businessmen, students, mums…all types wore all manner of face masks. There were black ones for the cool younger dudes, and Hello Kitty ones for the kids. I reckon there would have to be some sort of contagious epidemic to get Australians to do the same. None of these people were sick though. There was no coughing or spluttering or sneezing. I think it was to help prevent them from getting sick. Or maybe like sunglasses, a way to not have to deal with people when you’re surrounded by MILLIONS of people on the trains every day.
Japan’s train stations are super efficient, but ENORMOUS, and difficult to navigate. When you see a dot on a map saying “station”, you have the Australian equivalent in your head. “We’ll get to the station, leave the station, and be at attraction ‘x'”. No. Which of the 20 exits over 5 levels should you use? Make a mistake, and you’ll add a kilometre to your walk! How far is it between the subway, JR line or shinkansen tracks? Massive shopping centres are under ground with the stations, and could go for blocks.
But the trains are always on time. To the second. Drivers are perfectionists, and check stops on personal stop watches. We had heard that if you’re ever delayed for over 5 minutes the rail company offers work/school late notes all round (and I’m guessing says sayonara to the driver involved). Stations are filled with canned-coffee buzzing (or late night sake sozzled) salarymen, school kids and office workers, all glued to their phones waiting in perfect lines, as well as the odd confused looking tourist (us). And whatever you do, do not use a selfie stick…..(worst case scenario below).
Japanese people are meticulous. Everything is double checked. At a cash register, the cashier will point to final price. They’ll count money and check it with you, and then count out all change and look at you to be sure you are happy with it. At home, transactions are often a casual blur which end in you getting home with the wrong size that you’ve paid $20 too much for, and you’ve been given the wrong change!
For such a serious country so into efficiency and technology, the concept of “kawaii” was confusing. I assumed it was just an overt cuteness for kids’ toys or kid-related businesses. But there was a touch of kawaii in everything. Here are some of the MANY cutesy business logos dotted around the country. Not at all the slick and “modern” edge most Australian companies lean towards…
Oh, and a quick interlude from the queen of kawaii, the girls’ new favourite pop star, Kyary Pamyu Pamyu…
For a nation of “kawaii” lovers, I don’t understand the fascination with badgers. Whaaaattt? Yes, ugly badger statues peer out from front door steps all over the country. They’re actually “raccoon dogs” called “tanuki”, and they’re a mischievous member of Japanese folklore – a master of shapeshifting and disguise. If that’s the case, I wish they’d shapeshift into a kawaii Hello Kitty statue or maybe just disguise themselves as a small shrub, because they are totally creepy!
Another strange doorside addition, in Kyoto at least, are little metal buckets of water. They’re supposed to be for fires, and every home has one at the door, filled with water. If it was still 1850, I’d understand the thinking here, but with the advent of fire extinguishers, I’m not sure if 10 neighbours rushing to a towering inferno with a bucket of water is going to help much!
A few words about toilets in Japan. They’re high-tech. None of this cold seat, half or full flush nonsense. You seat is always warm. There are water sprays that can be adjusted to suit your needs, and many public toilets have auto flush, and “cover up” wave sounds that kick off as soon as you take your seat. Australian cold seats are taking some getting used to! Considering everyone is very into cleanliness and hygiene, the lack of paper towels in public bathrooms was surprising. Ladies all carry their own handtowel in their handbags (usually a kawaii one of course).
I guess the overriding thing we noticed about the people of Japan was that decisions seem to be made with the benefits the group in mind over benefits for the individual in order to maintain social harmony. When you’re squashed into cities with so many other people, there’s not much room to be a loud and crazy “individual”. We found everyone to be polite and often kind, with older people showing the girls origami or giving them gifts of food. Genuine emotion however is often hidden, with little overt joy, sadness, and never anger on show. Children who approached us to practice their English using questions from little notebooks were sweet and shy.
If you’re loving the idea of a trip to Japan, you won’t regret it. But three quick travel tips…take cash (credit cards are hardly used). Your international cash cards will probably only work at 7Eleven International ATMs. Get a pocket wifi for your internetty needs from your home country, and order Japan Rail tickets before you go. This ticket won’t get you on many local or subway trains, but a couple of long hike trips, and the price is covered. And thirdly, even though most younger Japanese people have had to learn English at school, they’re often too embarrassed to use it…so try to learn as many phrases in Japanese as you can, and take a phrase book!
And a final happy ending to our family adventure…Avalon’s DS that she left on the plane on our arrival? Found, returned, and on check in at Tokyo, given back to a very happy, teary owner. Thank you Qantas. And arigato gozaimaaaaaassssss Japan!