A short trip to a foreign county is hardly enough exposure to develop a well-informed understanding of the culture. But impressions require no such universe of knowledge. Here’s what I found remarkable during our family’s 12-day trip through the land of the rising sun. My reflections on Japan are based on a limited sample size and special purpose: five cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Hofu, and plus Osaka), plus one excursion to the country (Mt. Fuji), all within the context of a family vacation for sight-seeing and pleasure.
Before discussing Japan, first I must confess the most fabulous aspect of our family’s trip – an incredible job undertaken by our travel agent, Jennifer. My lovely wife not only coordinated travels arrangements for five people from three locales (Seattle, L.A., Hofu), she also booked every hotel, obtained rails passes, secured portable Wi-Fi (a brilliant addition!), planned each day’s events, and saw that we sampled a dozen different styles of Japanese cuisine.
She even mastered some Japanese language and could navigate twisting streets of uncertain names written in characters that no one could decipher. Jennifer acted as a personal concierge to four semi-competent Kombol males, a herculean task in and of itself. Every observation I offer is only made possible because I could literally show up for each day’s pleasures. She must have been a tour guide and booking agent in a prior life . . . because she’s perfected that role in this one.
The Japanese country and its people are busy. Trains, buses, and subways run on time and with incredible frequency. Seemingly everyone is working, going somewhere, or engaged in commerce. Idleness was not apparent. Efficiency was ubiquitous. The trains and subways were a wonder. Polite and uniformed workers were everywhere carrying out their repetitive tasks with attention to detail and great respect for their job. On station platforms, rail workers bowed to each passing car. Not once or casually – but each time for every car – with genuine bows of reverence!
To me, the stations seemed a frenzied and impossible labyrinth for a blind or wheelchair-bound person to navigate. But, whenever I saw someone disabled come off a train or subway, as if by magic a Japan Rail or subway worker appeared, wheeling or walking their challenged passenger through the haze and hyperactivity to their next train or out of the station.
The overall transportation system was a marvel. There were no fare-jumpers or cheats as watchful station masters kept attentive eyes on turnstiles. Ticket pricing was an economist’s dream – the further you go the more you pay. There was no ‘dumbed-down’ one-fare for all nonsense. It was a bit confusing at first, but soon you figured out the system at easy-to-navigate automated ticket kiosks. Insert coin, select fare, print, and off you go.
There’s no ‘free lunch’ on Japanese trains, but tourists can get pretty close to one by purchasing a Japan Rail Pass, which of course my economical wife secured. However, you must purchase them outside the country and then produce a train full of documents (passports, etc.) before they’re validated. Japanese Rail officials won’t even allow tourists to scam their system.
Everywhere there was economic activity – factories buzzed, shops marketed, restaurants served, street vendors hawked, and entertainment venues entertained. There was even a mechanized factory in a railway station: a workshop making cheesecakes of the jiggly variety. Yes, this was a cheesecake factory, but not a chain restaurant of the same name. A staff of 10 or 12 worked behind glass walls busily producing one cheesecake after another as patrons lined up 30 or 40 deep. They sold as fast as they were baked, logo-stamped, boxed, and ready to go – about one every 30 seconds.
Outside one of our hotels near a rail station stood a small factory of unknown manufacturing, where each morning scores of employees punched time cards at the street entrance. I had no idea what they produced but it was a beehive of activity in an area smaller than a city block. On train rides, you saw literally hundreds of businesses just like that one. But one could only guess what they were making or creating.
Many stores had stacks of items outside their establishments in streets so busy that hundreds passed every few minutes. Yet, no shopkeepers or guards were thwarting sticky shoplifting hands. In fact, there was no evidence of theft even though it would have been impossible to catch even a slow-walking thief on those busy sidewalks. My son, Oliver said there are very high levels of honesty and trust in Japan. If you hand a shopkeeper a 10,000 yen note (about $100), there’s no worry about getting back anything except your exact change. I saw pride in almost every service worker. You could really feel it.
City streets were almost devoid of litter as were the rail stations and platforms. This has to be the cleanest and tidiest country I’ve ever visited. Yet garbage cans on street corners were rare. You were expected to carry your garbage with you until it could be disposed of properly. There was almost no graffiti anywhere, except for a few instances in the westernizing city of Osaka. Several times I saw shopkeepers wiping and polishing their garage-style doors that close each night. In most cities, such doors are uniformly gritty and dust-stained.
We didn’t see any homeless people and on only one or two occasions saw a ranting crank or psychotic. Throughout Japan people were well dressed, many exceedingly so. You’d search in vain for the slovenly clothed dude in cargo shorts and stained hoodie. In fact, almost no one was poorly dressed. The vast majority appeared sharp and refined. There was very little logo sports ware of any kind, the fan uniforms and team colors pervasive in Washington on any blue Friday or Seahawk Sunday. Many women wore skirts and heels while men, even young ones dressed with style. Certainly, in smaller cities such as Hofu, the attire was less upscale, but smartly-dress people were still the norm.
Tattoos and facial piercings were almost nowhere to be found. Pink, purple, or green hair was a rarity. Students wore uniforms on school days – typically blazers, slacks, sweaters, and ties for boys, and skirt / sweater combos for girls. Most all restaurant and store workers wore matching uniforms. Taxi drivers and service workers were outfitted in snappy uniforms. Every taxi cab driver seemed destined to play the role of English butler – polite, discrete, and reserved – without exception each was a Japanese man between the age of 50 and 70.
The populace looked very healthy. Skin complexions were generally clear, with abundant examples of beautiful skin. At the risk of being offensive, almost no one was overweight with trim, svelte figures the order of the day. It didn’t matter if they were young or old – most everyone favored a trim, lean body. Wondering if my observations were biased I checked obesity rates by nation and sure enough, Japan had the lowest of any developed country – one-tenth of that in the U.S. (3.7% vs. 38.2%).
Fear of germs is a big deal. And this was before Covid. Perhaps one in twelve Japanese sported a surgical face mask, particularly in crowded cities. I suppose with that many people packed tightly on subways, trains, buses, and shopping centers, it probably makes sense.
Now obviously there’s a cost for everything and Japan is not a cheap date. Our exchange rate was a little better than 100 yen to the dollar making price calculations and comparisons easy. If you didn’t get your coffee from fast food or convenience stores, prepare to pay $5 for a cup, even in tiny joints, you wouldn’t think to be expensive. Typical subway fares were $2.50 each way, but the farther you went the more you paid. Some meals were reasonable, but places such as steakhouses and sushi houses were very expensive. Overall, if one was mindful of your dining budget, there was very good food to be had at $10 to $16 per meal.
One of the more incredible things to an American hooked on credit and debit cards was how many restaurants and independent establishments accepted only cash. If you’re not packing real cash money, you may not be eating in Japan. One thing to remember if you ever visit – there’s no tipping, in fact, it’s considered rude and insulting in most situations.
There were some surprises – hotel rooms weren’t that pricey given the excellent quality and service. In fact, rooms in the smaller city of Hofu were downright cheap at $70 per night in a very pleasant, well-staffed, multistory, APA Hotel. And Kyoto was less than $115 per night at an inn with river views, kitchens, and washing machines. Plus, the hotel staff was always neatly dressed and very helpful. One interesting phenomenon during hotel stays; at each check-in, passports are demanded, processed through a scanner, and returned. I suppose it isn’t surprising Japan has one of the lowest illegal immigration rates in the industrialized world.
One special treat for travel in Japan is heated toilet seats, almost everywhere, even in public restrooms. Other bidet pleasures await the clean of bottom, but I’ll refrain from further detail in deference to propriety. Plus, almost every bathroom we encountered, both public and private was clean, tidy, and well-maintained. Once again, there was no ugly graffiti defacing stalls or walls.
They say that Japanese are Shinto at birth, Christian at marriage, and Buddhist at death. The marriage business is a very big deal with several floors at larger hotels devoted to wedding facilities, reception rooms, and assorted services for brides and grooms. Throughout the country, there are both Shinto and Buddhist temples, but it’s hard for Westerners to distinguish the differences. As best I could tell from my limited reading and studies of religion, Shinto is essentially a nationalist form of Buddhism. But, wherever we went, whether it be Shinto or Buddhist, the temples were well-cared for and revered by large numbers of visitors.
Suffice to say, we loved Japan. I liked the people, the culture, the beauty, and the experience. It’s an amazing country that seems to be prospering despite news stories that bemoan its aging population and stagnating economy. Apparently, the elderly Japanese must live out in the country, because we saw mostly young and middle-aged people, busily going about their lives in every city. Certainly, there were older Japanese (particularly taxi cab drivers), but it sure seemed like a young and vibrant country from my observations.
My overall impression of Japan is a country of proud people with much to be proud about. I suspect they’ll keep it that way.