Udon hotpot

Zen gardenA couple of weeks months ago, on a bit of a whim, we went to Japan. A large part of this was because we didn’t have any prior expectation of going to Japan. Nor did we have any knowledge of the place beyond pub quiz level.

Here’s a random assortment of memories which I’m hoping will help me answer with something more coherent when anyone asks me ‘How was Japan?’. You’ll find if you ask anyone that, they’ll generally just start gabbling. There’s a lot to convey and it’s mostly small-but-telling differences. Also, this is only from one short visit: one particle trail in the cultural bubble chamber.

So, what caught me by surprise?

Firstly, the overwhelming politeness and helpfulness. Most people don’t speak very much English but it didn’t stop them trying to help us if we stood anywhere for more than about 30 seconds looking vaguely lost. This happened regularly since, aside from key transport signs, everything was blatantly in Japanese and very difficult to penetrate. Particularly as we’d diligently evaded any study of the language beforehand. Google Maps was a huge help here which got even better reasonably priced, tourist only, data SIM card. Google Translate also gave us clues and the odd lol.

As well as being reliably helpful, we found Japanese to be scrupulously polite. Whether it was ticket inspectors bowing as they entered and exited a carriage, or cashiers accepting our cash with two hands as if was a baby owl, it somewhat reset our expectation of customer service. It seemed unfair that tipping is not done. Especially when we inadvertently used offensive pointing gestures so often to point at menu items extremely realistic plastic models of food in the window.

We ate out a lot. We learnt that if you are looking for a cold (or even hot) drink at any time, the usual protocol is to turn your head until you see a vending machine then simply reach out: Japan has a vending machine for every 25 citizens. Machines selling hot food, cigarettes and alcohol are not uncommon. In stations, these may also take your prepaid electronic travel card. If you actually fancy sitting down then izakaya are an excellent option. Kind of like a kebab shop and pub combined, where you can watch the chef cook your dish before he leans over and plonks it in front of you.

I was pleased to note that Japan is another country where cycling isn’t considered an extreme sport. Japanese of all ages cycled all over the pavement on sit up and beg bikes. I don’t remember seeing any cycle helmets but I did see kids mounted on back and often in front.

A lot of stuff seems super-optimised. The toilets really are electronic. Or at least they have a fun little tap above the cisterns that flows as it fills.
One local bakery uses Machine Learning to visually recognise items on a tray. Coffee shops have sugar solution tubs for iced coffee. There are many little things like this. Telegraph poles seem to attract cables in the same way that you might expect fly-posters. The result is a tangle that would probably slice spider-man if he ever ventured out of Chicago.

If you were thinking of going to Japan, here are some tips that are likely to make your life easier and/or cheaper:

  • Get your Japan Rail (JR) Pass if you are doing any travelling between cities. You can only get this outside Japan and it’ll save you a bunch of money.
  • Get plenty of Yen well in advance to avoid paying over the odds from ATMs. People are used to carrying a lot of cash around.
  • Get yourself an IC card as soon as you get there and top it well up. It’s fully refundable and can be used on underground in multiple cities. You can even use it on some vending machines in the stations.