Well, we’ve been in Japan for a week now, which makes seven days of having the song Turning Japanese in my head. We’re loving it here. The people are lovely, there is so much beautiful old (and old fashioned) architecture, and I find Tokyo, despite being the largest metropolitan area in the world, to be remarkably calm and orderly. No, really. To illustrate this, here is a video we took of the famous intersection at Shibuya Station (those reading this via email will have to go the the site here to see the videos, sorry):
It looks crazy, I know. But this is what it’s like to walk through it:
It’s actually very calm and orderly.
One of the first things that struck me is that, despite the stereotype of the Japanese loving their electronic gadgets, it’s pretty rare to hear someone’s cell phone ring or to see someone talking on one (and when you do, they’re doing it discreetly and politely). Compared to, say, New York, where it feels like everyone you pass on the street has a cell phone in one hand and a cigarette in the other, this is a lovely surprise. People do text, play games, etc on their phones in the subway, but always silently and there are designated no-cellphone areas.
A further example of the tremendous level of social responsibility they show here is that when people get colds they wear face masks to avoid getting other people sick (they’re not doing for themselves, they’re doing it for everyone else). The result is that, in the middle of cold season, it sometimes looks like the streets are being overrun by rampaging gang of dentists (which isn’t the case, of course, as we all know, dentists are only attack in gangs in the UK, which has resulted in some famously bad teeth).
We were pretty worried about the language barrier coming here, but those fears quickly
dissipated on the night we arrived. Getting to our hostel from the airport (which is actually in the neighbouring city of Narita) required a 50 min train ride to get into Tokyo itself, then a subway ride to the area we were staying in. We, however, missed our stop on the train and, in our attempt to backtrack, got even further off track.
At the station where we ended up we asked a man (who we initially thought was an employee, but turned out to just be a guy wearing a jacket that was similar to the railway uniform) for help figuring out how to get back to the correct station. He didn’t speak any English, but he looked at some of the posted schedules and took us to the ticket counter and asked the employee. He even stuck around to make sure that we got the information we needed. Between gestures, the handful of English words the employee knew, and the handful of Japanese words we know, we got it all sorted out. They were both so sweet and patient about our inability to speak Japanese, and that random stranger took ten minutes out of his commute to make sure we knew how to get where we needed to go. And that’s how everyone we’ve met has been: very sweet and kind and eager to help a couple of uninformed foreigners. Between that and the predilection for putting photos on restaurant menus (which we point at to order), the language barrier has not been an issue at all.
Enough gushing about how great the Japanese are. I promise I’ll tell you about what we’ve been doing, but first I need to talk to you about vending machines. They’re everywhere. And you can get a wide variety of things from them. On top of the usual cold soft drinks you can also get hot cans of coffee (which are surprisingly good and much better than any of the drip coffee we’re got here), cans of hot soup, hotdogs, beer (though these are less common), bananas, books, and there are even restaurants where you order and pay via a vending machine out front, which spits out tickets that you take inside and exchange for your meal.
Anyways, we spent 3 days in Tokyo (we’re flying out from there, so we’ll see more at the end of our stay). On top of exploring the urban sprawl and many shops with strange English names (such as “Store My Ducks” and “Happy Room”) we visited the grounds of the imperial palace, a Shinto shrine, and a Buddhist temple.
From Tokyo we headed to the small city of Takayama in the Japan Alps which know for its traditional buildings, its onsen (hot spring baths), and its sake breweries. It was a beautiful town, but freezing. While we were there we saw a high of 0˚C (32˚F) and a low of -11˚C (12.2˚F). I know that for many other citizens of the Great White North this type of weather is not uncommon, but growing up in temperate Victoria, this is damn cold. Also, we only have so much clothing, so we weren’t as bundled up as we may have liked. Actually, it’s been a really weird year for us weather-wise, going from snow in Rhode Island in October to snorkeling in the Bahamas in November, to snow in Wyoming/Utah in early December, relatively warm and rainy in Victoria over Christmas, it was snowing in Vancouver the day we left, then warm and humid when we arrived in Hong Kong in January, and now this!
We did manage to finish off the coldest day with a soak in a private onsen (public onsen are segregated and bathing suit free, so we needed a private onsen unless we wanted to soak apart with a bunch of naked strangers). The super-hot water in the super-cold air was amazing, and it even snowed a bit.
this bus stop:
this kitchen sponge:
this, uh… mascot(?) that we saw in the subway station:
and this butcher shop window:
Oh, and one last thing I’ll mention: heated toilet seats. Not just that but a whole array of different indecipherable functions. Here is the control panel from a Japanese toilet:
I’ve been afraid to press any of the buttons.