filed in Japan on Jul.10, 2008
In my first few days in Japan, I’ve observed two things: Japan is a filthy country, and the people are all incredibly rude.
… … …
Yeah, yeah, yeah… that’s not true at all. Tokyo is probably the most hospitable, comfortable places I’ve ever been — aside from the overwhelming heat, that is. Yes, the people are super polite, helpful and dutiful. Yes, everything is clean and (sometimes unnecessarily) high-tech. Yes, some things are incredibly confusing and complex.
And yes, Lost in Translation and all of those travelouges / Ripley’s Believe it Or Not type shows mostly hit the nail on the head. Just about everything I was expecting about Japanese culture and infrastructure has turned out to be true — with a few very pronounced exceptions.
In short: Japan’s a weird, but also very inviting place.
Anyway, here are my observations about Japan:
There are vending machines everywhere. EVERYWHERE. Within 100 yards of me at any given point, there are at least a dozen drink vending machines. I’m not exaggerating. It doesn’t matter if it’s a commercial area or a residential area. We even walked down to the industrial harbor, where there were hardly any people…just empty warehouses…and there were vending machines every ten to twenty steps. People’s private homes have vending machines at the end of their driveways. There are vending machines in parks, . No matter where you go, you can purchase all manner of delicious fruity drink, bottled tea, various “sport drinks” such as the “Pocari Sweat,” little cans of super-concentrated iced coffee, of course Coca-Cola, or my new favorite soft drink — Fanta Grape.
Japanese cars are tall and skinny. You know that space between the driver’s seat and the passenger’s seat in American cars, where we toss our pile of CDs and have our cupholders for our 72 ounce fountain sodas? Japanese cars don’t have that. The seats are right next to each other, making the cars 1 to 2 feet narrower than all American cars. This also gives them the appearance of being really tall — but it’s just the proportions. Japanese cars are actually shorter than most American cars as well. And get about ten times better gas mileage.
Everyone is so clean! And people are constantly picking up. There’s not a speck of dirt on the streets. The ground is clean enough to eat off of. When we first got off the train in Tokyo, we felt like we were on a movie set — everything was so bright, clean and artificial.
Japan is friggin HOT. Well, the temperature’s not too bad, but the HUMIDITY is unbearable. It’s like 99.9% humidity at every moment. I’m sweating buckets, even when sitting perfectly still. I’d been warned about the humidity before I came, but I never expected it to be this hot. The heat in Los Angeles is nothing in comparison, because it’s so dry, and when it’s dry, your sweat actually works to cool your body down. Here, I sweat constantly and it never cools me down…just makes me wet and disgusting.
Japanese people don’t sweat. They just don’t. I have no idea how it’s possible, but when my shirt is soaked all the way through with sweat, the Japanese people around me are racing around, wearing long sleeves and pants, and are dry as a bone. WTF.
There are maps and signs EVERYWHERE. Every street, corner and building has a nice little map of the immediate area, oriented to the direction you are facing, with a “You Are Here” marker. It makes getting around possible for people like us who don’t speak a word of Japanese.
Everything is very visual. Things are color-coded (metro lines, for example), and there are picture icons accompanying just about all text. It makes it really easy to understand things that otherwise might be undecipherable…if not for the fact that:
There are tons of signs in English. Or poorly-translated Engrish. Sure, the signs are in Japanese as well, but just about any important sign is in English as well. Which is odd, because…
Nobody in Japan speaks English. Apparently, all Japanese people take years of English in school, but considering the amount of time and effort that the Japanese educational system puts into making the population bilingual, and all of the signs in English, hardly anyone is able to speak conversational English. Most people know a few phrases, and have a large English vocabulary — but when we try speaking sentences with pronouns, adverbs, adjectives, in grammatical order, they usually don’t know what we’re saying. If we simplify things to nouns and gestures, they almost always get it. Or, if we write down what we’re trying to say, most people can understand it all. The typical Japanese person is an excellent English reader. But we have met only a handful of people who speak even passable English.
You have to take off and put on your shoes all the time. Another thing I knew before I came, but it still takes some adjusting. Every time you enter any sort of private building (anything but a store), you have to take off your shoes and put them in a little cubby hole. And once inside, sometimes you have to put on special slippers to walk on the “inside” floor. And then, once you go into a bathroom, you switch shoes again and put on special bathroom slippers which are kept by the door…even though Japanese bathrooms are characteristically spotless. It seems like half my day is spent tying and untying my sneakers.
Japanese workers wear the cutest little uniforms! Every single profession has its own unique color-coded uniform, usually in some bright hue, with an identifying arm band and matching hat. It’s not just policemen and security guards, it’s everyone:
- Janitors (blue smocks and matching hats);
- Construction workers (gray jumpsuits with parachute pants);
- Street sweepers (green sashes with business professional clothes);
- Garbage collectors (purple from head to toe);
- McDonald’s workers (full yellow and red outfits with golden arches everywhere — even on their socks);
- Road workers (blue hard hats and what look to be agonizingly hot blue jumpsuits)
- And many, many more.
Walking down any street, it’s like seeing the Japanese Village People. I half expect them to break out in YMCA.
Japanese workers take their jobs very seriously, and are all proud of their jobs. No matter how blue collar or menial the task. There are hard-working, clean, professional adults working at McDonald’s. (In the USA, it’s mostly scruffy teenagers and poor people.) It’s amazing the level of service we’ve received at the local supermarkets and convenience stores — on par with what we’d expect from a five star hotel in the states. It’s actually quite refreshing.
People don’t make eye contact — unless you’re speaking directly to them. When you’re walking past someone on the street or train station, they divert their eyes or look straight ahead. I’ve yet to catch any stray glances from anybody (and being a tourist, I do a lot of looking around).
When asked for help, people ALWAYS go out of their way to help you. Every single Japanese person that we asked for directions stopped whatever they were doing (always some sort of work), and struggle to communicate with us until (A) they answered our question, or personally led us to our destination; (B) they got another person, or several other people to help us; (C) we realize that we’re not going to get anywhere, but wait politely for them so as not to offend, then when an opportunity to escape presents itself, we thank them profusely, say good-bye and walk away as they apologize profusely for not being able to help. (That’s apologizing for us wasting twenty minutes of their time, mind you). We’re pretty sure that we have singlehandedly dropped Japan’s productivity by an order of magnitude, by wasting so many people’s time…but hey, that’s the plan right? (We’re defeating the Japanese FOR AMERICA, one dumb question at a time!)
Everyone here is exceedingly polite. As if it needs to be said. There’s so much bowing and “Origato”-ing. There’s not a single rude person in all of Tokyo.
A lot of Japanese women dye their hair brown. Instead of the natural black. It’s subtle, but it’s there…and very common.
So many Barber shops and hair salons. There are multiple barber shops and hair salons on every block, and I can’t imagine how they’re all able to stay in business. And yes, all of the barber shops have the same rotating barber poles that we have in the U.S.
Super high-tech and super low-tech toilets. Quite the contrast here. Some places in Japan are equipped with complicated, electronic toilets, with an entire panel of buttons — they have automatic toilet paper dispensers, seat warmers, built-in bidets that squirt water up your butt for cleaning purposes (there are different settings for males and females), a button you can press which will play a sound to mask any noise you might make while doing the deed, and about 1,000,000 other settings. Then, on the opposite end of the spectrum, there are squat toilets. Just a hole in the ground and a flusher. Whenever you go into a bathroom in Japan, you’re in for a surprise!
Japanese people have bad teeth. It seems like everyone has a mouthful of crooked, jagged teeth…which is very odd, considering how clean and primped everything else about them is. Very odd.
Nobody talks on the subways. Aside from some young, giggly teenagers, Japanese subways are silent. The same goes for elevators. Everyone sits or stands in place, and there is absolutely no interaction. And nobody talks on their cell phones on the trains either (it’s impolite) — but it’s not uncommon to see ten people squeezed in a row, all texting or surfing the internet with their mobile phone.
There are no fat people here. None. Well, maybe once an hour or so, I see someone who is slightly chubby…but there are no obese people, and everyone is incredibly skinny.
Only the old people are short. You know that stereotype that Japanese and asians are really small? Totally false. Most of the people under age 60 or so are just as tall as the average American. There are tons of people taller than me in Tokyo, and I’m 6’2″. The average height is probably a bit shorter than in America, but it’s not significantly less. Only the really old people are short (a few of them are ridiculously, dwarfishly tiny)…so I’m sure the diet and nutrition has changed quite a bit since WWII.
Doors are very low. Another remnant from the past, when Japanese were quite a bit shorter. The doors of shops and restaurants are very low, and oftentimes, I have to duck to enter, especially if I’m walking around with my backpack. This is true not just of old buildings, but also of new places like modern convenience stores and coffee shops.
Garbage cans are confusing. The Japanese are big on recycling, and have their garbage cans split into many different sections. There’s oftentimes four garbage cans side-by-side: one for plastic bottles, one for aluminum / metal cans, one for paper waste that can be incinerated, and one for all other garbage (which will get sent to the landfill). And there’s even more to it than that. Technically, you’re supposed to do things like remove the labels from your plastic bottles and put the label in the “garbage” section and the plastic bottle in the “PET recycling” hole. In restaurants, there’s also usually a tube to pour down liquid waste as well. Everytime I want to throw something out, I spend about ten minutes there, looking confused, before I just guess which slot to put stuff in.
Tokyo is eerily silent. For one of the biggest, most densely-populated cities on the planet, Tokyo is QUIET. There’s hardly any noise on the streets…no police sirens, no honking cars, no people yelling, no music, hardly any traffic noise. How can it be so quiet all the time?
There is very little traffic for such a big city. Car traffic, that is. There is a ridiculous amount of pedestrian and bike traffic, but a fraction of the cars you’d see in any American city. Only in the busiest intersections is there any real traffic noise.
All the flowers, hedges and lawns are very well kept. Probably because there is someone taking care of them just about 24 hours a day. I don’t know how the Japanese economy supports all these workers, but it makes visiting public parks really nice.
Japanese people sleep everywhere and anywhere. On trains, on benches, in their cars, waiting at crosswalks…the Japanese take naps in the strangest places, and it’s totally culturally acceptable. And no, they’re not bums.
Crosswalks are like the Night of the Living Dead. Crosswalks go from completely vacant to swarming with hundreds of people in a matter of seconds, all walking and flowing like the crowds of zombies in Hollywood movies. A little bit scary, to tell you the truth.
Train stations are busy like ant farms or beehives — there are so many people, headed in so many different directions — and somehow, they all move and flow around each other without so much as a hitch. I can’t believe how fast and efficiently people move. And as soon as we start walking around, wide-eyed and lost, we immediately get in people’s ways and slow stuff down!
The trains are RIDICULOUSLY punctual. Whether it’s the metro, the bullet train, the airport express or a or a rural train, Japanese trains are always EXACTLY on schedule — down to the second. You can set your watch by it. It’s remarkable. The doors close about five seconds before the train is scheduled to leave, and then the train begins moving the exact moment it’s scheduled to depart. They take their trains seriously in Japan…enough so that some of the most popular arcade games are train simulation games. The object is to keep your train exactly on schedule, always drive the correct route, and not make any mistakes. Only in Japan would a game like this ever gain any type of popularity.
Cars drive on the left. Pedestrians also walk on the left. And in subway stations, pedestrians stand on the left side of escalators, and people on the right side walk up.
Prices are comparable to big cities in the United States. Public transportation is slightly more expensive in Tokyo, and food and drinks are slightly less expensive — so it evens out in the end. The prices for hotels and most consumer goods are pretty much on par with what you’d pay in New York or LA. One exception is electronics: they’re actually a bit more expensive than in the U.S. despite the fact that Japan is at the forefront of innovation in electronics and software. For instance, the same flash memory card will be $5 to $15 more expensive at a Japanese store than at an American store. I’m not sure why that is…
Despite the heat, most men wear long pants. Only young men wear shorts. All adult men wear long pants during the summer, despite the fact that it is unbearably hot (at least by my standards).
Women wear very short skirts and dresses, but very conservative, non-revealing tops. I think it’s because most Japanese women are so skinny — they have nice legs but not much cleavage to show off, so they dress accordingly.
Portion sizes are tiny. At least by American standards, the sizes of drinks and most meals here are astronomically small. Especially the drinks…the cups at restaurants are about three times the size of a shot glass. Depending on the restuarant, the meals are decent-sized (such as the fast food rice / meat bowls all over the place), but certain foods come in unexpectedly small sizes — things like sandwiches or pancakes.
No tipping at any restaurant or bar! But it also means that waitresses are much less attentive, since they’re not going out of their way to please you. You have to ask to get your drink refilled, for example…and considering the tiny size of the cups, you have to ask many, many, many times.
Tax is always included in the price — as it should be. Adding tax at the register is so lame, America. No other country does it. Get with the program!
At a lot of restaurants, you order from a machine. At most Japanese-style fast food places (ie: beef and chicken bowl places), there are big ticket machines, where you put in money, press a button for what you want and get a ticket. Then you sit down, an employee takes the ticket, and brings you your order. There’s hardly any interaction with your servers (which is good when you don’t speak the language), it speeds up service, and it minimizes mistakes. (It also feels a bit mechanical, since there’s no social interaction.)
Just about every meal comes with rice. As expected. But even at “American-style” places, you get rice. We went to Denny’s, with a craving for a Lumberjack Slam after a few days of eating Japanese food…and almost every meal was some sort of rice dish.
Sushi isn’t super common, and it doesn’t usually come in rolls. In America, when you think “Japanese restaurant,” you think “sushi” in little rolls, cut into bite-size pieces. This is certainly available in Japan, but most Japanese restaurants don’t serve it, or if they serve sushi, it’s raw fish on top of a bowl of rice. Not bite-size little slices of a roll. “Sushi” in the U.S. has been very Americanized (just like all “ethnic” foods in America).
There are tons of convenience stores. Chains like Seven Eleven and Family Mart are on every street corner. And unlike convenience stores in America, they actually sell very decent (and healthy) food — sushi, rice balls, fresh bread, etc. They also sell delicious Ramen noodles for super cheap — and provide you with hot water so you can eat it right away.
American chains that are everywhere: McDonald’s, KFC, Starbucks, Denny’s. And that’s about it. I haven’t seen a single Subway, Wendy’s, Arby’s, Burger King, etc. There are a few random American chain stores here and there, but they are few and far between.
Lots of Starbucks clones — Japanese coffee chains like “EXCELSIOR” coffee, for instance. The weird thing is that they look and feel just like Starbucks — same font in their logos, similar green and earthtone color schemes, same menu, and similar logos (circle with a wood-carving style picture in it of something similar to Starbucks’ mermaid).
Lots of Coke everywhere, hardly any Pepsi. Coca-Cola won the war for the Japanese market, apparently.
Wireless Internet is surprisingly hard to come by. For being one of the most high-tech cities on the planet, Tokyo has very little in the way of wireless internet access. Most coffee shops — including Starbucks — don’t have Internet access! Neither do any of the hotels except for the super expensive ones and the youth hostels which cater to foreigners. And when we walked out on the street and search for an unsecured wireless connection, we never once had any luck. In TOKYO, JAPAN! (WTF?) I guess it’s because…
Nobody uses laptops — everyone uses cell phones. That would be the reason right there. Everyone surfs the web and does their email on their super high-tech mobile phones. They all have super high speed access, and most people are able to watch TV shows on their phones as well.
Books and magazines are reversed. You read and turn the pages right to left.
Nintendo DS is insanely popular. Every kid in Japan has one of Nintendo’s handheld systems, and they’re usually using it. But it’s not just kids playing DS — on every subway ride we’ve been on, there is at least one or two adults playing on a DS as well. (For some reason, they tend to take the standing spot right next to the train’s door when they play…not sure why.)
Pokémon is everywhere. As expected. Little toys and trinkets all over the place, and Pokémon show up on signs and posters everywhere too.
Disney’s Lilo and Stitch is everywhere too, but hardly any other Disney characters. I don’t get this. Lilo and Stitch, as far as I know, was a relatively unpopular Disney movie released three or four years ago, and kind of just came and went in America. But somehow, the little alien (I think that’s Stitch), is EVERYWHERE in Japan. Toys, posters, t-shirts, video games — you name it. And the weird part is, I’ve seen no other Disney characters anywhere, except for maybe Mickey Mouse and Buzz Lightyear and Woody from Toy Story (also inexplicably popular). But there’s no Simba, Ariel, Aladdin, Donald, Goofy, etc. to be found. Weird.
There are temples and little shrines all over the place, of both Shinto and Buddhist variety. There’s one on just about every block, it seems. Usually nestled in right next to the Seven Eleven.
Ninjas…they’re everywhere! Okay, I haven’t seen any ninjas yet, but that’s the point isn’t it? I’m pretty sure Japan is crawling with ninjas, at least. (Just kidding!)
Um…there are a lot of Japanese people in Japan. Oh, and a whole lot more… I’m sure there are a lot more little things I’ve noticed about Japan, but it is now 3AM and sleep would probably be a good idea!