Visiting Japan had always been a dream of mine. I had imagined beautiful temples, sleek design and extraordinary food. I certainly wasn’t disappointed with what I found in Japan, but there were quite a few things that I didn’t expect. Here’s some of the things that surprised, some observations and some tips that others may find helpful if they visit Japan.
By far the most surprising thing about Japan is how cheap it is. With the exception of the cost of accomodation in Tokyo, everything else about Japan was quite reasonably priced. It certainly isn’t as cheap as India, but it was much kinder on my budget than Australia or Europe. A great meal with sake usually cost about $20, and I never wanted for anything. In fact, I actually left Japan with money in my pocket that I had expected to spend there.
The Japanese are one of the politest and friendliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. But their culture goes beyond being nice, I found many people went out of their way to help us, which was very humbling. Case in point was the waiter in a busy Tokyo restaurant who didn’t speak a word of English, yet took the time out to find us a book with pictures so that he could explain the menu to us. The bank clerk who bowed politely and smiled at every person as they entered the bank, and the patient queues of people waiting their turn to get on a crowded train; no pushing or shoving.
Then there was the barmaid in a small Izakaya who chased us down the street to hand back the 100 Yen ($1) tip that we had left on the table. Apparently there is no tipping in Japan either!
Tokyo is one of the world’s great cities, which is why I was so surprised to find it to be almost silent. Even in the main CBD of the town, the streets felt almost empty. There were people in suits rushing by to get to meetings, but the city didn’t feel cramped or overwhelming like so many other metropolis’ I’ve seen. Even in the middle of the world’s largest fish market, the shopkeepers were silent. There was no shrieking and yelling prices, just people going about their business ever so quietly.
Along with the silence, the streets of both Tokyo and Kyoto were lined with verdant trees and people cycling around. It all gave the cities such a relaxed and calm feel, something so at odds with Japan’s reputation as a high stress nation.
There were some things I found just at odds with this modern culture, one in particular was the unhealthy lifestyle that seemed to be everywhere I looked. In particular everyone in Japan seemed to smoke, something that’s on the decline in most developed countries. But not only does everyone seem to smoke in Japan, but they are also given preferential treatment. In parks, the benches are reserved especially for smokers. On the streets there are designated areas with plants and rest stations for people to relax as they chuff away. It all felt very out of place to me.
Another thing that surprised me was the amount of vending machines on the street. I think I almost saw more vending machines than I did people. They sold everything from soft drinks to cigarettes to sushi. I’ve heard rumours that some sell young girls underwear for rather suspect men to take home, but I never saw these myself. However I was surprised when I queued up for ramen at a restaurant at Tokyo Station Ramen Street, only to be greeted by a vending machine at the entrance to the restaurant. Rather than give their order to a person, people ordered from a vending machine and then sat down. It didn’t seem to make the process of being served any more efficient, so I’m not quite sure why the vending machine existed.
There wasn’t much about Japan that I found disappointing, but a couple of touristy things along the way weren’t what I expected. One of the biggest let-downs was Tsukiji market. All the guides tell you to get there early (ie. 4am) for the tuna auction, or 6am otherwise. We chose to skip the tuna auction but dragged our jetlagged bodies out of bed at 5.30am and headed to the market.
While everything we had read had told us there was still plenty of the market open to the public at that time, and of course fresh sushi, we were disappointed. The main things we wanted to see (ie. the actual market) are entirely closed off to the public until 9am. So we searched for sushi, only to find huge queues of tourists waiting for grossly overpriced meals. Don’t get me wrong, I adore sushi, but I’m not interested in being part of a tourist rip-off which is exactly what this felt like.
If you want to visit the market, I’d suggest either getting there at 4am for the tuna auction, or head there for 9am where there is still plenty to see in the main market.
Another place that wasn’t what I expected was the region of Gion in Kyoto. It’s described by many as a place with quaint bars and geishas walking the streets. What I found were plenty of “fake” geishas walking around trying to see what unsuspecting tourists they could take advantage of. The region had a really seedy feel about it, plenty of sleaze and not very much authentic atmosphere. I’d suggest sticking to other parts of town for a good night out, where the locals frequent.
Overall Japan was a delight. Even though I only had a brief taste, I can’t wait to go back and explore this fascinating country and its culture more.