Turning Japanese

#ChallengeCompleted: Holiday to Japan

When? 12th-25th April

Special Challenge

Japan was my choice for this year’s ‘family’ holiday with my dad and sister. Friends who have been (and even lived) there paint it a fascinating country and I’m also eager to learn about different cultures.

Before I went I read A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding by Jackie Copleton, a novel set in Nagasaki that starts just as the nuclear bomb is dropped in August 1945. Prefacing each chapter is the Japanese word for an attitude or feeling, followed by an explanation of what that means, both literally and culturally. These perhaps more so than the novel itself started to give me a good insight into the culture and how very different it is to ours. I couldn’t wait to go.

Reflecting on the trip, I find it’s the little details that make Japan so unique.

*It’s all so clean – no graffiti, no fly-posting or fly-tipping, no discarded chewing gum, no cigarette butts. Indeed, no litter anywhere. Yet, more pertinently, very few litter bins. Everyone simply takes their rubbish home with them. Amazing – especially when you factor in the super-excessive amounts of packaging on Japanese goods.

*They heat their loo seats. Even the public ones (of which – thankfully – there are plenty). What’s more, loos frequently feature an integral bidet and ‘shower’ (one for ‘front’, one for ‘back’). With adjustable water pressure. And an odour suppressant. And, on occasion, even a ‘noise cancellation’ button or music/sound effects you can play (with volume control, of course). Seems the Japanese are obsessed about toilet behaviour.


*In fact, they’re obsessed by cleanliness. Toilets aside (see above), part of the ritual of their Shinto religion involves the systematic washing of your hands and mouth before approaching the shrine.

*I saw no sign of homelessness or begging. With unemployment at around just 4%, there inevitably feels like there’s quite a lot of job creation going on – do you really need three people employed at the entrance to every car park to help direct traffic and pedestrians?

*You can set your watch by Japanese efficiency. You have exactly three minutes to get on/off the bullet train at each station (and it’ll pull in bang on time). And even on one occasion when we saw a huge group of schoolkids getting on/off, everyone managed it. Without any pushing or shoving or huffing and puffing or panic. NB: I didn’t travel on the Tube. I understand they do push and shove – a lot – to get people on that!

*Politeness is ingrained in the people. For example, when the ticket inspector entered our carriage on the Bullet train, he stood and bowed politely at everyone. And when he reached the other end of the carriage he turned and bowed politely again before moving on.

*Which makes it strange that there isn’t really a Japanese word for ‘thank you’… (although a host of other sign-offs are used).

*Apparently the word ‘no’ is very difficult for a Japanese person to say. If you really push you might get a ‘maybe’.

*Hotel rooms are so well equipped. I had a clean nightshirt or robe to wear every night, plus slippers. And the vanity tray in the bathroom always included a toothbrush and toothpaste, hairbrush, razor, hair scrunchy and cotton buds/pads, as well as the familiar shower cap shampoo/conditioner/body wash, and so forth. There was also usually a torch and useful night light in the room.


*Restaurants build plastic replicas of the dishes they offer and display them in the window to tempt you in.


*People are encouraged not to eat while they’re walking. Or use a phone while they’re walking. Or smoke while they’re walking. Seriously – it’s the little details that really do make life so much easier.


*All pavements (and I mean pretty much all) feature a ‘rumble strip’ down the middle, which branched off to indicate crossings, entrances to the station and such, to enable blind people to safely navigate the streets.

*Worryingly for these blind people, Japanese Kamikaze are alive and well… and riding bicycles. Bikes are a popular form of transport – although cycle lanes have clearly not reached Japan. And roads are busy. Hence common practice is to hare along the crowded pavements at breakneck speed, weaving in and out of the pedestrians. How no one ever gets hit is beyond me.

*Packaging is some kind of extreme art in Japan. With sweets, for example, there’s a cellophane-wrapped box. Inside the box are individually wrapped sweets, each neatly seated in a cardboard holder. Truly excessive.

The language wasn’t quite the barrier I feared it might be. In Tokyo, where our trip started and finished, I had expected to see western words alongside the Japanese kanji (despite having been warned I wouldn’t). And, on the whole, this was the case – road signs, maps, signage in the stations and so forth largely featured western words underneath the Japanese characters. Of course lots of the shops and restaurants only had Japanese writing and, with a lot of the food unrecognisable (is it even sweet or savoury?), finding somewhere to eat could sometimes be a challenge. Maybe that’s how the displays of plastic dishes first came about?

I enjoyed the food. To be honest, I would have liked to have tried even more Japanese dishes but the practicalities of trying to find a restaurant that suited me, Dad and Wendy in terms of both menu (content and understanding) and location wasn’t always easy. Where possible I tried to find somewhere serving the specialities of the region: teriyaki in Tokyo, buckwheat soba noodles in Matsumoto, Hida beef in Takayama, okonomyaki in Hiroshima. Lots of noodles and rice; a little sushi and some tempura – neither as much as I might have liked. And I’m getting the hang of chopsticks…

So what didn’t I like? I actually came away feeling Japan isn’t as beautiful a country as I’d imagined. Yes, the cherry blossom was magnificent, the temples and shrines extremely picturesque and the gardens rightly rated among the world’s most beautiful. But beyond those I found buildings in the cities grey and boxy; roads often ran over multiple levels with ugly flyovers that stretched for miles. The beauty of rivers was too often compromised by angular man-made concrete banks.

The Bullet train was amazing. What would have been more amazing would have been to watch the countryside whizzing past. Unfortunately, Japanese railway builders clearly have a great love of tunnels…


Things I learnt:

*Buddhism has five commandments. The fifth being words to the effect that ‘thou shalt not drink so much saki as to not be able to carry out your duties’. Well put!


*Japanese people love moss. While British gardeners spend half their lives trying to get rid of the damn stuff, their Japanese counterparts are eagerly cultivating as much of it as possible.

*No part of the animal goes to waste. One tepanyaki bar we passed in Tokyo displayed a menu offering various cuts of pork… including (and I kid you not) fat of the head, small intestine, womb, overies and vagina. On a stick. No, we didn’t go in.

*Tipping is not a thing. No one seems out to make money. Even costumed people parading around temples were eager to be photographed – but never once asked for money.

*They love a vending machine, particularly for drinks. And you can get both hot and cold drinks out of the same machine. Just look for the red label (hot drink) or blue label (cold).


*Making tea is a Big Deal. I kinda knew this before I went (most people have heard of the Japanese tea ceremony). But seriously – all that time and effort and ritual just to make a single cup of something that tastes like grass? No thanks.

*Starbucks and McDonald’s are commonplace. Indeed, it seems despite the horrific history, Japan now has quite the love affair with America and has embraced its language (in favour of English English) along with its fast-food and coffee outlets.

*You can reserve a table in Starbucks. We popped into Japan’s first-ever Starbucks (don’t judge me), which is in the Ginza area of Tokyo. There’s a commemorative plaque on the wall. There’s also a sign saying that if you intend to eat/drink in, you should reserve a seat first. Little ‘reserved’ signs are provided. What’s more, people place these signs on a table – or leave their jacket or even their laptop – to reserve their spot. And their table – with all of their belongings – is still there when they’ve got their drink. I can’t imagine that happening in London!

*The majority of the people you see wearing kimonos are not Japanese. They’re most likely Chinese, Korean or Filipino and have hired the costumes for the day.

*Similarly, if you see a geisha in the street, you didn’t see a geisha. Geishas are incredibly private and will rush from taxi to tea house in the blink or an eye.

*Speaking of geishas, it’s considered impolite these days to use the term. They’re called ‘Geikos’, while the younger girls still training are known as ‘Maikos’.

*After the A-Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, the people decided transport links were far and away the number one priority for getting the city and its people back on its feet, and the tram system was the most practical thing to fix. It took just three days for a comprehensive tram system to be up and running, ferrying injured people away for treatment and bringing help and aid into the city. As a result of the super-human efforts of the trams people during this period, to this day trams are revered across the city.

*My understanding is (and apologies if I haven’t got this quite right) that the Shinto religion believes deities are too numerous to count and can live virtually everywhere and anywhere – even in the toilet, which is why it along with everything else must be kept super-clean. They also believe that when someone dies, they become a god, despite what kind of person they might have been during their life. It explains why the Japanese respect their elders so much – the older someone is, the closer they are to becoming a god…

*Food is extremely over-packedaged. There’s a cellophane-wrapped box. Inside the box are individually wrapped sweets, each neatly seated in a cardboard holder.

*At least some of the Japanese language has logic to it. The ‘kanji’ for tree is like a crucific with two sweeping lines, like curtains drawn either side. Draw two of these kanji and it means ‘grove’. Draw three and it means ‘forest’. Not so tricky after all, huh?

*The famed ‘nightingale’ floor in one of the temples in Kyoto (so called because it makes a bird-like chirping noise when it’s walked over) happened by accident, not design.

*Tatami mat floors (made using compressed rice straw with a woven seagrass cover) feel lovely underfoot. I really quite fancy one of these. It’d work particularly well in my new travel room…