After less than a day in Japan, I chose to share with you some of my early impressions. Leaving the country two weeks later, I’ve decided to share a few observations of things that I found quirky, wondrous, scary, or any combination thereof. In that early post, I mentioned three things: the drunken salarymen, the technologically advanced toilets, and the scary cycling on the pavements. I’ll be bringing these up again, and lots more. As I write this, I’m conscious of the fact that I have at least one reader who used to live in Japan, and at least one reader who still does so, to them, my observations may be laughable based, as they are, on a mere two weeks of exposure, but what the hell. Here goes…
What we regarded as some form of two-wheeled anarchy turned out to be business as usual in Japan. Cyclists and pedestrians are expected to share the pavements, no matter how wide or narrow they may be. Or early experience of this was certainly coloured by the fact that the pavement outside our Tokyo AirBnB was narrow and the street door opened outward which must surely be a hazard for all and sundry. We were just starting to get used to being on the lookout for bikes as we were leaving.
It’s possible to make public transport work. Over the course of two weeks, we visited four cities, taking all of our luggage on each journey – including the instruments. And we used public transport for all of our travel needs. We did not take a single taxi all the time we were in Japan. The ability to use a single tap-and-go card across all municipal systems, from Tokyo’s subway to Hiroshima’s trams made life simple.
Also, we were on a crowded train one morning with a number of people standing in the aisles. At the end of the carriage are six seats identified as priority seating for those who need it. Those seats were empty. The people on the train respect the fact that they may be required. It’s a similar story with women only carriages. They exist, and men don’t use them. Easy.
There is something very attractive about elements of design being incorporated into the everyday aspects of life. For us, this was highlighted by the fact that different cities have commissioned their own design of manhole cover. This most ordinary of items becomes art, or a focus for civic pride. You have to admire that.
I wasn’t really conscious of the fact that, as you walk down a UK High Street, the shops form a continuous frontage on to the pavement. The buildings are conjoined regardless of age or architectural style. Not so in earthquake conscious Japan. Buildings have small – less than a metre – spaces between them. Once you notice it, it’s a really obvious difference. Also, high buildings have external staircases that are incorporated into the overall design.
Many Japanese jobs would appear to have an associated uniform. And when that is the case, the uniforms tend to be immaculate and worn with pride. This was certainly the case on the bullet trains and the subways, with the Tokyo Tower staff, even schoolkids. On a tram in Hiroshima just as school let out for the day, a bunch of high school students joined us on our journey. The boys were all dressed exactly the same, as were the girls. And, astonishingly, boys and girls were all wearing exactly the same plain black shoes.
It’s difficult to get photographic evidence to back all this up since it’s not really appropriate to take pictures of random strangers as they go about their daily lives, but I did get a couple of surreptitious snaps: one of a utility worker and one of a pair of painter and decorators.
This is a country with a fascinating history, about which I now realise I was woefully under-informed. It’s a place of contrasts. Of technology and shrines. Of respect for the rules and very drunk businessmen.
But, it’s warm and friendly, and we’ve already decided that we’ll be back. If you’ve never been, make sure it’s on your list.