I’m back from a 3 week trip to Japan, doing a guided tour with a group of 8 really nice people. Going from Fukuoka all the way to Tokyo, we’ve had a unique look at the good, the bad, the rural and the busy Japan and its cultural differences. I’ve been wanting to travel to Japan for my whole life now, so I expected to be disappointed and would have the wrong image in my head. The trip actually met and surpassed my expectations, I’ve written down my impressions.
People & Hospitality
A lot of people godify Japanese people as being super kind and helpful, this is obviously not true. As in every country there are nice people, not so nice people and extremely nice people, I’ve encountered both.
I always thought Japanese people were shy and not so open to Western people, but our group (8 people) often was helped or approached by people at random, in one case we’ve even been invited into a temple for tea and umeboshi. Guide says this is unique and due to our small group size, it’s much harder to get things done in large tour groups.
(Me and friends also entered a small sake stall in Golden Gai thinking at first we would be raped, drugged or attacked, or a combination of both, but it ended up being really cozy and a nice old lady let us taste some old sake.)
I’ve also had some Japanese people deny is at restaurants or asking directions, maybe because they’re shy to speak English. The times I’ve had to ask directions I’ve always asked teens and they’ve always been helpful. Going to a local police box can do wonders too, as they pulled out a map and showed the route. Japanese people are very set on rules and I’ve heard some stories from our guide were simple things couldn’t be done simply because they were uncommon/not in the rules.
I consider Japanese people about the same level of hospitality as Belgian people, if not a little nicer sometimes as people often greet you (i.e: in an elevator or while walking on rural streets) and can be very inviting. Like every culture, it differs from person to person.
Safety and cleanliness
I heard many positive stories about safety in Japan, I was very skeptical given… European and American countries, and really amazed when I saw how respectful Japanese people are with my own eyes.
Japanese people have a different mentality than Western people. Western people search for ways to break the system, while Japanese people don’t consider it can be broken, they just don’t realize it. Japanese people don’t consider they can be robbed. I’ve seen cars unlocked, people leaving their wallet or personal goods out in the open, shops without security systems and store clerks being out,…
Criminality is uncommon here, but our guide is quick to point out that’s also because offenses are punished more severely (also the death penalty still exists). The clean streets and safety is also due to strict regulations, people have to keep it clean.
Streets are clean (despite no real garbage bins except near vending machines) and well-lit in the evening, giving a feeling of tranquility and nice atmosphere and a general feeling of safety. It’s weird but living inside this bubble of safety/cleanliness makes you more respectful yourself.
I feel really safe here. Unlike my own country I’m not scared to walk around here at night. I’m in love with Japanese streets and their architecture/design, countless ads and lamps.
Dining and prices
Prices for Japanese food are really cheap, you can get a complete Japanese style meal for around 1000yen (€7) or less. Western food is more expensive. All restaurants have free water/tea, but cola and other Western beverages easily cost 350-400 yen (~€3). Wish water was free everywhere in Belgium. Grease is considered a symbol of wealth so more expensive food had a lot of grease on it which I don’t like. Japanese attempting to cook Western dishes is interesting because the quality of the food is up there, they often combine weird ingredients or are out of proportion.
Many menus have pictures, not all have an English menu. Food is made in plastic and displayed behind a window in front of the restaurant, often luring us tourists in because it looks delicious. Waitresses something kneel when taking your order in order to be literally lower than the seated customer. I like Japanese food, but I can see people getting tired of it and going to more expensive hamburger restaurants.
Lastly, restaurant staff don’t really bother to try speaking English. I know some Japanese so I could manage but still had some awkward moments not knowing what to do, or other customers staring at us.
Gambling and fake(?) entertainment
Japan has a really big gambling and erotic business. I’m okay with it in small amounts but I’ve seen some things that were really… 何? Including child pornography, special sex toys and ear deafening gambling halls.
I’ve also seen job ads where people have to work murderous hours for a low pay rate, and heard stories where people don’t get any payment when they stop working, they can only live off the money they saved during their work career. Education is though too, I guess because parents want their children to get a good job and income. Therefore I can’t help that all the colorful ads, crazy TV commercials, cute sounds everywhere and zen gardens are there to cheer people up or make them relax.
One aspect I liked I wanted to point out are the arcade halls. Japan has arcade halls popping up like hamburger joints, where people can play countless games alone or together with friends. These games are the typical try-to-grab a prize, to shooters, digital card (MOBA) games, rythm games and fighting games. I especially liked CrossxBeats and the Pokemon fighting game, Pokken.
How should I say this… there are countless shops in Japan. I’ve seen shopping malls for clothing only. Shopping malls in shopping malls. Shopping streets underground because there’s already a shopping street above. The amount of objects per square meter is insane sometimes and you’d be amazed when you enter a random building that it has 14 floors and 3 below the ground floors filled with shops and even more shops. I’m literally going to get a stroke when I see another store. I just… I can’t even. Normal people start to vaporize when they come back from Japan and see a bowl of rice but I just can’t see any stores anymore. And vending machines
Notable is that electronics/video game stores weren’t that frequent in the lower parts of Japan and I only started to notice them once we hit Kyoto and Tokyo. Also noticeable are many CD stores that still seem to be profitable.
I was able to use Japanese but also felt really shallow like I have a long ways to go and have some serious gaps in my vocabulary. It’s a really rewarding feeling to be able to ask, explain and understand (and being understood) in self-learned Japanese and I’m a little proud of myself.
At first I was scared to use Japanese, but after seeing how our guide gets around with survival Japanese, one word phrases, short form and English, I was more confident to speak.
We did countless of things on our trip, too much to count. Amongst them are onsen bathing, visiting plenty of temples, musea, dolphin watching, biking, playing games in awesome arcade centers, exploring a volcano, being approached by school children for pictures,… All in all it was an awesome trip with an amazing small group of nice people.
I feel like I had a good look at Japan, but just a snapshot as everything came and went really fast. I liked the first weeks the best, as they focussed on the more rural parts of Japan. The last week was Kyoto and Tokyo, 2 really big cities that are so tourist-friendly they often don’t give you the complete package of what Japan is.
I have a lot of problems with Japan, as the hard-working culture and little pension support is frightening. As a workplace, not yet, but as a holiday destination it’s perfect. My parents were quick to point out too that sometimes the country feels… robotic and artificially cute. It’s a country set on rules, no exceptions allowed. People follow the rules and all works well, but sometimes it’s necessary to break these rules to improve. A lot of the cute aspects to me are just a way for people to not get depressed, to get some comic relief from their work and to stay positive. Maybe I’m wrong here.
The good outweighs the bad as I really liked the beautiful vistas, friendly people, great food and countless shops. The mix of old and new, quiet and busy, old tradition and Japanese ingenuity is really something special. As I’ve said before, I’m not 100% sure this is the country to grow old, but as a holiday/host family destination it’s a dream.
I’ve also grown addicted to the Japanese city feeling, it’s hard to explain. The architecture, streets, the street light melodies, the countless Japanese ads and shops, the mish-mash of quiet and busy, old and modern all give me this unique sense of atmosphere and mood that I can’t put into words.
I’m on a plane and I already want to be back. It’s like… being in love. Other countries including my native country (Belgium) all feel so gray and I often feel insecure, while Japan feels colorful and somehow exactly like I wished for/seen in jdrama/anime. I really expected to be disappointed, but I’m not. I want to come back as soon as possible once money allows me so.