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Thursday, 21 June 2012

Observations on Japan 2012

Kintaikyo Bridge, Iwakuni
I recently visited Japan for a month with my wife and 3 year old son, the longest period I've spent there since living in Kobe between 1991 and 1998.
This extended stay has allowed me to better gather my thoughts and reflect on what I think has, and hasn't, changed here over the years.
These are my observations, in no particular order.

  • There seems to be a tangible sense of recession in Japan now. I'm wondering whether this just a deepening of the economic problems that Japan has been suffering from for years, or are people consciously spending less after the shock of last year's earthquake and tsunami?
  • The food there is still outstanding. I think there are very few places where you can eat so well for so little money. We had one average meal in the month we were there, and that wasn't at a restaurant.
  • We encountered rainy season for the last few days of our trip. My least favourite time of year there, but the intensity of the rain is awesome in a way. None of the half-hearted drizzle that we British love moaning about.
  • Trains run late quite regularly now. This is a result of the Amagasaki train crash a few years, where more than 100 people died after a young driver, apparently desperate to avoid angering his bosses by running late, went round a bend much too fast and sent his commuter train into a block of flats.
  • The previous comment does not apply to the Shinkansen (bullet trains), which are still astonishingly punctual while getting ever faster and slicker. The new Sakura Shinkansen is the best train I have ever been lucky enough to travel on. They even have Shinkansen with a kids' play area on board.
  • Tokyo is still too big. Miles too big.
  • Every other car on the road there seems to be a Toyota Prius. Great in terms of emissions, but is there any lithium left in the earth's crust?
  • Festivals are still a great way to witness Japanese community spirit at work.
  • Japan is still a smoker's paradise. Cigarettes are very cheap and smoke-free restaurants and bars are practically non-existent.
  • No matter where you are or what the view a rotenburo (outdoor hot spring bath) is the single best way to relax.
  • I may cop some flak for this, but Japan is ruder than it used to be. All trains now have priority seats for the disabled, elderly, expecting mothers and parents carrying small children (i.e. us). Not one person under the age of about 45 stood up and offered their priority seat to Nik or me when we were carrying Tom. There are also women-only coaches on many trains. These are also ignored.
  • Having said that, it's still a good country for random acts of kindness from complete strangers. At a temple we visited, my son was given a large ice cream and a portion of fish food to feed to the local koi carp, all because an elderly couple liked his t-shirt.
  • Japanese urinals are perfect for anyone more than about 50cm tall. Tom managed to perfect the art of weeing standing up over the month.
  • All UK railway workers should be forced to spend a day working with the delightful Miss Ishino at Aioi station to see how customer service should really be done. We're already missing her.
  • Japan has embraced non-alcoholic beer in a big way in the past couple of years. Some of it, such as Kirin's "Free" isn't too bad. Others, however, are truly terrible. A prime culprit is a "brew" called Barreal, which manages to pull off the remarkable trick of tasting less interesting than tap water.
  • Cars with dodgy English names are still in vogue. Nissan Cedric anyone?
  • How is it that 100 yen (about 80p) shops in Japan are Aladdin's caves packed full of useful and desirable objects, whereas shops like Poundland are a symbol of all that's cheap and tawdry in modern Britain?
  • Free wi-fi in shops, bars, restaurants etc? Forget it. Ridiculously hard to find, even in big cities.
  • It would appear that Japanese people between the ages of 16 and 80 are banned from using buses.
  • If our (pretty basic) rented flat in semi-rural Japan can provide unlimited fibre-optic broadband that gives me an upload speed of 30 meg (for only £12 per month), why does my Talktalk fibre-optic broadband at home give me an upload speed of about 1.6 meg? Pathetic.
  • The standard of driving there is as bad as ever. I've never understood this, as Japan is a highly conformist society in so many ways. So many people ignore red lights, drive while texting, ignore pedestrian crossing and we even saw one guy driving with no seat belt with a toddler on his knee. An ex-girlfriend once assured me that this was all because "the Japanese are very busy", which is clearly complete nonsense. Any ideas?
  • Mount Fuji as you speed by on a Shinkansen. A view that everyone should experience at least once.
  • Japan is a wonderful country if you're a 3 year old boy with blond hair. We've long since lost count of how many times Tom was called kawaii (cute), and by people from every walk of life there.
  • I already can't wait for our next trip.

The finest way to travel

Location: Aioi City, Hyogo Prefecture

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