We are sad to be leaving Japan; 15 days here was simply not long enough.
It’s a first world country that’s so different to ours. So an easy place to be a traveller, but also authentic, quirky and compelling. Here are some observations we are taking away….
Past and future
Japan was our gateway to the futuristic world (Korea and China are to come), but it’s also a country that cherishes a past of civility and manners.
It’s this perfect combination that makes the place so lovely to be in. When we were young, we read and saw films about a 21st century where technology and machines, coupled with a new human kindness, created an enviable lifestyle for all. Is Japan the closest we have come to it?
We queried why so many French visitors come to Japan, with a French language exchange student; “It’s because of animation” she told us. We queried further, so she explained that the French and Japanese share a love of animation and from an early age French school children see anime/manga, a massive cultural export, and become intrigued by Japan and its way of life.
A significant number of Japanese wear face masks. We were unsure if this was to protect the individual from inhaling smog or catching a disease, say at exam time, or possibly to protect others from any cold/flu that the wearer had. However, our helpful Hong Kong student (the one who told us about Japanese toilets) said that teenagers also wear these masks to cover up acne and other issues with their faces.
2020 is coming
Everywhere, buildings and temples, such as the Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto which was covered in scaffolding, are being buffed up for the 2020 Olympics that Japan will host, and there’s a real push to get the country tourist-friendly. No doubt, the country will put on a great show, and all the hard work will be worth it. But, because of the heat, we don’t envy the marathon runners.
Old houses not valued
We were surprised to learn there is no market for old houses; purchasers inevitably knock down the existing house and build afresh. Also, Homebase and B&Q wouldn’t do well here, as there is little appetite for home improvements that will never pay back. Back in 2008, this meant there were no toxic loans or housing bubble to burst.
Regretfully, this thinking has also applied historically to public buildings, most of Japan’s famous castles were demolished in the 1880s, leaving just a handful for the millions of tourists.
Avoiding the hills
As we travelled the length of Honshu by train, we noticed that the housing is squashed into the valleys, whilst huge areas of forested hills, that in other countries would be prime real estate, have no buildings.
Our Japanese expert Sophie tells us it’s because of two things: the threat of earth tremors which happen on an almost daily basis and the fact that the Shinto religion, adhered to by 80% of Japanese, believes that hills are sacred places.
Travel by public transport and you constantly hear little jingles reminiscent of happy, childish ditties. Used ahead of public announcements, each route or company seems to have their own version, a kind of audio branding.
Whilst places in the UK and elsewhere take pride in being “announcement free”, Japan simply loves all forms of public address, either pre-recorded multi-lingual on the bullet trains or personalised by the conductor on the buses.
Keeping Japan tidy
Japan is spotless. You could sit down and eat your lunch off the streets, anywhere. (Which we sometimes did). In local parks there is no litter, tramps, dogs or general squalor. There must be thousands of people involved in keeping Japan so clean, but we saw few of them, and ironically finding a rubbish bin is near impossible. Perhaps it’s simply because the Japanese don’t create the mess in the first place.
When asking some women how old they are, we’ve been stunned by the answers. Women with no wrinkles, who look to be mid twenties, are actually in their forties or fifties. And girls that appear to be 13 year olds are often much older. What creams do they use?
By contrast, Japanese men seem to age before their time. Roger spent an hour talking with a Japanese father who looked about 65, and was surprised to discover he was only 52. Maybe, in this gender-unequal society, there is far too much pressure on the men to be the sole breadwinner.