When we went to Japan last month on a whim motivated by an uncommonly cheap air fare ($300 round trip from Cambodia), I imagined the experience would be pretty much as reputed.
The country would be clean, the crowds orderly, the trains always on time, the cities exhilarating, the history temples and shrines impressive, English rarely spoken, prices high and gardens gorgeous to the extreme. (Many more photos on Facebook.)
I was not disappointed.
“Clean” doesn’t begin to describe the contrasts between most of the rest of the world and everywhere we visited over three weeks — in order, Tokyo, Yokohama, Hakone (to view Mt. Fuji), Hiroshima, Miyajima, Himeji, Kobe, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Shirakawa-go, Takayama and Matsumoto. “Immaculate” is more to the point.
There wasn’t a shred of litter on the streets or in the subway or train stations, though maybe I have figured out how that could be the case in view of the rarity of trash receptacles on sidewalks and elsewhere.
One explanation may be that the Japanese don’t munch food while on foot or while riding on public conveyances. I guess they must pocket anything that should be discarded such as candy wrappers or coffee cups for later disposal. That’s what I did. A second reason must be the placement of trash cans inside or outside ubiquitous stores such as 7-11 and Family Mart.
Still, even where snack food to be devoured on the run is sold on pathways surrounding various shrines and temples, there are few options. The only place I could locate to get rid of the damp paper around a morsel that I had purchased was by backtracking some distance to the original vendor and then sticking the paper into his trash bag.
One feature of the trash cans is that there never is a solitary one. Even the numerous vending machines sport two or three aside them because Japan is seriously focused on recycling. There are at minimum containers for garbage that can be burned, for plastics and for metals. At the two apartments that we rented through Airbnb, we were strictly instructed to follow the law and, of course, we did.
Regarding orderly crowds, with the near exception of commuting throngs during rush periods, there was plenty of racing, crunching and strategic weaving at commuting times but little to no evidence of shoving or cursing. Although I have seen videos of white-gloved subway employees pushing Japanese onto crammed trains, that spectacle eluded me.
Alone or alongside Japanese, I felt odd following the custom of waiting on street corners for traffic lights to change even in darkness with no vehicles in sight.
I don’t recall hearing angry horns at any time of day, having to surrender my right of way or noting squads of motorbikes and motorcycles clotting the streets and polluting the air. (Many of the used ones seem to end up where I now live as upwardly mobile Japanese upgrade to cars.) Nor do vehicles obstruct sidewalks or generally park on the streets that we walked as they do in Cambodia. Bicycles are common, and riders on them skillfully navigate on sidewalks, where space is set aside for them.
Taking bullet trains was a predictably necessary tourist experience and an exciting one, but I write as someone who happens to love train travel. You can see illuminated schedules on platforms, reports of trains’ progress and note that, yes, they are always on time. As we discovered in Tokyo Station, through which 3,000 trains are said to arrive and depart daily, timing is everything. We got on one toward Hiroshima about five minutes before it was to leave, and it did speed away immediately.
However, we had boarded too soon.
The one we were supposed to take apparently arrived at the same platform minutes after we zoomed onward, but we were saved by a sympathetic conductor who understandably spoke little English and a Japanese woman who was fluent in our language. Our mistake — okay, my mistake — cost us no money and maybe 10 minutes of extra time because of the transfer we had to make that they figured out together.
That misstep brings me to a welcome discovery about the Japanese. Using sign language and the few words of fractured Japanese that I learned before the trip — calling my mastery of the language rudimentary would be laughably flattering — we had few other problems getting around.
Everyone from whom we needed help of one kind of another, whether sought or volunteered, gave warmly and generously of their time. On at least two occasions, individuals insisted on accompanying us to our destinations blocks away. When others puzzled over our maps and my phrases, they would not be politely dismissed in the face of their growing failure to decipher our geographical goals or intentions.
Because of flight schedules, I had spent a dreary New Year’s Eve in Tokyo in the 90s, my only exposure to the city until now. I remember staying in the Shinjinku area, which pulses with activity, but those 24 hours otherwise gave me no insights into the country such as what I learned this time around. One constant concerns hotel rooms: Most accommodations are famously cramped at modest price levels.
The fact is that the apartments and hotels in which we stayed were of various sizes and prices, all of them reasonable by the international standards of developed countries. Our week in a nicely situated Tokyo apartment ran approximately $500 and, in an ideal location in Kyoto for four nights, something over $400. The equally convenient hotels that we chose ranged in price from approximately $75 a night to much, much more for a traditional Japanese hotel known as ryokan. The inn-like lodging provided a lavish formal breakfast and dinner.
As for other prices, they remind me of my former home in New York City, where, yes, you can spend a king’s ransom on a meal. At the same time, you can dine terrifically in hundreds of unprepossessing restaurants, ethnic or not, for a relative pittance. You theoretically can live in a luxury condo that costs a king’s ransom, or you can choose something less grand and far less expensive, if less geographically desirable.
Aside from that kind woman on our train, I treasure a host of other serendipitous moments from the mundane to the marvelous.
Heading by bus far from Kyoto’s center for a temple famous for its thousand red gates, I arrived disconcerted that I could not find them. I finally determined that I had confused two temple names and that we had gone to the wrong temple as a result. Yet we delighted in the bamboo forest that we encountered in the area and the gorgeous so-called Golden Temple (formally Kinku-ji or Rokuon-ji), which was a short bus ride away and not even on my list of significant sites.
Buses can intimidate any tourist, happily less so in Japan. It was easy to compare route numbers on them and on maps that are easily obtained. Even better, many indicate popular destinations in English. Moreover, the tourist offices in every railway station in the cities we visited proved to be supremely helpful in giving directions for local transportation, offering other advice and distributing informational material.
Gardens, gardens, glorious gardens — each was beguiling, almost more so if we happened upon them without planning to do so. Two of those that come to mind are the Hama-rikyu Gardens, onto which we stumbled while heading toward the landmark Tokyo Tower, itself an unplanned site that we used to locate the Roppongi Hills. On the way, we also encountered an unusual temple with contemporary architecture that I believe goes pretty much unnoticed by tourists with an agenda.
As you doubtless can tell, wandering unsure of where we were paid off over and again. I favor walking in general and especially while exploring new destinations.
In Yokohama, a short train ride from Tokyo, we came upon the Cupnoodles Museum. You read that right. It is an imposing modern building that is a shrine to instant ramen. Curiosity lured us into the lobby, where we learned without entering the exhibit spaces that the place is designed “to stir the creativity and curiosity within every child. . . ” Now, that is farsighted marketing.
Those soothing hot baths called onsen were unfailingly relaxing after miles of walking on the unfortunately few days when we had time and access. Actually, we spent quite a while getting from Kobe to an onsen (Arima) in the mountains, luxuriating in supposedly healthful brown water dubbed “gold” and then exploring the charming old town that contains it. The “silver” baths there were closed that day.
Although our goal was to see Mt. Fuji on a long day trip from Tokyo, we hadn’t focused on the fascinating opportunity that our day pass included also to be near an active volcano with vents releasing clouds of sulphurous steam. A popular item was hard-boiled eggs with black shells made so from the steam. Other tourists related that the eggs tasted the way they always do, so we didn’t indulge in them, opting instead to spend our time in the area photographing the vents and Fuji’s shy summit.
In Hiroshima one evening, my credit card was missing from my back pocket. I guessed that the only place it could be was in the small eatery where I had lunched on udon earlier that day. When I returned those many hours later, the staff had changed and no one spoke English.
Unsurprisingly, I lacked the definitive words in Japanese to explain my hope that the card was there. After gesturing with another credit card, I had to show that I didn’t want to have dinner there and that I didn’t want to know whether I could pay with a credit card (for which I know the word). I resorted to dragooning a diner into helping with translation. When he was not up to the task, pantomime thankfully worked.
The waiters were almost as pleased as was I when one of them uncovered the card buried safetly in the cash register.
I have mentioned the ubiquity of 7-11 stores. They presented a big surprise in terms of their coffee. Buying the beverage in them cost only $1.50 for a large cup that is more like small in other nations, a minor issue because their machines grind the beans each time you serve yourself. It is delicious.
Speaking of food, I was astonished and thrilled to encounter Luke’s Lobster in a high-fashion district of Kobe. Near my former apartment in Manhattan, the small, spare restaurant had served me one of its superb lobster rolls on the last day of my last visit to the U.S. The version in Japan was just as good and, at $15.29, cost less than the one in New York.
The one tourist attraction we missed was the singularly popular tuna auction and wholesale fish market at Tsujiki in Tokyo. I had read that one had to be at the market by 4 a.m. to be among the small number of visitors to the tuna auction. However, it was already too late when we arrived, partly because the market covers a lot of ground and we didn’t know where to go to line up. On the way, we did get a look at massive carcasses of headless frozen fish, the prices of which can escalate beyond the equivalent of $1 million.
There was a sign in English saying it was best to be there by 2:15-3:00 a.m. Worse, once given a lime-green vest to distinguish the lucky ones, you cannot leave the waiting area until the first of two free tours starting at 5 or 5:30 a.m. Thank you, but I’ll pass.
We did return another day at least to see the sprawling wholesale operation. Too late then as well. There wasn’t much much happening by the time we arrived late morning, though our mission was based more on a hope than an expectation that it still would be open. Our compensation was a superb meal of the freshest sushi ever plus the couple of hours we spent investigating the inviting food stalls that surround the market and enjoying free samples.
I number among our mundane moments the chance to try a variety of food, whether smoky leaves of seaweed, a host of Japanese pickles offered by store owners or Kobe beef, which a restaurant cooked in the two highest grades of quality. The samples available everywhere that tourists frequent worked to a degree: We came home with packages of a wonderful cracker that I never had tasted along with a plastic envelope containing a mixture of spicy sesame seeds.
Additionally, I was fascinated to watch a young man roll out and then slice impossibly thin sheets of soba noodles behind the glass front of a restaurant. His exertions starting with a mound of dough bigger than a basketball transfixed me and several others in Takayama. I also had a hard time tearing myself away from watching machines resembling Rube Goldberg contraptions churn out desserts.
Coming from my home of the last three years in Cambodia and in New York City before then, I kind of fell in love in with Japan. Everything works there, walking and traveling could not be more pleasurable, the range of foods and their prices is delightful, and the people (who admittedly may never seek actual friendship) delighted me.
There is, of course, something of a concern having to do with earthquakes, tsunamis and volcanos. But what are the rewards in life worth if they are not accompanied by a measure of risk?