Impressions of Japan

As is my custom, I’d like to share some impressions of Japan.  As you may know, this was my second trip to Japan; my first was in July 2010.  That trip was my first to Asia, was short (less than a week), and was quite focused on work (meaning, trains!).  Although many of my thoughts here build on that trip, this time I had more time, experience, and perspective to reflect on Japan and the Japanese people.

I want to start by just mentioning that we found no visible after-effects of the Great Eastern Japan Earthquake of March 2011 that killed an estimated 30,000 people.  Although we didn’t travel directly to the affected region, it is amazing that Tokyo, so relatively close to the impact and effected significantly in the aftermath, appears to be completely back to “normal.”  Clearly, the spirit and resilience of the Japanese people is incredible; professionally, it is remarkable that only two relatively small rail lines remain out of service, and the Shinkansen high-speed rail line in the area was restored in just 49 days, despite massive damage in many locations.  That being said, the threat of “the big one” hitting Tokyo looms large – Astrid blogged about the 5.2 quake that occurred early on a Saturday morning while we were in Tokyo.  I shudder to imagine the scale of devastation possible with a really big quake in the world’s largest and densest megalopolis.  Even though the Japanese are perhaps better prepared than anyone else, the events of last March prove how vulnerable we are to natural disasters, and how unpredictable they are.  There is talk of Japan constructing some sort of back-up capital elsewhere in the country, but how do you plan to relocate the 30-35 million people of the world’s most populous metropolitan area?

But back to the main story about my impressions of Japan!  While of course volumes could be (and have been) written, I’ve formulated a series of six themes that attempt to capture my thoughts.

Gentle and Peaceful

The overall feeling of Japan is one of an incredibly gentle and peaceful place.  This is perhaps most evident in the fact that, despite being a very different and foreign place (the most foreign place he has even been, says my boss), and with a written language that is completely unintelligible to me, it was in no way threatening or scary.  I found this in sharp contrast to my most recent foreign port of call, Brazil – where the combination of hype (and, to a lesser but not trivial extent, reality) made me quite on edge just walking around.

In Japan, there was an air of safety and serenity – even in the very busy cities.  This was most evident in Tokyo, where the incredible density and numbers of people just aren’t intimidating the way they are in, say, New York.  Even though the subway and trains are the world’s busiest, there is almost no shouting or pushing – people are patient and orderly, and subtle features like the train departure melodies (which I will post separately on, to be sure!) are examples of how the Japanese manage to bring calm to places that elsewhere would probably be anything but.  Of course, this is not necessarily surprising given the emphasis on such themes in traditional Japanese places, such as the many temples and gardens – and reinforced by the politeness and customs of the people.

A serene view of Takaragawa Onsen resort.


The Height of 1988 Technology

One of my strongest impressions from my 2010 trip was the clash of expectations with reality regarding technology.  Perhaps stereotypically, I expected Japan to be a super-advanced technological place, and what I found instead were a lot of things that seemed stuck in time.  I likened this to a pre-Internet “old school” image of hi-tech.  This is immediately apparent at the airport train station; the process of getting a ticket for the airport express train involves lots of staff shuffling, stamping, and re-arranging paper, culminating in them showing you the price on a 1980-era calculator.  Now, I have no doubt that many new technologies are in use; for example, all of the subway stations have wireless Internet available.  But the seemingly older level of technology also relates to my next theme – that Japan is an older, more advanced modern society.

Another perspective on this theme is the insular character of Japan and its economic stagnation over the past twenty years – so in some ways it literally did peak with 1988 technology!  We picked up a fascinating book of essays about the future of Japan published since the earthquake, and it delves into this issue significantly.  This insular point of view – that the Japanese don’t tend to engage much with the rest of the world, in many respects, which  leads to a resistance to globalization — in this day and age is bad for business and the overall economy.  One possible illustration of this was the virtual absence of Apple products – I don’t think we saw any ads or people with iPhones or iPads or iPods (of course, on the other hand, there were two Starbucks within about 50 feet of the entrance to our hotel in Tokyo!).

Although this is admittedly a relic (from the early days of the Shinkansen) on display at the Railway Museum, but the machines and processes for ticketing and seat reservations now don't seem that much more advanced - when we first got our rail passes and made our first train reservations the staff member looked up our trains in a huge printed timetable book instead of using any computer!


The Eastern Version of an Advanced Modern Society

This is a tough concept to talk about, because it can sound a bit arrogant – but I mean nothing but respect and am trying to just convey my impression.  One of the fascinating aspects of Japan to me is the fact that, while very much (Far) Eastern, it is an older advanced society, almost as if on a parallel but totally separate track from Western advanced modern societies (like the US or UK).  In the same way that the UK is a sort of alternative version of the US, and I imagine that Australia is a third, Japan is another parallel alternative, albeit much more different!

Why do I say this?  Well, first, Japan stands out from the rest of Asia, as most other Asian places are in varying stages of development, whereas Japan is much further along that track.  While these other places appear to be actively becoming modern and wealthy right now and have a raw energy of change, Japan has a more refined air that suggests it has already been there for quite some time.  The more mature state of technology is just one reason; the advanced economy and similar problems to the advanced economies of the West (like the US) is another, and similar social phenomena like fewer children and aging population is a third reason.  In fact, Japan has the second-highest median population age in the world (44.6) after Monaco, and very similar age to Italy and Germany (for comparison, the UK is 40.5 and the US is 36.8, but these are driven down by younger immigrant populations from Eastern Europe and Latin America, respectively).


Doing Things Simply and Very Well

Perhaps another reason that technology in Japan feels a bit like it is sometimes stuck in 1988 is because there seems to be a great focus on doing things simply and doing those simple things very well, which sometimes means doing things low-tech and other times means sticking with an older process if it works.  I think this is a very good thing, and may in some ways reflect a culture that is focused on getting things done rather than being flashy or achieving individual glory.

Let me use two examples to illustrate.  First, you are all familiar with the hang tags that are typically used to say “do not disturb” in a hotel?  Well, in a couple of places we found magnets instead, which are much more efficient than the hang tags, because they do not get bent, fall off, get stuck in the door, etc.  Quite simple and silly thing, I know, but an example of doing something simply and well.  Second, I have to cite the railways.  Japanese railways have quite a reputation around the world, and that is mostly achieved through doing the basics right.  The stations and trains are quite simple, really – no fancy finishes or luxurious touches, just good wayfinding, ample capacity, and consistent service.  Conventional (i.e. non-Shinkansen) services are not terribly fast, but they are VERY reliable.

As an example of doing something simple well, the Japanese have solved the issue of wearing socks with sandals by using thong Astrid models a pair, kindly provided in our room at the Takayama Ouan Hotel.

A second example made my day - why can't we have this elsewhere in the world? This simple pad was located just below the metal casing and buttons for the elevator. Now if we can get those next to metal doors at the end of carpeted corridors (like on Office Space) I'll really be in heaven!


The Ugly Built-Environment

At a high level, I think Japan has a reputation for two kinds of landscapes – very dense cities (like Tokyo) and beautiful natural settings (mountains, temples, gardens, and seas).  While this is true, and many of the more natural settings are amazing, the built environment of the cities from the smallest town all the way up to Tokyo is somewhat surprisingly ugly.  This is first evident on the trip from Narita Airport into Tokyo, where the seemingly-unending vista of quite ugly apartment blocks and mess of wires begins.  But it isn’t just Tokyo – every even medium-sized city we saw seemed to have a similar look about it.  Now, certainly, these areas may not be much different from outer parts of Brooklyn and Queens (or God-forbid, New Jersey!), but compared to expectations and even compared to the UK, where practically everything seems to be adorably quaint, it was a bit of a surprise.

There were two specific cases that stood out.  First, Kyoto was perhaps the most shocking, given its worldwide status as a tourism destination and its 17 locations that are part of its UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Certainly, these are great – as we are showing you in other posts, like the Bamboo Grove; but the city center, which is the point of entry from the railway station, is pretty bland-to-ugly modern, with huge streets, lots of cars, and pretty uninspiring buildings.  The second specific case I want to cite is in more rural locations, where many rivers and valleys are visually polluted by man-made structures like dams and lots of concrete. We spent a long time looking for a river with a natural riverbank, but they almost all have artificial banks made out of concrete. Now, there may be good reasons for this – but they seem to take some of the more natural places and make them uglier than they need to be.

I love a good railway viaduct more than the next guy, but this massive one just north of Omiya (viewed from the Railway Museum) and the associated mess of wires with the ugly built-up dense urban environment in the background (and this is already nearly 20 miles from Tokyo Station). For the record, the main viaduct carries four tracks here for the Shinkansen lines to the north (Tohoku, Joetsu, and Nagano - Omiya here is the first stop northbound out of Tokyo proper), with the small train on the side is the Ina Line "New Shuttle" serving linking the Saitama area to the rail hub at Omiya.

A side street (well, alley really) off Shoji-dori, a primary shopping street in central Kyoto. Not exactly the quaint image of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that one envisions of Kyoto! This was taken just outside of the Nishiki Market that Astrid posted about earlier.


A Railway Culture

I’ll end with this theme, which I will of course explore more in future posts!  There is no doubt that Japan has a railway culture; that much is evident from the numbers.  Railways carry around 22 billion passenger trips per year in Japan – nearly 9 times as many as in France and the UK combined (which together have the same population as Japan in more than double the land area).  As a result, something like 27% of trips in Japan are made by railway (not even including metros in major cities), compared with 16% in the next-highest country (Switzerland) or 6% in the UK, and 90x the value in the US (of just 0.3% of all trips).  (Thanks to Wikipedia for those interesting stats.)  In the major cities of course, especially Tokyo, this is even more pronounced.  Around 75% of all travel in Tokyo is by railway or subway, with only 15% made by private car.

So, it is clear that there are a lot of railways and that people use them a lot.  This has some major implications, though; it means that the railway is an accepted part of the landscape, that the construction of new lines (especially the high-speed Shinkansen) is generally accepted, etc.  This was especially evident to us in visiting the Railway Museum, where the volume of people and kids of all ages going crazy over all sorts of railway stuff was incredible!

In the US, you'd be lucky to find a single book about public transport or trains in a randomly selected bookstore, but this bookstore in central Kyoto had this entire aisle dedicated to the topic. Unfortunately, none of them are any good to me as they are all in Japanese!

I think this playground accessory (albeit at the Railway Museum) says it all - and I managed to get a relatively people-free shot only because it was lunchtime and the crowds were in the heritage railcars set up nearby where you sit with your lunch to eat.



So, there you have it – six themes I found in Japan, with of course many others that could be discussed.  Overall, what a fascinating place to visit and observe, and I certainly hope that we are able to go back again in the future and explore some of the same places in more depth and visit places further north and further south as well.


Posted on 25/12/2011, in travel, Travel to Asia and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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