I’ll let you into a secret: Japan has never been all that high on my bucket list. This are for a number of reasons: it’s expensive, it’s a very long way away, and, while there is much to see there, it arguably lacks those “must-see” wonders like Niagara Falls (done) or the Pyramids (still on the list.)
I had a couple of chances to visit a few years ago when one, then a second, cousin moved there temporarily, but incompatible schedules and lack of funds, and the fact that at the time I was travelling all over the place for work, meant it never came to anything. Finally, this year, I made it over there. And it’s, well, weird.
I know I shouldn’t say another culture is “weird”, as that’s a relative and subjective term. Those from other countries probably find it decidedly weird that the British say sorry all the time, even when someone else bumps into them, and that we take passive aggression to such heights that if it was an Olympic sport we’d wipe the floor with everyone else. But, as my husband pointed out grimly as he sat on the floor in a pair of borrowed slippers, “they have a toilet that can wash your bum in 4 different ways, but they don’t have chairs.”
Japan is wonderful in many ways – organised and slick. Everything works, and a huge effort has gone into making the environment as peaceful as possible, with amplified bird noises guiding you to exits in tube stations, and gentle tunes to let you know the train doors are about to close. Tokyo has more Michelin starred restaurants than any other city in the world; the architecture is varied and beautiful; and the country is blessed with a multitude of different landscapes and scenery, much of which we visited – in two weeks we managed beaches, mountains, cities and everything in between. But before I go into the nitty gritty of the actual places we visited, here are some things you really must know about Japan:
OK, let’s get this one out of the way: the famous toilets. It is indeed true that Japanese toilets are electronically operated and possess a wider range of possible options than the Enigma machine. Every toilet in Japan seems to be like this – we stayed in a traditional Japanese house in Kyoto which had no beds or chairs – we slept on futon mattresses and knelt on cushions around a low table. The toilet was in a separate little hut outside, but was every bit as technologically advanced as those in the shopping centres. Every possible need has been considered. On sitting down the seat is disconcertingly warm, but that’s not because someone has spent a relaxing half hour reading a book on there, but because it has been programmed to heat to optimum temperature. Next to you will be a dazzling array of buttons with most of the instructions in Japanese, which is fairly dangerous for everyone’s inner child which is screaming “what happens if I pressed THIS one?” I inadvertently found out what almost all of them did when I popped into a public lavatory. I was sitting down minding my own business and taking my time when the toilet suddenly decided, apparently of its own fruition, that I needed my bottom to be washed. A jet of warm water suddenly shot up, apparently from nowhere, giving me mild colonic irrigation and a not insignificant shock (my shriek must have been heard by all the other people in the bathroom.) When I had recovered, remembered what I’d gone in for in the first place and finished I noted the one sign in the cubicle translated into English: “now you must flush toilet”. I looked around, but there was nothing that looked even remotely like a flush – no chain, no handle, just a series of mysterious looking buttons with Japanese writing next to them. I passed the first one only for another jet of water to be forcefully propelled towards my anus. More tentatively I tried the second one, and this time a gentle stream of water began to wash me from the other side. The next button, it turned out, made some attempts to cover up my yelps, as sounds of birdsong and running water filled the cubicle. Starting to feel as though I was playing Russian Roulette with the toilet I continued tenaciously down the row of buttons, and by the time I reached the last one I had been washed and blow-dried from every possible angle. The last button, of course, was the flush.
It’s the most electronically advanced society on earth…right?
As the toilet demonstrates, Japan is full of wonderful inventions. The bullet train was introduced here as long ago as the 60s, and now races through the countryside at a speed of 200mph, connecting cities such as Tokyo and Kyoto – which are as far apart as London and Edinburgh – in just over two hours. Yet, despite this technological innovation, Japan has a mainly cash economy. Hardly anywhere accepted credit cards. This does mean that there are a lot of ATMs, as people are constantly having to withdraw cash, but most don’t accept non-Japanese cards. Towards the end of our stay we visited a theme park. As this was a) a visitor attraction and b) fairly expensive we assumed that they would take cards. They didn’t, but the very nice lady directed us to the convenience store opposite to get some cash…which of course didn’t accept our cards. We had already discovered that the one place that would accept UK cards was the 7eleven, so we headed out to find one. In London it’s said you’re never more than three feet away from a rat. In Japan, it feels as though you’re never more than three feel from a 7eleven…except, apparently, here. A 20-kilometre roundtrip later we returned to the bemused and by now slightly worried cashier and got into the park.
Temples are shrines are everywhere in Japan, and they are glorious. You can be in the middle of Tokyo, turn a corner, and find yourself standing in front of the most beautiful, intricate sanctuary. Apparently only 40% of Japanese people identify as “religious”, yet it’s very common for people to pop to a shrine to pray or make an offering, for example before exams or before a baby is born. It actually reminded me a little of the way Catholics petition certain saints (Anthony being my favourite, because, as a dyspraxic, I lose everything all of the time). I have heard the Japanese described as “spiritual rather than religious” and actually found the pick ‘n’ mix nature of different traditions very appealing.
Japan is known for its etiquette, ranging from general politeness to complex cultural and social rules. People think the British are polite and fond of queuing, but the Japanese make us look like amateurs, forming tidy lines as they wait patiently for the subway. I learned the word for “excuse me” (sumimasen), which proved to be extremely useful. Other etiquette rules are more confusing to the unaccustomed westerner and seem to revolve largely around slippers. In all Japanese homes and even in some areas of public buildings you are expected to take off your shoes upon entering, or even before you enter. You will then be provided with slippers, but you can’t wear the same pair of slippers from then on – that would be unthinkable. You have downstairs slippers which (I assume) can be worn everywhere downstairs, except in the lavatory, where you find a separate (communal) pair of special slippers for use in that room only. Then of course there are Upstairs Slippers, because heaven forbid you walk any downstairs dirt upstairs, or vice versa. I’m ashamed to say I never got the hang of the slippers, and if I try to return to Japan will probably find I’m banned for shoe violations.
My husband has vowed never to eat fish or drink green tea ever again, because as far as he’s concerned, absolutely everything we ate while we were there tasted of one or the other. On occasions where we deliberately ordered the most un-fishy thing on the menu we would find it invariably came with a side dish of miso soup with some form of shellfish in the bottom. As for matcha (green tea) you can buy almost anything flavoured with it, including ice cream, oreos and (I kid you not) kit kats (though this is marginally more appealing than the soy sauce flavour, which is actually a thing.)
Perhaps our weirdest experience, though, was finding out you could bathe in it, because, let’s admit it, the one thing that’s missing from British leisure centres is the ability to have a communal bath with complete strangers. At the spa in Hakone you can actually bathe in green tea, sake, red wine or coffee (though there are signs everywhere telling you that you shouldn’t drink from the baths – what would possess you to drink chlorinated coffee from a giant tub you’re sharing with 18 or so other people is beyond me, but there you go.) At the coffee bath a ceremony is performed twice a day, where a member of staff (who admittedly wore an expression that said something along the lines of “where did my life go so wrong?”) rang a large gong and loudly shouted something incomprehensible (to us) in Japanese which the crowd in the bath parroted back enthusiastically. He then filled several large buckets with warm coffee, then threw the content one by one over the assembled, before plodding off to presumably do the same with sake, red wine and matcha.
We recounted this strange tale to a Japanese friend at dinner a few days later. He frowned, thought for a while and said “hmm, sake bath. That’s very unusual.”
They really, really like muzak
Wherever we went in Japan it felt as though we were being stalked by a hotel lift in the 1980s. It turns out the Japanese love muzak – incidental, synthetic music is played everywhere, from shops to subway stations to hotel lobbies to zebra crossings. (Yes, really.) Every station on the vast Toyko metro has a slightly different little tune, ranging from a couple of notes to several bars. (I’d play you an example, but wordpress won’t let me unless I give them more money.)
They really do get “l” and “r” mixed up.
But then, even after two weeks, the only Japanese I can read is the two symbols that make up the word for “exit”, so who am I to judge?