WHAT I KNEW BEFORE THE TRIP
In my academic times, the first lecture I was commissioned to was about transnational corporations. My knowledge about Japanese business conduct and keiretsu (complex interlocking among companies) after several years was quite comprehensive. At least in theory. But did I know anything useful about Japan and Japanese society before departing to Japan? As our two weeks journey has ultimately shown, the answer was – rather nothing.
Obviously, in my comprehension, there were words and vague impressions on geisha (and kimono), shogun and samurai, and the tradition of seppuku, a kind of honorary ritual suicide. My understanding of the latter was a bit wider as some time ago I read memories of a kamikaze, a Japanese pilot, who committed himself to perform a suicide flight to destroy an enemy object during WWII, but ultimately never got the order to do so. Today, shogun and samurai are words describing the Japanese past instead (unless you think of shogun and samurai bonds, but these are only funky ways to quickly distinguish kinds of securities).
As we realized during our two weeks trip, the tradition of Geisha is still well-preserved in Japan. Wearing traditional Japanese clothing on various occasions as well. On the picture geisha or geiko seen in Gion, the Kyoto Geisha district. (Japanese nouns are only singular. One of the things you learn quite quickly when in Japan).
BEING SHY OF FOREIGNERS
Among my work colleagues, I had at least two who spent some time in Japan. One of them used to live there for two years lecturing at one of the Japanese universities. Of messages, he conveyed to me one was very straight. Japanese were or are shy of foreigners. If there is a white person on the train even if the train is crowded inside, they will keep the distance from him or her. If there was a Western-looking couple in a park, the Japanese asked about which way they went, it would quite quickly indicate the right direction. This one I cannot confirm anyway. As my colleague was in Japan more than a decade ago, I can imagine things changed. Japanese travel much, and there are more and more tourists who visit Japan. The relations with the international community are probably not that intensive as in other countries, but they are no more uncommon.
Contrary, Japanese people we met while traveling seemed to us very forthcoming. A couple of times, we were approached by the Japanese, who realized we needed assistance not being able to understand the communiques in their language. Some just asked us where we came from and what were our impressions of Japan. Only once I saw a European regarded with some discontent. He was loudly speaking French on the phone on a metro train. To my observation, the Japanese use their cells in public transport by sending messages or surfing on the internet, but avoid speaking out loud. Being loud, besides maybe in trains full of not sober Japanese departing at midnight from Shinjuku, is simply considered impolite.
The other message conveyed by my colleague was that the Japanese were spotless people, and there was no vandalism in the streets. To my observation, this is absolutely true. I remembered him talking a conversation with a Japanese colleague. He pointed out paper advertisements hanging in a train telling him, that in most European countries they would be someday torn by more or less drunk guys. His Japanese colleague asked him only one simple question: ‘What for?’ If I had to point out things the Western societies could learn from the Japanese, this would be it.
Inside a local train. It was quite quiet inside. The exception would be late evening trains carrying crowds of the Japanese, who enjoyed the nightlife in Shinjuku (a Tokyo district). The paper advertisements hanging down from the top are absolutely intact.
SHORT SKIRTS, AESTHETICS AND SOME OTHER FEMALE TALK
Short before departing, I was warned by a female friend, a fan of the Japanese culture, who visited Japan several times, not to wear deep décolletage. ‘Your skirt may be as short as you wish’, she said, ‘but do not take some of the summer clothes you wear here at home’. This was, however later not confirmed by our guide, a young male, graduate of Japanese culture studies, but I listened to the advice. I can confirm only that young Japanese women wear rather short skirts than uncovered necklines.
My colleagues observed as well that the Japanese wear more decent clothing that we here at home, but the things are of good quality. The notion of elegance in Japan is different from that in Europe. It is more about aesthetics, cleanness, and taking care. My female colleague once told me: ‘No matter how much I tried, as I compared myself to the women I traveled with on buses or trains, I always felt messier. They were so decently spruce.’ Yet another thing I can confirm.
But there was another thing out of the female world I realized in Japan, nobody told me before. These were Japanese cosmetics, to be exact the quality of cosmetics that you can buy in Japan. If I had to come back to this country yet again, I would take only small quantities of daily cosmetics to live through a day or so, and buy me things I need on the spot. And, I would plan in some additional time to shop more cosmetics at the end of the journey, to be able to pack them into the main luggage.
The other advice was ‘smile and nod when you ask for something, and you thank for something. This would help you, even if your Japanese interlocutor speaks no English’. The latter turned out to be absolutely right.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
Our journey was planned for Mai, a bit too late to see the famous cherry trees at blossom. It however still springtime with temperatures like during the European summer. Although it is not always clear when looking and the world map, the Japanese main island Honshu is located at latitudes comparable to those of Spain.
Our travel plan was to visit only the central parts of Honshu traveling from Tokyo West to Takayama and Kanazawa, South to Kyoto, Mount Koya, and back to Tokyo. We planned to be in constant move changing locations. Only in Kyoto, we planned a three-day stay in a traditional Japanese house just to experience how it is to do so as well as to make a technical break.
All the hotels we booked were European style – means with a high western-style bed. In aftermath an error. The traditional Japanese sleeping mats are very comfortable. Being afraid of them, as it turned out later, we paid higher prices in hotels.
As in Japan, you must have a Japanese driving license we planned to move around using Japanese trains – the high-speed Shinkansen as well as local trains and the metro.
The basic plan for our two weeks journey in Japan. In most locations, maybe discounting Kanazawa and Mount Koya, we stayed two nights to sightsee in the area. But in Kyoto, we rented a traditional Japanese house for three days to get the experience and make a technical break.
A JUMBO JET ON PILED PIERS
With most of our traveling fellowship, I met at Munich Airport. But we were not all on the same plane. Some of us were booked on an ANA (All Nippon Airlines), some on a Lufthansa flight. It turned out that both flights took place with a comparable itinerary. As we later landed at Haneda (the Tokyo airport), we did not lose much time to get together.
I was happy that I was able to go through Munich. For some time, I was living in Germany, and I am somehow accustomed to this airport. This was, however, the first time I made an intercontinental trip from there. This meant to go through the other terminal than on intra European flights. Today, one of the advantages in Munich airport is that equipped with an EU passport you may do your border control through an automatic gate.
My flight was with ANA. It was the first time in my life I felt overwhelmed with constant nodding. To be frank, after two weeks in Japan, and somehow treating nodding and smiling as a way of easing all interactions, I could not have shed of this habit for at least two other months. Our flight to Japan started in the late afternoon. As from-Europe-to-Japan time difference is seven hours, and the flight lasted about eleven hours, we were served to my recollection at least two full and rich meals during the flight. What I found interesting was that in the menu card, the calorie value was presented next to the ingredients. In all variations, both meals were between 700 and 1000 kcal. It was definitely too much for me, but just to get the experience I tried everything that was served. I chose, of course, the Japanese menu. To be frank, I was a little disappointed. In most of the European biggest cities, you can eat Japanese for lunch or supper. At that time, I was working in an office building, where sushi deliveries were available most of the week at a balanced quality-price relation. As I was accustomed to quite well-done sushi (even if in Europe it seems to be a bit drier than in Japan), a menu based on deep-fried ingredients appeared to be a bit odd. No idea how I made it, but it was for me the first time I have learned the word ‘tempura’ (battered and deep-fried). Not that I never tasted it. Besides maybe Vienner Schnitzel, I usually avoid dishes battered and deep-fried. Nevermind. The overall service on board was first class.
As we approached the Haneda airport, I was quite much excited. As we were rolling alongside the taxiway, it was one big ‘wow’ for me. Haneda is ranking the fifth busiest airport in the world. I was aware that because of the increasing traffic, the airport had to be extended several times. At a certain point, this was possible only by additional land reclamation. That what I did not know, was that the airport runways/taxiways were built on a combination of reclaimed land and piled pier sections. Our jumbo jet indeed moved on a taxiway constructed upon piled wooden piers!
THE JR PASS
The first thing we had to do after we cleared the airport closed area was to claim our Japan Rail Passes (or shortly JR Passes). (We paid for them earlier at home.) The JR Pass is a document that for a lump sum paid upfront allows a tourist traveling by most Japanese trains without limits within a specified period, for which the pass was bought. Only a couple of times we had to pay some additional amount to use a Shinkansen (high-speed) train.
As I understand, the concept of the JR Pass is about making railway transport affordable to those who come to visit Japan. Almost all of us traveled on a tourist visa. Only our guide/interpreter was supposed to stay longer upon a working visa. This excluded him from the JR Pass system. Each time he had to pay the full ticket price.
As a tourist with a JR pass issued on your name, you can use all Japanese Railways (JR) lines for a lump sum up-front payment. However, you must be prepared to pay an additional fee in some Shinkansen (high-speed) trains. You must also reserve a sitting place. The JR pass is not valid in metro trains. For more about transport in Japan >>>.
THE FIRST STEPS IN TOKYO
Our hotel was somewhere in the greater Tokyo area. Today I do not recall its exact location anymore. One of the advantages, when you take up your trip with a person speaking well Japanese. To be frank, in the first days I felt a bit like blind. It was the first time in many years that I was in a country, the language of which I had no idea. In Tokyo, and in other bigger cities, ultimately, not understanding Japanese was not a problem. At most of the railway and metro stations, as well as on trains, the names of the stations were displayed in English as well. Also, many of the goods in supermarkets were as well labeled in English. It was, however, not a rule deeper in the Japanese province.
But even if we did not understand some Japanese specifics, somehow there was always a Japanese around giving us a helping hand. It happened the first time (and by far not the last) as we ascended a train, which should bring us to a station in the vicinity of our hotel. We took a train on a line, with our station on its route. As we were already on the train and started to look for the name of our station, quite quickly we were approached by a helpful Japanese. He explained to us that the train we were in was for commuters, who lived outside the Tokyo central districts. The train was not stopping for the first half-hour or so. The man gave us precise information about how to get to our hotel after we descend at the first station the train stopped. The error cost us at least one hour lost. Already on our first day, we learned not to take some things we are accustomed to in Europe for granted in Japan.
As we got to our hotel, it was already dark. We agreed to give us a couple of hours to sleep out and shower. Later in the evening, we planned to visit Shinjuku, the district of Tokyo famous for its nightlife. As we realized then, the ‘nightlife’ has a specific meaning in Shinjuku. Most of the trains to other districts of Tokyo were leaving Shinjuku railway station around midnight. And so the most Japanese, who spent their evenings in the district.
SHINJUKU BY NIGHT
As we got out at the Shinjuku railway station, we were overwhelmed by the crowds as well as the lights of Shinjuku. Hundreds of neon advertisements made the place genuinely vivid in particular at the late hour. As we realized later, at day-light, it looks barely that impressive.
Shinjuku by night. We visited this place many times as Shinjuku is Tokyo’s central railway station. Twice we spent there an evening. More on late hours in Shinjuku >>>
On that evening, we learned the word ‘izakaya’, which is a Japanese style pub and restaurant in one. During our journey, we visited several izakayas that looked different than the one in the picture below. But still, if I had to explain what an izakaya is I would give the example of this one, we visited on our first evening in Tokyo.
In an izakaya, as in man other places in Japan, you must take off your shoes and put them near the entrance either in open or locked-in shelves. You spend your evening sitting on pillows on the floor at a low table. There are of course many restaurants in Japan, where you sit on chairs at a standard table (from the European perspective of course). Still enjoying Japanese evenings, you have to get used to sitting on pillows. The izakaya interior is mostly open space, only sometimes offering separate rooms with fixed walls. Still, each partying company would be separated from others by movable panels. You do not see others, but still, you may hear them well.
It might be deafening in a Japanese izakaya. Loud often has, however, a different meaning in Japan than in Europe. Looking at the statistics, the Japanese are not leaders in pure alcohol consumption levels, but somehow they have ‘weaker’ heads than people in other countries. The parties in izakaya are quickly getting loudly unleashed. We saw and heard it already on our first evening in Tokyo.
Inside a ‘regular’ Japanese style izakaya. The first one we visited in Japan. In one like that you will be asked to take off your shoes. I photographed it as we were about to leave. Only a quarter before the room was full of Japanese enjoying a drinking party. If you look closer, you can see the frames, where movable panels may be installed. This way, the open space may be turned into private lounges. They are of course not soundproof, but still, you are among yourselves
An evening in an izakaya as well as in other Japanese restaurants starts with a starter of your host choosing. In Japan, you theoretically do not give tips. Customarily, you will be later billed for this starter as an equivalent of a tip. The appetizers for a start are usually nothing unexpected. But the one on that evening was, at least for us. To be frank, we all burst out in laughter a minute or two after it was put on our table. A torn raw cabbage. Something you will not see at any European restaurant, I suppose. We were really amused. But it was the only time during our entire trip. Later on, the appetizers were more ‘regular’ ones.
The cabbage appetizer we were brought on our first evening in Japan. A kind of curiosity.
I cannot recall quite precisely what we had eaten on that evening. Some meat and vegetable shishkebabs, rice and some tempura dishes. We ordered bigger plates of one kind so that everybody of our twelve people traveling fellowship could have tasted at least a piece of each meal. But to be frank, it was not a kind of cuisine I would await on our first evening in Japan. I had precisely the same feeling as on our Munich-Tokyo flight. We visited later this kind of izakaya maybe three or four other times. The evenings were delightful, but there was a moment a skipped the rounds, enjoying a piece of tofu in a sesame-honey sauce. The latter, in its simplicity, I consider today one of the best sweet dishes I ever tasted.
In the aftermath, I would recommend to everybody a visit to this type of izakaya. It is fun. Still, the Japanese cuisine as we realized later has much more to offer.