Japan diaries 2.0

Memories and notes of an European, first time in Japan, written or rewritten one year after the trip.


W H A T   I    K N E W   B E F O R E    T H E   T R I P

In my academic times, my first lecture I was commissioned to was about transnational corporations. My knowledge about Japanese business conduct and keiretsu (complex interlocking among companies) was quite comprehensive. But did I know anything useful about Japan and the Japanese society? The answer is – rather nothing.

GEISHAS, KIMONOS, SHOGUNS AND SAMURAIS, ETC.

Obviously these were words and vague impressions on geishas (and kimonos), shoguns and samurais and the tradition of seppuku, a kind of a ritual honorary suicide. My comprehension of the latter was a bit wider as some time ago I read memories of a kamikaze, a Japanese pilot who committed to perform a suicide flight to destroy an enemy object during WWII, but ultimately never got the order. Today, shoguns and samurais are words describing the Japanese past (unless you think of shogun and samurai bonds, but these are only funky ways to quickly distinguish kinds of securities). But the tradition of geishas is well preserved and maintained.

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Seen in Gion, the traditional geisha district of Kyoto

Of things we learned quite quickly, was however that Japanese men and women are indeed accustomed to wear traditional clothing. These are obviously not the most elegant (or complicated) kinds of kimonos that traditionally consist of many layers. Those are worn by geishas or during festivities >>>. But a simpler form of a kimono, called yukata is worn as a kind of casual dress both by women and men. And there are the geta, traditional Japanese sandals. Unlike in the Western culture, the sandals are worn with socks. The socks are manufactured so that they fit geta, with the big toe and the remaining toes separated.

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Japanese teenagers wearing yukata and geta

BEING SHY OF FOREIGNERS

Among my work colleagues I had two, who spent some time in Japan. One of them used to live there for two years working 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 in the train even if it is crowded inside they would keep distance. This one I cannot confirm any way. As my colleague was in Japan more than a decade ago, I can imagine things changed. The Japanese travel much, and there are more and more tourists, who visit Japan. The relations with international community are no more uncommon. What is more, Japanese people seemed to us very forthcoming. A couple of times we were approached by Japanese, who either realised we needed assistance not being able to understand the communiques in their language or 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 on the phone in a metro train. To my observation, Japanese use their cells in public transport by sending messages or surfing in the internet, but avoid speaking out loud.

ZERO VANDALISM

The other message was that Japanese were very clean people and there is no vandalism in the streets. This is absolutely true. I remembered him talking about a conversation with a Japanese colleague. He pointed out paper advertisements hanging in a train telling him, that in the most European countries they would be someday torn by more or less drunk guys. His colleague asked him a simple question: ‘What for?’ If I had to point out things the Western societies could learn from the Japanese, this would be it.

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Inside a local train. It was quite quiet inside. The exception would be late evening trains carrying crowds of the Japanese, who enjoyed the night life in Shinjuku (a Tokyo district). The paper advertisements are absolutely in tact.

SHORT SKIRTS, AESTHETICS AND SOME OTHER FEMALE TALK

Just before our trip, I was also 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 cloths you wear here at home’. This was not confirmed by our guide, a young male, graduate of Japanese culture studies, but I listened to the advice. I can confirm however the short skirts and covered necklines. My both colleagues also observed 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 than 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 sat with in public transport, 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 realised in Japan, nobody told me before. These were the Japanese cosmetics, to be exact the quality of cosmetics that you can buy in Japan. If I had to come back to this country, I would take only small quantities to live through a day or so, and buy me things I need on spot. And, I would plan in some additional time to shop more at the end of the journey, to be able to pack it 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 true.


T R A N S P O R T

As professionally I deal with transport and infrastructure economics, one of my special interests all around Japan was its transportation system. And already on our first day in Japan I got quite a nice experience pack.

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A photo made a couple of days later. The very impressive entrance to the Kanazawa railway station.

A JUMBO JET ON PILED PIERS

My first ‘wow’ happened as our aircraft was rolling alongside the taxiway at Haneda, the Tokyo airport. Haneda is ranking the fifth busiest airport in the world. I was aware that because of 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 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 travelling by most Japanese trains without limits within a certain period of time, 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 the railway transport affordable to those, who come 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.

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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 additional fee in some Shinkansen (high speed) trains. You must also reserve a sitting place. The JR pass is not valid in metro trains.

THE EXPENSIVE RAILWAY TICKETS

The tickets were expensive even if compared to Western European standards. The railway prices in European countries differ. But two months later I paid less for the Eurostar ticket (from Paris to London) than he paid for even shorter Shinkansen trips in Japan.

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The Shinkansen and Japanese Railways (JR) ticket machines.

As I understand, most employers in Japan offer their employees (on a regular contract) a travel allowance (for commuting purposes) that is tax deductible. Without it, even Japanese would not be able to afford the train tickets.

The tickets are expensive because unlike in Europe the Japanese railways are not subsidized. The European authorities subsidize railways upon the assumption that passengers can afford only tickets that pay for train operations as well as regular maintenance of infrastructure. In case of commuter trains this would be even less. But if ticket prices had to include the investment costs, including building new infrastructure, upgrading or heavier repairs, the prices would be prohibitive. In Japan, the problem was solved by means of privatizing the railway companies, that are allowed to keep a relatively high price of railway tickets. On the other hand, the government grants the employers tax deductions on travel allowances they pay to their commuting employees (indirect subsidy). Besides that, the railway companies are given incentives to finance their railway business though other business activities with higher rates of return (like housing).

PEOPLE IN WHITE GLOVES, QUEUING AND THE MUSIC PLAYING

Learning Japan and the Japanese culture.

People in white gloves, always ready to assist.

Of things that are noticeable at the first sight about the Japanese railways is that there are relatively more employees working in the passenger service (than in Europe). You can recognise them easily as they wear uniforms and white gloves. The other thing is that on most railway platforms there are marks on the floor indicating the place where the passengers should queue. So it is the role of the train driver to stop the train so that the door opens exactly in front of the queue. I do not understand Japanese. But a friend of mine, who speaks the language says that if the train driver does not manage to fit the exact spot a speaker says a polite excuse formula though megaphones. To be frank, all of us had a problem of queuing this way (preferred to spend the waiting time on conversations standing in a circle).  Once even we were brought to order by a man in white gloves (ups!).

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Us (this time orderly) queening to get to the train. Shinkansen platforms are protected like this one. Door opens only when a train is standing at the platform. The regular trains usually do not have protection like that.

Of other specific things we noticed was that when trains were about to depart music was playing for several minutes indicating to people approaching the platform to hurry up.

THE SHINJUKU AND THE MIDNIGHT COMMUTERS

Our first day in Japan was a short one. We were tired after the eleven hours flight from Munich. As we landed at Tokyo Haneda airport it was already 2 p.m. We needed additional 4 hours or so to get to the hotel. We lost about an hour and a half because not knowing the local specifics. Accidentally, we took a train that serviced commuters living far outside the city centre. As the train left the city centre, it did not stop for the first 30 km or so. Quite quickly we were approached by a Japanese, who explained the system to us but it was already too late to leave the train. After we got to the hotel, we gave us some time for a shower and left for Shinjuku, the Tokyo district (to be exact the so called ‘special ward’) combining office and leisure area.

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The lights of Shinjuku. As I did this photo the entrance to the Shinjuku railway station was to my right. If you watch closely you will see a train flyover. There are many like that in Japan.

As we arrived, it was raining. The streets were full of colourfull lights of all possible kinds of advertisements and of Japanese, who just left offices crowding in the restaurants (izakaya) and game plazas (pachinko). Going out after work with work colleagues and often the boss is traditional in Japanese companies. We joined the crowds and quickly landed in an izakaya. We enjoyed the evening. But, we were under a time constraint – the last commuter trains leave the district around midnight. So before midnight we came back to the Shinjuku railway station, that together with other public transport means stopping there is considered the biggest railway station in the world. And we were not alone. Around us were thousands of Japanese, who after spending the evening in Shinjuku, more or less sober, headed home.

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Shinjuku railway station. It is 11.57 p.m.

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And already in the train. It is 11.58 p.m.

I do not recall the name of the station we headed for, but as we left the train and looked at the crowds the first thing some of us did was to check the hour. I have a colleague, age 28, who works in a Japanese company. He parties with his colleagues 3-4 times a week. At first he had fun, but after two or three months the fun was gone. Nevertheless, that evening in the crowded midnight commuter train, the first time I realised why it is said that many (more or less younger) Japanese do not have a private life.

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The crowd of commuters at the local stations somewhere in the greater Tokyo area. It is already 12.30 am.

Some other things worth to remember

  • On many Japanese buses you enter by the middle / back door(s), and leave by the one close to the driver’s seat where you validate your ticket. So if it is crowded inside, it is better to prepare for the exit a bit earlier.
  • You cannot drive a car in Japan unless you have the local driving license. So you have to rely on the public transport. Japanese public transport closes lines relatively early during the day, sometimes beyond bigger cities area at unexpected hours. It is better to check the public transport itinerary in advance.
  • In most places the train and bus schedules contain names of stations and stops written in English letters. But it is not the thumb rule. A photo in your cell of a line map with names in English and in Japanese can help you sometimes out.

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  • The air conditioning works extremely well in Japanese public transport. Even on warm days it is good to have something with long sleeves.
  • I many big cities we walk miles changing the metro lines. But I was under the impression the Tokyo transport nodes are at the extreme. Be prepared to walk miles.
  • Loud talking, in particular on the cell phone, is considered as impolite. 

L A T E   H O U R  S   I N   S H I N J U K U

During our two weeks trip, we spent four nights in Tokyo. Each of those days sooner or later in the evening we went to Shinjuku, that is a special ward (kind of a district) of Tokyo known for its night life. In popular language, Shinjuku is the area in the neighbourhood of the Shinjuku railway station (considered the biggest in the world), where people enjoy the nightlife or to be precise late evenings as the most commuter trains depart around midnight. People come there straight after work.

THE LIGHTS OF SHINJUKU

The first thing that attracted out attention as we arrived there for the first time was the street views full of colourfull neon advertisements and the atmosphere, the noise, the crowds and the party feeling. Below some pictures.

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Shinjuku, Tokyo

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The streets of Shinjuku during night time, only few of many.

THE CITY OF CONTRASTS

If looking closely, Shinjuku is a place of contrasts. At the first sight the streets have a modern fleur. Office building, quite much lights, modern transport infrastructure including railway flyovers, very modern underground passages. In quite close neigbourhood from the ‘neon’ streets, there are many elegant office skyscrapers and other office buildings like those on the photo below.

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But if you look closer and visit some side streets full of small izakaya (restaurant and pub all in one), which are usually full of locals and tourists enjoying delicious food and alcoholic drinks you will see pictures you do not expect to see in that kind of a modern place. They look like out of a different world.

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An entrance to an izakaya in one of the side streets of Shinjuku. If you look closer on the left upper corner you will see a small fragment of a railway flyover. The office district you can see on the picture above, was just behind it. Would you believe?

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The inside of a small izakaya. I did this picture from the street, a quite narrow one, maybe of two meters width, quite close to the main streets that can be seen on the series of pictures above.

Of course not all izakaya and restaurants look like that. Most of those in main streets have quite a regular look. You will also find there many international and Japanese chain restaurants.

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Inside a more 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 when movable panels may be installed. This way the open space may be turned into private lounges. They are of course not sound proof, but still you are among yourselves

SAKE FOR BEGINNERS

In all Japanese izakaya you may drink sake, which is the traditional Japanese rice wine. Unlike typical wine, sake is produced in the brewing process (and not by fermentation). Sake may be drunk either cold or hot (warm). In most restaurants during our journey we were served sake in simple glasses. However, while in Shinjuku we visited one izakaya, where we knew sake was served traditional way. We wanted the experience.

Learning Japan and the Japanese culture.

Cold sake served traditional way.

We decided to try sake served cold. The glasses were first put into small boxes. Then sake was richly poured into glasses so it overran the glass edge. First we were supposed to drink that what was inside the glass, then we drank the sake that overran either directly from the box or from the glass after pouring it back into it.

Of other Japanese alcoholic beverages we tried in Japan were the Japanese beers (most popular), shochu (a kind of vodka made of rice), umeshu (plum wine) and Japanese whiskey.

A small hint: In Japan, you theoretically do not give tips. However, you are served some small appetisers of your host choosing like the one on the picture, for which you will be billed.

THE DRINKING PROBLEM

Japanese drink much alcohol, one may say too much. However, the alcohol consumption per capital in this country fell in recent 20 years or so. Tokyo ranks top on the alcohol consumption map. Drinking parties, among co-workers are considered as a way to bond and build a team. Although Japan is quite low in international comparisons that assess the consumption of pure alcohol per capita (around 70th position) looking on that what is going on in Shinjuku one can only confirm the opinions that the Japanese have a drinking problem. Our observation was that unlike here at home (our country ranks much more higher in those ranking lists than Japan) this may lay in constant drinking parties (a couple of those a week) and weaker heads. But this is only speculation.

Learning Japan and the Japanese culture.

White collar, who seemingly missed the train home. I made this picture in one of the Japanese major cities at the entrance to bank premises. around 8 am.

The late trains from Shinjuku are full of more or less sober people. But often you can see white collars indeed very drunk, barely keeping straight. Sometimes they do not manage to take the last train like this one on the picture. The view like that is rare, but not unusual.


C A R P S   A N D   K O I N O B O R I

The practical learning of Japanese culture was a constant process during our trip to Japan. At our first (full day) we went to see the old houses of Kawagoe (in the greater Tokyo agglomeration). But already as we left the railway station we found ourselves walking alongside narrow streets with small decently looking houses. As we realised later, this was the typical city architecture of the Japanese cities (besides parts dominated by modern blocks of apartments, office buildings and shopping centers). There were colourfull windsocks flying above our heads. That time I thought it was just some fancy street decoration (see picture). I did not put much attention to it, and even have forgotten the photos I made.

Learning Japan and the Japanese culture.

But two days after, I was on a bus on the way to a remote national park. We crossed small villages. I was sitting next to a colleague, who has a degree in Japanese culture. He said ‘look’ and pointed his finger on a set of five fish windsocks displayed on one of the houses. ‘Those stand for the family. Besides the father and mother, there are three kids in this house, two sons and one daughter. I can read this from colours of those windsocks’. The next day I started to put attention and noticed the windsocks in many other places.

The windsocks are called ‘koinobori’. They reflect carps (fish art) that are considered as symbolic in the Japanese culture. In Japanese carp means ‘koi’. The carp is capable of moving up stream, thus it is a symbol of perseverance and strength. Altogether it symbolises good fortune and prosperity. Walking around Japanese gardens, you will often finds ponds (lakes) with carps inside. Besides darker ones, you will notice orange (gold) carps.

Traditionally, koinobori are displayed on streets and around houses for a couple of weeks around the Children’s Day that in Japan is celebrated on the 5th of May. The holiday is a part of the so called Golden Week a series of public holidays that take place at the end of April (from the 29th) and beginning of May (till the 5th). It is a kind of a ‘long weekend’ that means a series of public holidays quite close to each other in calendar, so taking only single days of paid leave and counting in weekends one may enjoy a short vacation of ten or more days.

/to be continued …/

Index of my blog posts on Japan >>>