An Englishman in Japan: Two Weeks in a Better World

Here’s a few of my thoughts on spending 13 days travelling this weird and wonderful country. First up, why did I go there? Well a bit of work, but mainly because I’d always been curious about the place. I’m not sure why, after all it’s just a far fetched place that makes ‘Fast Trains’, ‘Reliable Cars’, and ‘Serves Up Sushi’ isn’t it?

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Fast Trains

They are fast, but it’s the staff that work on them that impressed me. From their impeccable dress, to the fact that every time they leave the carriage they turn around and bow to the passengers on board. Remember, this is not a private jet, this is the Japanese’s preferred method of public transport.

Japan Micro Car

Reliable Cars

Looking out of the window of the monorail from Haneda Airport to Tokyo central I noticed that every car was parked facing outwards ready to go. All perfectly aligned, reverse parked into their spaces… the fictional character, Sheldon, from Big Bang Theory, would love it here.

Slim men and women walking in and out of the Kyoto train station toilet

Serving Up Sushi (And A Better World)

I never had one bite of Sushi in all my time there, sure it’s served up occasionally, but to my eyes, about as often as we have Haggis. Regardless of this mis-marketing of the nation, Japan provides a better world than the West. The people are slim, intelligent, calm and polite. The only objection I had against them as a nation is that they all seem to smoke (permitted in most restaurants and bars there).

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The Next Generation

If the next generation was to maintain the integrity of the last, then their robot like logic may well continue to lead the world with technological advances.

One of the thousands of shrines in Kyoto.

One Indelible Truth

As a sceptic of the Japanese culture remaining, one indelible truth suddenly dawned on me. The Japanese are and always have been islanders. Based 500 miles from the nearest landmass of China, they’ll always resort to sort, and so the harder the world pushes them to change and follow the emotion led West, the deeper they’ll dig and the brighter the splendour of their uniqueness will be.

View over Tokyo

If Japan Was A Grass Tennis Court

Imagine the UK as a grass tennis court with 63 million people / blades of grass in it. Double that population to 128 million and things start to get a bit crowded. So add an extra 50% to the size of the tennis court to spread it out at bit. Finally, you realise that two thirds of the court is mountainous, so no good for living in! Oh dear, to solve this, simply cram all the 128 million people / blades of grass back into half the original tennis court and call this area one big city with an epicentre called Tokyo housing 10% of the population.

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Travelling in Japan

First up, although it’s a developed country, it feels a bit like travelling in a third world country because the majority of the population don’t speak English. I was there for 13 days in total, which broke down to:

  • Four days in Tokyo (getting over jet lag and getting used to the fact that everything is different).
  • Four days in Kyoto (including a trip to a segregated and completely nude spa in the mountains) .
  • Four days in Fukuoka ( including a trip to Nokonshima Island Park where I fed goats).
  • One final day in Tokyo getting ready to fly back to London via Bejing.

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The JR Pass

My JR Pass (Japanese Rail Pass) was valid for 7 days and entitled me to travel on any train in the whole of the country, including all the bullet trains (except for the brand new high speed non stop ones). I paid £240 in total, an extra £60 on top of the standard £180, for the Green Class (equivalent to our 1st class). In Green Class you are served hand towels on every journey, are given an extra foot of leg space and get to feel posh whilst you travel at 177mph.

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Shinkansen Photo 1: My Shinkansen (high speed bullet trains) travelling experiences were:

  1. Tokyo to Kyoto, 280 miles, 2.5 hrs. Actually took 5.5 hours as we had to stop for 3 hours in a tropical thunderstorm.
  2. Kyoto to Fukuoka, 370 miles, 3.5 hrs. Faultless.
  3. Fukuoka to Tokyo, 650 miles in 6 hrs. (Only Felix Baumgartner could have done this faster!)

Bullet train

Shinkansen Photo 2: Bullet train at night taken from eight floor of Kyoto Century Hotel.

Will Baxter

Shinkansen Photo 3: Bullet train during day with geek. Taken from Kyoto train station platform 16, with Kyoto Century Hotel in background.

Toy train

Shinkansen Photo 4: Not all the trains in Japan were designed for 6ft passengers.

Bus ticket

Bus Travel

Bus tickets are collected very differently in Japan. You hop on the bus at the back door, then collect a little paper ticket that has a number between 1 and 32. Then when you want to get off you do so at the front of the bus, show your ticket and they charge you accordingly, the longer you stay on, the more it costs. This does rely a lot on trust, as you could easily, just hop out the back door at the end of your journey and not pay. It’s also odd because if you don’t have any money or the right change, then the bus driver (who also gives you the tickets) can’t exactly chuck you off for not paying. Anyway, I’m bringing up problems as if it was the UK, in Japan the people don’t make such silly errors, they all have the money on them before they take a trip!

 

Tokyo rail map

Metro Travel in Tokyo

You think the London Underground is complicated? Here’s the one for Tokyo! However, one major advantage of the Metro in Tokyo is how safe it is, apparently children from the age of six in Japan commute to school alone on the Metro system.

Bamboo Grove

Tourism

Bamboo Grove in the woodland areas just outside Kyoto.

Old Friends

Lost in translation: some people can cope

I last saw my old friend Alex a dozen years ago in the Lake District. It was the day after the millenium and so we presumed we were the youngest people this millenium to climb Scafell Pike! Since then, he’s moved to Japan as a TEFL teacher (teaching English in a foreign language) and has stayed here since.  Alex took me out to a real local restaurant and ordered something resembling fried fish but it could have been anything. Interestingly, it was the cheapest meal I had in Japan, at around 1,000 Yen including drinks, no doubt on every other occasion they got out the special ‘Tourist Menu’ as I never seemed to get much change for 4,000 Yen! His views on Japan were much like mine, but being a stocks trader and recruitment consultant, he thrives in this high pressure environment. Does he plan to move back to the UK? No.

View across the city of Kyoto, as taken from the top of the Kyoto Tower.

Would I like to live in Japan?

No. You see, the Japanese are actually better people than us (more emotionally intelligent, fitter, calmer), and as such they don’t really want anyone but them there, so I’d always be an outsider.

Would I recommend exporting your product/service to Japan?

Maybe. The traditional industries in Japan are fixed and if your product/service is a car/train/computer then you may as well go home. However, I noticed that all Japanese people on the Metro system were suffering the same fate as Westerners, seeking faster and faster instant gratification from whatever smartphone they clutched. So if your product/service is a novel software/computer game/fast food chain then now might well be the prime time to attack this often impenetrable market.

Would I recommend a trip to Japan as a tourist?

Yes. Pack a light bag with a heavy wallet. Japan is an unique country, where no detail is over looked, and if you’re curious enough to wonder how a toilet can possibly do its job whilst singing to you at the same time then it’s an adventure worth taking.