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A few years ago I was working in Japan for a couple of months.
I’d visited briefly a couple of times before, but this was the first time that I’d had an extended stay.
My base was the ancient capital of Kyoto.
At first, this is a country and a culture that can seem a little overwhelming to the newcomer – there were moments where I felt as if all of my senses were being simultaneously assaulted. But if you stay calm and focused, Japan is a surprisingly easy country to travel around and explore, helped enormously by the friendly and helpful locals.
Despite being unable to speak any Japanese, I slowly got into the rhythm of daily life in Japan — finding my way around and, each day, falling in love with the country just a little more.
Here’s what I learnt:
The Shinkansen bullet trains are an absolute dream. This is how train travel should be. There are constant departures, the trains are modern, spacious, and efficient. And the service is super professional — the sleek and stylish ticket inspectors bow politely as they enter each carriage, and then politely bow again as they leave.
It's not just the bullet trains that are impressive – Japan's rail network is impressive and always seems to be running smoothly.
At first, the train maps and ticketing system can seem a bit incomprehensible, but it works like most other train systems that you will have encountered around the world, and there is generally an English-language interpretation of the map somewhere, plus the ticket machines will have an English-language option that you can select.
Peak hours in the major cities can be a bit of a crush and, like any big city in the world, are best avoided if possible, but generally train travel in Japan is a fairly relaxed experience.
The Japanese take public health seriously. The majority of people seem to wear protective face masks when they’re out and about. If you ask anyone about it, they'll explain that it's a form of politeness — that if you have a cold or are sick in any way, then you wear a face mask to prevent passing your germs on to anyone else. But the face masks do seem to have become a bit of a safety blanket as well.
While I was there the authorities in Tokyo issued a flu epidemic alert. One of my colleagues helpfully suggested: ‘Do you think we should be giving our customers face masks?’
It can be a bit surreal to be traveling the train or walking the street and realising that everyone around you is wearing a protective face mask – like you've suddenly landed in a strange science fiction movie, or that there's some airborne epidemic that no one has told you about.
There’s a whole culture that surrounds this form of graphic art. Apparently anime studios in Japan are finding it difficult to continue as revenues are dropping as consumers becoming increasingly unwilling to pay for content. The strategy that they seem to be adopting is to share some content to engage with the audience (for example on free-to-air television) with the promise of “more interesting” (ie. sexual) content if the viewer subscribes or buys the DVD.
One production that hit the news was ‘Saikin Imoto no Yosu ga Chotto Okashiin da ga’ (which translates as ‘Recently, My Sister is Unusual’). This incest-themed story (a young girl becomes possessed by ghosts and is compelled to have sex with her step-brother) had drawn so many complaints that it became the subject of a broadcast decency investigation.
If you're in Tokyo, visit the neighbourhood of Akihabara – known for its numerous electronic stores, you'll also find lots of anime and manga stores, and some of the themed restaurants you might have heard of. The sounds and lights of this precinct are so intense that it makes you almost feel as if you've been immersed in a manga adventure.
I cycled a lot around the streets of Kyoto. The city really lends itself to cycling as it’s pretty much flat — it’s clearly the locals’ preferred method of getting around.
In Japan you're supposed to cycle on the sidewalks which are generally fairly wide, so there’s usually enough space for pedestrians and cyclists to dodge each other. Cycling is less common in Tokyo, although apparently a lot more people in Tokyo began to cycle after the 2011 earthquake left hundreds of thousands of commuters stranded in the crowded subway system.
While I was there, the local papers reported that a cyclist in Tokyo had been ordered to pay 47 million Yen (nearly half a million US dollars) as damages to the family of an elderly woman he knocked down and killed. From what I’ve seen, most pedestrians and cyclists strictly observe the traffic signals, but apparently this cyclist whizzed through a pedestrian crossing and ran into the woman who subsequently died from the injuries.
Most people cycle fairly slowly, wobbling down the pavement towards you as you try and judge which way to move in order to best avoid a collision.
I really love dumplings. There’s a dumpling outlet that's ubiquitous in Japan, called Hoorai 551 — it’s a chain that’s originally from Osaka, but you can find them at most airports and train stations.
For one reason or another I passed through Kyoto’s central train station pretty much every day. Every time I stopped at Hoorai 55 to grab a snack.
I learnt how to ask for the gyoza style (they come in boxes of 10), but to order any of the other varieties I had to rely on pointing and smiling. Seemed to work okay.
If you're in Osaka you'll be tempted to try Takoyaki – one of Osaka's most iconic street-foods, these are the octopus balls. What's deceptive about Takoyaki is that they're not a firm ball of dumpling, but have sort of a firm outside shell and then a soft gooey mixture inside that contains the pieces of octopus. I can't tell you how many times I seriously burnt my mouth eating Takoyaki – the soft mixture inside seems to stay incredibly hot for a long period of time. No matter how often I told myself to let them cool down before I tried to eat them, I still managed to burn myself. Every time.
There's a lot to learn about Japan.