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Tokyo Travel Log: What's Japan Like?
Now that I've been lucky enough to go to Japan, a lot of people ask me what it's like. Here's some of the stuff I noticed...
I was surprised by the sheer variety of food on sale in Tokyo. The Japanese are famed for sushi and other sea food, but this really was the tip of the iceberg. Western food (particularly Italian) is very popular, but it's not always the same as you'd get served in the rest of the World. For example, I found a restaurant at Narita airport selling what appeared to be a curry with rice and - is that a hamburger on top?
Grated cheese was another popular curry topping. Sadly I didn't try a Japanese curry (I've heard they're very hot) as they looked too much like 1970s Vesta Curries to me!
Food is for sale everywhere in Japan. Convenience stores sell much higher quality food than they tend to sell in their UK equivalents. My favourite discovery was the potato salad sandwich, which tastes a lot better than it sounds. For some reason the Japanese always seem to cut the crusts off their sandwiches. I also enjoyed the deli-type stuff. Below are two of my favourites: at the top is potato salad (which usually contained cucumber and carrot), and below is a noddle salad topped with sliced egg.
Bento boxes were another of my favourites - they're great value and are commonly sold at stations as a sort of packed lunch. I bought the exquisitely packaged Bento Box pictured below in a kiosk inside Shinagawa station for about the same cost as a McDonalds value meal. I'm not certain what all of it was, but the box included rice, pickles (including the radish-like Mooli), a tempura'd flatfish and large prawn, a very nice piece of salmon and some confectionary. The jellied green things were very good indeed.
Ordering food is easy. In most of the larger restaurants the staff will have at least one English speaker. Many restaurants have beautifully detailed plastic representations of their menu in the window. I was amazed how similar my food looked to the mock up in the window, which was sometimes identical down to the number of squid rings on a seafood pizza.
Taxis are expensive, and buses difficult to use without being able to read or speak Japanese. However, in Tokyo and the surrounding area, train stations are *everywhere*. As well as the Japan Rail (JR) train lines, there are large numbers of private commuter lines, especially in major conurbations such as Tokyo. The private lines tend to have lower fares than JR line trains. In general, the better the interior the train or the faster the journey is, the more the journey will cost.
Japanese trains journeys are reasonably priced - a short journey in Tokyo was half the price of the equivalent journey on London's Underground (even when using the discounted Oyster card). They reasonably are easy to use as most services can be paid for by the PassMo or SUICA pre-payment card. Some trains have English announcements and the station names are written in English.
Tokyo's trains can get quite crowded at peak hours, but I personally didn't experience any of the overcrowding regularly experienced on the London Underground.
For longer journeys within Japan the Shinkansen (bullet trains) are available. These provide fast, frequent services between Japan's major population centres. Shinkansen trains are quite expensive, so if you are intending to do a lot of travelling around Japan while on vacation there it is highly recommended that you purchase a Japan Railpass before entering Japan, as these provide unlimited journeys on most Shinkansen services as well as other JR lines in Japan.
Some cities also have underground (subway) lines as well. Tokyo in particular has an extensive subway metro system.
The streets are clean and everywhere is pretty safe, although there was quite a bit of graffiti in certain areas. The major danger I encountered on the streets were pavement cyclists!
For some reason there are telegraph poles with dozens of wires leading from them absolutely everywhere - this can make it difficult to take good photographs in the streets some times, as I found out in Yokohama:
The Japanese love of vending machines is remarkable - there are vending machines absolutely everywhere. Most sell bottles and cans of drinks, including water, fruit juice, tea, coffee and even beer. The machines are renowned for their honesty - in my entire two week vacation in Tokyo I didn't get ripped off a single vending machine.
Oddly enough, many vending machines are located outside a shop that sells the same merchandise as the shop does, like this liquor store and beer vending machine I saw in Kawasaki.
Not all vending machines dispense drinks - this vending machine was selling batteries:
In Akihabara and other districts, there were many vending machines dispensing manga and robot related toys.
Japanese schoolgirls are a common sight on the streets of Japan. Japanese schoolgirls appear to spend more time shopping or sleeping on trains than they do in class rooms. Japanese girls are known for their global trend setting, so the gadgets and stuff they keep in their school bags are likely to be adopted by the rest of the world.
Flora and fauna
The flora and fauna was certainly different to the UK. I didn't really go to deeply into Japan's countryside, but there was quite a bit of wildlife in Tokyo itself. Most obvious were the large crow-like birds that the Japanese call Karasu:
Like our native Crows and Jackdaws, Karasu are very noisy! They appear to fill the ecological niche that in the UK is occupied by seagulls (i.e. ripping open refuse bags, scaring small children).
Like much of coastal Japan, Tokyo is a seemingly endless urban sprawl, but there are green spaces. In the middle of the metropolis, I was surprised to come across this rather nice piece of countryside just round the corner from the Tokyo Tower:
Akihabara is also spawning its own popular culture. Since the first maid café opened in 2000, it has spawned a host of imitations. Maid services have also spread to other areas including opticians, foot massages and beauty parlours. Maids are also to be found posing and advertising a wide range of other otaku goods and services. They instil a general feeling of Moé in the Otaku, which encourages them to spend money.
Wacky Japanese TV shows were very popular in the UK in the 1980s and I wasn't surprised to see plenty of wacky stuff in Tokyo.
In Akihabara girls (and some boys!) were dressed as maids in order to sell lure in Otaku (geeks) so they can give them advertising leaflets and the like:
Cat's ears and glasses seemed to be particularly popular fashion accessories, so when both were used simultaneously this appeared to be a powerful marketing combination:
If you've never been to Japan then you won't be able appreciate just how noisy the place is. Not only do stores have to have music blaring, video screens full of advertising jingles and half a dozen different DVDs playing, they have to put salespeople outside the shop with microphones so they can get their message across in all the din: