What a fantastic trip to Japan (above is the view from my room). My sister and her husband have been living there for a while, so we headed off first to spend a few days with them in Tokyo (here’s a photo of me and my sis together) and also travelled to Kyoto. (En route, we also stopped for just a half an hour transfer in Helsinki, getting a brief tantalising glimpse of a green land with lots of trees as we came in to land…mental note, must visit Finland properly some day!)
Back to Japan though, and I won’t bore you with a detailed account of our trip, which took in two cities, beautiful temples, stunning gardens and a fascinating culture. But I just thought I’d share what I thought were some really interesting things about this country, which is so very different to ours. Here are my top ten!
1. Bullet trains. The fastest (up to 200 miles an hour), longest, coolest trains I have ever seen. And clean. So, so clean. In fact, everywhere – outdoor spaces, shops, restaurants, toilets – is so clean.
2. And speaking of toilets – wow. Amazingly high-tech. After you’ve “done your business” you press a button and warm water is squirted at your nether regions (there’s even a choice of water pressure!), then another button gives you a blow dry! They even play music or sound effects to hide your embarrassment in a public toilet and conceal any noises…
3. Everything is SO organised. The Tokyo metropolitan area has a population of over 37 million (more than the entire population of Canada, for example) and it could be incredibly chaotic, but it really isn’t. You’ll see thousands of people walking along a street together, and those walking in one direction will stick to one side of the pavement and those going the other way walk on the other side. No pushing or shoving on the underground, even when trains are absolutely packed.
At stations they also actually employ people called pushers, who push people onto crowded trains so more can fit on! I’ve felt a lot more stressed trying to navigate London’s Oxford Street than the teeming streets of Tokyo. Calm, orderly, organised. Rules are numerous, and firmly adhered to. When we wanted to move two chairs in a bar, so that the four of us could sit together, the waitress went into a panic and called the manager, who then discussed the request with another colleague before finally agreeing. My sister said that her Japanese friends would NEVER ask for a chair to be moved, even though it was only a few feet. Rules are definitely rules here.
4. Tipping, in restaurants, taxis and so on is not done, ever. In fact, it’s considered really rude. It’s felt that they provide an excellent service anyway, and should not have to be given a tip to do so. My sister and her husband tipped a waitress when they first arrived in Tokyo and the woman was so horrified she burst into tears.
5. Other things that are considered really rude and/or uncouth are: lateness. Using mobile phones on trains or in restaurants. Sitting slouched, or with your legs crossed. (My sister crossed hers in a meeting when she first came to Japan and the woman next to her actually slapped her leg. There was a similar reaction when she leaned back slightly in her chair.)
6. Petty crime like pick-pocketing is almost non-existent. My sister says she would happily, and often does, leave her handbag, phone and wallet unattended on a table in a bar or restaurant when she goes to the loo and it’s always absolutely fine. Bicycles are left unlocked all day on the street. In such a massive city, that’s pretty amazing.
7. The Japanese diet is really healthy and life expectancy is the highest in the world (the UK comes in at number 19). Weirdly though, although smoking isn’t allowed while walking around outside (there are designated outdoor smoking areas), it IS still allowed in many bars and restaurants. This feels really strange, after being used to a smoke-free environment almost everywhere back home.
8. Speaking of diet, we found the food to be absolutely delicious and very cheap by UK standards. Not many people outside the very touristy areas speak English and many restaurant menus are entirely in Japanese so ordering can be fun if you don’t speak the language! We loved the whole experience, but those of a delicate nature might not like EVERYTHING on some menus. Pig rectum, or diaphragm, anyone? It’s frowned upon to eat on the street though, and there are no bins anywhere – you are expected to take your rubbish home with you.
9. Tall people can struggle a little. One of the funniest things on our trip was seeing my very tall husband tackle very small doors in restaurants and toilets. He literally had to bend himself in half on a few occasions. It was hilarious.
10. The taxis are fabulous. The doors open and close automatically, the seats are covered with white lace throws, and the drivers all wear uniforms and white gloves. So glamorous.
All in all, a wonderful holiday. I have a few more days off before I’m back on the telly at the weekend… see you soon!