Japan – First Impressions

Updated: Dec 28, 2020

It has been a long time since I have visited a place I have never before been. The Land of the Rising Sun is a place I have wanted to visit for many years and it has long been of interest to Finn.

Us boys enjoying Kobe beef!

Living in the Canadian Rockies, Japanese culture has never felt too foreign. We eat sushi more regularly than hamburgers and two of Finn’s classmates and good friends speak Japanese at home.

The flight was easy enough. Just shy of 11 hours, but direct and with daylight. The highlight was the wintry views of Alaska from 30k feet. Narita airport near Tokyo seems to be bursting at the seams. Customs took over an hour to get through, but was predictably polite.

We stayed in Yokohama (just south of Tokyo) the first two nights – not so much by design, but rather by price. Our hotel was on the edge of Japan’s most important China Town – normally a culinary delight, but we were really after Japanese food!

Japan is famously a volcanic archipelago of nearly 7000 islands, but the majority of Japanese live on four main islands. Honshu, is home to Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Hiroshima, etc. The entire country is has a population of nearly 128 million people. Over 100 million live on Honshu.

To offer some perspective, Honshu is slightly smaller than the entire United Kingdom (home to 64 million people) and about half the size of California (with 39 million). With a central ridge of mountains and volcanos, the Japanese have built impressive cities along their country’s precarious shores.

Roughly 97% of the population is ethnically Japanese. For such a large population and extremely important economy, Japan is remarkably uni-cultural. This has to be part of a much more complicated conversation, but coming from the immigrant west, the lack of ethnic diversity is obvious.

Even with the best public transport anywhere, the population density is impressive

To suggest Japanese cities are intensely urban is an understatement. Everything is on a scale almost beyond my small, mountain-town abilities. Even when compared to Mexico, New York or Paris, the concrete and steel development is staggering. Crossing Tokyo by bus took two hours of multi-lane, multi-deck highways and bridges. I genuinely feel Japanese infrastructure is second to none.

The fantastic bullet train from Yokohama down to Nagoya (home of Toyota) revealed the base of Mount Fuji, but otherwise sped by thousands of buildings and the odd patchwork of agriculture. Nagoya is home to over 2 million people, but a greater urban area of 9 million.

This was Roosevelt’s actual car in the Toyota museum in Nagoya

The Nagoya train station is among the largest on Earth. We enjoyed the modern glass skyscrapers and were amazed by the apparent endless tunnels of restaurants and shops integrated into the urban sprawl. Lunch was on the 14th floor of a tower, before taking two long metro rides out to the Toyota Museum.

I’m not a car fanatic so for me the museum was just ok, but an automobile enthusiast would enjoy the historic collection of cars of all different makes.

Heading further south to Kobe, the sun highlighted snow-capped peaks. At 300 km/hr, most of what we could see were houses, austere apartment blocks, factories and towers.

Apparently over 60% of Japan is forested, but the populated, coastal corridors are massive and intensely urban.

In every manner, transportation is fundamental to the Japanese economy. The train network is as comprehensive as can be. Urban trains (subways/metros), trams and buses connect everything else. The drivers do wear white gloves and everyone is extremely polite (although I am surprised people do not always offer their seats for the elderly).

The traditional streets of Kyoto (so crowded)

As an industrial powerhouse, all of these cities are ports. Water is everywhere in Japan. While in one sense isolated (culturally and physically), the Japanese economy is incredibly connected. This modern connectivity is particularly interesting. Everything works, yet workers are ubiquitous. There seems to be a person to help with everything. Unemployment is below 3%.

So far, each city has a sight-seeing tower, a ferris wheel and helpful maps on most corners. Kobe is particularly modern after being destroyed by an earthquake in 1995, and the city is framed by attractive, treed hills. We spent several hours hiking above the city. It was nice to escape the endless concrete.

A view of Kobe from the green hills behind the city

Kyoto is famous as a previous capital of Japan and a place to visit temples. It is also large and very crowded. Even on a Monday afternoon, our Zen experience at the golden temple was somewhat disrupted by the thousands of fellow visitors.

We raced early to the bamboo forest to escape the crowds and walked amid giant bamboo trees with only a few thousand other visitors.

Collectively the Japanese love Cherry Blossom trees. They really, really love them. In Kyoto, women rent Kimono dresses, festooned with blossoms and walk around taking photos of the blooming trees.

(British Columbia definitely has a tourism market to harvest, with their blossoms coming out earlier in the year!)

I have only been in Japan for a week. Any observations are new and entirely open to revision. So far, for better and for worse, these are a few early comments about this interesting country;

  1. Japan is not a diverse society. Non-Japanese standout.

  2. Japan is as polite as one imagines. Formal, service-oriented, but also private. On the street and on public transport, people avoid conversation and eye contact.

  3. The general architecture – at least in these dense urban corridors – is grey and notably unremarkable. Metal shows rust in this humid environment and there is little public art.

  4. Food is Japanese. It is very good to excellent and can be affordable when compared to home. Portion sizes are larger than I expected and people seem to eat quickly. While better restaurants are costly, corner stores (i.e. 7/11), have many prepared meals for a fraction of the cost. Hotel breakfasts add a substantial cost to the bill, but are excellent. I really enjoy salad for breakfast and all the coffee I can drink (a small cup of coffee will otherwise cost over $4).

Really delicious ‘fast food’

  1. Travelling in Japan is not overwhelmingly expensive. Hotels of a good standard can be less expensive than in Canada or Europe (at least outside of Tokyo) and a price is a price. There is no tipping whatsoever in Japan – in fact, it is considered rude. I have to tread lightly here as gratuities remain an important part of my income, but it is very easy to budget in this fixed-price, cash-based society. Prices are also neatly rounded: 1000 ($10) rather than 999. It is lovely to be treated with that sort of respect.

  2. Hotel rooms are small, but very well appointed. Be careful, because many rooms are ‘smoking.’ Rooms have kettles for tea and soup, tooth brushes, hair brushes and nice, deep bath tubs.

  3. Transport is excellent and crowded. My 2 week Japan rail pass cost about $500 (Finn’s was $300). This gave us open access to the excellent Shinkansen (bullet trains) and all the regional trains. We did pay extra from local metros. Seat reservations on the bullet train are free and highly recommended. Regional trains allow standing and can be as crowded as one imagines. Plastic is everywhere.

  4. The country is clean, but not as sparkling as I had imagined. Everything is packaged and comes in a plastic bag. It can be an effort to find a garbage receptacle, yet litter is rare.

  5. Toilets are excellent. The cleaning system is …well … effective and even public toilets are clean. I may need to buy a Japanese toilet when I return home!

It is very important to get all this correct!

So far we have enjoyed visiting this fine country. It is a huge economy, extremely safe, friendly – in a formal sort of way – and quite interesting. As a career traveller, I may find central Japan a little too monotonous, but am certainly happy to be here and look forward to learning much more.

Next stop: Hiroshima.

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