Back again :) About a week behind, but that’s pretty much been the average since I set off, as it’s not often that my three basic ingredients for a blog post are all available at once, i.e. a) time, b) privacy and c) decent Wi-Fi! Today all three seem to be present and correct, so off I go.
I’ve been in New Zealand for about a week now, and am struggling to secure eco-volunteering places at the moment. This isn’t surprising, though; after all it’s summer, everyone who needs WWOOFers seems to have plenty, and I’m being more than a little last-minute about it. So this blog hasn’t been as much about permaculture, sustainability and general enviro-stuff as I’d planned, but I’m still hoping to encounter things to put in eco-entries down the line :)
For now, though, I thought I’d do a little run-down of my time in Japan, for anyone who may go there someday. A little bit of info on what to expect! So here we go, and if you’re the sort of person who likes to avoid “spoilers” you may prefer to give this post a miss...
What you’re likely to see
Temples – lots of them! Mostly similar to one another in style, wooden and painted beautifully. Sometimes they’re Buddhist shrines, sometimes Shinto, and while both of Japan’s major religions are clearly in evidence as you walk around (larger towns and cities especially), the two traditions seem to have found a way to account for the other’s way of viewing things. As a result, you get the sense that rather than being in opposition, Buddhism and Shintoism sit very comfortably alongside each other in Japanese society. I have to say, I met nobody who considered themselves a practitioner of either... but people tend to be constantly observing superstitions, and the sheer number of these amazed me! I daren’t imagine how many of them I failed to observe, with my clumsy western ways...
A great many people wander around in masks! Not to protect themselves from smog, but to keep cold/flu germs either in or out. I’ve been told that these masks are also very effective face-hiders, for ladies who have overslept, not had time to put make-up on and feel the need to cover their faces until they can grab five minutes in front of a mirror ;) I laughed to myself yesterday, seeing some Japanese people walking around Queenstown, New Zealand – two out of five were wearing masks, and it looked incongruous here even though I’d been seeing them everywhere not so long ago.
Lots of people cycling, on big “shopping bikes”. Sometimes with masks on and holding an umbrella :)
What you’ll probably hear
Lots of beeps! So many things on the streets seem to beep: at train stations, in toilets, on buses, doors all over the place, pedestrian crossings...
Muzak tends to be played in the streets, especially in smaller towns.
What I found (and you may too)
There’s a huge emphasis on personal hygiene; in fact one of the things I loved most about Japan was the fact that every evening people would insist you go take a long, luxurious bath!
If you don’t visit in spring, people keep telling you that spring is the best time of year to visit – when all the fruit trees are in blossom.
Most people know a few words of English, even in pretty remote places. They tend to look suddenly panic-stricken if you approach and ask if they speak English... but in my experience everyone was tremendously helpful and kind.
Things seemed fairly inexpensive to me – food, trains, buses and admission to tourist sites. The hotels didn’t, though.
People never get caught in the rain without an umbrella. There are lots of inexpensive clear plastic ones available when it’s raining.
People gape at you if you jaywalk *blush*. It's a very orderly country, where people are very considerate of those around them, keeping their voices down on trains, etc. It's really nice, actually. Every now and again a bunch of loudmouths jump on the metro, but they're never Japanese!
Rice and fish (and usually miso soup) are consumed at EVERY meal.
People tend to be very slight – small all over! Very thin, and rather slow if they’re walking in front of you...
The Japanese don’t seem to be so hot on recycling. They’re really vigilant about collecting plastic bottles, and there are bins for these next to every soft-drink vending machine. Far too often, though, paper and card are classed as “burnables” and just chucked away with the general rubbish. A shame.
Streets don’t usually have names. The largest ones will, but otherwise good luck trying to count the number of blocks since you last knew where you were... Oh, and on half the roadside maps everything is in Japanese. And north is pointing a different way on every one (yep; if there are 40-odd maps scattered at various junctures in a huge garden, north could be pointing in any one of about 6 different directions...)
There’s Wi-Fi EVERYWHERE. Most people have it active on their phones all the time, even (especially?) when they’re out and about. So the days of trains full of people reading books seem long gone, as in the UK really. You can often hop onto a little local Wi-Fi network without having to enter half your life story and open an account. Wi-Fi in hotels was free wherever I went, and usually excellent.
Most people I met who, like me, were tourists in Japan, had purchased a “JR” (Japan Rail) Pass for their train travel. It’s excellent and highly recommended if you’re going to be travelling around a large part of the country – around 75%, say, or at least two of the larger islands. It also works on buses, ferries and some bullet trains, so it’s a whole transport package! However, I chose not to buy one, as I was only going to be in the middle part of the main island, and the cost of a three-week pass was £200 MORE than all my individual journeys put together. I worked out all my journey costs before the trip and decided that for me, the JR Pass wasn’t worth it. If, however, you’re going and it IS worth buying one, you need to order it at least a week before you leave for Japan.
Make sure you’re always wearing socks in decent condition! You may have to take your shoes off unexpectedly, as shoes must not be worn inside a great many buildings, including parts of temples.
ATMs are very hit-and-miss. You may be better off with a Visa card than a Mastercard; I reckon that one in four cashpoints worked with my Mastercard, whereas it might have been one in two with Visa. Sometimes (very annoyingly) you’ll get right to the end of a transaction, and all seems to be going well until the thing tells you your password is invalid or something. And then you wander around for another 15 minutes on streets you don’t know, trying to find another machine. However, the 7-11 convenience stores seem to have ATMs that accept international cards.
Doors usually slide, and they're rather delicate so it's best not to push!
Stamps to send postcards to the UK are just 70 Yen – about 45p.
A delicious ramen (noodle) meal shouldn’t cost much more than £4, and waiting staff usually keep your glass of water refilled throughout, along with your cup of green tea.
Buses and trains run BANG on time.
I found people extremely kind and helpful, and there was never a moment, no matter where in Japan I went, that I didn’t feel safe. I’d love to go back one day and explore some more far-flung parts of the country, but maybe one of you will get there first and I’ll be reading YOUR blog before packing my bags! A visit to Japan can be really intense at times, as you find your feet, but it’s an amazing experience and a fascinating culture to discover first-hand.