When I told people I was coming to Japan a common response was ‘that will be different!’ I think there was also an implicit assumption that ‘different’ meant ‘difficult’. And, to be honest, I think I also thought it would be quite challenging. Well has it been? Here are some of the areas where it might be expected to be so.
Arriving here it is immediately apparent that expecting to understand any Japanese, either spoken or written, is not going to happen. After 2 weeks I can barely remember how to say ‘thank you’ and I certainly haven’t learnt the characters for it. It is impossible to even guess at a word from its characters. Here, for example, are the characters for salmon.
Recognise salmon in there? Thought not.
And even though they learn it from an early age in school, outside of Tokyo surprisingly few people speak any English. Many cafes and restaurants don’t have an English menu -it’s a case of pointing at a picture or the display of plastic meals in the window outside and keeping your fingers crossed (although see ‘food’ later).
But despite that it’s been relatively easy to communicate. We haven’t gone hungry, have manged to get everywhere we wanted to, seen everything we planned.
This has also been surprisingly straightforward. Everywhere we’ve been has excellent transport networks. For example, Kyoto where we are now, has a subway, a large network of overground trains and a dense network of buses. All run frequently and have helpful staff. When did someone on the Tyne and Wear Metro or London Underground last bow to you?
Signs are in English as well as Japanese. Trains and buses give announcements in English as well. There are also good maps available Street signs can be a bit of a challenge but there is always Google maps and, in Tokyo, Citymapper as well.
We’ve also been cycling here in Kyoto. There are a lot of cyclists here and cycling is a great way to get around. But there are a few differences compared to cycling in Britain. First there is no lycra to be seen, like the Dutch the Japanese cycle in their everyday clothing. And, as if to prove right those determinedly anti-cycling people in Britain, they all cycle on the pavement and the wrong way up one-way streets (one thing no one, pedestrian, cyclist or motorist does in Japan, is jump red lights). But that is allowed and it works. Everyone co-exists quite happily. Even taxi drivers will sit patiently and wait for people to cross a road. So cycling feels as it should – a pleasure, not a constant battle.
One of the great discoveries of this trip has been the food. Prior to coming my experience of Japanese food amounted to little more than some Marks and Spencer’s sushi. Well the sushi here is 100% better, fabulously fresh and tasty.
But there is so much more to Japanese food than sushi. There is tempura (lightly battered, deep fried fish or vegetables), sushimi (thinly sliced raw fish or met), ramen (noodle soup, usually spicy), soba (buckwheat noodles), okonomiyaki (pan fried batter and cabbage), tonkatsu (thick slices of pork that are breaded and deep fried), yakitori (grilled meat or fish skewers) to name but a few.
Fish features hugely in Japanese cuisine. There are apparently over 3,000 types of fish and shellfish consumed here.
But there is also plenty of meat, including some we wouldn’t usually come across such as horsemeat, a great variety of mushrooms, tofu and vegetables.
And of course there is rice which features in most meals. But not like rice we get at home – it is particularly glutinous, essential if you are to form it into rice balls or sushi.
The Japanese are not great alcohol drinkers but it is widely available. Japanese beer is mainly pale-coloured light lagers which are pleasant enough, especially in hot weather. But a variety of craft beers are also available.
You can get wine including some rather nice Japanese wine and, of course, sake. Joce and Frankie bought me a sake tasting experience which I had in Kyoto and discovered that there is a lot to appreciating sake and that it is rather nice when you do.
Whatever the food the presentation is impeccable and becomes part of the whole meal experience.
Even the lunch boxes (bento boxes) you buy at railway stations to take on the train are presented in a lovely way.
Not hugely expensive either. The box above cost about £7.
And if all else fails there are always the ubiquitous vending machines.
Finally what about the Japanese themselves? It’s fair to say we have had little more than superficial contact with Japanese people but what interaction there has been has been unfailingly pleasant. Their reputation for being polite and charming is well deserved although being constantly bowed to takes a bit of getting used to. I don’t think I’ve yet mastered how to do it in response. Standards of service here are exceptional, they put us to shame.
But there are some things I struggle to understand. We’ve come across several gaming arcades, full of gaming and slot machines. Very loud, brash, smoky; they seem the antithesis of what we’ve seem elsewhere of Japanese people but they look very popular. Sometimes it’s good that countries are hard to fathom.