7 Japanese Observations

Man I miss Japan. This time last year, we would have just arrived in Tokyo.

We spent a month travelling around. (You can read about some of my favourite places here).

A month wasn’t enough.

I could have spent weeks in Tokyo alone.

To be honest, arriving jet lagged with high expectations, Tokyo was a bit of a disappointment. It wasn’t the sea of chaos and colour that I had expected.  Sure there are pockets of crazy neon lights but they aren’t everywhere.

Still, I absolutely loved Japan, and grew to love Tokyo – one of my favourite cities.

Japan’s a unique country and I’d love, love, love to go back. (Hopefully around autumn time one year.)

Here are some of the things I miss and remember the most.

1. Super Friendly People

The standard of service we received in Japan was phenomenal!

Everyone we met was friendly, and I mean everyone!

People were polite, courteous, friendly… it was amazing!

People went out of their way to help us. One man, the sole person looking after a Starbucks at the time, walked us a few blocks down the street, and spent 10 minutes trying to help us find where we were looking for – it was mind blowing!  The dude didn’t even want a tip. There isn’t a tipping culture in Japan so there was none of that, he just wanted to be helpful.

Incidentally, a Japanese friend of mine found our raving about the people pretty amusing.  She was certain that we were getting preferential treatment largely because we were white Western heterosexuals.  She wasn’t convinced that we’d have the same reception if we were another race or less “traditional” looking. My Japanese friend had recently returned to Tokyo after living in London for a few years and was struggling with the traditional customs and conformism that she felt pervaded Japanese society. Things like, having fellow passengers demanding that she leave a train because her baby was crying, that kind of thing.

In our experience however, we really couldn’t complain.

One of the things I loved most about these friendly interactions was the lack of any ulterior motive.

Sure, we had experienced friendly local people in other countries.  Maybe we had just been unlucky before, but in my experience of other countries, there was often a product, or service which, was ultimately being sold to us.

In Japan, people were friendly because they wanted to be friendly. They would come up to us for a chat. To say hello, wish us well. Everyone we met seemed to be genuinely nice to us.  We were never asked for money, or photos, or to visit anywhere, or to buy anything.

2. Epic Design

I was mesmerised by how well designed and beautiful everything was.

The gardens for example, they were exquisite. I know it makes me sound old, but I was mesmerised! The gardens were serene.

Everything in Japan was so well thought out for convenience and ease of use.

Maps are everywhere clearly signalling where everything is.

Easy to use ticket machines are used to buy everything – train tickets, ramen, you name it.

Even the little things are well designed and thought of. For example, the buttons you have to ding on buses to be let off at the next stop.  

Japanese bus designers are smart.  They don’t want people stressed, having to clamber all over each other, worrying whether they’ll get to press the one button in the middle of the bus, to get off at the right stop.  No, in Japan, buses have lots of buttons – they are all over the place. There’s one at almost every seat – how thoughtful is that!

The same kind of thing applies to trains. Individual seats have their own individual shutters, (unlike Virgin Trains where pulling down the shutter will annoy half the train). Each train seat has plenty of space for luggage so you don’t have to stress about fitting your suitcase into an already packed luggage rack at the end of the carriage and worry about it going missing or being moved.

Everything should be designed like this.

Japan has some of the most densely populated cities on the planet, but at least they know how to use space efficiently.  Coming from a pretty cramped city myself, I am used to small spaces. The problem is that Londoners, (or maybe it’s British designers, builders, architects?) are yet to master the art of making the most of small spaces.

Sliding doors, mini sinks with little plugs, toilets which also function as a bidet.  And who can forget the heated toilet seats!  I loved the heated toilet seats! They are amazing! How have all the cold countries in the world not taken advantage of these incredible contraptions? Why is Japanese society so highly evolved?

3. Awesome Bakeries

I’d been warned about this – the incredible quality of baked goods in Japan. Yet, cakes and pastries was never something I’d associated with Japan. Surely, it was all going to be sushi and ramen. I didn’t get the fuss about Japanese bakeries.

OMG – they are sensational!

I have no idea why bakeries are so popular in Japan, well I can, maybe because they are so amazing! They are so much better than what I’ve experienced anywhere else in the world. You don’t just get a few cookies, a brownie, and a few cream pies – you get an array of beautiful creations. I saw and ate so many delicious things that I’d never seen before.

4. Emphasis on Quality

I guess this goes hand in hand with epic design, but I think it goes further than that.

I left Japan wanting to have a Japanesey approach to life.  That doesn’t mean eating sushi for breakfast, (although I would happily do that), it means committing to doing everything to a high standard.

People took pride in doing their job well and being well presented.  The staff who work on the train platform for example – I loved watching them signalling to each other, making sure that no one was too close to the platform, making sure that the trains ran on time. Everyone seemed intent on doing their job properly.  There was an enthusiasm and commitment that I hadn’t seen in people doing the same job in other countries.

Even if it was menial work, or a simple task, like serving a cake or coffee.  Time would be spent on the presentation and making sure that everything was just right.

A friend of mine who now lives in Tokyo told me that the novelty of this wares off, sometimes for example, you just want to buy a sandwich for lunch. You don’t need the shop assistant to spend twenty minutes gift wrapping it.

Even ramen, (man I love ramen), it’s not just soup and noodles thrown into a bowl. There is an order and place for everything – the egg, the pork, the seaweed – it’s a work of art.

Also, the sushi that we found everywhere was really good quality, even from supermarkets, it was delicious!

5. Queuing

No one had warned me about this. If you’re going to Japan, get used to queueing.

People queue for everything.

Hours of each day we spent in Japan was spent queuing for something – usually mouth watering food! It usually starts at 11.30am, if not earlier, (try 2/3am for some sushi restaurants near the Tsukiji fish market…!).  You see queues of salary men and female office workers start to line up outside a non-descript building – it’s usually evidence of a subliminal culinary experience – available to those with the patience and dedication to queue.

Also, queues are so orderly.  No queue jumping, or pushing or shoving here.  Lines are tidy, well formed, and sometimes have signs to guide you. Check out the metro stations – different destinations or train lines have different queues – it’s all uber organised!

6. Drunk People on Trains and at Train Stations

Okay, so Andy, my friend who lives in Tokyo, warned me about this.  Andy told me that despite catching the last tube home in London hundreds of times, he had never seen men so inebriated anywhere else.

I definitely saw some seriously drunk men, although there’s probably a good degree of confirmation bias in being able to remember this.  It wasn’t uncommon to see men passed out, asleep on other passengers, holding onto train hand rails despite being unconscious, and even throwing up all over the place.

It was also cherry blossom season when we were in Japan, and hanami office parties were abound.  We saw several drunken affairs, including a couple of guys who decided to drop their pants and looked like they may be arrested. I asked Andy whether this was normal and he assured me that in his experience it was.  People would go out with their colleagues, get horrendously drunk and do things they would never get away with in an office party in the UK…

7. Quick Eaters

I love ramen!  One of the things I admired most about Japanese people was:

a. their ability to eat scalding hot ramen as soon as it was served, (I’d be blowing on it for ten minutes before being able to even take a sip!); and

b. their ability to eat it all in 5 minutes! Seriously, I don’t know how Japanese people do it.I’d be half way through my ramen and the next batch of people will have come and gone.  I know it’s important to eat it all quickly, but you have to be super talented to call it off! I’m a slow eater and like taking my time – plus in Japan, I had usually been queuing for 2 hours just to get served, I was going to make the most of savouring the meal and chance to sit down!

Japan I miss you! May we meet again one day!


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