OK we are back from Japan and are recovering from the travel, readjusting and have now found all the bits and pieces we had hidden in case of break in and robbery, thankfully without it being necessary. I must say that this was a considerable concern before we left. Readjusting is proving difficult as we are now only 3 years from planned retirement and the potential reality of extending such stays.
So here are my thoughts:
I enjoyed Japan much more than I thought, despite having responsibility for 2 teenage girls and the consequent hassle travelling with them brings, both from them and from the attention of others. We have been before (21 years ago on honeymoon), and there were clear changes between then and now.
I have returned fitter and having lost some weight. The hotel life in the UK is sedentary for the most part and I eat too much food. In Japan it was easy to eat healthy and the hot weather meant that we ate light meals, sometimes missing a meal in day and drank lots of water (and some beer). We walked miles and hiked and the weather was hot and humid.
The Japanese were as gracious and helpful as I remember, with only a few exceptions. One was a taxi driver in Hiroshima who attempted to short change us and the others being overcharged in Bar Cedar in Hiroshima, a grim little place and similarly in the only place open and serving food that night in the whole of our beloved Miyajima in a seedy little cocktail bar. As I say, otherwise, they were so helpful, several going well out their way to help, our luxury Tokyo hotel being the only exception to this. The hotel in Asakusa was a grim experience where I had lashed out to give us a little luxury. This meant that I resented every penny and every minute of that stay. Otherwise the Japanese were exceptionally honest with the above exceptions and tips were never expected.
The lack of litter almost everywhere is a great difference to the UK. There were a few spots in Osaka and one in Kyoto where we saw some litter but I picked litter up where I saw it elsewhere as it felt so out of place and I picked more up outside our country lane hotel on our return than I needed to pick on the whole of the holiday. This is despite the lack of bins except in stations generally.
Seats too in streets are generally few and far between and even some stations have very few benches or seats. Takayama was probably the only place where seats were commonplace.
Evening meals were sometimes a problem in the little towns (Takayama and Miyajima) we visited with virtually everything being closed by 6pm. Conversely picking up bento boxes during the day to eat in the park was great. The sandwiches were amazing too but we preferred to go native with Japanese food.
I had the impression that the Japanese would be thrifty before I went and there may be reduced signs of spending. This is definitely not the case. Socialising and spending is going ahead full steam. The endearing sight of seeing young couples in full Japanese dress promenading during an evening was commonplace everywhere. The peaceful atmosphere this and other things such as the festivals we came across (we took part in 4 and saw 4 others were happening) showed the cash economy must be booming. Long queues for food in some places where it was perceived as trendy and in some places simply to enter a shop. The most marked of this was at Aqua City where there was a firework festival. This was amazing as most did not realise the festival was on (we sat next to one of the signs informing that “The Decks” shopping centre would close at 5:30pm that evening for the ticket only viewing from there. At 4:55 pm there were literally tens of thousands there and we thought there would be no way they could clear the place in half an hour. It was cleared with time to spare. The consequent pressure of crowds on the streets, pavements and Shiokaze Park was unbelievable. Most tickets were for viewing from the Odaiba Beach area. All was sold out months ago. Despite blocks built to prevent easy free viewing of the fireworks there must have been 100,000 people there and likely more than double that, most of whom had no tickets. I have been to pop festivals and never seen crowds like that. The sardine can train journey back across the Rainbow Bridge had my girls near to tears as it was so crowded and that was with me holding back the crowd to protect them from the worst of it. My back ached afterwards. The fireworks were incredible though, doing things like coordinated patterns which changed colours multiple times. I have seen the Plymouth firework competition but this was on a new scale and level of complication.
Public transport was everything it has a reputation for being. On our return our flight from Frankfurt to London City was delayed by 45 minutes and the bus from London Victoria to Bath arrived at 00:50 rather than the advertised 00:03. In Japan we had only one delayed train and even the landslide due to the recent rain had only closed a short length of rural rail line which was sorted by an efficient bus service to the waiting train at the other side of the landslip. On the downside we found it difficult to buy Tokyo underground rail passes for our 3 days as they only sold at certain stations and as a result paid a little more than we may have for our journeys there. Prices were cheap though so it made only minor difference.
Occasionally the helpfulness of people was tempered by a jobs-worth attitude. This is from a blind determination to follow procedure and at times a little common sense would have made a difference. Sometimes this was used, as in our hotel in Tokyo, to squeeze a few more Yen out of you. Similarly, one of our bags for JAL was 1.5kg over the weight limit whilst 2 others were less than half the allowance and we were permitted a total of 8 x 23 kg bags in total only having 3 bags. There was no other solution than taking things from the overweight bag and transferring to another of our bags. On other times too it made no sense whatsoever. One of the most common was road crossings. Often with the red man against you but clearly no cars coming and good visibility for long distances the vast majority of people wait for the green man to be able to cross. It was quite extreme.
We saw aspects of the robotic commuter arrival to work in Tokyo but the most obvious feature of employment was the numbers employed and their sheer and evident pride in doing even the most menial of jobs. Toilets in the middle of nowhere immaculately clean and clearly tended to by someone who cared, those sweeping streets taking great pride in doing so. By numbers employed I mean that many aspects of Japanese employment have lots of people employed where in comparison we would have few. Roadworks would commonly have 4 people only directing traffic for example.
This would imply a major lack of efficiency and this too was reflected in other situations. The issuing of our rail passes involved not the expected digital printing but filling the passes in by hand, cross filling in other forms and stamping them all multiple times before meticulously filing them all away in several places and sticking a protective cover over the pass by hand rather than automatic lamination. The check in process at Japanese airlines involved each of the check in people coming out from behind their desk to invite the person at the front of the queue to come to their desk. The packing of shopping at supermarkets, done by assistants was a 2-part process involving firstly the scanning of each item and then as a separate process the packing of the shopping into bags.
We saw some signs of homelessness but only in Tokyo. There was great difference in different areas. Some being very affluent and others poorer, some more Western and others traditional. On the whole though there is another worldliness about Japan. I cannot wait to return but as it is Japan we like we will be avoiding the Rugby World Cup 2019 and Olympics 2020 (both already being advertised), as our interactions with Westerners were generally the less satisfactory parts of our holiday. My fear is that these events may hasten the creeping Westernization taking place. I am glad I have taken the kids to see it as it is now. I do though feel that there is a strength to the society which means that it will change only slowly. This may be due to the language barrier but there is also something deeper still felt by the young generation there embracing their traditions in their own way and so preserving the uniqueness that is Japan.