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Japan: Not Just Sushi and Anime

2013 April 29
Mt. Fuji

Mt. Fuji from a Kyoto to Tokyo bullet train.

To be perfectly honest, Japan has never been on top of my list of places to visit.

A big reason is that it’s a developed country. These countries are expensive and they’ll be more or less the same whether I go now or when I’m older. I want to visit the third-world countries first because they’ll undoubtedly change and their creature comforts are more inclined towards those in who are young and in shape.

Japan has also failed to pique my interest because I’ve always thought of it as somewhat bland: it doesn’t have any spectacular beaches, there are no swathes of  jungles, no amazing dive sites, and other than Tokyo, it lacks a big, globally known city. I have heard it does have amazing skiing but flying trans-pacific seems excessive for that alone, especially since I’m so close to Tahoe.

In my mind, Japan was about sushi, anime, weird Japanese culture, shrines and Tokyo. While all pretty interesting, it’s never been compelling enough for me to pull the trigger and book a flight.

But quite fortuitously, I work for a Japanese company and they decided to send me to Japan. Obviously, I extended the trip.

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After about five days, I was thinking to myself, “Well I’ll be damned, Japan is pretty awesome.”

Although I didn’t do anything super adventurous, just traveling through the country and exploring Kyoto, Hiroshima and Tokyo changed my opinion of Japan.

One of the things that impressed me the most was how simple and intuitive everything seemed to be.

Take, for example, their shower faucets. In most of the world, we have either a one handle or two knob faucet to adjust the hot and cold water. For the two knob variety, you have to adjust both to find that perfect temperature. If you happen to mix too much hot water, it becomes scathingly hot. Too much cold? You suddenly have nipples that can cut glass. Same goes with the one handle variety where an errant nudge turns your shower into a sudden sauna.

After some adjusting, you finally get the right temperature. Now it’s time to find the control for shower vs. bath. Sometimes it’s a knob you turn underneath the faucet, other times it’s a plug you pull. In some old school homes (like mine), it’s a lever attached directly to the pipe. By the time you’ve adjusted the temperature correctly and turned on the shower, you’ve been standing there, freezing, buck naked for a couple of minutes.

Now the Japanese, how do they do it? Two simple dials. One on the left and one on the right side of the faucet. The one on the left controls temperature, with… get this… DEGREE MARKINGS. That means if you want water at exactly 45C, you’re getting 45C water. All you have to do is turn it to the right mark. And the Japanese, having thought of everything, know that you probably don’t want to burn yourself on accident, so they put a little button that you have to press down in order to turn the knob past 40C.

The other handle controls the water flow to the faucet and shower head. You turn it one direction for the shower, the other for the faucet.

Instead of using a fairly clunky system for something that should be simple, the Japanese have found quite an elegant solution for something we use everyday.

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This theme of simple elegance seemed to cover many other aspects of Japanese society, including the temples in Kyoto…

The temples themselves were not grand or opulent like the churches in Europe. They didn’t cover entire city blocks, had no ornate decorations, and maintained no looming presence. Instead, they were built with wood in a very minimal and elegant manner. Clean lines and surfaces, with none of the distractions that can overwhelm other religious buildings, they seemed to fit in perfectly with the surrounding landscape. The combination of the temples, trees, gardens, and lakes seemed to exude a sense of peace and tranquility.

Ninnaji Temple, Kyoto

The Ninnaji Temple in Kyoto during cherry blossom season.

The experience was decidedly different from anything I’ve really felt before. Although I’ve seen plenty of other temples, the calming effect and tranquilness was new. I found myself thinking of the scene in Lost in Translation where Scarlett Johansson’s character wanders around looking at the cherry blossoms and geishas, all in solitary silence, just observing and taking it all in.

For me, it wasn’t quite some religious revelation, but it was very cool to experience those peaceful, thoughtful moments.

Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto

The Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto.

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And the Japanese bullet trains.

The Shinkansen bullet trains reminded me of those in Germany and Switzerland: clean, efficient, and incredibly precise. Sleek and nearly all white, these trains blew through the countryside at upwards of 200mph. The rail network covered pretty much every populated area in Japan and trains ran frequently between the major cities.  To give you a sense of how on time they were, most arrived within 30 seconds of the scheduled time. I’ve also heard that if a train is late by even five minutes, station agents will give you a note to present to work about why you were late.

Japanese Bullet Train

The inside of a Shinkansen bullet train.

Perhaps the only downsides were the cost and some confusing stations. I paid $294 for a 7 day unlimited “Japan Rail” pass that worked throughout Japan. It’s not the cheapest compared to buses but I think still very, very reasonable for what you’re getting. i did get lost in the stations a couple of times but the Japanese staff always managed to help me get on the right train.

Overall, the whole experience was clean and polished. Getting from point A to point B was easy and painless. Of all the trains I’ve taken, I think Japan’s rail system is probably the best I’ve ever experienced. Clean, comfortable, quiet, and staffed with polite and friendly staff, they should be the benchmark that all other train systems strive for.

Tokyo subway

Likewise, the Tokyo subway system was also clean and efficient.

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Clean, efficient, and elegant; this seemed to be the Japanese way. I had sort of expected this but I did not expect it to meet and exceed my expectations. The Japanese people I met (except the shady Nigerians, but that’s another story…) were also extremely polite and friendly, something that was a pleasant surprise, even coming from a relatively “nice” city such as San Francisco.

After traveling through mostly third world countries on my last few trips, Japan was a refreshing breath of air. It was different from the US not only in culture, but its approach towards many of the common things in life. Even though I dogged it initially, I was very much surprised, albeit even a bit awe-struck, at just how cool Japan turned out to be; definitely one of the best places to visit in Asia.

But what about Tokyo?! And the food?! Well, that’s a story for another time.

2 Responses leave one →
  1. Ralphy permalink
    May 7, 2013

    Totally agree. Same thing happened to me.It was my wife’s idea to go there, i was apathetic but Japan sure changed my mind. Really enjoyed it. We both cant wait to go back.

  2. July 18, 2013

    I’m glad you loved Japan. I’ve been there for my first time last October and always wanted to go. My expectations were pretty high and I haven’t been disappointed at all, simply there are few aspects of the Japanese culture that I wouldn’t agree with.
    What you said ‘Clean, efficient, and elegant; this seemed to be the Japanese way’ sums up most of the Japanese culture. I’d love to go back one day to live it more deeply!

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