Sunday, April 29, 2012

Japan - Some Observations

I want to give a day-by-day account of our trip to Thailand.  Before I do, however, I want to give an overall impression of our vacation and Japan in general.  There are some things that just span the whole trip, or do not fit neatly into the day-by-day narrative. 

Overall, I had a fantastic time on our trip.  Unlike some places that I have visited, I eagerly look forward to visiting Japan again, perhaps multiple times.  There were a lot of really great things about Japan.

Getting around in Japan without a tour guide was very easy.  They have a superb public transportation system that includes trains, buses and subways (of course air travel as well).  Most signs were in both English and Japanese, so it was never too difficult to find out how to get where we wanted to go.  In those times where we did have difficulties, people were more than willing to help us (more on that below). 
We bought a seven day JR Rail pass, which gives unlimited use of the JR rail lines.  Our trip was for ten days, so we didn’t activate the pass immediately.  We used the pass for JR lines within Tokyo and Kyoto, as well as traveling between Tokyo, Osaka, Nikko and Kyoto.

I would highly recommend getting the pass for extensive travel between cities in Japan.  At nearly five-hundred dollars per adult and half that per kids, it is not cheap, so if you are staying in one city the entire time, it is probably not worth it.   But a round trip between Tokyo and Kyoto on the bullet train (Shinkansen) practically costs as much as the rail pass. 

The JR rail pass does not cover the local subway lines, but the JR lines do cover access to large areas of Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and probably other cities. 


I was really pleasantly surprised by the Japanese people.   With few exceptions, I found them to be nice, polite, helpful and orderly.  On many occasions we would stop and ask someone for help with directions, and with one exception everyone went out of their way to be helpful.  Sometimes you could tell the person was struggling to help us in English, but they almost universally tried.  When I ask for help, I was never (except once) made to feel like I was inconveniencing the other person; they were really great.

After spending quite a bit of time in Thailand, and making a few trips to China, my experience with queues has generally been rather negative.  Many Thai people have very little concept of waiting in line, instead cutting their way to the front.  At least my experience in Thailand is not as it was in China, where it was not uncommon to have someone shove anyone in their way in order to get somewhere a few seconds faster.

My experience in Japan could not have been more different.  Even though it was often very crowded, it didn’t feel like it.  People were very respectful of other people’s space.  On the few occasions that I was bumped into, the person who say “excuse me” in Japanese.  Well, I think that’s what they said, maybe they said “get out of my way idiot”, but I think they were being polite.

The people of Japan have queue skills that rival anywhere in the world.  They would line up single file to wait for the escalator.  The right side of the escalator was for standing, while the left side for walking, and I almost never saw anyone standing on the left side.  There was no pushing or shoving to get on a bus or train, everyone just waited their turn. 

Waiting in line, even a longer one, when you know that everyone is waiting their turn is a lot more pleasant than having to aggressively work to maintain your position.  It so much easier to travel with the kids when you aren’t constantly worried about them getting trampled or separated from us by the crowd. 

There is so much to see and do in Japan, and I felt that we really just scratched the surface.   My wife and I really enjoyed seeing the historic sites; the temples, shrines, and castles.  We only saw a handful, and could probably spend weeks there doing just that.  The grounds are so meticulously maintained, and the ones we saw were just beautiful.


It’s not just the ancient that Japan has to offer.  There is so much to do in Tokyo, and we only did a tiny bit of it.  The family could easily spend another week just doing things the kids would enjoy, not to mention visiting places like the fish market. 

Japan is so clean.  It’s funny because it is sometimes hard to find a garbage can around.  Sometimes we are looking for a while before we come across one.   Still, I didn’t see any liter. 

Maybe the fact that it is consider rude to eat while walking cuts back on some of the trash output in public.    Most of the things that I need to dispose of when I am walking around are probably food or drink related. 

Things I Didn’t Like
The things that I didn’t like about Japan and our trip were actually pretty minor.  My kids were not interested in seeing the historic sites, and Jacob and Nalin bickered and fought quite a bit.  Jacob was actually pretty difficult sometimes, taking offense to any perceived slight.  Of course, my kids behavior is not Japan’s fault.

There unspecified rules that it is easy to run afoul of.  I’m not talking about getting arrested, rather having someone come up and tell you that you shouldn’t do what you are doing.  Once I was sitting down on the ground taking photos of Tim and the girls in front of a park, and a guard came up and told me that I shouldn’t sit down like that.  I was not blocking pedestrian traffic, so I’m not sure of the problem, but of course I complied. 

Once we bought ice cream as we were leaving a museum, initially forgetting about the prohibition against eating while walking.  We stopped right outside the building so that the kids could finish, and after ten minutes someone came over and told us that there was no eating there. 


Finally, I was admonished against taking photos in a certain part of a shrine.  I was absolutely fine with that, as it is really not that unusual for more “sacred” parts to be off limits for photography.  Usually places post notices informing people of this rule.

The thing that probably frustrated me the most was our last night in Kyoto when we stopped in the Gion area to get dinner.  I was really looking forward to a nice dinner, but we had trouble finding a place that we wanted to eat that accepted credit cards.  As we were near the end of our trip, we were low on yen, which severely limited our options. 

Even though the last dinner was a bit of a sour note, the trip was still an overall success.  As you’ll see in my future posts, we saw some really interesting things, and I took quite a few photos.

No comments: