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Moore's Travels: JAPAN

Discussion in 'Issues Around the World' started by Sierra Mike, Dec 13, 2002.

  1. Sierra Mike

    Sierra Mike The Dude Abides Staff Member

    JAPAN: Land of the Rising Sun (and Deficit)

    Of all the places I've traveled, Japan is the one I'm most fond of. Despite the obvious Western (read: American) influences that have transformed Japanese society, Japan and the Japanese people have managed to maintain a very unique East/West combination that's not really seen elsewhere (while Hong Kong and Singapore both claim rights to the title of true "East/West" civilizations, the fact is...they're much more Westernized, due to the colonial policies implemented by their former masters, the British). While the American occupation after WWII put an end to Japan's militant misdeeds and appetite for Pacific rule, the Americans also shattered the old ways by enforcing an Americanized "constitution" on the Japanese which effectively enabled them to re-enter the 20th Century as an equal nation and, after the passage of three decades, rise to the world's number two economy. Not bad for a nation that was pretty much razed to the ground and left financially destitute.

    But in order to truly appreciate the division of culture from appearances, one does have to stray a bit off the beaten path. Not far; just a tad will do. First, though, you have to get there.

    Pre-Flight: In my earlier jag on international travel, I've already regaled the auspices of traveling on Japan Air Lines...but I love this airline so much I'll recap here. Every facet of travel on this world-class carrier is top-notch, from ticketing and check-in to in-flight services including some of the most scrumptious cuisine I've ever shoveled down my gullet. Both Japanese and American fare are offered, but I've only had the former, as the aircrew is especially deft at whipping it up for you at your mere behest; practically only a raised eyebrow or casual eye contact will bring to your side one of JAL's super-efficient (and damned good-looking) flight attendants. I would recommend to travelers not to mistake their obsequious manner to mean that you can act like an emperor and get away with it. Obsequiousness is part and parcel of Japanese culture, but to be any less obsequious in return can cause even a flight attendant to lose face. I would caution against that.

    Enroute: First Class is reputed to be the Shangri-la of air travel, but I've never seen it. Executive Class is a premium experience, and will cost you, but the appointments are fully featured, including a seat that does recline completely into a bed. Entertainment is provided by the stationary video display in the "shell" of the seat in front of you, and is viewable even when the seat is in "bed mode," though the flight crew does expect you to switch it off when the cabin lights go out, to ensure other travelers are not bothered. Coach Class is standard, I'm afraid to say; if traveling coach, one might wish to consider American Airlines, which has increased legroom by several inches by removing two rows of seats. JAL will take you direct to Tokyo's Narita International, a fairly dazzling destination in and of itself. Onward travel to other destinations in the Home Islands is provided by Japan Air Systems (JAS), a loose consortium of Japanese air carriers that are not always directly affiliated with JAL or its competing airline, All Nippon Air (ANA). Major carriers with direct service to Narita, besides JAL and ANA: American Airlines, Northwest Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Airlines, and Continental Airlines. In order to save costs, I would recommend you make LAX or SFO your points of departure. Average Coach-Class tickets range from $653.00 to $1,200.00; average Business Class fares generally start at $4,100.00; First Class will cost you some body parts at an opening bid of around $8,500.00 and well into the five digits. Flight times average from 11 hours 32 minutes to upwards of 22 hours, depending on layovers.

    On The Ground: At long last, you're in Tokyo! (Well...Tokyo Narita Airport, anyway.) Hopefully you're fully awake, well fed, and well rested--OK, maybe not those of you who flew Coach, but hey, I know I'm happy. So keep up!

    One of the best things about Japan is its rail system. While Jedi mentioned the British rail system as being the best in the world, I'm gonna come out and say no way, Jose--Japan's got it beat. By using the Narita Express, one can move from the airport to Tokyo in less than an hour in exceptional comfort. But you won't be alone; the NE carries around 1,000 passengers a pop, so if you have a lot of luggage, you might want to just take a cab. If not, however, then you'll likely be happy enough with the NE. Japan lives and dies by its rail system; the NE can not only take you direct to Tokyo, but even to comparitively far-flung Ofuna, which I've never been to. Ofuna is a major rail interchange, however, so chances are good you could get from there to Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido. Sapporo is, of course, known for its widely-exported beer, but is also a fun, homey kind of city that might tickle you with its combination of modern conveniences and rustic civility, especially if you're fond of cold coastlines. But look, I know...the city you most want to see is...

    Tokyo: a bustling metropolis of some 12,000,000 that seems to have a rather unique problem in that it's always getting pounded flat by Godzilla. But, 500 foot tall, fire-breathing lizards aside, Tokyo has an even more malignant problem: an obsession with the French, resulting in the curious Tokyo Tower, the Japanese version of the Eiffel. Despite this rather ignominious disregard for past American goodwill, Tokyo is a fun yet rather desultory place. Tokyoites are a lot like Manhattanites, only Japanese-style; while they're rarely rude to us Westerners, they do swarm to places almost as well as the North Koreans heading for the DMZ. Expect a lot of pushing and shoving, jostling and bumping. Most of the time, this is totally unavoidable, especially when trying to exit or enter the Narita Express. Even in Tokyo, Japanese remain an insular people; while they are at least passingly friendly to us gaijin, they are at a certain level leery of us. There have been plenty of times when I've been on one of the Chiba line trains that was packed to the gills, and I was afforded a few inches of space because the Japanese did not want to come into contact with a foreigner. (Yes, yes, Robaire, I did shower.) The Japanese are perhaps the most culturally-obsessed people in Asia, in my experience; I cannot say why this is so, but having survived as mostly a closed empire during the majority of its history probably has something to do with it. While on the trains, it's customary to allow as many people as possible read over your shoulder; if you're reading a magazine or newspaper that is in English, then at least let them look at the pictures. To express displeasure with such conduct is incredibly rude, and will warrant you several instances of sharply-inhaled breath through clenched teeth. (But, since most men in Japan read nudie books on the train, it's always advisable to be neighborly; you never know what you might miss out on insofar as over-the-shoulder entertainment goes.)

    Tokyo has an interesting phenomenon occurring; a rather sudden explosion of whiskey bars which continues to expand throughout Japan, displacing the more customary liquor establishments. to be honest, I've only set foot in Jazz in Osaka, but I enjoyed the experience immensely. I spent about 50,000 Yen (around $500.00) on cover and drinks for four (myself and three Nihonjin), so it won't be a cheap endeavor. I'd say spend the money on something more impressive, like a run up to Mt. Fuji, one of Japan's and the world's most impressive natural monuments. Plenty of tours to and fro, many of which are quite reasonable, and for those of you who have some Japanese friends, you can skip the tour stuff altogether. I've not met a single Japanese who has not been to Mount Fuji. (Quick note for the boys: Want to give a Japanese woman the best compliment in the world? Tell her she has Mt. Fuji lips. Just make sure you have enough yen for the love hotel. Banzai, you lucky bastard.)

    The places I hit most when in Japan are Osaka (home of my beloved Etsuko, briefly displayed elsewhere here on GA), located several hundred kilometers south of Tokyo, serviced by the JR Line that will whizz you there in three hours. Also accessible via air from Narita, Osaka is substantially quainter than stodgy Tokyo; don't expect a lot of hair-raising adventure here, though the people are genuinely pleasant, something that's in counterpoint to our Tokyoite friends. Osakans are an openly friendly people, proud of their city and culture, though there is not a lot to see. (When I speak Japanese, my accent is Osakan, which to Tokyoites means I'm somehow a Japanese country bumpkin.) However, once you've spent a day or two exhausting the sights in Osaka, fear not: the lovely treasures of Kyoto is quite nearby. Kyoto is old-world Japan at its best, especially resplendent during the spring when the cherry blossoms are blooming. Surrounded by near-mythical Shinto temples and shrines, with the sonorous songs of Japan's few remaining geishas in the air, you could almost feel you had taken a step back in time. The narrow alleyways hide all manner of valuable treasures, from arcane shops to bath houses to what appear to be sudden impromptu outbreaks of Japanese Noh plays. While Tokyo is without a doubt Japan's center of commerce, Kyoto is the nation's treasured soul.

    The People: As I've already referenced, Japanese are a unique people in that they are to this day strongly prideful, but are open enough to have developed an extreme interest in other cultures. English is genki ii (cool), but almost no one speaks it with any faculty once you step out of a hotel. And once you leave Tokyo behind, forget it; you're going to have a tough time unless you take the opportunity to familiarize yourself with the language beforehand. Japanese also smoke like fiends; through a serendipitous combination of genes, they are unusually resistant to lung cancer. They generally eat little beef on a daily basis, preferring fish and vegetables, and are incredibly healthy, given that the population is aging (Japan has a very, very low birth rate, so low in fact that the government encourages families to have children through a series of tax breaks). There will likely be many, many instances when Japanese approach you in an attempt to "practice their English." Chances are incredibly good it will be incredibly incomprehensible. Your best bet is to smile, bow, say Sumimasen (Soo-me-MAH-sen), bow again, and leave. Chances are good the novice English speaker with return your bows, smiles, and wave good-bye. You could also try something like Gomen nasai, Nihongo go ga hasame masen, but my first recommendation should suffice. Regardless, if you're at all linguistically inclined, Japanese is not that difficult to employ.

    Japan is still very much a male-dominated society. Two thousand years of true patriarchical civilization cannot be undone by a world war and about nine years of American stewardship. Most of the violence that occurs in Japan is domestic violence, usually male to female. Children are treasured, and Japanese dote on their kids like no other. Japan is also still very much an achievement-based society; only the best and brightest get into the best high schools, which will guarantee them at least a shot at college. A sizeable portion of the nation has only a middle- or junior high school education, due to the rather incredible scholastic marks required to advance. Just the same, because of their fastidious nature, even these people are bright and smart. This is a product of their schooling, but also because of strict adherence to joshiki, which is their national common sense, a core component of kokumensei, or "national thought," aspects of Japan that are totally alien to us independent Westerners. They are also usually the small business people, though they can also be the folks in overalls who drive around restocking the nation's millions of vending machines. Japan is rumored to have one vending machine for every 23 people, which dispense everything from flavored condoms to soy drinks to alcohol to food to newspapers to fresh white shirts. I once lived on two days off vending machines alone, seeing if I could find everything I need. I successfully scored a toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper, food, manga, calling cards, shaving cream (a tough one, since Japanese men apparently shave five or six times a year), soap, slippers, even a cotton paper yukata (robe) for sleeping. This is a convenience-based society to the max, folks.

    All that you heard about Japanese cleanliness is quite true. The Japanese are the cleanest people on the planet, in my humble opinion. To add to this, they have fewer musk glands, so even when they do sweat, they rarely smell. And bathing is the rule. If sharing a communal bath with others, you must scrub down with soap and brush before entering the communal bath; this is a cultural imperative, and there is no faster way to prove to the Japanese that you are a filthy barbarian by climbing into the bath directly. One fallacy, however, is the mixed bath; men and women in the same big tub. I've seen it exactly once, when I was 22. I'm 40 now, and have not seen it since. Just the same, if you, as a foreigner, are invited to a bathhouse, you're in like the flint. You will be expected to soak yourself in uncomfortably hot water and talk about business and women, the only thing Japanese men discuss (I don't know what Japanese women discuss among themselves) while knocking back sake. Always pour sake for others; never pour it for yourself. Your hosts will make sure you get enough, believe me. I will confess that it's uncomfortable for a Westerner to be sitting in a tub with a bunch of Japanese men, but the bath houses are where you learn most about Japanese as a people, such as their obsession with mono no aware, the pathos of things. Japanese can be a very defeatist people on the surface, but when not discussing mono no aware (usually punctuated with expression of shikata ga neh and another round of sake), you also get to learn about...well...their twisted sexual desires. And this brings us to...

    Sex in Japan. Goodness, I can't get into it very deeply here, but let me tell you, being a Westerner in a repressive though well-ordered society like Japan can make your eyes bug out of your head. I call it the Catholic School Girl Syndrome; all nice and demure on the outside, raging tiger/tigress on the inside. Even normal, well-adjusted Japanese have an incredible zest for sex, from their comics to the real thing. It's very much a part of their culture...and yes, being a Westerner will get you a lot of attention. For the ladies, if you have blonde hair, Japanese men will absolutely take a liking to you. Gosh, even if you don't have blonde hair, they'll take a liking to you. Japan is rife with love hotels, which can be a mind-blowing experience. Brought on by an endemic housing shortage and most used by businessmen cheating on their wives and young people trying to find a way to get it on without the parental units either objecting or actively coaching, rabu hoteru (a classic example of really, really bad Japanese English) are an institution in Japan. You book them either for a "rest" (a few hours for the main event) or a "stay" (these people usually have lots of devices in their luggage). Love hotels are a part of life in Japan, and if you happen to have a special hankering with a man or woman and his/her roommates or family are about, then you know where to go. They're EVERYWHERE in Japan. So ka! (If anyone needs more info, PM me.;))

    Food. Good golly, if you like Asian cuisine, Japanese can either be the best or the worst. Generally never overspiced, you'll have to get used to a lot of pickled fare, such as oshinko. Sushi and sashimi are a bit different than in the States; and always, always pass on the rockfish! It kills a lot of Japanese every year, because the fish itself is incredibly toxic while alive. (I'm fairly sure that insisting this delicacy remain available is one of the core components to mono no aware. I mean, if you can die just from joining some buddies for lunch, that's gotta be pretty tough.) Kobe beef is exceptional, though it's not readily available any longer due to the outbreak of Mad Cow disease; however, the erstwhile Australians are getting into the act now, supplying Japan with a wealth of fine beef products. However, Kobe beef is rumored to be the best of the best, and as a Texan, I know my way around a shank or two, and it's pretty darn delicious. ("Moro-san, two for you, hah?") Not to mention the joys of tempura and sumiyaki...ah, it makes one salivate. And if you want to find something else, no need to worry; Italian, Greek, and even plain ol' 'Murican cuisine is proliferating through Japan faster than Patton through Rommel's troops.

    Overall: Right now, there's talk in the government of allowing the yen to deflate to the dollar; if this happens, then woo-hoo, I know where I'm goin'! That would only be a boon to us Ammies, but act quick...prices are already substantially deflated on a lot of goods and services, thanks to Japan's three trillion dollar debt, so once yen devaluation starts, prices are gonna get jacked. But if you have a hankering to visit an Asian country that still clings to its ancient customs, albeit with modern conveniences (and among the fastest damned trains in the world!), then make Nippon high on your list. The people are friendly, a bit kooky, but remarkably friendly and have a genuine love for Americans specifically and Europeans in general. It's an odd mishmash of Eastern culture tempered with Western sensibility, but it's both comfortable and alien enough to make it worthwhile.

    Any questions? Hit me up. There's so much stuff I overlooked here, it's not even funny.

    SM (who will be editing this for clarity over the next few days, to be sure)
  2. ethics

    ethics Pomp-Dumpster Staff Member

    Great job, Stephen! :thumbsup:
  3. Sierra Mike

    Sierra Mike The Dude Abides Staff Member

    Wait for China. ;)

  4. Allene

    Allene Registered User


    Very interesting! I think Kyoto would be my favorite city.

  5. Sierra Mike

    Sierra Mike The Dude Abides Staff Member

    Glad you liked it, Allene. There's so much stuff to put in these things, I'm waiting before I post the next one to make sure I won't blow it as badly as I did with Japan.

  6. Robert Harris

    Robert Harris Passed Away Aug. 19, 2006

    Yep. Kyoto is something else. It contains so much old stuff because it was intentionally not bombed during WWII because of its historical and cultural significance. Good move. When I was there we found a little jazz club called the Blue Note after a famous place in NY. Walked in and there on the bandstand was a black (American) dfrummer with some Japanese musicians. Place was full of young girls wearing ssuch native costume as Mickey Mouse sweat shirts. A bit disconcerting. :)

    I would love to get back there one of these days, but it is not likely, alas.
  7. Allene

    Allene Registered User


    Thanks for sharing your memories of Kyoto. At least you were there once. I doubt I'll ever make it there at all.

  8. Sierra Mike

    Sierra Mike The Dude Abides Staff Member

    Kyoto rocks...love that place, especially the temples. And the Japanese do a great job at keeping that place clean, too.

  9. Robert Harris

    Robert Harris Passed Away Aug. 19, 2006

    My wife may have a business trip to Japan next year, to some UN conference. I am sorely tempted to tag along even though it would cost me a fortune. I would love to see it again.
  10. Sierra Mike

    Sierra Mike The Dude Abides Staff Member

    Man, I'd do it! :)

  11. Techie2000

    Techie2000 The crowd would sing:

    I don't think I even want to know...

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