Japan Recap

It’s been almost 4 weeks since we got back from Japan, so I figure I’d better write something before I forget it all. It’s already been so long that I don’t think I can string together coherent paragraphs describing the experience, so here comes the random stream of consciousness.

  • People in Japan have one of the world’s longest life expectancies, but you’d never know it if you just hung around Tokyo. It seemed like everyone there was young and immaculately dressed (Bonnie described the Tokyo-ite clothing as “fussy”). It wasn’t until we got to the hot spring resort town of Hakone and Expo Aichi 2005 that we found where all the old people were hiding.
  • Did I mention that I’m not a big fan of their old people? They’re rude and pushy, like they’ve got some gigantic chip on their respective shoulders. The most vivid memory I have is standing in line to buy tickets for the Linimo (a maglev train, which by the way is just one big money grab) to the Expo. So I’m next in line, about to walk up to the ticket booth and this old woman comes out of nowhere, cutting in front. Yeesh.
  • All of their non-alcoholic drinks (wouldn’t know about the alcohol-laced ones) seem to be watered down. The Kirin milk tea that Matt raves about? Tastes like they steeped the tea for maybe 10 seconds, then poured in a ton of milk. Fruit juices? Watered down to at most 30%. They have some “100% juice” ones, but they actually taste like the crappy “from concentrate” juices you get in Canada. I’ll stick with my Tropicana Orange and Apple, thank you.
  • Smoking is still considered cool there, which I have trouble dealing with. My two most vivid Japan-smoking traumas are: 1) A First Kitchen fast food place in Kyoto, we wanted to try their Bacon-Egg-Burger (B.E.B.) cause the picture looked tasty. The place is two floors, first floor is where you order and there’s maybe seating for like 20 people. It’s lunch time, so the first floor is completely full. Fine, so we go up to the second floor – we turn around before making it to the top because there’s so much smoke in the air it’s like a dense fog. We end up eating on the first floor by the garbage can. 2) On our last day, the “Friendly Airport Limousine” we took from our hotel to the airport manages to lose one of our pieces of luggage (actually ended up being the hotel’s fault). Regardless, we end up sitting in the airport limo office for a good half hour while they sort things out. They have four employees lounging around in this cramped little office, two of them are puffing away the whole time. When we finally get out of their our clothes reek of smoke and my eyes are watering.
  • When you’re a potential tourist outside of the country, they extoll the virtues of the several hundred dollar Japan Rail Pass. It sounds like a wonderous form of public transportation, spanning the county in a safe and punctual manner. What you don’t find out until you get there is that JR is really meant for inter-city transportation. “Public” transportation within the big cities is actually a fragmented mess of private subway lines, each belonging to different companies. JR does have sparse coverage in the most popular urban areas, but be prepared to do a lot of walking if you only stick to JR. I’d almost liken the JR Pass to an unlimited GO Transit pass in Ontario.
  • Before we even left for Japan, Bonnie already had “pearl necklace” on her list of things to buy. After all, Japan is known for their cultured pearls (what with Kokichi Mikimoto being credited with the single-handed launch of the cultured-pearl industry). She bought her “Best of the Best” necklace from the flagship Mikimoto store in Ginza.

    The hard part was figuring out how to get it back into Canada without paying taxes, since it was way over the $750 personal exemption. The ideas we threw around included: 1) Under-report the value of the necklace and show “proof” by buying a much cheaper “cover” necklace and use its receipt instead. The receipt for the expensive one could be sent back home in the mail. 2) Not report the necklace at all, and hide it in an empty “Tokyo Cheese Usagi” box. We bought a ton of sweets, cookies, and baked goods, so the bet was that customs wouldn’t try and open all of them.

    I liked the first idea the best, but Bonnie’s much too straight and narrow. She ended up paying the GST, PST, and Excise Tax (essentially a luxury tax of 10%!). Ouch. The customs lady messed with the numbers for a while, eventually lowering the bill by a whopping $5, then sent us on our way with a, “Enjoy your pearls, they’re gorgeous!”

  • We spent many a lunch/dinner hour trolling around the basements of department stores looking for discounted food. The basement of every department store has one floor (sometimes two) of prepared foods, sweets, and usually a supermarket-like section.

    Anyway, in this one store beside JR Kyoto Station, they had an interesting mix of western music. We were there for maybe half an hour before closing time, and music from the following western artists was played the whole time we were there: The Corrs, Natalie Merchant, Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, Shania Twain. I guess that’s the CD they put in when they want to shoo away the customers at closing time.

  • The sushi there is nice and fresh, but it’s the opposite of North America in that salmon is a rarity and tuna is plentiful. It’s weird seeing toro (fatty tuna belly) in such large supply. I think the only time I’ve had it in Toronto was at Sushi Kaji (picture) in Etobicoke.
  • Lobster is almost unheard of in Japan; I suppose it’s a North American east coast specialty. There’s plenty of crab though, and in fact everywhere that surimi (fake crab) is used in North America, the Japanese use what appears and tastes to be real crab.
  • At the hot spring resort in Hakone, they served traditional Japanese kaiseki meals for breakfast and dinner. I’d describe the experience as a tasting menu on steriods, what with all the tiny varied dishes and the emphasis on presentation (though I suppose it’s actually the other way around – tasting menus are the North Americanized version of kaiseki).

    Some pictures from our first meal here, here, and here.

    It was quite novel at first (Hashimoto in Mississauga that serves Kaiseki-style meals for those wanting to try), but after four consecutive meals in this format we were dying for something big, meaty, and greasy, hence our Japanese version of “pizza and wings” (purchased in a department store basement of course).

  • We tried Kobe beef in Tokyo at this restaurant. It’s on the 52nd floor of an office building in Shinjuku so the view was nice, but unfortunately our choice of shabu-shabu left a lot to be desired. In retrospect it seems so wrong to boil Kobe beef. Next time we’ll go for the teppanyaki instead.

    A highlight of the evening was when the waiter presented the sashimi appetizer course and called one of the selections “fugu” (i.e. blowfish, the kind with the poisonous entrails). Turns out he was mistaken and it was just some kind of flat fish.

    I actually wanted to try fugu; we even saw a fugu restaurant the first night we were there. Bonnie didn’t want to risk a poisonous, fishy death though. Sigh.

  • One thing that I’d never be able to get used to about Japanese culture is the excessive politeness. The bus boy at one of the hotels kept apologizing to us for absolutely no reason while showing us to our room. “Excuse me, sorry. This is the elevator.” “Sorry, excuse me, this is the ice machine.” “So sorry, this is the emergency exit.” “Excuse me, very sorry, this is your room door.” etc.

    Remember that comical scene in Lost in Translation where the director of the Suntory commerical is giving pointers to Bob Harris but the translator seems to be leaving almost everything out? She probably just wasn’t translating the apologies.

    Also, the moment you walk into a store, every employee feels the need to bow and welcome you. This is especially comical in the clothing sections of department stores because there are maybe 2 employees for every 500 square feet of space. If you walk through at just the right pace when the store isn’t busy, you’ll get successive welcomes from almost all of them. I bet if you tried you could make some kind of funky a cappella music video by just walking back and forth.

  • Which brings me to my next pet peeve about Japan – the chronic overemployment. I already mentioned the excess employees in department stores, but the same sort of thing occurs everywhere. For example, at a gas station, when your car pulls in you’ll have no less than 4 people working on it. A couple to clean the windows, one to empty the ash tray, one to pump the gas. When you’re done, they’ll run out into the street to stop traffic and wave you on your way.

    The qUirKY jaPan HomEPage calls them “Useless People”, but Time Asia gets a better handle on it in this article.

    The gist of it is, due to the protectionist policies they’ve had in place since WWII, local Japanese industries have no competition, thus they have no incentive to ensure that their workers are efficient and productitive. By definition, non-productive workers are overpaid, which then pushes up the cost of living. That explains this US$100 box of grapes.

  • One of the guide books we have said that Kyotans are likely to go broke buying kimonos while Osakans are likely to eat themselves to physical and financial ruin. We found both to be true while visiting both cities.

    Tokyo is the place where you find the young and stylish; resort and rural towns are where the old people hide; Osaka is where you find the more normal-sized people (though still nowhere near the size of say, Americans); and Kyoto is where you find rich old people strolling around in kimonos.

    It’s not really normal to see young people in kimonos since the full outfit including accessories like hair things and shoes is on the order of thousands of dollars. It can be pretty hot when you actually do see the young and nubile in kimonos though, as evidenced by the foreigner we saw stalking and taking pictures of the ones at our hotel (it looked like they were attending somebody’s wedding).

  • Japan is a surprisingly clean country, considering: a) The amount of waste that they produce; and b) The comparatively small number of garbage cans and recycling bins.

    The best example of waste would be when we had dim sum at our hotel. It was just the two of us and we ordered maybe 10 things. Every dish came out with its own pair of disposable chopsticks, even the ones that came out at the same time. This is on top of the two pairs of chopsticks that we already had for ourselves.

    Other examples of waste are probably ones you’ve heard before, like how almost everything is individually wrapped in some kind of paper or cellophane; if it’s not they’ll be more than happy to wrap it for you. In convenience stores they’ll always give you a plastic bag, even if you’re just buying a Jell-O fruit cup that you’re clearly going to eat immediately.

    What I find strange is that there’s is a complete lack of public garbage cans and recycling bins. The only ones we ever saw were in front of convenience stores or beside vending machines. In both cases they weren’t city-owned and maintained, the convenience store or vending machine owner was in charge of that. Even in subway and train stations, there’d maybe be a single garbage/recycling area at the entrance to the station.

    This is in contrast to a city like Toronto, where you’re almost guaranteed to have a city-owned and operated “OMG Media” bin at every large intersection, and the TTC have garbage bins all over their stations.

    So I don’t get it, do the Japanese seriously carry all their excessive packaging with them until they come across the rare garbage/recyling bin? That’s what we ended up doing.

  • I don’t know if it was just school trip season, but holy, everywhere we went there were throngs of Japanese school kids. Temples, shrines, and castles were absolutely crawling with them. The shinkansen (bullet train) stations had groups of them all sitting on the floor waiting for their trains. It’s funny seeing them travel because they hire women to dress up in bright colours (complete with funny hat and white gloves), and walk at the front of the line carrying a huge flag (presumably with the school name on it or something). I guess they’ve found the buddy system lacking.
  • The Studio Ghibli Museum was kind of disappointing, especially the gift shop. We found way better (though possibly unlicensed) merchandise at some random store in an underground shopping mall attached to JR Tokyo station.
  • If you’re poor and homeless in Japan, a good place to get free shoes is at those temples that require you to take off your shoes before you enter. They usually ask you to bring your shoes with you (in the provided plastic bags), but at the ones we went to a lot of people didn’t.
  • The Japanese like their green tea and green tea-related products. I think the weirdest item we saw was at some tempura restaurant – they gave us “green tea salt” for dipping. The best green tea product would have to be the Häägen-Dazs Green Tea and Kuromitsu Crispy Sandwich. It’s basically an oval block of green tea ice cream covered in a brown sugar-based shell (picture the same sort of stuff Dairy Queen uses for their dipped cones, but this is a brown-sugar based “sauce” covering the block of ice cream). That resulting thing is sandwiched between two crispy wafers.

    Häägen-Dazs doesn’t even seem to sell their crispy sandwich line in North America, but I think they should. Sadly, even if they did they’d probably only start with the “non-offensive” flavours like vanilla-caramel.

  • By now you’ve probably heard of the wacky Japanese toilets that have built in bidets. Press the button and a nozzle slowly extends and sprays water at you. More info here. I’ve always wondered why that’s so popular in Japan but has never really caught on in the rest of the world.

    It didn’t hit me until the second week we were there. Due to the aforementioned protectionist policies, local farmers have no real competition, so fruits and vegetables are really expensive there. Leafy greens are rare (even the expensive Kobe beef restaurant only gave us each one stalk of Shanghai bok choy), it’s mostly root vegetables and/or pickled items.

    So it stands to reason that most of the population probably needs uhhh… help… “taking care of business”, hence the high-tech bidets. I know I wasn’t a happy camper by the second week…

  • While we’re on the topic of bathrooms, the one thing I really liked was the shower heads and taps in the fancier hotels. I’m not sure if they’re available in North America, but I’ve never seen one here. There are two taps, one is for adjusting the temperature (marked in degrees celsius) and the other is for adjusting pressure. There’s no fussing with the taps every single time to get the right temperature like we have to do here.
  • Many of the men’s suits there have two vents at the back of the jacket, one above either butt cheek. We thought it was the new style (when everyone wears a suit I guess they need some way to stand out, no matter small). I briefly considered buying one, and we went shopping, only to find a pretty evenly mixed bag of single and double vents, so I dropped that idea. Hey, it’s not like I ever wear a suit anyway.
  • When we finally got back to Toronto, a funny thing happened while waiting for bags at the airport. We left our carry-on baggage on some seats by the payphones; I went to wait for our luggage in front of the conveyor belt and Bonnie used the payphone to call for a pick up.

    When she was done, she went back to guard the carry-ons, and in her words, “some guy slinked out of nowhere” and started talking to her. He looked like an airport employee, maybe a baggage handler or something. I thought maybe it was one of her old classmates or something, so I didn’t bother going to see what was up because: a) I hate small talk, especially with random people; and b) I was waiting for the luggage.

    Well it turns out that it was some random guy trying to pick her up. I wonder if that’s common practice for those with “yellow fever”. I also wonder what their success rate is by hanging out around the baggage claim for flights that have just arrived from Asia. Gotta get them “fresh off the boat” I guess.

One Comment

  1. Calvin Tai says: