…because it doesn’t remind me of anything.
Anyone uncool enough to be familiar with Audioslave would know these lyrics and could have joined me in consistently singing them whilst getting lost in the streets of Japan. Needless to say, my travel companions didn’t appreciate my penchant to sing karaoke outside of karaoke bars nearly as much as I did. My poor singing aside, Japan is best described as a sensory overload within which, nothing actually makes sense. Rule number one in Japan is not to question anything; lest you go mad searching for logic. Basically, Japan is to crazy what Russia is to gas; sitting on enough reserves to supply the world for decades. “What the actual f**k?” becomes a daily question to which “…because Japan” is the most accurate answer. And it is precisely this inherent madness that enchanted me so much; that out of everywhere I have ever been, I yearn to go back to Japan the most. In no particular order (and certainly not a complete list) here are a few of Japan’s ‘quirks’, experiences and lessons I’ve learnt:
1. Efficiency is just not always a priority: On the surface, Japan is seen as a technological wonderland of science and innovation. To an extent this is true, with whole suburbs being dedicated to electronics and wireless internet literally being dispensed from vending machines. However, doing mundane tasks like checking into a hostel or sending a postcard require a minimum of 10 pages of paperwork and an abacus. I wish I was kidding. One chain hostel my friend and I stayed at calculated the amount we owed using 12 steps by hand, on paper. Hiring portable wifi for 5 days required the same set of forms to be filled out everyday whilst exchanging pre-paid Disneyland passes for tickets was a 15 minute process. Whilst some aspects of Japan run at extreme efficiency, like the amazing train networks (but only before midnight), other services seem to pose an extreme resentment for automation.
2. Toilets resemble the bridge of the Starship Enterprise: Going to the bathroom is an new adventure every time, so much so, that when you encounter a normal western toilet, you don’t know how to react. All Japanese toilets are equipped with a bidet, which is a flowery term for a burst of water that gets fired at your tenderness. More complicated toilets involve multiple settings you can adjust depending on your tenderness’..ahem, sensitivity. What’s more, toilets are equipped with seat warmers, deodorisation, a catalog of relaxation music and multiple flush noises (yes, you read that correctly and no, I’m not kidding).
3. Shinjuku station is the scariest place I’ve ever been: Anyone who can master Shinjuku station should be given God status. It is the world’s busiest station in the heart of Tokyo and has 36 platforms, over 200 exits and on average 4 million people pass through it everyday. Hours were spent everyday just trying to get out of the station, and then inadvertently walking the entire way round it as we took the wrong exit. Speaking of stations, in Tokyo, when walking through them one must always walk on the left, except on escalators where you stand on the left and walk on the right. Naturally, in Osaka the opposite rules apply. As for everywhere else, you must always read the signs as you sometimes have to stick to the left and sometimes to the right. Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative, after all.
4. ALL of the convince stores and vending machines: Between 7-11, Family Mart and Lawsons (my personal favourite) it feels like Japan has as many convenience stores as people. And they sell everything from fresh sushi to cosmetics to see-through umbrellas (for when you accidentally get caught in a typhoon). Everything is packaged 5 times over, to the point that I feel safe in assuming that Japan has declared a shadow war on both plastic and trees. But then outside each connivence store (and most other places) is a complex recycling system where each material has it’s own bin. Fittingly, Japan uses the most plastic packaging material per capita in the world whilst also boasting one of the highest recycling rates in the world. As for vending machines, they’re located on every corner and sell anything from beer to camera batteries.
5. Drink outside, smoke inside: With booze so readily available from both convenience stores and vending machines, drinking in public is commonplace. It’s even legal to do so on public transport (but speaking on the phone is frowned upon). Smoking however, is prohibited on the sidewalk except for around public ashtrays. The smaller a bar or restaurant, the higher the chance you’ll be allowed to smoke there. Then there are the pachinko parlours, which are an array of outrageously loud slot machines seen through extreme smoke. And it wouldn’t feel right to write a post about Japan without mentioning Golden Gai or ‘Piss Alley’ as it’s more colloquially known. It is a collection of nearly 200 tiny bars over 6 alleyways in Shinjuku, Tokyo. A nightlife unlike I’ve ever experienced. And the plum wine. Oh, the plum wine!
6. Unparalleled history and people: Whilst experiencing the ‘cities within cities’ of Tokyo and Osaka was a delight for the senses, the more laid back and traditional Kyoto and Hiroshima were just as mesmerising (topics for another post I feel). Becoming a Geisha (and then subsequently stalking a few real Geisha) in Kyoto and experiencing the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum were two of my favourite experiences whilst in Japan and made me realise just how much diverse history such a relatively small country has. As for the people we encountered, I don’t have words to describe their kindness and humility. Each time we stopped someone and asked for directions (which was often) we were met with graciousness to such an extent I haven’t experienced anywhere else in the world.
Japan itself is incredibly diverse and it’s culture is so different from ‘the West’ that I feel I could go on writing about little experiences forever, but I’ll spare my readership of 4 such turmoil and end on a fun point…
7. Maid cafes are a thing: So are cat cafes. And owl cafes. And robot cafes. …because Japan. There are so many more quirks, encounters, and interesting facets I have to share about Japan. Some places seem to occupy a special part of you and Japan (and Tokyo in particular) has definitely been one of those places for me. I simply can’t wait to go back and explore every nook and cranny. And then go back again every time the seasons change.