When planning to go to Japan, or anywhere else, it is desirable to do a bit of research. There are plenty of places to start – glossy pamphlets, confusing websites, newspaper articles, and, if all else fails there is no shortage of young enthusiastic travel agents. In the excitement of planning it is easy to overlook the possibility that most of these sources have a conflict of interest – their compelling aim is to sell you something. In their haste to sign you up it is possible that they might overlook a few essential survival skills and this cautionary little note is my humble attempt to supplement the glossy stuff.
It is no surprise that Japanese people speak and write in their native tongue. I do not have any problems with this but I must admit that I was a bit surprised that, even in tourist hotspots, they had not noticed that lazy Australian visitors had not bothered to learn much Japanese. After all, we had heard that all Japanese children learn English as a second language. The bit that I had missed was there must not have been much incentive to take this tuition seriously because by the time I was trying to negotiate hotel bookings, public transport options and ordering meals it turned out that their grasp of English was on a par with my grasp of Japanese. The results are generally amusing and a satisfactory outcome can be negotiated by steadily increasing levels of flailing arms and talking loudly.
Japan had a long period when they were top of the class in industrial innovation and, in addition, they were not wasting money on armaments. This may not be the only reasons for the amazing advances in toilet technology that is to be seen in every venue. For anyone not familiar with the legendary TOTO toilets they come in many versions but, invariably, they have heated seats, have flushing systems beyond description and a driving panel of breathtaking complexity. There is, of course, no guidebook even in Japanese and, just when you think you have cracked the logic, you can be confronted by another model. Not a big problem but it might be a good idea to attend a briefing before departure but goodness only knows how that might be achieved.
Some people I know quite well like to have a gin and tonic at about the witching hour and had prepared well by purchasing the gin well in advance of their first night in Japan but finding tonic water was a nightmare. After obsessive searching in every place we visited we were finally rewarded with two small bottles and thought we had the problem licked. Unfortunately, the store involved never seemed to replace the bottles we had purchased. The message for people given to having a G&T as a prelude to raw fish I is not worry about the gin which is easy to find and relatively inexpensive but secure a source of tonic water by any means at your disposal.
In personal transactions such as booking into a hotel, shopping or ordering a meal your Japanese hosts will display lots of bowing and head nodding and, I presume, the words are friendly and deferential. This makes for very gracious feel-good interactions. It is logical to think that this gracious style will carry-over into street life but, alas, the first train ride undermines the image as everyone jostles ruthlessly to obtain a seat. Older citizens rarely win these contests until they figure out their own cunning strategies.
While talking about trains my impression is that your travel agent will tell you all about the bullet trains that travel at breathtaking speed between the big cities. Everything they tell you is true i.e. the seats are comfortable, the speed is impressive, the punctuality is legendary.
The bullet trains are lovely but, of course, they cannot fill all your travel needs and, in the local train travel scene, there are skills to be acquired as you graduate from terrified, lost novice to accomplished, cool commuter. The main barriers encountered on this part of your journey are the total absence of signs in English, daunting banks of ticket selling machines and information sources that are impenetrable. The first step in this learning process is to get a decent map of the system and when you crack the logic that tells you that every line has a designated letter and every station has a number you are well on the way. The next little challenge is find out where you are and where you want to go – the map tells you where the train goes but it is another thing to know where, for example, the fish market is located. Once you have sorted out that you need to go from Station C13 to C19 where you can find D12 to go to D18 you only have to find someone to sell you a ticket. The suburban trains are often crowded but are, otherwise brilliant, frequent and punctual. In fact they are so punctual that when a train appears to have arrived 3 minutes early beware, they are never early or late, and if you get on the “early” train you could end up miles away from where you thought you were going.
Food is exquisitely packaged and a visit to the food section of a big metropolitan departmental store is absolutely magic. Food in these stores ranges from expensive to eye-watering but if your agent has not programmed a visit to such a store then you are being short-changed.
Japan is a lovely tourist destination and has countless shrines and breath-taking tourist destinations but, if you want to do a bit of exploring on your own make sure you engage an agent that has actually been there and knows about the little tricks that will ensure that you can pass as a native.