Tokyo Life Guide
I’ve been thinking about doing this for a while in order to organise in my head, the things that are different about Japan. I say different, because I don’t want this to turn into a huge rant about Japanese society. England certainly isn’t perfect and I’m pretty sure that if I tallied up the failings and successes (as I see them anyway) of each, Japan would come out on top. In the interests of keeping things neutral and fair, I’ve tried to stick to facts and instances of behaviour that I have witnessed from a unbiased stand-point, although this wasn’t always possible. I’m English, and as such find it much easier to bemoan something, than to praise it.
In some cases you may be able to tell that my tongue is wedged firmly into my cheek.
Just a further note that this post will mainly concern Tokyo, as it is the main place I have experienced. I’m sure that the rest of Japan is very different. Only a moron would judge an entire country by its capital city. I could also say that only a narrow-minded twit would make generalisations about every single person in Tokyo from a few isolated experiences, but that’s exactly what I am about to do.
*This is probably going to be a work in progress, with new bits being added when I feel the urge*
The People – Being God
“People in Japan are really polite” is the first thing you hear when you talk to someone who has never been to Japan, but has maybe seen a few films or watched a documentary. Truth be told, Japanese people are pretty polite (with the exception of train situations), but this is more as a result of social conditioning than any innate genetic good will. In Japan they say ‘the customer is God’. This is because in 9 times out of 10, the person serving you will bend over backwards to please you and be the first to apologise should something go awry (even if it is partly or mostly your fault). This is because they have to be this way. It’s the Japanese ethic for customer service, and it makes being a customer pretty amazing.
In shops, the employees generally have to say ‘Irrashaimase’ (welcome) to every customer that comes into the shop and ‘arigatou gozaimasu’ (thank you very much) to every customer that leaves, this regardless of whether they have bought anything or not. In certain chains they even have set phrases they have to reproduce when you approach the till, all the time wearing those eerily unnatural smiles. I actually saw an employee being reprimanded because they said this phrase incorrectly to me (as if I would care!). I’ve come across one or two Japanese that flaunt the rules. The reasons for this could be that I am a foreigner and wouldn’t know the difference. In a strange way I even feel slighted, but I also have a feeling of respect for these people.
A little anecdote for you: I was in a shop having a meal, when a waitress accidentally spilt a little water on my coat. She must have apologised four or five times, complete with bowing, before leaving looking a little upset. After this the (who I assumed to be) senior waitress approached us and apologised, offering us some free iced tea. Later, the responsible waitress again approached us to apologise. On our way out of the restaurant we were accosted by the manager of the restaurant, who apologised profusely. I mean I know that water is pretty hard to get out, even in the wash, but I wasn’t expecting this sort of treatment. When I was working as a waiter I once spilt hot soup on a man’s blazer. I think the best he got was probably a “Sorry about that mate, I’ll get you a serviette”.
Expect on occasion to be stared at, even in Tokyo. I’ve come to ignore this over time and I’m not generally the sort of person that would get upset over someone else’s scowls or ill will. However, I was a little surprised at first that this happened at all. Also, kids may sometimes regard you as an ogre or other undesirable mythical creature and run screaming from your hideous appearance. Maybe that one is just me. Anyway, the general Japanese psyche means that no-one is going to approach you or get confrontational (in this case my suggestion would be to get a little aggressive back and they will probably back down). The worst you may experience is a couple of young people snickering in your general direction or an old man giving you the stink eye. My wife and I have also noticed that they quite like to know what is in a Gaijin’s shopping bag, especially if it is from Ikea. Obviously they assume we all live in space age metallic eggs, getting all our nutritional needs from a synthetic udder hanging from the ceiling, with no need of furniture or light fittings.
Zebra crossings in Japan are totally optional for drivers. I wouldn’t recommend for anyone to cross the road at one of these, safe in the assumption that a car will stop for you, especially the taxi driver, who is perpetually in a rush in every country (only in the circumstance of having no fare). Your chances of a driver waiting for you to cross are proportionally increased in accordance with ‘international law’. This being that if you are a young attractive female, preferably wearing something revealing, you are pretty much odds on for getting across right away (Oh I’m so bitter).
One tradition that most people are familiar with is that you must remove your shoes before entering another’s house. This is a truism in Japan, so don’t forget. The only time I was caught out was in a Uniqlo (major clothing retailer) store, where I was expected to remove my shoes before going into the changing rooms. I’m not really sure why it was necessary to carpet the changing rooms, when the rest of the store is lined with bleached linoleum. Aside from this though, Uniqlo is pretty useful.
One thing I have noticed through teaching and social events is that the Japanese aren’t always comfortable with shaking hands. It’s rare they will refuse it when offered, but they certainly don’t seem comfortable in the act and will often offer you a limp hand to clutch. Don’t assume someone doesn’t like you, just because they didn’t offer you their hand at the end of a meeting.
Don’t be surprised if you see Japanese people sleeping at every possible opportunity. Many of my Japanese friends only get around 4-5 hours sleep at night and claim that they feel fine afterwards. A possible reason for this is that they fall sound asleep as soon as they find a seat on the subway. This also goes partway to explaining why there is such a rush for the seats on a train, although I have seen a couple of people trying to sleep stood up whilst hanging on to a pole. I’ve also seen someone fall completely asleep standing up, at which point he collapsed onto the floor like a rag doll.
I also have it on good authority that many Japanese people take a pillow to work so that they can fall asleep on their desk during their lunch hour. Pair this up with the ridiculous working hours seen in the business sector and a general ethic of keeping your feelings to yourself, and you have the perfect recipe for a nation on a knife’s edge of going insane.
A note on peeing. I don’t consider myself a particularly shy person, but I was slightly surprised to see that urinals are sometimes in full view of those outside. Maybe a bit of advance notice will save you a case of ‘stage fright’. Also be forewarned that women generally clean the men’s toilet and even the men’s changing rooms in gyms. The latter one is particularly surreal as they will generally greet the naked man, towel slung over his shoulder, as if they were passing on the street. I understand that public bathing means Japanese people are accustomed to being naked around strangers, although women (admittedly those well beyond their sexual prime) being included in that acclimatization was certainly surprising. As mentioned, if you wish to attend a hot spring, be prepared to de-robe before entering the bathing area. It’s true that, being a foreigner, you may draw a little more attention, but after a while you will forget all about any embarrassment.
Going Out to Eat
First and most importantly, there is no need to tip at a restaurant/cafe in Japan. I find this utterly brilliant. The majority of service staff will actually rush to give you your tip back, should you leave anything for them on the table. The common belief seems to be that Japanese service staff are paid a decent wage, making the tipping culture less of a necessity.
I may have mentioned this earlier, but the service will generally be really good. I feel that, sometimes, the attention we receive as foreigners is a little below that of natives, but this doesn’t really bother me. The truth is that the service is so good that, should there be a tipping culture, the behaviour would be almost unbearably sycophantic. As it is, it just feels nice to be treated so well, without the expectation of some sort of remuneration.
My recommendation to anyone going to Japan/Tokyo on a budget is to eat out during lunch, and then maybe get a Bento or something for the evening. Alternatively, go to the nice looking restaurant during lunch, saving the kind of tacky looking one for the evening. The reason for this is that lunches are significantly cheaper than the evening meals. Generally you will also be able to get what the Japanese call a ‘Teishoku’ which is essentially a lunch set. This will usually include a free drink and salad, or alternative. As is the general rule of thumb everywhere – beware the restaurant that is not transparent with their prices. Most eateries will display their menus outside the door, or on the ground floor in the event that they are upstairs (which is often the case). Always look up and (figuratively) down, as well as left and right! Tokyo’s landmass means that any modest establishment will no doubt be up in the clouds to lower the rent.
Meat quality is a staple complaint for me, and one that is usually met with muted misunderstanding from the Japanese people I question about it. As I see it, the meat quality in Japan is generally poorer than that of England. I’m not sure if the arrangement is that the better cuts go to the more expensive restaurants, but the meat is often marbled with fat, or on the unfortunate occasion, the fat outweighs the actually meat. Generally, the Japanese are perfectly happy to eat this fat, especially on the occasion that it is contained in a stew-like dish. I once had an Australian guy tell me, straight faced, that the ‘flavour is in the fat’. I said he was welcome to trade me.
Of course, Japanese beef is supposedly some of the best in the World, but the point I am trying to make here is that, unless you want to sell your kidneys on the black market, it is difficult to afford really lean meat. And why would you sell a kidney for a steak, when you could trade it in for an iPad?
Also, a note on eating etiquette. In a reversal of what we are used to in the West, Slurping food is totally acceptable, whilst blowing your nose is not (I’m under the impression that blowing your nose anywhere is bad manners – A Japanese person with a bad cold will be able to sniffle you the whole of Bohemian Rhapsody). In many a noodle restaurant you will be eating with a chorus of sniffles and slurps. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
The Shinkansen (bullet train) is an awesome way to travel. It’s fast, it’s comfortable, it has great leg room and you aren’t allowed to use your mobile phone anywhere in the train except the vestibules (no more listening to someone’s inane conversations about how so and so needs to ‘get a grip’). Admittedly, it’s also very expensive and there doesn’t seem to be any discount for buying tickets in advance. For this reason, for tourists at least, I can’t recommend the JR Rail pass enough. It’s easily the cheapest way to get around Japan, and you’ll never feel limited by your budget. An extra note here is, for some odd reason, the train sometimes smells a bit like urine…
In contrast, the subway is not comfortable and doesn’t have lots of leg room, although sometimes it does smell like urine. For Tokyo at least, the subway is the most comprehensive and convenient way to travel within a city. I also consider it to be really cheap when compared to other means of travel. All its positive aspects, however, are very hard to remember during rush hour, when you are plastered against the door, the heat is causing sweat to run down your spine and soak through your shirt, a 50 year old guy’s head is nestled into your chest (he’s possibly sleeping) and you know that you’re compressed against the wrong door for your station (barging is the only solution in this case – ”excuse me or ‘sumimasen’ will get you nowhere). Another detractor for the subway is that it can be quite confusing for foreigners to understand, the maps looking like a plate of spaghetti. My recommendation would be Hyperdia, which makes navigating the tangle of wires much easier.
I can’t tell you much in the way of buses, having little to no experience of them myself. One thing I do know is that you generally pay as you are getting off the bus. I can also confirm that, despite the high service culture in Japan, bus drivers are unpleasant the world over.
Tokyo flats are generally tiny when compared to the general size of flats in other major cities. I know people that live (as a couple) in a 35 square metre flat and families of four that make do in a 50 metre squared. Because of this, many people prefer to live in areas far outside of the Tokyo area and commute for up to 2 hours regularly. I have taught a student from Nagano, who did this type of commute every day.
Hotels in Japan are pretty much the same as elsewhere. The extreme service (or forced) politeness is still there, and the rooms are always very clean and well presented. On one occasion we were asked to leave the room key with reception whenever we left the hotel, which I found a little strange. We tried to stay in one of the ‘Love Hotels’ in the Kabukicho area of Shinjuku for the experience, but the lady behind the counter left no room for misunderstanding when she shook her head and said ‘no English’. You know you are on a bad run when you are being turned away at the Red Light district.
If you have the pleasure of staying at a Ryokan (traditional style hotel), just remember the shoes rule and the general bathing etiquette and you should be fine. I’d recommend opting for breakfast at this sort of place, as they are usually very traditional feeling.
The only thing I have to say about the working culture here (I don’t want to be specific) is that your boss is effectively God, and irrespective of how you feel morally about something, if he/she tells you to do it – you do it. I’ve heard a lot of stories that sound very similar to how bad kids were punished in schools. Also, expect mild to extreme gender discrimination.
As Olympus showed – the Japanese seem to think it is better not to cause a fuss when something is being done incorrectly, rather wait until it forms a figurative volcano, which eventually forces its way to the surface, burning any other companies involved in the particular gentleman’s agreement. There is a very famous phrase in Japan that almost everyone knows – ‘The nail that sticks out gets hammered down’. Orwell/Huxley would have loved that one. I also like this little proverb – ‘An idiot will not be cured(of his idiocy), unless he dies’.
I’ve come to believe that working hours in Japan are not so long because they have so much to do, but because to leave before someone else would be a loss of face. Because of this, some employees take 1-2 hour lunch breaks, often take dinner breaks later and then catch the last train home (12pm-1am). I suppose acting as if you are busy is quite taxing too (I’ve done a fair bit of that myself in the past). I’m sure you can see the fundamental problem, this being that sleep deprivation means they become less and less productive, meaning that when things are genuinely busy, they really struggle. How can you work harder than your ‘hardest’? Because of this, whenever I ask my students what they did at the weekend, I get the stock response of ‘I slept’.
Japan is a great place for the tourist, and they are tailored to extensively. One thing that I think people should be wary of, especially in places like Kyoto, is that the price of admission into temples can be a little bit steep. Sure, 300 yen here and there doesn’t seem too bad, that is, until you are onto your 5th or 6th temple of the day, each being successively less interesting, your pockets becoming progressively lighter. The major gripe is that some of the temples are very small, meaning you are spending less than 10 minutes inside. My advice is to do your research and pick the temples that have good reviews or particularly interest you. I mentioned some of the better Kyoto temples in one of my previous posts here.
In Tokyo, my advice, should you be here on holiday, is to go to the places you think will be really popular on weekdays. This way you will only have to avoid and shoulder barge the occasional OAP, rather than thousands of families, teenagers, well-dressed dogs as well as OAPs (they really get out in Japan, to an admirable extent).