Monday, 28 April 2014

Myths about Japan… or are they?

So, as you’ve probably gathered, I’ve just got back from travelling around Japan for just over two weeks. There were certain things that I was told, assumed or had read about Japan before I went. Not all of these things, I feel, ended up being true. I want to share my personal experience of these things…

Everyone speaks English.
Maybe it was the places I went to – more traditional places including small villages – but overall I felt that this was not true. Now I’m not saying that nobody spoke English, a lot of people did and some people spoke it very well. I think it is just wrong to assume that if you speak English you will be understood – and that’s whether you’re using it as your first language or as a second/neutral language. What surprised me was hotel staff who didn’t understand some of the things I was saying, like ‘How do I turn the power/electricity/lights on in my room?’. But that was just one place…

Of course, I don’t expect that everyone should have to speak my language. I tried my best with Japanese and my basic ohayou gozaimasu (good morning), arigatou gozaimasu (thank you very much), konnichiwa (hello/good afternoon) and sumimasen (excuse me) were much appreciated.

What I did feel was very obvious, is that English is very much the language of tourists. If, for example, a Dutch person asked me to take their photo, they would do so in English. The same goes for Malaysian, Spanish, Russian… whatever.

You need to be able to speak Japanese to get by.
Although I mentioned above that not everyone speaks English in Japan and it is good to be polite and at least say hello and thank you in Japanese, I didn’t really have too much of a problem with not understanding or knowing much Japanese. Whilst words are, of course, very useful(!), it is still possible to communicate without using too many words. A lot of smiling and nodding/mini-bowing goes a long way and is greatly appreciated. I didn’t have any opportunities to get the ol’ notebook out for a bit of pictionary, but I imagine that would have worked quite well also!

It was also more than possible to say sumimasen  to someone on the street and then point towards where you wanted to go on a map. To find Tondaya, a Kyoto townhouse which was down a sidestreet and then down another sidestreet, I had to ask someone after I’d been wandering around nameless streets for a while. She pointed in the direction I should take first and then I understood the word ‘postbox’ and she gestured to ‘turn right’. Sure enough, I found it after that.

A lot of signs have romaji, or romanised, Japanese on them too. For example, street names or train station signs. Even when they didn’t, I was able to match Japanese characters to those on my map or the address I had to be sure I was in the right place.

If you look lost, someone will stop and try to help you.
This only happened to me once. Well, another time someone asked if I was lost (an American man actually, but must have lived in Japan) but I wasn’t, I was just wandering around aimlessly.

The time when I was pretty lost, and someone helped me, was when I’d just arrived in Tokyo and was trying to find my hotel. The map I had wasn’t particularly helpful but I had the address. A rickshaw man asked if I needed any help and he not only explained where I needed to go but also gave me a better map. He also didn’t pressure me to pay for a rickshaw ride – it was as if that was irrelevant, which was nice. Plus, with his map and instructions, I found my hotel no problem.

Japan is expensive.
I’m sure there are things in Japan that are quite expensive or more expensive than in UK but that goes for most places. Generally I found it to be well-priced and I had plenty of money left over at the end of my trip, even after my airport shopping spree! Although I had probably allowed for more money than I necessarily needed so that I wouldn’t need to use a credit card or take cash out.

Food. Now, I didn’t go out of my way to find cheap places to eat, but I think I often ended up with cheaper meals unintentionally. This is probably partly due to the whole eating alone thing and not trying lots of different dishes at once and stuff. But I often ate a decent filling meal for around or under ¥1000 which is something like £6! That’s ridiculously cheap, cheaper than a meal in the UK – unless it’s Weatherspoons or McDonalds maybe. Also, convenience stores sell pre-packed sushi, rice balls, simple noodles dishes and other similar things that are inexpensive and tasty. Good for lunch on the go – on a train in particular. Drinks in vending machines generally cost between ¥90 and ¥150 which is 60p–90p. And that’s for big bottles, not tiny cans or cartons.

Transport. A single ride on the Tokyo subway can cost, I think, as little as ¥110 (65p). Bus journeys are similar – a single ticket from anywhere to anywhere within Kyoto was ¥230 (£1.30), which is great if you’re going from one end of Kyoto to the other. My bus tickets between towns cost something like ¥1300 (£7.50), but those were booked in advanced so may have been a bit cheaper. I’m not so sure about the shinkansen (bullet train) and stuff like that because I used my Japan Rail Pass which is a tourist travelcard.

Museum entrance and touristy things. I didn’t really go out of my way to pay to get into places, most things I was happy to admire from the outside (temples, shrines etc.), but a few things like castles and museums I did pay to get into. Matsumoto castle cost about ¥600 to enter which is about £3.50. I imagine the equivalent in the UK would be closer to £10. Similarly, the Ota Memorial Museum of Art in Tokyo was ¥700 (£4) to visit which included a specific temporary exhibition. I know in the UK, a lot of galleries are actually free but temporary exhibitions normally cost more than £4 to see!

Trains in Japan are never late.
The transport systems in Japan are, from what I found out myself, very efficient. At train stations, the floor of the platform is marked with numbers for where each carriage will stop – and mean exactly where it will stop – so that you can be in the right place if you have a reserved ticket. This means that people are able to get onto the train quickly and it will leave on time.

Subway trains seem to also work to the second. In Subway stations there are permanent time tables on show and signs that tell you how long it takes to get to each station from your current location. There are also sometimes interactive signs showing what station the next train is at or if it’s on its way. I’m sure this isn’t the case in all subway/train stations but this was the case in the ones I used in Tokyo and Kyoto. Also, while you’re on the train, it tells you how long it is until not only the next stop but all stops after that, from the train’s current location.

Bus stops, in the major towns and cities, have GPS devices in them so they know if the bus is 5 or 2 minutes away or approaching right away. This is obviously dependent on traffic, where Subway trains don’t have that issue, but still very efficient!

Anyway, the whole ‘trains in Japan are never late’ thing… I was actually waiting for a train to Osaka at Kyoto station and it was 15 minutes late so not entirely true. But everything else I experienced was always on time.

Japanese food is all sushi and sushi is all raw fish.
The only sushi I ate was some that I bought in a convenience store, because I didn’t go out of my way to go to a sushi restaurant. In general Japanese restaurants, I didn’t really see sushi on the menu – ‘see’ being the key word here as most menus have pictures of all the dishes, which is helpful for foreigners! As for all sushi being raw fish, this is definitely incorrect. The raw fish is called sashimi and sahimi can be a kind of sushi with rice and nori etc., but it can also be eaten on its own. Also, the sashimi – just pieces of fish in my case – that I had, didn’t taste any different to something like smoked salmon really! Not disgusting or weird at all.

You can get everything in a vending machine.
There are indeed a lot of vending machines in Japan. You find them everywhere. Everywhere. Even in the traditional remote village places that I went to, there were vending machines. They sometimes come in pairs and there are almost always recycling bins next to them – one for cans and one for bottles. Because in Japan, littering is near unheard of. In fact, any littering there is is probably due to tourists. Tsk tsk.

What surprised me is that although there are a lot of vending machines, they tend to only really have drinks in them. I saw very few food vending machines, just a few ice cream vending machines. Vending machines for cigarettes on the other hand… although did I mention you can’t just smoke on the street in Japan, you have to do so in a designated smoking area. A good idea I think [as an anti-smoking type person]!

It’s very safe in Japan.
This seemed, to me, to be true. At least, I felt safe. I wasn’t out at night time very much and I guess I wasn’t in any particularly rough areas – assuming Japan has rough areas, like anywhere else? I never felt threatened or scared at all – well, only when I was walking through bear country alone and on uneven and damp ground… But yeah, I think it is true that Japan is a safe place to be.

I’ve heard that if you leave your wallet in a bar and come back for it several hours later it will still be there. I never had the misfortune to forget my wallet (or purse) anywhere, to find out if this is true but I imagine it could well be!

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