Travel Report Japan November 2006
The first thing I noticed on arriving in Tokyo (a two-hour trip from the airport) is that the city (34 million inhabitants) is absolutely full.
Factories are built against houses, which are on the edge of streets and train lines, often only a metre or so apart. I did a lot of train travel, enormously efficient and effective but, of course, overcrowded. However, if it were not for the noise of the train itself, you could hear a pin drop. Japanese people are extremely polite – no mobile phones ringing, no loud talking, nothing.
Outside Tokyo, however, it is much like other countries, with a more relaxed social atmosphere.
But in general terms the Japanese are very private, making very little eye contact. This is rather strange to a visitor, but in this overcrowded city I think it’s probably necessary for survival. Out on the streets pedestrians wait for red lights, and they quietly queue up and wait for the next bus or train if the first one is full.
Doing business is another interesting experience. The practice of exchanging business cards is a great method of introduction. It is very respectful and it really is an introduction, not just a greeting. I have learned a few words of Japanese.
Question and discussion time is always difficult. Most of the time it is the higher-ranking people who ask the questions, while the more junior individuals remain quiet. They appear to keep their heads down, working hard to improve their position, a process that apparently can take 10-20 years.
Lots of great food, especially the wide variety of sushi in traditional Japanese settings – small rooms with a banquet-style dinner. It was all very delicious, but I generally refrained from asking what I was eating.
The Japanese vary so much in their physical appearance that I asked several of the people I spoke with if these features perhaps differ on a regional basis, but they all said that wasn’t the case. And the Japanese women are very beautiful, gracious, good looking and similar to a lot of the women in the western world, intelligent and in charge of their lives.
I wrote most of this report while sitting at my hotel window. I was 26 floors up, in the middle of Tokyo, looking straight ahead to snow-capped Mt Fuji. It is very spectacular, a striking contrast with the overcrowded city, which stretches to within about 20 kilometres of the foot of the mountain.
On the weekend I took the train to Hakone – very spectacular countryside, with bright autumn colours on the mountains near Mt Fuji.
I know it is taboo to talk about toilets, but what an experience! I want one like this at home. I had no idea that it would be such a good feeling to be showered from below. The only thing missing was a hot air blower, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Japanese have already thought of this too. I won’t say any more, but if you have an opportunity try it out. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toilets_in_Japan
See also: http://www.pbase.com/bryan_murahashi/day14_tokyotour
Mt Fuji towering above the Tokyo chaos
This was my first visit to Japan, and coming from the airport Narita I was struck by the enormous contrast – to see the absolutely magnificent and majestic Mt Fuji, with its glittering white top towering above the Tokyo chaos. The city, especially when approaching it from the airport, is not a pretty sight. Add to this the cramped environment, with railways and freeways basically passing through people’s backyards, or sometimes at the height of (and just meters away from) the private condominiums where most of the Japanese city dwellers live.
Tokyo, or Edo as it was called in Shogun time, has been devastated three times; the great fire of 1656; the earthquake of 1923; and the American air raids of 1945. However these terrible events have not resulted in a more pleasant planning layout of the greater city of Tokyo with its 34 million inhabitants.
See also: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2172.html
The Japanese train system
As I arrived at 6am on a Sunday morning I had the limousine bus to town all to myself, and we did it well under two hours, which I believe is some sort of record. Of course, you can’t check into the hotel at that time, so I dumped the luggage with the porter and went on a train to Kamakura, the old Shogun capital of Japan.
We have all seen those pictures with Japanese railways staff in white gloves pushing people into the trains, but experiencing something like this yourself is something different all together.
Despite the fact that there is not just one underground railway system in Tokyo and you sometimes need to buy new tickets halfway, the system does works like clockwork. You never have to wait more than a few minutes and the times are fast, the trains are clean and to my surprise the travellers are very quiet. They carry millions of travellers a day and only when you see these gigantic stations and the large number of people can you comprehend the scale of this system. The volume of people walking through these stations made me think of mass demonstrations like you see on television – without the banners and the shouting of course, but it certainly is massive.
Tokyo station is easily one of the largest train stations I have ever seen. It is beyond comprehension and I was told that even seasoned local Tokyo people sometimes get lost at this station. Shinjuku is apparently even bigger, and the Shibuya, a station that I called home for most of the week, was equally impressive. They have built a whole system of fly-over pedestrian footways to cope with passengers. Looking at the Shibuya shopping level pedestrian crossing a bit further up is a tourist attraction in itself.
At the same time the rituals around train travelling are also highly finetuned, this time by the people themselves. There is no pushing, people line up, and when you absolutely can’t push any more people onto the train the rest remain in the queue waiting for the next train to arrive.
Naturally, because of the mass of people, there is lot of body contact, but that is taken for granted. For a few days I continued to say ‘I’m sorry’ when I bumped into somebody, but then I adjusted and also took the jostling for granted. I didn’t find it rude if somebody bumped into me without apologising. It simply is part of Tokyo train travel.
In the city trains there is complete silence. A train can be packed to the brim and yet you could hear a pin drop. People do not talk to each other and the use of mobile phones for calls is frowned upon (using them for silent data transmission, however, is becoming more widely accepted).
I even got nervous that I hadn’t switched off my phone and couldn’t reach my pocket to switch it off because I was packed into the train. It would have been just as embarrassing to have your phone ringing on a Tokyo train as it would be in the front row of an upmarket theatre. Fortunately this nightmare did not eventuate.
However, travelling further towards the outskirts of the city, as I did to visit Hakone, there is more social contact on the train – much more relaxed.
As there is simply no room in the trains to read a newspaper, people either read comic books, or study English from a text book.
See also: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e2172.html
The amazing Japanese mobile market.
Mobile phone use in Japan is very different from what I have seen elsewhere. I had been aware that this was so, but experiencing it first-hand was very interesting.
Not only do people not talk on their phones in trains, basically they don’t make mobile calls in any public area – those intrusive calls in other countries, which everyone within 25 metres is forced to listen to. More often than not people go outside or to a private area if they have to make a call. As far as I know most phones are on silent mode; the Japanese don’t like loud noises, and they find us westerners rude because we speak loudly and our phones have such penetrating ringtones.
Japanese people are certainly the most polite people I have ever encountered.
I have been told that this was not only politeness, but also shyness, and I think that this certainly is a cultural factor.
As usual, I did one of my quick and dirty surveys in Japan. On board a train I could easily count between 50 and 100 people within my radius and, on average at any given moment, one in ten was using their mobile phone for data purposes. At stations this number was double that.
When you encounter kids coming home from school, at least half of them are on the phone. As far as I could see 95% or more were using it for email. SMS is not very popular in Japan, because of the lack of SMS interconnect between the operators. Mobile email is very cheap, prices are capped and, in the case of Softband, emails are free.
Occasionally you see some of the younger men playing a game. I did not see anybody using video or photo applications. So, despite the fact that mobile data use in Japan is 45% (against a global average of 15% if I include SMS) the reality is that it is mainly used for email – the reason for that is largely due to the lack of SMS.
I found this very interesting indeed.
The user-friendliness of email in Japan is also remarkable. Predictive typing has been finetuned in such a way that it allows people to be very fast with what must be a difficult script for mobile phone typing.
During my trip I have gathered lots of interesting data on the Japanese market. I have analysed why the Japanese market is so successful and what other countries can learn, and should take into account, if they look at the Japanese success story. The reality is that a great deal of its success is by default and not because of superior planning, and is a result of the unique social context within the Japanese culture.
More on that in my special report: http://www.budde.com.au/Reports/Contents/Japan-Travelogue-Japan-Trip-November-2006-4136.html
Encountering Japanese hospitality
Trying to master the train system within a few hours of arrival is something of a challenge and I soon needed assistance in order to get where I wanted to go.
As two of the people standing next to me (at that time of the day there is already standing room only in the Tokyo trains) were studying English, text book in hand and ipod in ears, I thought: ‘easy’. However, to my surprise, although they were moving through the text lessons at great speed, they told me that their verbal English was too poor to be of any use.
The explanation I later received from my Japanese friends was simple. ‘We Japanese are taught to strive for perfection and unless we have reached that stage we don’t want to get involved.’ So the woman I spoke to didn’t think her English was perfect enough to talk to me.
Also, in a business setting, the people who feel that they are still learning don’t get involved in discussions, sales talk, debates. They leave that to their senior colleagues who have mastered higher levels of perfection.
After the next station stop two seats became available. I took one, as did another passenger, a Japanese of similar age, and he became my next victim.
This time, no problems, and he asked a few more questions in order to make sure he was giving me the best possible advice. Such friendliness is a gateway to discussion, and that’s what happened. Tooru Nozaki told me that he was a volunteer member of the Japanese Goodwill Guide Club on his way to Kamakura. He immediately invited me to join him for a tour. What an incredible opportunity, which, of course, I grabbed with both hands!
Enoshima on the Pacific Ocean
He said that, as he still had some time free before he had to meet with his group, we could do a quick stop at Enoshima, a peninsula on the Pacific coast, and only a small detour.
This afforded the best possible view of Mt Fuji – from here the gracious giant look absolutely superb. I still can’t get over the extremely bright white top that, at this time of year, extends at least halfway down the mountain.
In Enoshima, we also visited the shrine of Hetsunomiya, the goddess of the sea. And my new-found friend, Tooru, told me about the legend of the five-headed dragon, goto-ryu, who fell in love with the nymph Tenyo. She only would marry him if he could tame himself. He took five years to do this, they got married and now the peninsula is place where eternal love is celebrated.
See also: http://www.asahi-net.or.jp/~qm9t-kndu/enoshima.htm
The old Shogun capital Kamakaru
Back to the train and on to Kamakura. Here some 10 guides gathered to welcome an internal group of mature-age students from around the globe (Iran, Belize, Mongolia, Serbia, Montenegro, Indonesia, Pakistan, Thailand), sponsored by the Japanese government and taken out for the day by the Goodwill volunteers. As it turned out there were enough guides and, as Tooru and I got on very well together, a junior guide joined us and for the rest of the day I virtually had a private tour.
· Kamakura Shogunate – 1192 – 1333 – capital Kamakura
· Muromachi Shogunate – 1338 – 1573 – capital Kyoto
· Edo Shogunate – 1603 – 1867 – capital Edo/Tokyo
After a feudal period, the samurai (originally armed landowners who started to emerge in the 9th century, but since that time, more precisely, feudal local military nobles) organised themselves and became the de facto governing organisation in Japan.
The first capital was founded in 1180, by the supreme leader of the samurai, Yoritomo Minamoto, who became the first Shogun. In 1192 he built a shrine to the war god Hachiman-gu. We approached this shrine via a 500-metre avenue lined with cherry blossoms – of course a bit bare at this time of the year. This was the official avenue from around 1200, but it is now flanked on both sides by busy roads. We made side trips to some of the shops along this road to a woodcarver, and to a shop where original samurai swords are still made.
The site of the shrine itself, as you would expect if you have seen any TV footage of a Japanese Sunday outing to these places, was absolutely packed with people. However, this time of the year marks a Shinto festival for 3-, 5- and 7-year-olds to celebrate joy, and it was full of little girls in the most beautiful kimonos and a similar number of pint-sized samurais.
A Japanese wedding
A highlight of the day was that an official traditional wedding took place at the shrine. The participants appeared to be well-to-do – absolutely stunning, especially the bride in the most beautiful dress you have ever seen, complete with Shinto priests and Shinto musicians.
It was very interesting that a number of the ceremonies looked very familiar: water, incense, blessings with leaves, prayers and so on. There were hundreds of tourists surrounding the shrine all, like me, watching this beautiful fairytale scene. The sheer beauty of it captivated me.
Long queues in the next section of the shrine consisting of hundreds of pilgrims, who had written their wishes on amulets, praying paper, tablets, etc, to give to the Shinto priests in the temple – a big circus.
Scattered over the area, in beautiful park settings, were other shrines. At one of them a Shintu priest led a small family prayer, and another shrine (Tooru thought I needed to visit this shrine) was dedicated to doing successful business.
We then went off the beaten track and visited the shrine dedicated to the Shogun Minamoto, and to his tomb also, which was particularly beautiful – on top of a hill under some marvellous trees, which were just starting to show their autumn colours.
The least I could do was to invite my two guides out for lunch, and we had Soba, traditional Japanese buckwheat noodles in a lovely broth.
Another side-trip that wasn’t on the program was a quick sortie to an exhibition of one of Japan’s most famous illustrators/painters, Kaburaki Kiyokata. Set in a traditional, well laid out Japanese house overlooking a beautiful Japanese garden of the type only Japanese can create. This was a true moment of tranquillity, in a fully-packed day.
The ancient Buddhas of Hase Kannon
Back to the train to travel to Hase, only 10 minutes or so away, and the site of the Hase Kannon Temple.
There were several highlights here. First of all, again the most beautiful garden setting against a hill with ponds, islands, and those manicured trees and hedges in shapes that are a real pleasure to look at. This was followed by what was, for me, the highlight of the day.
Hase Kannon dates back to 721, but before that the site was already an important sacred Buddhist site, and in a very low cave are 16 Buddhist statutes carved into the sides of the cave. All are still in magnificent order and you simply could not fail to detect the enormous powerful energy that radiates from a place where people have worshipped for 1300 years.
The powerful sanctuary of Benten-dou
Next to it is another powerful site, that of Benten-dou. Here children who die before their parents are assisted into paradise by deities. The site is worshipped by pregnant women and those with special issues related to children. Thousands of little statutes of Benten are positioned in orderly rows, again all within a beautiful garden setting
However, for those in the know, the real attractions here are two very large statues of Buddha and they certainly are beautiful. Among the most imposing are the 11-headed Kanzeon Bosatsu. More than 9 metres high, of gilded timber, dating back to 721, and the Amido Buddha that was created by Minamotu when he was 42 years old. According to Shinto tradition this is a dangerous year for men. This gilded statue is nearly 3 metres high.
The bronze Buddha of Kotuku
The last visit of the day was at Kotoku, 20 minutes walking distance from Hasse Kannon, to see an enormous bronze statue of the Great Buddha, also in Amida tradition, dating back to 1252. This statue was built from funds donated by the ordinary people and bronze coins were brought with Japanese gold in China and Korea for this purpose. This made the Chinese believe the Japanese were worthwhile conquering, but two subsequent attempts to do so failed.
Originally the statue was placed in a wooden temple; however a tidal wave washed the temple away in 1495 and from that time on the statue has been sitting in the open. This had led to the gold being washed away.
Tooru insisted on another stop in Enoshima on the way back to watch Mt Fuji with the sun setting behind it – a very appropriate end of a spectacular day.
See also: http://www.kamakuratoday.com/e/sightseeing/daibutsu.html
On Friday night I went to the Kabuki-za theatre, a beautiful building in the famous Ginza area. This is traditional Japanese theatre. The actual play itself goes on for the full day, but one can buy tickets for parts of the play, and I got myself in for the evening session.
Kabuki-za has its own make-up, which indicates the mood and the character of the player. All roles, including the female ones are performed by men.
In the Edo period, November was the start of the theatrical year, and that’s when the gala performance took place; so I was lucky.
In the evening session we watched the play named ‘Kochiyama’. He was a tea priest (for the tea ceremonies) but at the same time a thief and an extortionist. But he can’t refuse requests for help. He had to assist a merchant family with the release of their daughter, who was held, after a four-year period of service, at the court of a powerful samurai, who fancied her. He not only succeeds in rescuing the girl but in the process also makes sure he enriches himself. Through earphones I got a translation of the play, which made it very interesting.
I also used this opportunity to have a few evening strolls over the Ginza, the most glamorous part of Tokyo; the outdoor lighting together with the Christmas decoration gave it a wow factor.
During the week I also had an opportunity to visit this peaceful oases in the middle of Tokyo, a very rare spot indeed as there in very little green in town, the largest park are the imperial palace gardens.
Excavations have revealed a history of at least 1500 years for this site, but it was developed in its present form by one of the advisors to the Shogun, Okubo Hikozaemon (1560-1610). In subsequent periods the site changed hands and was upgraded and extended. The area now hosts a function centre.
We had lunch here with the Ericsson conference group, and strolled through the gardens, beautiful residential buildings of previous owners. The garden featured typical scenic Japanese walkways, a large central pond and a manicured tress and shrubs, including many bonzai.
See also: http://www.pbase.com/bryan_murahashi/image/6278539
Mt Fuji from Hakone
When I moved from Kawasaki to Shibuya I was lucky enough to get a room in that hotel on the 26th floor from which I could clearly see snow-capped Mt Fuji.
As it has become such a focal point for me the following weekend I decided to get closer to it. The time and the season made it impossible to get really close but in Hakone, just outside Tokyo in the mountains of which Mt Fuji also forms a part, I felt close enough.
Finally, Mt Fujo in a natural setting. And what a setting! The autumn colours are just unbelievable, blazing hills of red, yellow and brown – very spectacular. I took the Romancecar, the fast train I am sure you have seen in pictures, with Mt Fuji in the background.
As many people as well as myself are drawn to this place there is an amazing tourism operation in place. It involves buses, trains, ships (replicas of the Swedish 17th century ship, the Wasa), a cable car and sky (rope) ways.
So I hopped off the train into a bus and arrived at lake Ashi. Here I decided to conduct some exploration. There are a few tourist villages you can wander through, and I went into the beautiful botanical gardens of the former palace of the Mikado. Again the great autumn colours were beautiful, and many wanabe Japanese painters were attempting to capture Mt Fuji in that setting over the lake.
From there I walked to the Hakone checkpoint, set up by the Shogun in 1619, which strictly regulated movements of people and weapons across his territory. During the Edo period (1603-1867) Japan was totally isolated from the outside world as the Shoguns wanted to make sure that they could control their people. There is a museum with a replica of the old Shogun checkpoint.
From there I walked further, on the remnants of the old Edo highway, lined with cedar trees, many of them dating back to 1618, along the very majestic Tokaido highway.
On the other side of the lake is another beautiful Shinto Shine, appropriately called the Hakone Shine. I know I am repeating myself, but here again think autumn – as the weather became overcast sections of Mt Fuji remained partly surrounded by clouds for the rest of the afternoon.
The Japanese shrines all have a collection of buildings. There is the main shrine, but also several smaller shrines dedicated to certain virtues or deities. There are lots of places where people can, for a small fee, write their wishes and prayers on notes and tablets and hang them at special places around the shine.
From here I took the boat over the lake – a beautiful trip, but I did find the Wasa replica a bit tacky.
A 20-minutes bus trip from here to the 2000-year-old (or young) volcanic Owakudani mountain took over an hour, due to the number of people visiting this hot spot. We saw that they were constructing a new skyway to cope with the traffic (and keep it off the roads).
Just before sunset we arrived and we all went up the mountain, also know as ‘Hell’s Valley’ because sulphate steam issues forth from many places in the area. All around Hakone there are numerous hot springs, all tapping into this volcanic activity. From there I took one of the several skyways. It went over the crater of the volcano, still spewing sulphate smoke into the air. This neatly delivered us right at the station of the cable car which took us down from a height of over 1100 metres to 100 metres, where we simply had to get across to the ‘normal’ train, which took me back to the Romancecar, at which point I enjoyed a final smooth and relaxing hour and a half ride on this luxurious train.
Delving into Edo history
Never missing an opportunity to delve into history, the next day I went to the Edo-Tokyo Museum to learn more about the early days of Tokyo. Apparently it was the first Edo Shogun who built Edo castle (now the site of the imperial palace). As I mentioned before previous Shoguns in this area had lived in Kamakaru.
While the Edo period is known for its relative peacefulness, the Shoguns ruled with fists of iron, and were constantly making sure that the daimyos (the local rulers) would not be able to achieve sufficient power as to be a threat to the power of the Shogun. For that reason the families of the daimyos had to live in Edo and their movements were monitored at these checkpoints, especially the women. There even was a female staff member at the checkpoint for that purpose.
The emperor lived, at that time, in Kyoto, but, as my volunteer guide at the museum told me, you should see him more in the function of the pope in the Christian church. The Shogun had all the worldly powers.
Edo was also strictly controlled and nobody could easily get in and out of the city. That was one of the reasons tens of thousands of people were killed in the great fire of 1656. Escape was simply impossible. The buildings were made of timber and paper so fires were a very common occurrence in Edo. It was also interesting to see how they had organised the fire brigade. They didn’t try and extinguish the fire with water. They demolished the houses as quickly as possible to stop the fire from spreading. After the great fire more bridges were built, but the city was still very much contained within the old boundaries. This meant that the commoners (99% of the population) lived in one room, which also functioned as workshop during the day, kitchen, bedroom, etc.
The exhibits in relation to the 1923 earthquake and the 1945 air raids were also very impressive. It was not until after the devastation of 1945 that the city started to move outwards, but 34 million people are still living in a space smaller than the island of Hawaii.
Not far from the Edo museum is the 7th century Temple of Senso-ji in Asakusa, the most important one in Tokyo. Unfortunately it had started to rain that morning, the only rain during my week in Tokyo, but nevertheless thousands of people flocked to the temple, which perhaps is even better known for its avenue lined with market stalls, one of the key souvenirs shopping areas in town. The temple itself is certainly impressive, but so crowded that it is hard to get feel any sense of spirituality.
To top off the day off I went to Akihabara, also known as ‘Electric Town’. This is the place for gadgets and anything electric, but also nowadays there are whole shows taking place around it, with all the personalities that appear in the many computer games. This appeals to the Japanese appetite for comics. It is also funny to see the erotic and soft porn elements that are now incorporated into these games in the personality of the comic characters – a bit weird if you ask me.
From there it was back to the hotel and on to Narita for the flight back home.
I very much enjoyed this new experience and it gave me some interesting insights into the various aspects of the Japanese culture, business and social life.