New experiences in Japan

I stayed in large countryside home with traditional shoji paper screens. For contrast, I also slept in a one-room studio apartment in a suburb of Tokyo. Somehow I managed my 20-kilo bag inside Ryo’s place, using his bed whilst he slept on the floor. All this is to say that while it might not be common to be invited to people’s houses as a tourist, if you make the effort, it will happen.

It was when I was on the local train for Imabari that I met an orange farmer who wanted me to visit her farm. At first I was doubtful, but decided it was worth making a small diversion. In fact, it was one of the best experiences of my journey. The house was traditional country style with the sliding doors I had seen in films such as the iconic ‘Love Letter’ and Unimachi Diary. There were so many interesting things about the house. For a start, the rooms were filled with furniture and captivating objects.

There were things everywhere, in a comfortable rather than cluttered way that reflected the eclectic taste of the owner, a slightly eccentric woman who has lived in the house since childhood. It was so spacious and comfortable that I didn’t want to leave. And the oranges which grew on the farm were some of the best that I tasted. It didn’t hurt that the owner had a fridge full of delicacies that she was happy to share.

The interior of a countryside home in Japan. The sliding doors are a lovely feature.

The hotel industry offers a wide choice. At the bottom are guesthouses, or hostels. Sometimes they were quite adequate, with reasonable facilities such as a wide TV in the living area and decent cooking equipment. On the other hand, some were so dingy, dirty and crowded, I wished I had slept outside. There are simply too many visitors in Japan, many on such a low budget, and the basic hostels aren’t able to cater for them properly. The problem is the differing needs of backpackers who use these places to meet their friends, and businessmen who stay at them when they are on the road. If you’re Japanese tourist, you probably won’t really mix with the other guests for fear of making them feel obligated to you. In fact, that was the most notable difference between Japanese, and travellers from other countries, whether they would mix or not with strangers. It was most pronounced in the communal areas, where Japanese students would bury themselves in their phones, whilst others would be eagerly mixing, sharing food and other things, as well as comparing their experiences.

It was at the breakfast area that things became most awkward. With up to thirty people wanting to eat at roughly the same time, it was everything it took everything in their power to feed everyone. With only two toasters with slots to cook 2 slices at a time, it became rather a long wait for a piece of toast. Here the conundrum is do you cook 2 slices at once, thereby hogging the toaster to yourself depriving others of the right to use it, or simply toast two slices and offer one of them to someone else, then going back when you have finished it for another slice, because you can’t keep toast hot very long anyway. I never found a good enough solution. The fairest way would be to have a toast monitor, someone continually refilling the toaster so that the toast was always on hand? But then, I observed that some people would adjust the toaster so that it cooked their bread for longer or shorter, and in my case, I often got tired of standing in front of the toaster (I don’t know why I felt I had to do this) so that I sometimes pulled it out early before the toast was ready. Others just waited, up to two minutes, with their plate in hand. They wasted a lot of time like that, but seemed to enjoy it. If someone else’s toast popped up, they left it sticking out of the toaster. That was annoying too, but perhaps they didn’t want to handle it too much.

Another thing was the choice of jam was limited to blueberry, strawberry and marmalade. I didn’t want to leave any out so I had to put a teaspoonful of each jam on my plate. I hardly used much, and I was surprised the amount others used. It was the cheap bulk jam. The best bread and jam I had was at the Maharashi temple in Onnomichi. It was there, on arrival, that I discovered I had lost my passport.  Onnomichi is a small city along the coast not far from Matsuyama. I didn’t do much there. I had been recommended to visit the Kendama rock café, despite what it said online; it was stubbornly closed on both Saturdays I attempted to visit. 

Still, the kitchen offered free tea and coffee. It was powdered coffee, but I did drink it anyway. The problem this time was waiting for the water to boil. Kettles in hotels are usually so old that can take nearly 5 minutes to boil. When they are full the problem is far worse, and meant that there was always a line.

I think there have been too many jokes about kettles with short flexes. Anyway, it’s probably a safety measure anyway. I’m more disappointed by the lack of bathroom shower gel miniatures. When you are travelling across the country, these are highly useful. Yet many of the hotels I stayed in offered some facial cleansers and toners. What I wanted was shampoo, but this was in the bathroom in large dispensers fixed to the wall. I suppose they are saving costs. I didn’t take any thing from the fridge; there was nothing there anyway. Sometimes they gave me an actual key. This was the case of the International in Nagoya. It was mildly inconvenient. On the other hand, it was nice to be reminded of the past, when people carried keys to open doors. It made a nice weight in my pocket too. That hotel had gleaming gold buttons in the lift, more retro touches. There were newspapers in the lobby for sale and cabinets of ceramics. Perhaps because I booked late I was on the eighth floor. I wonder if there can be any choice in floor level when booking?

The hotels offered a level of courtesy that was often superfluous to the hotel’s price. Bowing was common and many times I was given polite assistance to my enquiries. I tried not to be a pest but sometimes I enjoyed walking through the hotel lobby late at night. I wanted to see who was around. Sometimes prostitutes hang around outside hotels, but I couldn’t see any. It was only in the convenience in Nagoya that I met a lady I who I’m sure was a hostess. Just from the way she was dressed and her manner. But you can never guarantee these things. 

Not only is the marriage rate among young people falling, the divorce rate is rising. To make things more complicated, the cases of remarriage is on the increase, with people going into second or third marriages, having children again and living with second or third partners, or having children extra-maritally.

What other social trends are on the rise? I saw a greater amount of tattoos on young people this time. And some anti-social behaviour, such as bad language and spitting that was somewhat disappointing to see. Smoking is still accepted in most places, but is carefully controlled in specially designated smoking areas. On the Shinkansen, there are standing capsules with a sliding door to access them.  Only in the very expensive green cars is it possible to smoke in your seat. The trains are fast and clean and they connect all the big cities but the luxury might not be as much as you would expect. Most of the tables are no bigger than the trays you have on airline and there is not much room for big cases. Tellingly, the JR pass that allows foreigners the option to use the trains for 7, 14, or 21 days, does not give access to the faster services, conveniently reserving these services for the Japanese almost 100%. When I took the faster service from Osaka to Tokyo, I was clearly the only foreigner on board, while on the far slower stopping service, I had to jostle through backpackers and families with crying babies. The food cart cheerfully pushed through the carriages (I didn’t buy anything – too expensive), whilst most platforms dished out bento boxes. People queued up at the stations to reserve seats, while in the unreserved cars it was often standing room only.

A cheap bento box, bought at Osaka station. I thought the Shinkansen would be out of this world, but it was sadly very ordinary.

Wherever I went, people seemed to be on the move somewhere, even before the big cherry blossom season. Restaurants were full and the only time I didn’t have to wait was in the fast food burger places and cafes. There are now foreign workers from Vietnam and Nepal in many restaurants. The government is currently making plans for 40,000 temporary foreign workers, never mind what it will do to Japanese society. Even though it wasn’t what I wanted, I underwent the charade of speaking Japanese with them. At the best restaurants, the staff were always 100% Japanese – these were far the best. Not only was the service better, the experience seemed to be that much better for being in Japanese. It’s convenient to be a solo diner as most restaurants offer counter service.

Women go to work dressed in high heels and dresses far more demure than anywhere else I have seen, making the Tokyo metro a perfumed paradise for the voyeur. There are hostess bars in all the big cities, offering services by the hour. There are plenty of opportunities for dating; you just have to look around. In fact, there seemed to be women everywhere just waiting to be approached, ready to be swept away by anyone who dared to try. At night-time things became more sexual, with dozens of girls bars and women standing outside soliciting passers by inside.  There is some controversy as to what these venues provide. With prices as high as 5,000 yen, it’s hard to imagine they are just for talking. It may be that the charge covers the cost of drinks, but not sure. On numerous occasions softly spoken elder women who were trying to offer me various services, which I reluctantly declined, however much I wanted to partake, approached me.

The cost of living in Japan is high for Asia, but not exorbitant, you can get around easily for 50 dollars if you eat simply. It was travel and accommodation that put the biggest hole in my budget, and with just a few hundred extra pounds I could have done even better.

Some of the things I did seemed to be overpriced, such as paying to enter castles and gardens (where they would be free in London). It was something I did grudgingly; whilst it was great to be able to access free toilets everywhere. Hotels were reasonable considering the services provided. I made a point of accessing the free breakfast at the Nest Hotel in Matsuyama and it was excellent, but I could only eat half of it. Sometimes the beds in these place were uncomfortably hard, in others they were more luxurious. Probably the most disappointing hotel I stayed in was a branch of Toyoko Inn around Nagoya station. For some reason the hotel chain has become one of the biggest in Japan (there are some in Korea too) for providing reasonable rates and a free breakfast. Unfortunately, almost everything about the hotel was second rate. I found out there were limits of tolerance to my bad habits. I was told that I wasn’t able to have breakfast in my dressing room, despite being the only guest at the time.

I enjoyed Mystays Premier Hotel, a new range of business hotels. The hotel near Narita was extremely comfortable, with a pool and spa. It even had a 24-hour convenience store on the first floor. My budget forced me to stay in several hostels. They were like echo chambers for germs, with nasty coughing and sneezing preventing anyone from ever sleeping properly.

Sadly, many hostels are simply dingy, crowded and full of anti-social people uninterested in each other.

My most Japanese experience was at the site of First Airlines in Ikebukuro. Everything I had heard about the world’s first virtual airline made me convinced that I would love it and it proved to be so. From the entrance where they used ambient airport sounds and used monitors to show where the plane was heading, it was an immersive piece of conceptual theater up there with Punchdrunk. I ‘flew’ to Paris, having been unable to secure some of the other options Helsinki and New York.

The check-in desk at First Airlines.

Every new place I went had different candy that I saw in the food halls of the department stores. I lost track of most of it. Many were a kind of sweet bean filled bun known as mango that was pressed into a particular shape. In the Island of Miyajima they were maple leaf shaped. Sweets from Hokkaido were made using butter. Nagano offered highly unusual apple rice crackers – the first time I had seen anything like that.

Japan has the most impressive range of snacks of any country I have visited.

Some of the best food I had was in unlikely places. The cookies from the Aunt Stella shops were superb: buttery and crispy and with some creative flavours, I found branches outside Nagano and Matsuyama stations, the latter is most charming, with waitresses wearing headbands and blue aprons. Really what you find is that every place has a speciality, one thing that they are good at if a shop sells cookies, they aren’t going to be messing around making brownies as well. You can find English bars, or very good attempts at trying to imitate them as much as possible. The idea of being able to drink freely without partaking of food is so radical that many go there just for the novelty of it. There are bars where you only have room to stand. Then there are those bars targeting an exclusive male audience – known as ‘Girls Bar’, they charge a cover fee, and are staffed by attractive young women wearing various stimulating outfits. The one I visited was open early, and I was fortunate to be the only customer there. You pay per half hour, and they give you an electric timer showing how much time you have left.  It’s not really sexy; it’s more about some female attention. Of course, you could go to any normal bar and try to get female attention, but there’s a possibility you would be bothering someone. Paying for this service seems to be part of the appeal, but the idea of forking up money for nothing but chat put me off going for a repeat visit. 

The famous Aunt Stella’s outside Matsuyam JR station.

Numerous people have thought that Japan’s sexualisation of young women is a sign of something wrong with Japanese society. But on the other hand, it’s a way for these young women to make some decent money while they are studying. And what the hell is wrong with that? Many men would do the same if only they had the chance.

The more time I spent in Japan, the more I felt that it was like a perfect society where everyone has their role and knew how to perform it expertly. People often like to point out that Japan is a land of contrasts – young and old, ancient and modern. But then, when you go there, these things are not so much contrasts as part of one big palette.

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