19th-29th August 2004


Most of my prejudice about Japan is garnered from Clavell's "Shogun". 

I arrived at Osaka early on a Saturday morning having flown from Frankfurt across Siberia (Latitude about 67N) and China.  I was immediately struck by the characteristic Japanese reluctance to insist on anything.  The Customs official did not demand my address, but did not clear me for entry until I had volunteered to open the laptop, had booted up and found the booking.

It was fairly easy to find the Shinkaruen (bullet train) to Tokyo, although the ticket was about as expensive as an airline ticket for that distance.  The train was full up (standing room only!) near Osaka, but declined to merely "mostly full" between Osaka & Tokyo.  The 550 Km journey with about five stops took about two and a half hours, I am told that speeds up to 280 Km/Hr were reached.  Even though it was as expensive as an aeroplane, it was superior to my estimate because it was about as fast (when the loading unloading time is included), far more comfortable (even than first class I suspect having as it did so much more space), and being on the ground was (I felt) safer.

On that journey I met two people.   The first person was (what I am led to believe the Japanese call) a "Salariman".  We met when he volunteered to help me transfer my baggage between trains.  From his card he was the deputy manager of what must have been a medium sized corporation, and manager of it's security service.  We discovered that we were both about the same age (born 1941).  Young people had offered to help me in my travels, this was the first instance of an older person volunteering assistance.

The second person was a student nurse, aged (I suppose) somewhere between 18 and 22.  She welcomed me to the seat beside her, and was an entrancing companion for approximately half of my trip to Tokyo.  From her I obtained the impression that Japanese girls were fully emancipated, and did not feel that foreigners were necessarily unattractive.

From these two contacts I gathered my first impression, which was that the Japanese were friendly to foreigners like me, (WASPy looking).   Later in Tokyo that impression was consolidated.

Tokyo has a population of about twenty eight million, which (according to some authorities) makes it the largest city in the world.  The city is centred on the Emperor's palace, which is built entirely on an island over two kilometers in diameter, a situation not unlike Paris, Rome, New York, Amsterdam & (I believe) Stockholm.  This island is larger than those islands in Paris, Amsterdam & Rome, but smaller than Manhattan.  The island is not open to the public.  There are about one hundred Yen to the US$.  Most transactions are cash.  Quite a lot of Japanese retailers will not accept Visa or Mastercard, and ATM's for obtaining cash are not plentiful.  Those ATM's that I did find for Visa or Mastercard would only dispense amounts in multiples of Yen 10,000 (~US$100).

On the negative side, I found Tokyo to be expensive.   In general, accommodation (at 3500 Yen) was as expensive as New York, (US$33) but marginally cheaper than Paris (Euros 25) or Frankfurt, Amsterdam (E20).  However food was much more expensive, tomatoes averaged over US$1 each, bread cost as much as US$4 per eight slices, a small Starbux salad was about $2.50.   This seems to be because there are no supermarket stores, rather there are a multitude of small or medium sized stores.  The packaging and marketing of goods in Japan stores is labour intensive, most fruit or vegetable items are individually wrapped (Halepinos were wrapped three to a cellophane packet for Yen 100).  In their electronics superstores I found that Japanese laptops were around Yen 200,000 (about US$2,000) while in the US I purchased a comparable laptop at "Best Buy" for about $US800 (after offers).  Olympus cameras were generally around Yen 40,000 (US$400) compared to the "Best Buy" price of US$130.  I suspect that this expense results from deliberate policy.  An expensive sales infrastructure assures that there will be many employment opportunities in the service sector of a static economy.

In Tokyo bicycles are in common use.  Perhaps not as much as Amsterdam, but more so than London.  Even businessmen and policemen toting handguns. Interestingly, I did not see any bicycle with a lock.  Another interesting indicator was that at Japanese cash registers, there is a space for the customer to place his money.  The checkout attendant (usually a girl) places the change in another special place for the change.  Only when everybody is satisfied with the amount paid and the change tendered is the transaction consummated.  The girl bows after the transaction.

The Japanese seem to bow at any opportunity.   This seems to be because the Japanese have developed social procedures that permit them to live in much closer proximity than most other peoples of the world.   These procedures seem to rely on highly formalized politeness formulae, and on "not noticing" what others are doing, unless invited to do so, (or presumably, some sort of law is being broken).

I found no beggars in my four days in Japan, however I found quite a number (10-12) of homeless structures.  These were semi-permanent structures of canvas and plastic, located near or in parks in the city.  One was just south of a small (Shinto?) temple about four km SW of the palace, adjacent to a quite large Buddhist temple.

The Japanese treat their women different, as indicated by the price for entry to a Japanese theater "Adults Yen 1600, Women, Children, Seniors Yen 1,000".