Bust Through Travel Myths and Head to Japan

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Always wanted to see the temples, shrines, and Buddhas of the far east? As a traveler, you know traveling to a totally different culture can mean you are going to visit a country that is more poor, more filthy, and more underdeveloped in general than yours. For Japan, of course, it’s different. Here’s how.

First, poorness. Tokyo is known to be one of the most expensive places on earth, and you will likely be the poor one. Although it scares budget travelers, don’t worry about your wallet. Look for low-cost hostels and buy a rail pass before you leave home. It seems pretty expensive, but covers the mind-blowing costs of long-distance traveling in Japan. You can only buy this miracle when you’re a tourist, and when you’re outside of Japan. And, eat street food. Besides being healthy and gorgeous, it’s also relatively cheap.You’ll find that even Tokyo can be a Valhalla for budget travelers.

Second, filth. Compared to Japan, even Switzerland is filthy. I don’t know how they do it; in Tokyo you can search for hours for a public trash can. They’re really rare. So either people clean up all the time, or it’s a mentality thing and they just don’t dump their stuff on the street. This Japanese clean-mania is great for a traveler; you can always count on a spotless room and clean sheets. And, not only are the kitchens spotless and absolutely germ-free, the food is known to be incredibly healthy and delicious.

Third, underdevelopment. Compared to the west, Japan seems more overdeveloped than underdeveloped. You’ll see vending machines everywhere. Especially machines where you can buy cans of hot and cold tea. They’re on every corner of the street. Of course, there are also vending machines to buy beer and cigarettes from in the middle of the night. And, you can buy all kinds of food from vending machines. Then, there are machines selling used women’s underwear. I have a strong imagination, but I’m not sure what those guys actually do with it… but it’s there.

Public transport is also well-developed. You’ll find that mass transit in Japan is not only horribly expensive (except for when traveling with your Japan rail pass), but also outstanding. Avoid the subways during peak hours. Every train will still run exactly on time, every three minutes, but you’ll be packed like a sardine.

Also, given the fact that in Japan, all the toilets have heated seats and sometimes even have a remote control to flush, the West actually has the touch and feel of the underdeveloped party in this story.

All in all, traveling through Japan is rather comfortable. You can see amazing temples and shrines, experience breathtaking nature, and enjoy the best sushi, seaweed, and sticky rice, all while traveling in a practically over-civilized country. And that’s an amazing experience.

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Japanese Mentality

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In my first Japan column, I gave a brief introduction to the country, noting that if you follow my tips, you don’t really have to worry about Japan’s notorious expensiveness. Now, let’s discuss the Japanese mentality.

In western society’s mentality, the main modern virtue is to be assertive and stand up for yourself. The good side of this is that in our modern society, those who want to mistreat others really have to watch their steps, resulting in a society with democracy and emancipation as its core values, and a certain bias for initiative and creativity on the work-floor. This mentality makes western societies as strong as they are.

However, there’s also a bad side to this. Assertive behavior can be rude and even aggressive. Independent behavior can be egocentric and even egoistic. And making a complaint can be considered acting spoiled. That’s the key to understanding Japanese mentality, because this is exactly how a Japanese person would see it. In the eyes of the Japanese, all these types of behavior are seen as being childish and weak. In the Japanese culture, hospitality, obedience, and tolerance are the proper ways to express your power and pride. So compared to a Japanese person, a westerner is an overheated and egocentric whiner acting plain rude all the time, thus acting like a baby.

I think both sides have their pros and cons, but either way, this Japanese mentality gives travelers a very pleasant atmosphere. A guest is treated as a king. When you ask someone on the street for help, chances are he or she will help you until you really feel embarrassed by so much kindness. And don’t worry about being wrong. When you introduce yourself, all Japanese will shake hands with you. When two Japanese people meet, they never do. They bow. But with you they’ll shake hands, to express they are willing to adjust. They know you are alien to their country and thus tolerate your clumsy behavior.

You’ll find out the people in Japan are extremely nice and helpful. Add to that the fact that they absolutely don’t harass you for money, because first, it’s below their dignity, and second, the people over there are in no way poorer than you are, so they simply don’t need to. Also, Japan is a really safe country. There is crime – the famous Yakuza really does exist and is powerful – but those guys certainly won’t make trouble with a backpacker. They are far too powerful for that. Street robbery in Japan is rare.

However, beware if you decide to find a part-time job to finance your travels (for example, by teaching English as a lot of travelers do): you will have to learn to be just as obedient, docile and punctual as any Japanese worker. And for the western mind, that may be difficult.

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Navigating Your Way Though Japan

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Are you visiting Japan and having concerns about getting lost? Don’t worry. In Japan, nothing, and no one, ever gets lost. Japan is not only an over-civilized country, but it is over-regulated too.

First of all, there are signs everywhere. Signs with street names, signs that point out where you should stand in line, signs that tell you what vehicle will arrive to transport you to the other side of town… signs everywhere.

Should you learn some Japanese so you will be able to read the signs? No way. Don’t even think you can come close to reading Japanese quickly. Japanese people don’t use one kind of script, they use three different alphabets which they mix while employing them. For old words with many meanings they use Chinese characters, which don’t express sounds but meanings themselves. For modern words they use their own phonetic alphabet. And to make it even more complicated, they have a third phonetic alphabet for foreign words.

In the big cities, all the signs will be in Japanese as well as English, though the English will be funny Japanese-English. The names on the signs have the phonetic pronunciation in our own western alphabet added to it. Then, to make it even easier, if you pronounce all the letters you read like you would think is logical, there’s a very good chance you’re actually doing really well. Japanese people don’t swallow parts of words like other people do, as they do not use any emphasis in their language. Though hard to learn, Japanese words are easy to recognize. If you learn a name by heart, you will recognize it when it is announced.

Now for the most wonderful thing: People and things in Japan really do behave exactly according to the signs. It’s part of the mentality. A Japanese person will never arrive late. “On time” is five minutes early. A train will always arrive exactly on time. When there is a line on the pavement to say how people should form a queue—and there are many such lines—the Japanese will wait on that line, face to back, no muddling around with it. People really love to queue over there. Even when you have a numbered seat ticket, people will form a neat queue for entering the building or vehicle they are waiting for.

The most wonderful example is this: On an escalator in Japan, people will stand only on the left side. The right side is for walking. You can watch mobs running to the staircase, and about two hundred meters before the staircase, the mob will seemingly automatically split into two neat queues before even reaching the escalator. And except for the peak hours where it will be simply impossible getting somewhere without pushing, no one will push. Nobody seems to try and take someone else’s place. Maybe because in Tokyo, everything is so punctual that everybody knows exactly when he or she will arrive?

As for you, you’ll get your temples and enjoy the culture of samurai swords and manga comics as much as you want, and you’ll get there in time.

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