I have already summarized some initial impressions of Japan based on the initial three or four days we were there and those favorable impressions were borne out in spades during the additional time we spent there. But here are some additional thoughts or elaboration of what I have previously stated including some tips for anyone who is thinking of visiting Japan:

  • Japan is very much a first world country with a standard of living, amenities and infrastructure that is comparable and in some respects superior to that found in much of the West.
  • If you have 12 days to spend in Japan – like we did – then I’d suggest about 3 days in Tokyo, 4 days in Kyoto, 2 days in Haneda (Mount Fuji), a day trip to Hiroshima from Kyoto and 2 days in Osaka.
  • There is sight-seeing that one can do in Japan but there are other countries like China where there is a lot more to see but Japan is a place which offers a lot in terms of culture, cuisine and what a well run country with people who have a strong civic sense can achieve.
  • You will be blown away with the efficiency of just about everything that the Japanese do whether it is their transportation systems, their orderliness, their politeness and the variations in topography.
  • The Japanese come across as structured and rule oriented. For example, the check in times at hotels is usually 2 or 3 pm. Don’t count on being able to check in any earlier – like at 1pm – because it is not a case where the staff will ascertain whether there is a room available. They will just tell you that check-in time is at so and so time and they will be happy to store your bags for you until then. In the US on multiple occasions, I’ve been given a room because it happens to be available even if it is prior to the check in time.
  • Our guide in Tokyo told us that the crime rate was low and that one did not need fear for one’s safety or being robbed. This certainly seemed to be the case – people, including women, would walk the streets late at night on their own without any hesitation. Taxi drivers will not cheat you though it is obvious that you are a tourist – most taxi drivers speak virtually no English. The times we took a taxi, the driver once he understood where we were going would nod his head and take us there. Sometimes a driver would give a running commentary in Japanese oblivious to the fact that we did not understand a word he was saying!
  • Although our hosts said that they did not find the Japanese to be friendly, we found them to be helpful and courteous. No, they won’t smile at you or greet you as a stranger but if you seek their help, they are usually happy to help within the constraints of their language skills. Ask for directions or for some destination and they will immediately pull our their cellphone, enter something there and then give directions! The cell phone is as much part of everyday life as anywhere in the US – perhaps even more so.
  • The cleanliness of just about everything in Japan cannot be overstated whether it is the streets, restaurants, malls or rest rooms. You will not find litter anywhere and the Japanese are scrupulous about recycling with bins for bottles, plastic containers, newspapers etc and for general garbage. The amazing thing is that receptacles to throw waste are not prolific so when one cannot find a suitable receptacle, they will carry it with them until they locate one! We heard that kids in school before they quit for the day were expected to tidy up their classroom and dispose off any litter so that the classroom was ready to use the next day.
  • Public transportation – whether it is the metro, Japanese railways or the bus system is punctual to the minute and spotlessly clean. You will not find graffiti on the trains or the train stations. They are super modern and although my experience with the rail system in the US is limited, they are head and shoulders better than those in the US (to the extent that I have been exposed to them) or London where I used public transportation frequently in years gone by. I    have heard Trump being very critical of airports in the US – for example he compares La Guardia in NYC with airports in other countries and says – quite rightly – how antiquated La Guardia is in relation to these other airports. If Trump saw the railway and metro systems in Japan, he would really rant about the abysmal state of what we have in the US.
  • Hotel rooms are small – in fact, almost tiny – and that takes some getting used to but then in the typical Japanese way they maximize the use of whatever space there is to essentially provide everything that you’d find in a hotel in the US but compressed into about a half or one-third of the space.
  • One of the real positives in Japan is that there is no tipping for virtually anything – and certainly in restaurants. Coming from a culture where tipping is common and people count on tips for income, it is good to see a country where people get paid whatever they should be and not have to rely on tips to supplement their income. The argument has been that tipping enhances service but we found there to be no inadequacies in service in Japan despite the lack of tipping.
  • When you go to most restaurants you would write your name on a list to indicate that you want a table. Then you go and sit on a bench after all of those people who are already seated. As each person at the start of the bench gets called in, those who are seated move down the bench or series of benches essentially keeping their place in the line. Once you are seated, you will be handed a menu and then you have to attract the attention of the server when you are ready to order and attract the attention of the server if you need anything else eg water. Unlike the US, they don’t come by from time to time to ascertain if you need anything else.
  • Credit cards are accepted but there are a lot of places where it is cash only and so make sure you have some cash with you at all times. ATM machines at 7-11 and the post offices accept foreign ATM cards but there may be a service charge at both ends. I found the best rate that I was getting was through credit cards – especially American Express though Visa also gave a better rate than the ATM. Keep in mind that both cards that I mentioned above don’t charge me a foreign exchange surcharge which many credit card companies do – typically 3%.
  • Try not to equate the cost of things in Japan with the cost in the US or wherever you are from. Japan is an expensive country and while everyone has budgetary constraints, it detracts from ones ability to enjoy a vacation here if one is relating it to what the same product costs in another country.
  • Japan is a homogenous society – meaning that the number of foreigners who are permanently settled in the country is very limited. So there is little diversity but with that comes very little in the way of racial or religious tensions. Approximately, 97% of the population of Japan is made up of people of Japanese origin. Although the two main faiths are Shintoism and Buddhism, there seems to be no animosity between the adherents of these religions. At the same time, the low birthrate in Japan is resulting in a declining population of younger people – and they are the ones who support the aging population. So between the low birthrate and the longevity that the Japanese experience, something will have to give especially since immigration from outside of Japan is not a factor in meeting their labor needs and is, in fact, discouraged.
  • Interestingly we met quite a few Indians either visiting Japan or working here or going to school here to learn Japanese. The tourists were universally impressed by the Japanese civic sense and wished that one would see the same thing in India – imagine an India where people routinely line up to take their turn, people don’t litter and where you can count on honesty in dealing with businesses or taxi drivers. The younger people working here seem to have varied fields of study and work. There are quite a few Indian restaurants which would suggest that at least some Japanese must like Indian food!
  • I am no expert when it comes to Japanese food – my knowledge was limited to sushi and tempura – but the reality is that there is a fairly wide variety of dishes and we tried to sample as many as possible. In the 12 full days we were in Japan there were only two meals that we ate which were not Japanese and one of them was on our last day in Japan.
  • Remarkably we saw absolutely no instances of homelessness in any of the cities we visited and panhandling was non-existent. Tourists were not bugged by vendors to buy their wares as happens in other tourist spots that we have visited around the world.
  • The Japanese are a very polite people in their interactions. Politeness seems to permate all aspects of society. Honking is almost unheard of – at least while we were there walking around amidst traffic.
  • In conclusion ……… visit Japan if you were planning to do so and think about visiting Japan even if you were not. You will enjoy it: if you are a westerner, it is one of the few foreign countries where westerners seem to genuinely enjoy living. We met a couple with their two children – he was from England and she was from New Zealand. They said that they had come to Japan with the intention of doing a two year spell and ten years later they still have no intention of leaving! We heard the same from some of the US Embassy staff – they were almost universal in expressing their enjoyment of life in Japan compared to other countries where they had lived.

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