A Few Things I Love About Japan
Here are just a few of my random observations about aspects of Japan I really enjoyed during our May 2004 visit:
I cannot emphasize enough the extreme graciousness and helpfulness of the Japanese people we encountered. We got lost a lot, which is not surprising considering that many Tokyo streets don’t really have names, and the numbering system is totally random. (Even natives carry maps at all times.) Getting lost was not a problem. If we were standing on a street corner studying a map, invariably someone would stop and ask if we needed help. Even if their English was marginal, they would do their best to make sure we were headed in the right direction. It was obvious that if necessary they would inconvenience themselves in order to assist us.
Japanese people are, on the whole, wonderfully polite. However, American stereotypes of Japanese people are often far from accurate. Most Americans get our stereotypes of the Japanese from meeting tourists and recent immigrants, both of whom are “fish out of water” who may not have a strong grasp of English. I think this explains a lot about why many of us tend to think of Japanese people as always conventional, restrained, quiet and soft-spoken.
Graciousness is not the same as subservience. The near-universal politeness of people in Japan is not an indication that they are robots or automatons, or that they lack personality or humor. In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit how astonished I was to observe the immense human diversity we saw every day in Tokyo.
While of course we saw plenty of conventional behavior, particularly since we were staying in a business district, we also saw boisterous people in Japan: drunk people, laughing people, people joking and talking loudly, and people flaunting their wild haircuts and funky clothes. In short, there were plenty of unconventional personalities, just like in the US.
If anything, I think I saw much crazier fashions in Tokyo than I’ve seen in New York City. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a young woman walking down the sidewalk in Harajuku dressed as Little Bo Peep, complete with ruffled skirt and bonnet. (We saw two of them, and they were not together! I’ve since learned this “trend” has been going on for years.)
Are there traditional “salarymen” in suits and “office ladies” in conservative outfits? You bet, and lots of them. But there are also lots of other people, all doing their own thing and going their own direction. People-watching in Tokyo was absolutely fascinating.
To be frank, before this trip I had never been a big fan of Japanese food. However, I was willing to give it a try in Japan, and I’m so glad I took that attitude. We absolutely loved almost everything we ate in Japan, and we ate Japanese food at lunch and dinner almost every day.
I now realize why I wasn’t impressed with Japanese food before. In the US, we are usually served things like overly salty teriyaki, not-so-fresh sushi, etc. But in Japan, freshness is everything. You will never be served old fish in Japan, and that makes a huge difference. I have never had such delicious sushi and sashimi. Hot food is almost always cooked to order, except at buffets, where it is constantly replenished. We could not get over the quality of the food we were served, even at the most inexpensive places.
Because of the gracious traditions of Japan, even cheap restaurants offer pleasing touches that will make you feel pampered. For instance, virtually all table-service restaurants in Japan start the meal by providing you with a wet towel sealed in plastic, so that you can refresh your hands before you begin eating.
Even relatively low-priced meals are sometimes served in courses, giving you the feeling that you’ve really dined. For instance, one night we had dinner at a tempura restaurant in the basement of the Park Hyatt Tokyo. It turned out this was a chain restaurant, but you would never have known it. One kimono-clad woman was greeting the customers, serving the tables and taking the money at the register, but she never seemed hurried, much less abrupt. Her demeanor suggested that we were guests in her own home.
We were served miso soup first. Then came soft tofu cooked with seafood in a little covered dish. After that was a course of delicate sashimi. A man was making the tempura in the restaurant kitchen, which he brought to our table a few pieces at a time, so that we could eat it while it was hot and fresh. The tempura started with many types of vegetables (tiny eggplant, okra, asparagus) and included prawns and various types of fish and shellfish. We had two beers apiece. At the end of the meal we were brought hot green tea. Our total bill was ¥6140 (about $54.50).
Service, even in very casual restaurants, was pleasant and attentive. In some cases the server politely offered information about how to eat certain things, assuming that we would have no idea (and they were often right about that). Yet there is no tipping. Like most Americans, I’m used to tipping 15-20% for even ordinary service. To receive such extraordinary attention and leave nothing on the table was quite an eye-opening experience. It also meant our overall costs were significantly lower than I would have expected.
If you want to save money, lunch should be your biggest meal. Most restaurants offer “lunch sets” — set menus that include multiple courses. Typically this will include rice, miso soup, an entree and tea. Often it will also include salad, pickled vegetables, and/or other courses. It’s not difficult at all to find lunch sets for ¥1000 (less than $9). One day I had lunch consisting of a wonderful broiled trout filet, miso soup, pickled vegetables, a large bowl of rice, soft tofu and tea — for ¥780 (less than $7). For the same price, Mike’s meal was similar, but instead of the trout it included thinly-sliced grilled beef in a teriyaki sauce. This was in a very attractive table-service restaurant.
Dinners can be ridiculously expensive if you eat at hotel restaurants or other tourist-oriented locations, but there are plenty of moderately-priced places around. Get away from the obvious locations and go down local streets, into the basements of department stores and hotels, etc. That’s where the inexpensive options are. For instance, the basement level of the Park Hyatt had eighteen different reasonably-priced restaurants where we could buy dinner for ¥2000-4000 ($18-$36) or less apiece, whereas the hotel’s upstairs restaurants were charging more like ¥10000 ($90) per person and up.
If you really want to keep expenses down (or you just don’t feel like eating every meal out), get takeout food for dinner. There are lots of places selling very nice prepared meals, including stands in major train stations, convenience stores and delis. Find a convenience store near your hotel — they are everywhere, and they offer microwaves where you can heat the food and then carry it to your hotel room. On several occasions we bought sandwiches, salads and desserts from the wonderful Park Hyatt deli, on the first floor of the building, and seldom spent more than $25 or $30 for a truly gourmet picnic-style dinner, which we ate in our room.
On the whole I thought drinks were more expensive in Tokyo than I am used to paying in the US, even in resort areas. Most hotels and nice bars charged $12 and up for standard alcoholic drinks, $5 and up for soft drinks. You’re paying for atmosphere, and sometimes we went ahead and did it, because we wanted to enjoy the place.
However, meals generally include complimentary hot green tea, and iced water is usually provided in Tokyo restaurants without even being requested. That means you really don’t need to order anything else to drink, which can keep your costs down, since you will usually pay dearly ($3 or more) for a soft drink even in a casual restaurant.
Outside of restaurants and bars there are many less expensive beverage options. Practically every 10 yards on any public sidewalk you’ll find vending machines selling water and soft drinks for about $1. Some machines even sell canned beer for around $3. We went to the convenience store in the basement of our hotel to buy canned and bottled soft drinks for around $1 instead of drinking the same items in the hotel bar (or out of the minibar) at $7 and up.
Tokyo is very, very clean. It really puts most American cities to shame. There is virtually no graffitti or litter. You can touch surfaces in public places (i.e. the railings of escalators) and actually feel how squeaky-clean they are. Because of this near-fanaticism about cleanliness, you don’t have to worry about eating or drinking even in the least expensive places.
Most Japanese people also observe scrupulous personal hygiene and have fastidious personal habits (for instance, it’s considered extremely rude to blow your nose in public). I sincerely believe it’s not a coincidence that our trip to Japan is the first long vacation I’ve ever taken without catching a cold.
The only thing that seemed a little odd to me was the complete lack of paper towels in public restrooms. Perhaps they are considered wasteful (I believe Japan has to import all of its paper) and/or germy. I had been warned about this and had also been told that many public toilets would not have toilet paper, though I never actually ran into that situation. (I did experience traditional Japanese “squat” toilets a few times, which are challenging for out-of-shape Americans with bad knees — fortunately most public restrooms do have at least a few Western-style toilets.)
In Japan, everyone carries small packets of tissues and dries their hands on them. I had been told about this, so I took lots of tissue packets with me, but I brought them all back home unopened, because I got plenty for free every day. There are people outside all the major Tokyo train stations giving away packets of tissues printed with advertising messages. Plus, a lot of restrooms have air-dryers for your hands — and some of them are much higher-tech and more effective than the ones in the US.
I am not a recreational shopper. I usually won’t go near a department store and I buy almost everything online. But shopping in Japan was a real pleasure.
The service was outstanding. Stores are heavily staffed and the sales clerks are eager to help you, demonstrate products, and even wrap your purchases. Almost every time we bought something, the clerk asked if it was a gift. If so, the item was immediately (and without charge) beautifully and fastidiously gift-wrapped. On more than one occasion I saw a clerk start to wrap something, become dissatisfied with the way it looked, and start over with a fresh sheet of gift wrap.
No trip to Japan could be complete without spending at least a few hours in one of the big department stores such as Mitsukoshi or Isetan. In the basements (sometimes on two or more floors) you’ll find the most amazing food halls. All sorts of fresh, preserved and packaged foods can be found there, including literally hundreds of different kinds of traditional Japanese sweets, chocolates, French pastries, and other goodies that are sold boxed up for gifts. (Can you tell the Japanese are big on gift-giving?)
The sad thing, from the perspective of an overseas visitor, is that you can only enjoy these goodies while you’re in Japan. Most of them can’t be brought back to the US because of agriculture restrictions on fresh foods. Oh well. Enjoy them while you can.
There were lots of great toys in the stores, and plenty of wacky, trendy pop culture items that you would just never find outside of Japan. We also enjoyed shopping for anything that involved graphic design — textiles, artwork, household goods, etc. — because so much Japanese design is gorgeous.
If you’re lucky enough to wear a small size, you can find a lot of cool designer clothes in Tokyo, too, though they are expensive. (Isetan is known for carrying some “large” clothing sizes suitable for more Americans, but we never checked them out, so I’m not sure how large a “large” size is in Japan.)
If you spend over ¥10000 in one day (except on consumables like food, batteries, etc.) at a particular department store, be sure to take your receipts to the tax refund desk, where they’ll refund the 5% consumption tax.