Last week I was on a ten day vacation in Japan spent between Kyoto and Tokyo. This was my first time in Asia, although I had been to Europe several times for various competitions during high school. Today I'm writing about some of the things I noticed while I was there. Each of these observations alone might seem rather frivolous, but I hope that together they form an interesting picture.
I studied Japanese in high school, so I was able to understand some amount of the language around me. I think that you could get by without knowing any, but it might take a bit of time to get used to things. Most Japanese people should understand at least a little English, and some of them know the language quite well.
That said, there were a couple times that I wished my Japanese were better, because someone (usually a waiter/waitress) would say something fast that I didn't quite catch. When it was clear that we didn't understand what they said, they'd usually try to say it in English, which was sometimes less useful than if they repeated the Japanese a bit slower. Of course, their behavior was reasonable since I didn't give any indication that I could understand some Japanese, just an unfortunate side effect.
Japanese has a lot of loanwords from English, and this creates an interesting effect for a native speaker of one learning the other. It becomes easy to think of a loanword as the same word with a different accent, even though they're really different words with different pronunciations. As a result, an English speaker learning Japanese might say "switch" instead of 「スイッチ」, and during the trip I heard a Japanese speaker do exactly the opposite. If you're an English speaker and want to cheat your way to a small amount of Japanese understanding, learn to read Katakana and keep an eye out for the loanwords.
Another somewhat unusual property of Japanese is the mix of phoentic (hiragana and katakana) and non-phoenetic (kanji) writing in the same language. That means that for text written phoenetically, I can know how to say it but not necessarily know what it means. On the other hand, there are some kanji where I know the meaning but not the pronunciation. Furthermore, a single kanji might have several different pronunciations, and which one to use depends on the context. So even for kanji that I do know, I might not know how to pronounce a particular word containing it, even if I can figure out what the word means.
Most of the food in Japan was pretty mild. A lot of meals had a large rice component, with minimal sauce. The biggest exception to me was the fish at Tsukiji fish market. The sushi we had there had more of the fish's flavor than any other sushi I've had.
Japan is also known for its ramen. One interesting thing that a lot of ramen restaurants did (as well as some other restaurants) is to have food ticket machines in lieu of ordering through a waiter or waitress. When you go into the restaurant, you'd buy a ticket from the machine and give it to their staff, which tells them what you ordered. In addition to expediting the ordering and payment, some of the machines were also great for tourists because they had pictures of the food, so that reading Japanese isn't necessary.
Tokyo is very densely packed, and as a result most of the buildings are much taller than you'd find in the US. A shopping district would include several multi-story buildings. Some floors would have multiple small shops, some stores would span multiple floors. There are also some particularly large stores that have their own buildings. In pretty much every store, the aisles would be barely big enough for two people to pass by each other, which also allows for a lot of products to take up a relatively small amount of space.
When one store spans multiple floors, they generally separate the products among the floors in some logical grouping. So one floor might have phones and phone accessories, the next has computers, and so on. Additionally, they have cashiers on each floor. Instead of gathering all of your stuff and check out all at once, you check out once on each floor. Since one floor can be quite small, this means that there's a higher density of cashiers than at an American store. I only had to wait in line a couple times, and those lines moved quickly.
In order to facilitate multiple floors, escalators are very common. Some buildings had only up escalators, and then to exit you'd either take the elevator or stairs. To me, this seemed like a method for encouraging shoppers to visit every floor and take a look around.
Escalator layout was also different from what I've experienced before. They'd almost always be arranged in a crisscross fashion, with the up escalators zig-zagging back and forth. This means that if you want to go from the first floor to the fourth, you'd get on the up escalator, then turn around immediately at the second floor for the next up escalator, turn around again at the third floor, and then arrive at the fourth. If you want to then go down, you'd have to walk to the other side, but going multiple floors in the same direction is very efficient.
When travelling it's obvious that people might drive on the opposite side of the road, but it's much less obvious whether people walk on the other side of the hallway. Eventually, I did figure out that a good default in Japan is to walk on the left side. For taking escalators, if you are standing still then stay to the left, and if you're walking then stay to the right. Essentially, these are the opposite of the defaults in the US.
On the other hand, this is just a default. Some train stations had staircases where you are supposed to walk on the right, and I couldn't figure out any pattern to when that would be the case. In some cases, there'd be a sign on the wall indicating to walk on the right, but other times it would just be some arrows on the staircase that are much less obvious.
In Kyoto, we stayed in a ryokan, where we slept on futon laid out on tatami. It was reasonably comfortable, but when I went back to sleeping in a regular bed after travelling to Tokyo, I felt like I got much better rest.
Japan is somewhat known for their high tech toilets. In Kyoto they weren't very common, though perhaps they'd be found in the more modern areas. In Tokyo, most of the public toilets had these kinds of features, and the toilet at our place did as well. Using one of these toilets for the first time feels unusual, but I would say that it leaves you feeling cleaner in the end, and probably also reduces toilet paper usage.
The place we were staying at in Tokyo also had very steep stairs. When we first got there, I was a little bit shocked by how steep they were, but it became pretty natural to walk on them after just a couple days. I did stay pretty cautious while walking down the stairs, though.
Bathrooms were split apart into a toilet room and a separate shower and bathing room. In the shower and bathing room, showering would take place outside of the bathtub, and to facilitate this the drain is in the floor. As a byproduct, filling the tub close to the top is not a problem, because any water that spills over is spilling onto a floor that is built to handle it.
Additionally, the place we stayed in Tokyo had a system for automatically drawing a bath and temperature controls on the water. I tried it once, and being able to set it and let it do its thing without worrying about the water temperature is a big upgrade over running the water manually. Several times in the past I've tried taking a bath only to find that I ran the water too hot, and I'd have to wait for half an hour or more for it to cool down.
There were a lot of people riding bicycles. The bicycles would be on the sidewalks alongside pedestrians. A lot of the streets were very narrow so one car could get through if it needed to but everyone else would have to move out of the way. For the most part, cars just wouldn't go down these roads so walking was very pleasant.
Public transportation was a mix of trains, buses, and subways. The buses have all the usual problems of being not very comfortable and not very frequent, but take you to places a bit farther out of the way. I believe all of them had timetables that were followed very well, so planning around catching a particular train or bus is not unreasonable.
There are several different train and subway companies operating in the same area, so it can be somewhat confusing at first as they will run trains to different areas. They seem to have partnerships set up so that transferring from one system to another is not too bad, though it'll be a bit pricier than staying within the same system.
For trains and subways, fares depend on where you get on and get off. Every station that we went to had a large map with all the fares, but since there's a lot of stations it can take a little bit to find the station you want if you don't know the geography very well (plus, half the maps are written in Kanji). If you are really confused, there are fare adjustment machines, so it should work to buy any ticket and then put it in the fare adjustment machine at the other end, which will tell you how much more you need to pay. As far as I could tell, there was no penalty for doing this other than the fact that you could skip a step if you can figure out the fare yourself.
Because so many people use trains to get around, the stations have a lot of shops in and around them. The main stations might have department stores adjacent to them, often with the buildings connected. Tokyo station even has a "character street", which is a bunch of stores that sell character-related merchandise, as well as a "ramen street", which has something like eight ramen restaurants all next to each other.
Overall, I enjoyed the experience of Tokyo a lot, for most of the reasons that I like cities. Walking and public transportation can get you to pretty much anywhere you want to go, and there's a lot of people around which makes everything feel very lively. The high quality of the public transportation means that this is a reality and not a dream. Some cities, like San Francisco, have public transportation but taking it isn't a real alternative to driving.