We’ve been in Japan three days now, and my initial impression is this: it is both as foreign as and yet more familiar than I expected. Among the surprises:
So far in our Tokyo and Kyoto experiences, there is practically no public WiFi. If you’re lucky and happen to be passing near a rare store with open WiFi, you can get on for a bit using the weak signal. I had read that the Japanese have been relying very much on cell phones for a while and thus have been slow to embrace WiFi for getting on the web, but the reality of how utterly rare it is (and also, how I’ve come to rely on it to get around as a modern-day tourist) didn’t sink in until I got here. From what we could figure out in a couple of stores, mobile phone or portable hotspot rentals are charged by the month but require a contract lasting anywhere from three months to two years. We have not figured out how to get around this. We were lucky to be able to get a wired connection at our hotel in Tokyo.
I find it dissonant that, in a culture that is often fashion-conscious and tradition-oriented, facemasks are so ubiquitous. In Tokyo, about a fourth to a third of the people seemed to be wearing facemasks; in Kyoto, much less. I’ll be curious about the countryside once we start biking. Facemasks appear to be part of the national concern with cleanliness . Some studies suggest they may work, though I have to wonder how much of it is simply group identification: “I think of myself as the type of person who wears facemasks” (the same way that I act and think of myself as a Seattle eco-do-gooder). Particularly amusing facemask wearers are the occasional smoker or takeout-coffee-drinker.
Speaking of smokers, it’s been a while since I’ve been in a culture where people smoke in eating establishments. In all fairness, smoking is not quite as prevalent as in some other places (such as France), and there seem to be some rules about where one can smoke on the sidewalks.
So far, there have been more English signs than I expected (especially in Kyoto). Some of the translations are humorous, but the message (usually) gets across. On the flip side, a surprising number of people (well, store workers and shop-keepers, I should say) know little or no English.
Biking on the left side of the road will take some getting used to. Right now it’s a very conscious
processconfusion to look and walk where I’m supposed to.
Fresh sushi and riceballs and all sorts of hot, cold, and mysterious packaged foods in convenience stores everywhere! It’s true! And the fresh food is quite good!
People have been very friendly and helpful and used to dealing with tourists, even if they themselves don’t speak English
The best advice I got was to study katakana, the Japanese syllabary that is used for imported foreign words. I can recognize the symbols (what else would you do on the long plane flight but cram a foreign alphabet?) and am thrilled every time I can not only sound out a word, but also figure out what the similar-sounding English equivalent is. It would be cool if by the end of the trip I could be reading katakana rapidly, because at the moment….well, I’m not.
The bullet train is fast. And punctual.
People are on their cellphones constantly, mostly texting and browsing. They text as they walk, they text as they ride the subway, they text as they wait—but I haven’t seen texting and driving. Not everyone has their head in their phone, but certainly the majority of people I’ve seen in Tokyo. In Kyoto, this is a less prevalent.
The earthquake and nuclear disaster affected some things in Tokyo: many museums are closed; there is very little non-sparkling mineral water in stores; and the city is obviously not as lit up as it normally is (if things get back to normal by the time we fly back, I’d love to compare!). That’s pretty much it, aside from the fact that tourism is down nationally. Our hosts in Kyoto had almost everyone cancel, even though nothing here is disrupted, from what I’ve seen and read.
Next: assembling our bikes, which were just delivered, and preparing to pedal!