Posted by: Carolyn ODonnell | June 11, 2014

Japan: Neon-lit steps in a dark place

True brew: Sake bottles at a distillery and restaurant in Takayama

True brew: Sake bottles at a distillery and restaurant in Takayama

On this trip I spent seven weeks in Japan, and while I had some good experiences, I’m not sure I shall return. There were a number of things that disappointed me, though that is probably my own fault for having certain misconceptions about the country.

I first visited in 2002 spending most of my time in Tokyo with friends who had lived there for two years and learnt as much as they could about a country still little visited by tourists.

What has changed, or what I think has changed, since then
The Japanese have discovered baked goods. When I was first in Tokyo every second shop was a hairdresser dyeing inky Japanese hair a kind of rust colour. Now every second shop is a boulangerie, selling pastries and bread. The Japanese also like cheese now. It’s a good thing they still eat small portions, otherwise they would soon resemble fugu, the round poisonous puffer fish they love to nibble.

Japanese food is not healthy. It’s full of MSG that made my ears buzz. After hunting for stereo equipment that didn’t exist in the middle of the night, I concluded my hearing was shot. Then I discovered tinnitus is a symptom of excess MSG.

I no longer think Japan is technologically advanced. Due to protectionism and corruption, a traveler cannot buy a SIM card in Japan, and their homegrown phones don’t work very well, though when you are reduced to using a payphone, this is all academic. They haven’t really embraced the web either – wifi is scarce and to use the “free” wifi in Kyoto you have to give a credit card number online. (The answer to that is no.) There are passes you can buy, but again only online even if you are in one of their retail outlets. Flexibility is not a big feature in Japan. To use the wifi in a Starbucks you need to register first. By email. Somewhere else.

The train services are great, but can cost as much as flying. If you don’t want to pay a premium for the Shinkansen, a journey can take hours and hours and hours by local trains, using railway lines which seem to be privately owned.

Japan is more welcoming to tourists than it was, but not that much. You look at the Japan National National Tourism Organisation and it is full of press releases talking about boosting tourism and yet the body is absolutely useless. I wasted a lot of time contacting them hoping for some support and despite around 30 emails I got nowhere. I had a commission from a magazine to do an article for an airline magazine – the kind of article most organisations dealing with tourists are desperate to be part of – and in the end I had to abandon it. Most people I contacted didn’t even bother to reply. It was very disappointing, not to mention rude.

Japan’s hotels largely do not seem to understand hospitality. The most accommodating staff were in casual youth hostel type establishments. Possibly service is more adept in the very expensive five star hotels, but as a solo traveler I was not frequenting those. I had an introduction to a marketing person at an international high-end hotel chain and he took weeks to reply and then was not at all helpful

One upmarket ryokan I stayed at almost chased me back into the street because I committed the crime of arriving at 2.45pm and check-in was at 3pm. Arriving at the YMCA in far northern Burma at 4am in the rainy season I was treated more graciously. Another ryokan had a printed sheet instructing guests to arrive after 4pm, and to “leave before 10am”. So much for a relaxing stay, you’re barely there before you have to leave again. (Yesterday I left a hotel in Malaysia which arranged a late check-out at 3pm with no fuss at all.) And this ryokan charged me when I was leaving for using the onsen (hot bath) even though my room did not have a bathroom attached – a surprise considering what I was paying.

I expected to find charming country towns outside Tokyo. Largely, these do not exist, except for Takayama, near the Japan Alps, which is worth visiting. Most of Japan is full of nondescript modern development and a lot of concrete – well there are about 100,000 construction companies in Japan that need to be kept busy.

I had thought the Japanese were really well educated. Having spent time this trip with a teacher at a Japanese school who filled me in on what happens at a Japanese education establishement, I now think Japanese students are extremely well socialised to devote themselves to work within groups, while accepting permanent exhaustion and dull, dead-end jobs.

These conclusions were aided by reading Dog and Demons: Tales From the Dark Side of Japan by Alex Kerr, which really helped me make sense of what I was seeing: a country that is on one hand extremely disciplined and advanced, and on the other, stuck in the Dark Ages.

Japan has a terrible environmental track record, they burn a lot of their garbage and Fukushima is a mess – the worst nuclear accident in 25 years and an ongoing source of contamination that is not under control.

Still, getting a good look at Mt Fuji was nice. Although with the cryogenically cold weather and the toxic food, it took me weeks to recover after I left the country – infected toes, a blocked ear, laryngitis and a cough I could not shift.

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