Azara Blog: Japan observations

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Date published: 2006/07/23

Arriving at Kansai (Osaka) Airport after departing from Heathrow Airport is like arriving on a different planet. Heathrow (certainly Terminal 3) is a dump and barely functions. Kansai is a marvel of engineering and architecture (designed by Renzo Piano). Japanese railways have perhaps the best reputation in the world, and it's pretty obvious why straight away. On time (almost always). Clean (and regularly cleaned). And exacting to the point where you know what car door will open where to the nearest meter. And on most Japanese trains there is English as well as Japanese.

Of course there are one or two problems with the Japanese railways. For some reason the railways were privatised in the same stupid way the British ones were, namely having different companies run trains on different parts of the network. Only, unlike in Britain, the railway system still functions in spite of this, although rail passes do not work as well as they might otherwise. The one real bad point of the Japanese railways is that some cars are for reserved seats only and some are for non-reserved seats only, and a person with a non-reserved ticket is not allowed to sit in an empty seat in a reserved ticket car. Oh well, every country has its stupidities.

Japan is not big, and along the coastal area between Osaka and Tokyo (and even beyond) you would be hard placed to find a single location where you were not in sight of buildings. It is wall-to-wall development. And although almost all buildings are unique in Japan (so not much in the way of terraces, for example), they are also almost all ugly. And the endless wires and cables in the streets do not help. You can see why the Japanese go crazy over a few cherry blossoms, the rest of the time they are marooned in this horrid street environment. And you can see why architects get hysterical about the odd Japanese house which has been designed with some style, there is just so little of buildings of merit that anything that arises above this mediocrity somehow deserves comment. (And in general central Tokyo buildings are better than those elsewhere.)

The Japanese always claim that they have to put up with (relatively) high density housing because so much of the island is mountainous and therefore allegedly uninhabitable. But certainly along the coastal area between Osaka and Tokyo, the mountains could easily be inhabited. Indeed it is not that unusual to see houses packed together on one hill and the next hill along completely empty, for no obvious reason of geography.

Japanese service in stores is unbelievably polite and good (up to the language problem). If only the often surly and ignorant sales staff in Britain (and elsewhere in Europe) would take some lessons from the Japanese. This kind of service spreads beyond shops. There are all sorts of Japanese workers whose main job seems rather pointless but which makes everything go more smoothly. There are sometimes people at the bottom of escalators just checking that everything goes well. There are sometimes traffic police at junctions where there is hardly any traffic. Indeed this all happens to an extent where it's amazing that Japanese economic productivity is as high as it is, because there seem to be a lot of people who do very little.

The Japanese have also provided an amazing amount of infrastructure for blind people. Everything from textured paving providing paths in (for example) railway stations and offices (although blind people seemed to ignore these) to chirping sounds for crossing roads (supposedly different for the two directions).

Japanese food is (relatively) cheap (even in Tokyo) and pretty good, certainly in comparison to Britain on both scores. You can walk past shops and not even have a clue what the food is because it has been wrapped in some way or other, but it all tastes reasonable enough. The Japanese seem to have a fetish for octopus and some other odd things, but every country has its own quirks on the food front. Many restaurants have wax models on display out front of the dishes they serve. That is rather hilarious but it is invaluable for non-Japanese- speaking tourists. (Some restaurants have English menus but not all, especially when you get away from touristy areas.)

Tokyo really is crowded, even more so than London. Even around midnight there are lots of people milling around near major areas (e.g. Shinjuku). Even around midnight the trains are so crowded that people have to stand.

Heading back to Britain, the plane had to circle for ten or fifteen minutes before landing at Heathrow. (Has any plane ever landed there without having to do so?) Then it sat on the tarmac for another twenty or so minutes waiting for a gate, with the ironic playing of "Land of Hope and Glory" over the airplane PA system. Then at King's Cross even the platform of the Cambridge train was not known until three minutes before it was scheduled to leave. It ended up being platform 1, so not the usual one, and was the second train on the platform, and it left only a few minutes late, leaving little time for people not used to King's Cross to get on the train. Welcome to Britain.

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