10 Reasons why Japan is so great – No.7 Japan just does things better

I have already mentioned the culture which plays a part in every aspect of life in Japan. We all know that things in Japan are going to be different.  So what does “Japan just does things better” actually mean?

What I mean is, in Japan they have a lot of the same things that we have in the West, but they just do them differently and in most cases a lot better. For example, everyone knows about the huge range of vending machines. We have vending machines in the West of course…..but not like Japanese vending machines! In Japan, they have vending machines for cold and hot drinks, hot food and much more. It is not just about the huge variety of goods sold in vending machines either, but about the way they sell them. The machines have slots for notes and give out change, they sometimes accept credit from travel cards and some provide wireless internet access. One of the biggest things to note about vending machines is there are so many of them, in the city and countryside and all unscathed by vandalism. Continue reading

10 Reasons why Japan is so great. No. 3 – The people

This is pretty broad again, but has to be mentioned among the reasons as to why Japan is so great – The people. I won’t go on about the Japanese stoicism and other clichés, but will try and explain a bit about my experience with Japanese people and what makes them so damn nice.

This is sort of linked with Liam’s ‘Are you being served?’ blog post and his comments about first class service from regular staff in a regular shop. Just about wherever you go in Japan and with whatever profession you encounter, Japanese people will always be doing their job proud, delivering first class service whether you are in a back street noodle joint, convenience store or a Michelin star restaurant. You will be treated as the customer should and with due respect, even if you are a foreigner….it might take them a bit of time to pluck up the courage to speak to you, but you will be treated well. Surely this idea of first class service in a shop/restaurant etc should be practised all over the world, but alas it is not which is perhaps why it is so obvious in Japan.

Many westerners will often believe that  Japanese are very reserved and introverted people, keeping themselves to themselves. However in general, given the chance, this is the opposite to my experience. Salarymen after a few drinks have been the source of some of my most interesting and funny moments in Japan. People, especially in the rural areas where few foreigners get to, will also go out of their way on occasion to greet you, or even perhaps give you a nice gift completely out of the blue. It is always great to hear customers come back from Japan and talk about the time that they were slightly lost in Kyoto for example and a non-English speaking stranger, helped them back on to a train in the other direction, got off the train with them, walked out of the station to a particular hotel/restaurant/shop, smile and say, “bye bye”, bow and walk off to continue what they were doing! They didn’t want any money or to mug them. They just wanted to help and make sure that they enjoyed their time in Japan. I have heard many stories like this, but each one unique and no less heart-warming to hear.

I am aware that I am generalising about the people of Japan, but I am sure that if you visit, your experiences with people will be largely positive, providing you with many delightful travelling tales to tell on your return….That’s if anyone will bother listening to you! The people are definitely one of the reasons as to why Japan is so great.

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A visit to the Tanabe Ryokan in Hida-Takayama

Japan has hundreds of beautiful sights, famous landmarks, and unforgettable scenery but I have always argued that it is the little things that truly make this country such a special place to visit; the everyday things that surround you from morning to night. Whether it be the random (and sometimes unidentifiable) objects in the convenience store, the train attendant who bows to you as he leaves the carriage, or the old man in the bar who buys you a drink in an unspoken agreement that you will help him practice his English…  Everywhere I’ve been in Japan there is something that strikes me as ever-so-well-thought-out, wonderfully pleasant, and thoroughly Japanese. But nowhere is this more true than when visiting a Japanese Inn, or ryokan. The fusion of modern comfort and traditional beauty sweep through every detail of every room. Granted, there are beat down ryokans that have hardly changed in the last 50 years and there are frighteningly expensive ryokans that seem luxurious to the point of overkill, but they all have their strong points. And usually, it is the people who run these traditional inns that make the stay so special, certainly nothing could be more true about the Tanabe Ryokan in Takayama.

My room for the night. The floor is tatami, a woven straw mat, and in the alcove hangs a bit of traditional calligraphy and flower arrangement. But for those not interested in the traditional arts, a television sits just outside of the frame of this picture.

 

Rooms in ryokans are traditionally titled rather than numbered. The titles are almost always nature related; plants, trees, names of famous mountains or rivers, et cetera. The Tanabe has been kind enough to provide a transliteration as well as a number to each of their rooms for their visitors who haven't had time to master written Japanese.

 

Almost as famous as the geisha and Mt. Fuji, Japanese toilets are truly a sight to behold. Water sprays in all directions and there are often plenty of other features as well. Like heated seats. You'll notice the slippers that are provided just for when using the toilet!

 

Always the space-saving country. The bedding is kept in the closet during the day and laid out for you as you have dinner at night. This saves floor space and preserves the simple but elegant Japanese aesthetic.

 

In the closet awaits a light cotton Japanese robe, a yukata, which is traditionally worn to the bath and also to dinner. On top of it rest a towel and some toiletries, also for your visit to the bath.

 

The bathing facilities at most ryokans are lovely affairs. A place to relax after a long day of sightseeing. Although bathing etiquette may at first seem a bit daunting. The most important bit is to remember to thoroughly wash before getting in to bath itself. In the same room are showers (the Japanese traditionally show sitting down) and soap, shampoo, and conditioner. Then, after rinsing all the suds off, you can soak your bones in the rejuvenating waters.

 

A hanging curtain, noren, hangs outside each of the bath rooms. Once again, the Tanabe ryokan has taken pity on those who don't read Japanese and provided an English marking as well. Although, a nice general rule is "blue for boys, red for girls". Admittedly, it may take some time to get used to the idea of bathing in the same room as other men (or women) but its a custom that once enjoyed is hard to resist. Of course, if you're really not comfortable, there is a private shower and bath in each of the rooms.

 

Rest assured, I made sure that no one was around before barging in to the ladies' baths. At the Tanabe, as in many ryokans, the proprietors switch the men and women's baths daily so that everyone gets to experience the different baths. This one is made from cedar and gives off a gorgeous scent from the moment you enter the room.

 

Instead of the same old lobby, the Tanabe has a sitting room that looks out on a beautiful miniature Japanese garden. This is also where the free coffee and internet are to be found, and often where I spend my afternoons when I stay here. (with the company of a good book of course)

 

I'm sure that my mobile photos don't do the Tanabe ryokan justice but I hope that they will inspire you to visit for yourself. Lastly, I must plead ever-so-guilty to have not taken any photos of the exquisite dinners, a crime by my own admission; but also one more reason to make the journey and see for yourself.

 

 

 

 

 

Toilet Talk Japanese Style

I was listening to Radio One this morning and Scott Mills was talking about toilets in Japan. I don’t think he did the toilets justice to be honest. The modern Japanese toilets are brilliant and a life saver if you have ever lived in the mountains of Japan through the long winter months. Most houses in Japan will not have central heating and are kept warm by kerosene heaters which are quite effective. However, my life saver in the mornings when snow was a metre deep outside was running to the toilet and having a sit down on a nice warm toilet seat – what a relief!

Toilet with controls!

Toilets with controls! - Only in Japan

As well as the hot seat, it did have a Star Trek Enterprise captain’s seat style control panel which had all sorts of controls including the jet of warm water button which would keep you clean (if needed). In my 10 years of Japan living/travelling, I have seen an array of super loos (not that I have gone out looking for them or anything) from automatic seats that lift up as soon as you walk into the room (Super Jet Foil to Matsuyama), to toilet seats that light up different colours as you use them (restaurant in Kyoto) to toilets that play the sound of running water and birds singing to disguise any “other” noises you might be making. We are talking hi-tech bogs here.

When on tour with people, dinner table talk about the Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji) is often eclipsed by talk of an amazing toilet that was spotted. Forget the culture that oozes out of the ancient Imperial capital, look at the toilet!

Anyway, traditional style Japanese squat toilets apart, the modern Japanese toilets are brilliant – have a loo-k for yourself……sorry.

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