Once I was standing outside a gas station in Las Vegas and felt my anxiety peaking. Along with the fuzzy haze of heat in the air the noise of the gas station door was bothering me. A stream of people went in and out but no one bothered to hold the door for the person behind them. So it opened and closed every few seconds with a loud slap.
To me this distills Las Vegas: a place where we become obsessed with ourselves and the short term, where carnal desires come to feed. More than the noise of the door it was the total lack of caring about each other that bothered me.
Japan feels like the opposite of Las Vegas. People here care deeply for each other. The most obvious sign of caring is the masks people wear when they’re sick. Why would a caring person want to make someone else sick? They wouldn’t, so the masks are everywhere.
Another sign of caring is the lack of theft in Japan. People don’t even lock up their bikes. There is also no bumping into each other on the subway, no smoking while walking in the streets, and no angry arguments or loud phone calls. Rarely does someone even talk on a phone indoors, and never on the train.
It’s hard to get irritated with someone in Japan because everyone is too nice and careful not to piss each other off. While buying lunch someone bowed to me four times.
The combination of all these traits makes Japan feel remarkably safe. Much safer than the United States. In Osaka and Maibara I felt no hesitation to get off the train on a lark and wander the unknown city for a day. Nothing of mine was ever stolen. One man chased me down to return a dropped 100 yen coin (about $1).
The safety extends back into the culture from the top. It was just as normal to see kids playing in the street far from their parents as it was to see strangers helping each other out. It’s so pleasant to visit a society where the default behavior isn’t to be a dick to each other.
My initial impression of Japan from the internet was that it’s both reserved and chaotic. This still seems true. Reserved: the men of Japan wear a lot of suits and the women overall seem shy. Chaotic: Tokyo intersections are a mad rush of bodies.
Japan also has a reputation of sexual liberation. I didn’t go digging for it and didn’t easily come across it. It only came to me once in an alley where I saw a sign offering a massage that was too expensive to only be a massage. That aside, Japan still feels much less like a country of perverts than the United States.
Looking back on my visit what sticks out most about Japan is its attention to detail. The trains run on time to the second, the food at convenience stores is high quality, and even the dirty things are somehow cleaner than you would expect them to be in the United States.
Everyone warned me that Japan would be very expensive. I found that Japan doesn’t have to be expensive because everything here is done so carefully. Even the cheap stuff is great.
My $25/night hotel was just a small room in an old building. Other than obvious signs of age it was perfectly fine. The shared bathroom was regularly cleaned, the room didn’t smell. A low end hotel in the United States would certainly cut costs by cleaning less frequently. That’s not how things work in Japan.
Most of my meals were at convenience stores or small restaurants. I never checked reviews of any restaurant ahead of time. Even the cheapest food in Japan is fantastic, even the desserts from a refrigerator at the corner market are very well done. Adding together my expenses at the end of the trip I spent about $70/day.
My one big regret was not planning well enough to eat at Sushiwa in Kyoto. It was supposedly Steve Job’s favorite restaurant in the world.
Finally here’s the part of Japan everyone has seen before: the deer, the flowers, and the temples. They are truly gorgeous.
The temples are so clean that to my American eyes they look like reconstructions. I still refuse to believe that some of them are over 1,000 years old. As with everything, the country and its gardens and its temples are well kept. The worst part of the whole trip was probably the feral deer on Miyajima which smelled rough but still looked great.
Japan, I’ll be back soon.