By Patricia Lightfoot

Based on a recent visit, these are my impressions of Japan. It’s a Western country, so a lot is familiar, but there are many fascinating differences. I was struck by the great contrast between the skyscrapers and neon signs of downtown districts and the older neighbourhoods. Walking into our neighbourhood in Asakusa in Tokyo was like entering a film set: narrow streets were lined with wooden houses that are hundreds of years old, often where the same family has lived or run a business for many generations. In these areas, businesses can be hard to find, because they can be very discreet. It took us three days in our Shimabara neighbourhood in Kyoto to spot the local breakfast place. Their small sign was made up of wooden letters set against a wooden wall, which was charming, but not easy to spot. A lot of people cycle through the older parts of Japanese cities, including women transporting children to and from school. Seeing this in the Tsukishima neighbourhood of Tokyo, with its narrow streets and canals, reminded me of Amsterdam.

tsukishima
Tsukishima, Tokyo

The Japanese people we encountered were helpful and kind. Speaking a little Japanese went a long way, especially paired with enthusiastic miming, but we did have some “lost in translation” moments when we were summarily ejected from one bar, because the proprietor mistakenly thought that we were looking for dinner rather than drinks, and from another where, it emerged, they just wanted us out of the way while they wiped down a table. In the latter case, three of us ended up in the street, wondering what on earth we had done wrong, while our friend was still inside using the “tardis-like” washroom, which stood in the middle of the tiny bar.

Public transport was truly efficient and featured a lot of English signage on subways, trains and buses. Staff were always available on train platforms to answer questions from anxious foreigners. There was quite a lot of commercial signage in English, not all of it appealing: I would avoid the hair salon called Ugly Duckling. Interestingly, the ambulance and fire trucks in the mountain village of Koya were labelled in both Japanese and English.

The frequent presence of shrines and temples was a very attractive feature of Japan. There are shrines and temples within neighbourhoods and even little shrines on sidewalks. A tree or a waterfall can be a shrine. Shinto and Buddhism seem to coexist happily. If it’s a shrine, it’s Shinto. If it’s a temple, it’s Buddhist. We were told that an individual may practise Shinto during their early life, but then as they age, Buddhism becomes more meaningful to them.

yumoto onsen
Shrine in Yumoto Onsen, Japan

The ubiquitous 7-Elevens were, as others have commented online, extremely useful. Their ATMs were the only ones that consistently recognized our bank cards. They also had an excellent array of prepared foods, as well as familiar European, Californian and New Zealand wines at very reasonable prices. The slowly decaying Christmas cake on display beside the door of the nearest 7-Eleven to our Airbnb was an odd feature. In a country where there are few Christians, Christmas seems to be a big deal. By mid-November, stores and malls featured decorations, lights, music and catalogues listing special European-style seasonal cakes.

Some travel guides recommend visiting the department stores, but they just contain a lot of high-end Western brands. Areas like the Nishiki market in Kyoto and the outdoor shopping arcades in central Osaka were far more interesting.

I would recommend wearing slip-on shoes for visits to temples and for entering houses, apartments and certain restaurants. Also, do as the locals do and purchase a handkerchief-like cloth for drying your hands after using one of Japan’s many public washrooms, most of which provide neither paper towels nor dryers. There are very pretty handkerchiefs for sale at most major sights for this purpose.

Here is the first instalment of a brief tour of Japan presented through the Japanese words I practised each day.

Day 1: Tokyo
Words of the day
Tatami in honour of the mats that cover the living-room and bedroom floors in traditional Japanese dwellings, which may never be despoiled by shoes or, indeed, by the careless spilling of red wine.
Toire because in our Airbnb there was a disconcerting sink set into the tank of the toilet, which naturally had a heated seat.

air b&b
Toire with built-in sink: efficient, yet disconcerting

Izakaya because our welcoming neighbourhood bar sold beer, saké and luminous green tea, plus meat on sticks or yakitori, and provided a stopping-off place for dark-suited “salarymen” on their way home for work, or at least that was our impression.
Places visited: Arrival at the Airbnb, the 7-Eleven, neighbourhood izakaya

Izakaya
Our neighbourhood izakaya

Day 2: Tokyo
Words of the day
Ikimashou or “let’s go,” because we had a lot to see, including the Tsukiji fish market. We had to pay attention here, because as we admired the large tuna, buckets of sea creatures and sharp knives, little delivery vehicles called turrets regularly shot by us along the narrow alleys between stalls.
Okonomiyaki, because we enjoyed this Japanese comfort food composed of eggs, meat or seafood, cabbage and noodles cooked together on a hot plate and topped with a spicy, thick, sweet sauce, mayonnaise and bonito flakes.
Places visited: Tsukiji fish market, Namiyoke-Jinja shrine, Hama Rikyu gardens, Tsukishima, the Moomin café at the Skytree, the Sensoji temple.
Note: A lot of restaurants in Japan are very small, sometimes seating only six to eight people, and feature enthusiastic grilling, including those restaurants that serve okonomiyaki. In some of these establishments, there is a box under one’s seat, in which one can put one’s outer clothing and purse. This is very helpful in ensuring that one’s coat does not absorb cooking fumes, but unfortunately it does not solve the problem of one’s hair smelling of dinner.

Day 3: Tokyo
Word of the day
Abunai or “dangerous,” because of the signs and announcements on Tokyo’s superb system of public transport. This word did not apply to the country-fair atmosphere at the Meiji shrine, nor to the crowded shopping street in Harajuku that appeals to teens. Dinner in a tiny restaurant in a crowded alley in the Shinjuku was really stimulating. The contrast crush of humans squeezing past tightly packed rickety wooden buildings where chefs were grilling food made me think of the Middle Ages. This being Japan, everyone was very polite. A potentially abunai sighting of Godzilla peering over the top of a cinema showing, yes, a Godzilla movie in the Shinjuku district seemed very wholesome compared with some of the more sleazy streets.
Places visited: Meiji shrine, Harajuku, Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (to see the sunset, which we missed), Shinjuku

shinjuku

Day 4: Tokyo
Word of the day
Hayaku or “hurry up,” again because there was a lot to see and do, including the hunt for a particular coffee shop at breakfast time, which proved too small to accommodate a party of six; the 2500-kg sandals at the Sensoji temple; one act of a Kabuki play, which was most entertaining; and plastic food in Kitchen Town.
Places visited: Sensoji temple, Kabukiza Theatre, Kitchen Town.

kitchen town
Plastic sushi for purchase in Kitchen Town

Next stop: Nikko

Photos: Patricia Lightfoot and Phillip Lightfoot