Japan: Arrival Notes & First Impressions

Japan travel journal, continued:

Hello, internet friends. I’m writing you from my hotel room in Tokyo’s Shinjuku area, my belly full of ramen, my brain stuffed full of new images, and my feet sore from many miles of sightseeing.

It’s always exciting to explore a country for the first time. Here’s a quick post about my first impressions after arriving in Japan.

Tokyo: First Impressions

Arrival at Narita Airport was smooth and easy. Airport employees scanned us with a special camera designed to look for elevated body temperatures (a health screening, they called it), took our fingerprints and photos, and ushered us through passport control with incredible efficiency and courtesy.

We picked up our rail tickets at the JR Pass office. We were handed forms, a clipboard, and told where to stand. Easy peasy! Later, when we paused to look at a map to find our hotel, a station employee rushed forward to assist us. We never asked for help, but we may have looked confused. 🙂

So my first impressions of Japan were twofold. I thought to myself:

The Japanese have systems to keep things moving, and their systems work.

Courtesy and helpfulness appear to be social norms.

This combination of efficiency and courtesy makes Japan a very pleasant place to visit.

Small Differences from Home

I always enjoy noting what feels different when I travel. Here’s what stands out to me here:

Clothing here is more conservative and homogeneous than I’m used to. Lots of dark business suits for men and longish skirts with dark tights for women. I see lots of stylish business uniforms.

There’s far less eye contact than in the states. Unaware of this, I accidentally got into a “bowing loop” with a hotel employee while waiting for an elevator. I made eye contact. He bowed. I bowed. I (accidentally) made eye contact again. Then another round of bowing ensued. It was awkward and (in retrospect) funny. I learned not to make as much eye contact! 😆

In general, there seem to be a lot of rules about where to line up for things, how to greet people depending upon context, and other subtle forms of etiquette. But in habitually gracious Japanese fashion, the locals don’t seem to expect visitors to understand how to behave.

And isn’t that the ultimate in politeness? Not expecting people to be polite if they don’t know how to be? I’m very impressed by that attitude. ☺️

Interestingly, it seems 10% or more of the locals wear surgical-style masks as they walk around town. Germ prevention? Probably. To American eyes it seems a tad extreme, but I can understand the logic. Crowds can be intense here, and illnesses could spread quickly.

Lastly, there seems to be a big focus on “cute” in the popular culture. Teenage boys wear bunny ears and giggle in TV advertisements, while anime billboards blur the line between sexy and cute. I’m told that Japanese cuteness culture is called Kawaii.

Some Practical Travel Notes

A few things I’ve learned:

The JR Pass has been excellent! Just show your pass at the manned booth and you can ride almost any train. Using the HYPERDIA app, we can easily see what trains to take, what’s covered by our pass, and what platform the train will be at.

Tokyo’s rail stations are well marked and well organized, but so freaking enormous that they can feel intimidating at first. Information booths have English-speaking staff, so help is available.

It seems most service workers know a few words of English. Photo menus are common, and we’ve had no trouble ordering food in Tokyo.

Basic meals (rice bowls, ramen, curry shops) are inexpensive at about $10 per person. But physical goods seem pricey. $50 for an iPhone case and $100 for a computer mouse, for example. I saw a mousepad for $26! Even small vending machine toys run $4-5 each.

I did find my favorite gel pens for half the price they cost at home. So that’s cool.

That’s all I’ve got for today. We’ve been hitting the sightseeing trail hard, walking 8+ miles per day and soaking up the atmosphere. I’m having a great time, but our busy schedule hasn’t left me much time for reflection.

We’re headed to the mountains next, then Kyoto, the old capital. Can’t wait.

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