The word seems easy enough to define.
Yet how people travel and what they experience varies enormously.
You can say that ultimately, there as many ways of travelling as there are travellers.
In our case for example, Anya and I always travel alone together, booking our own accommodation and travelling from one destination to the next by local bus or train (in Japan we avoided the popular bullet trains or Shenzhen)
We never move quickly and stay in places for at least a few days going on to the next destination.
We use guidebooks such as Lonely Planet, but in a different way to most other travellers.
Firstly, we use them to work out which places we aren’t interested in because they either too busy or over commercialised. We are always on the look-out for smaller, less popular destinations. Another reason we consult the LP guides (borrowed from a library) is to find places which aren’t in the LP guide – and hence where very few travellers will visit. In other words the LP guide is useful to find places which are worth a visit – and others, which are right off the beaten trail.
When we began thinking about travelling in Japan, the first thing we bought was a good map of the country.
Our main focus was to get a bit closer to how the everyday Japanese live; their way of life and culture. Often we ended up in places that had no sights, no attractions. Wherever we were, we went on long walks, often to the outskirts of the cities/towns. We often also walked around at nights. Japan in this sense is a good country to indulge in this kind of sightseeing because it is a uniquely safe country with low crime rates; an orderly society with a strong civic culture.
Japan is a unique society in every way. On the one hand it is so obviously modern – a high tech superpower and the third largest economy in the world – and yet on the other hand, it is also very traditional. It is a liberal democracy, with elected politicians and a free press and yet one could hardly think of a bigger contrast between Japan and the world’s other liberal democracies.
In what follows are some of my thoughts and reactions during the month we spent in Japan…..
From our very first day we noticed that the Japanese do not drive SUV’s but instead, small cars and sedans. Their big companies manufacture SUV’s for the foreign markets e.g. North America, Europe and Australia. In Australia, one of the slowest western nations in the world to adopt alternative energy sources, most of the automobiles on the roads are large SUV’s which guzzle petrol and a majority of them, diesel.
The singularly most popular car in Japan is something that looks like a metal brick on wheels. Like a very small van with sliding doors and certainly not seen outside of Japan. Every major Japanese automobile firm turns out a version of this mini car/van. In a highly urbanised country with a lot of narrow roads, it is very practical. It’s small wheels allow it to be manoeuvred into confined spaces. This vehicle is immensely practical and in its own way, quintessentially Japanese. If in the future, there is a demand for these cars in densely populated, urbanised areas of the world – which seems likely – then the Japanese will have the jump on everyone.
Cars are set low on the road and Anya wondered how these vehicles would go with speed bumps – common in Australia – until we realised there were no speed bumps for the simple reason that the Japanese don’t exceed the speed limit.
Another revelation: on the busy multilane highways the traffic seemed curiously quiet and the acrid smell of petrol and especially diesel exhaust was completely absent. Another small revelation for us: all the vehicles including the trucks are either electric or hybrid. If the rest of the world followed Japan’s example, the abject regimes in the Middle East – along with Russia – would be out of business tomorrow.
Japanese drivers do not tailgate each other; they allow a space between vehicles – a degree of respect and politeness which once again, very much unique to Japan. A bigger contrast with Australia is difficult to imagine where anti-social behaviour on the roads is normal and hardly surprisingly, along with regular incidents with road rage and very high fatality/injury rates.
Japan is a rules based society, the rules being internalised rather than enforced by the police or the threat of fines. The Japanese for example do not litter. There are no litter bins. People take their litter with them. In all our wanderings, we have never seen a stray paper of piece of plastic, except in the case of cities where there are a large number of foreign tourists. Also: the Japanese do not consume food on the street which is considered poor manners; furthermore, there are very few fast food outlets, a dramatic contrast, especially with North America and Australia – and hardly detrimental to the public health.
Traditionally, the Japanese diet consists of rice, vegetables and fish. Historically, given that the country is hilly and mountainous and that there is little arable land, rice agriculture dominated rather than grazing animals. Japanese eat meat when they dine out but at home, the traditional fish based diet predominates. Much of the Japanese fish is imported, including from Russia.
Another rule which we noticed early on: it is not permitted to talk on mobile phones on public transport, in shopping centres or in public buildings. Which for my mind is a vast improvement on most other societies where the mobile phone is the centrepiece of the way of life – and which recent research has shown is accompanied by higher rates of depression and anxiety (never mind what the advertising campaigns from the big phone and social media companies would have us believe).
The Japanese do not show emotions in public and certainly not: impatience, anger or indignation. And one thing one really notices from day one, is the bowing. The Japanese bow whenever they meet someone, be it a friend, a work acquaintance or a stranger. We saw it more than once – well-dressed modern Japanese business people carefully placing their briefcase on the pavement and bowing to each other, chatting a while, and then bowing again before each going their separate ways. Bowing is also a way of greeting other people or saying ‘thank you’. (Anya and I once made way for a car to drive passed us and the driver bowed in his car!).
People had told us before we left that if we were lucky we would get to see the cherry trees in blossom. I didn’t really attach much importance to this – it hardly seemed like a good reason to visit a country – until I realized that the cherry tree is absolutely fundamental to Japanese culture and is venerated in a way almost reminiscent of India’s holy cow. The cherry tree has been planted all over Japan, in every city and town and garden (these cherry trees incidentally, only produce very small cherries which only the birds can eat, because most cherry trees are grown from cuttings and purely for their blossom). The cherry tree bloom is so important that the national weather bureau issues updates about when the cherry trees will blossom in each different area of the country. The whole country watches the cherry tree updates to know when their town is expected to bloom.
Traditionally people get married during the cherry blossom season – which these days doesn’t necessarily lead to happy marriages; divorce in Japan, once unknown, is now at 35%. This is undoubtedly a reflection of the advancement of women, who increasingly don’t get married and don’t have children. In the traditional society, the man worked long hours and the woman stayed home and cooked, cleaned and looked after the kids. Those days are over and young Japanese women are not interested in the old ways.
At the time we were in Japan there were local elections and it was conspicuous how many young candidates – including women – were on the rise. This is a interesting stress fracture as it were in the role of tradition; an uneasy balance between the old and the new. Along with a declining birth rate, Japan has an aging population and the demographics are moving faster than expected. Just how they are going to deal with this will be interesting. Japan is not a multicultural society and is unlikely to change in this respect. Mass immigration, basic to the world’s other liberal democracies, will never be embraced.
Maintaining a homogenous culture is basic to maintaining an orderly, well run society where every agrees on the rules and expected behaviour. Furthermore it goes hand in hand with a high degree of social economic equality, social cohesion, low crime rates along with the world’s lowest percentage of homelessness. The foundation of Japanese society is the work place. It is here above all, where the uniqueness of Japanese culture is especially evident and which I will explore further in my next blog……