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`Gaijin` - A Foreigner in Japan

by sue n 

Posted: 11 January 2004
Word Count: 1129
Summary: A few tips for the traveller to this alien world

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Guijin - a foreigner in Japan

The strangest place I have ever visited is Japan. The airport is just like any other large international terminus, lulling you into a false sense of security. It is at Tokyo Station that you first realise that you have been transported to a different planet. The alien squiggles covering ticket machines, maps, directional signposts and instructions sent me into a dizzy swirl of blind panic. It was no easier in the city outside as the streets have no name plates, which made my new map totally redundant. I continuously jumped in terror as the staff, in unison, bellowed out ‘Irasshaimase’ (welcome) to anyone crossing the threshold of restaurant or shop. There are just no starting points to understand the written or spoken word.

Tokyo is a concrete and neon jungle heaving with busy shoppers all sporting T-shirts with badly translated slogans or cute and cuddly pictures. The youngsters of Japan, who seem to have grown a foot in a generation, sport bleached hair that, whatever the intended colour, seems to turn out orange. They continuously fiddle with flashy mobile phones and have itsey-bitesy toys hanging from belts or bags. My prize Japanese souvenir is a fluffy Buddha key ring.

The Japanese are a complex people. They travel all over the world lapping up foreign culture but have done nothing to preserve their own in a sympathetic environment. The area of Harajuku is a prime example, where designer boutiques, kitsch brick-a-brac, Kiddy Land, (floor upon floor of fluffy gimmicky toys) live side by side with the Meiji-jingu shrine and the Shinjuku Gyoen a beautiful park. Joining these two extremes is a bridge where, on Sundays, 'alternative' Japanese youth congregate, dressed in black leather, fairy costumes, bloodstained doctor’s coats and anything else bizarre.

Menus are rarely translated but most eating places have plastic replica dishes in the window so you can drag out a waiter and point. Beware plates of discoloured fish and yellowing noodles as the quality of the window display usually accurately reflects that of the food. Making these model judgements became superfluous once I discovered ‘Izakaya’s, bars that serve a huge variety of cheap and varied dishes that you just keep ordering until full. Eating and especially drinking, like most things in Japan, is expensive. A pint of gassy beer is about £4 to £5, but the saki, often served hot, is much cheaper. Shops and cafes aren't actually necessary as soft drinks, tea, coffee, alcohol, cigarettes, batteries, ice creams and even hot noodles can be bought from machines on every street corner.

Some tips:
DO get a rail pass before you go. The trains are frequent, punctual, clean and once you get used to them, by far the easiest way to get around. Local, express and the Shinkansen (bullet) trains, glide in and out of stations with admirable efficiency. (I will refrain from any obvious comparisons). The rail pass enables you to get on and off anywhere in the country free.
Tips for women on trains:
DON'T be surprised to sit next to a man reading Manga (cartoon) porn.
DO watch for unwelcome male intrusions into your personal space when standing in a crowded carriage.
DON'T expect anything exciting or dangerous to happen while travelling in Japan. Japan is an extremely safe place with a negligible crime rate. Obedience is universal. I was on a crowded beach when the loudspeaker suddenly blared out ‘auld lang syne’. It was 5pm, time for the lifeguards to go home and everyone dutifully trooped out of the water en masse. Roads can be clear a mile in either direction but not a soul will cross until the green man lights up. Nobody eats or drinks on the local trains, which may explain their pristine cleanliness. The drunken salary men, (grey suited commuters) coming home from work at 10 or 11 at night, sway quietly, never aggressive.
DON'T blow your nose in public as it is bad manners.
DO wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off, necessary to enter virtually all buildings. Remember holes in your socks in a trendy restaurant could ruin all street cred.
DON'T be surprised at the noise in eating places, as noodles are sucked up into the mouth with a loud slurp.

To escape the frenzy of Tokyo I caught the Shinkansen to Kyoto, the old capital of Japan. You are allowed to eat on this train and the air was full of fishy smells as chopsticks efficiently dispatched the contents of cardboard food boxes into mouths. The modern is replacing the old at a rapid rate in Kyoto. The new railway station is a high-tech steel building, with a 10 storey shopping mall on top. Only five minutes walk away is the huge Nishi and Higashi temples and the delightful Kikoku-tei garden, with herons nesting in the trees by the lake. There isn't a lot of the original geisha area of Gion left, most of it replaced by designer boutiques and McDonalds, only a few cobbled streets lined with traditional wooden houses remaining.

No escape here from the concrete and crowds, so I tried the traditional day trip to Hakone, an area of lakes and mountains near Mount Fuji. Enter Japanese Disneyland. I rode up and down the mountains on brightly painted funicular and cable car, and crossed the lake in a replica Spanish warship with life size wax work pirates. The promised view of Mount Fuji was obscured by mist. As is often the way in this country the experience was redeemed by a little piece of beauty amongst the modern paraphernalia. An open air art museum had a variety of sculptures, including several Rodin’s, beautifully laid out in a large park.

Japan could never be described as a relaxing place. I was always conscious that I may be unwittingly giving offence by not knowing the complex rules of behaviour. Behind the grey concrete frontage of my hotel were simple traditional rooms with tatami floor and no furniture other than a low table. I eventually found the bedding behind sliding doors and also the ‘yukata’ a bathrobe. But I had no idea of the etiquette of bath-time so dared not risk the communal bath and made do with the wash basin. I would have liked to try a traditional tea house, but my ignorance of the etiquette made me too nervous. Surprisingly few Japanese speak English but, though inclined to stare, the people are friendly, helpful, and tolerant of ‘gaijin’ (foreigners) I could have spent the night in a railway siding if a kind Japanese lady hadn't stopped me jumping onto an empty train.

I returned home from my two weeks in Japan mentally exhausted. I wonder how many years it takes to understand this place.

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Comments by other Members

Richard Brown at 09:15 on 12 January 2004  Report this post
Not having been to Japan, I found this piece very informative and interesting. It feels as though it has been written as a newspaper or magazine article and as such I'm sure it would be of great interest to those who are beginning to think about making the long trip or those who are in the early stages of planning a visit. The style of the article is very engaging. I like the balance of positive and negative. I can't say that it increased my desire to go to the place but Japan has never been very high on my list of travel targets. Altogether, an excellent piece of travel journalism, I think.


jimbob72 at 16:03 on 12 January 2004  Report this post

I agree with Richard - this is excellent travel writing, especially from a journalistic point of view.

But what would really cap it for me, is the inclusion of some interaction with the locals. Perhaps just a couple of comments from people you met, or a brief anecdote or aside given to you by someone that knows the inside track.

Given your Guardian experience, are you submitting for publication? If so, I'll keep my eyes peeled for its appearance!


sue n at 23:10 on 12 January 2004  Report this post
Thanks for the comments. This is an updated version of an article that I wrote for the Guardian when I went to Japan shortly after my big trip. I did actually get PAID for it but then an article appeared by a reporter that bore quite alot of similarities but wasn't mine. I was very disappointed but consoled by the money. Do papers often pay for articles they don't use? Perhaps it was too obvious that I didn't really like Japan.

Richard Brown at 10:25 on 22 January 2004  Report this post
Sue, Sadly papers do quite often 'spike' commissioned pieces but usually, as far as I know, it's because they run out of space. It's very disappointing when a carefully crafted article doesn't appear but think of the poor film script writers! Only a tiny percentage of paid-for, lovingly-worked scrips get made into films. I doubt that the tone of your Japan piece was the cause of it's rejection - it was probably just that there wasn't room on some page.

sue n at 18:23 on 22 January 2004  Report this post
Undeterred I am now trying other articles, aimed at Women's magazines.
Having a rest from the book to come to it again with fresh eyes after a few months absence. I miss it!
I did have an appraisal done which confirmed my suspicions that I am still not sure what kind of book I am writing - travelogue,guide book, personal journey, funny story, literary masterpiece etc. I know it is not the later but a mixture of the rest that can't work. Mmmm difficult one.

Richard Brown at 17:59 on 23 January 2004  Report this post
Not too sure about the 'can't work' - if it feels right to you to cross the conventional boundaries then maybe you should go for it. Anyway - good luck with the articles.

di2 at 01:59 on 04 November 2005  Report this post
I enjoyed your 2004 article. Good writing.

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