It's about attention to detail, writes RICHARD PENNICK.
Greetings and smiles were warm and lingering. At every turn, friendly passers-by assisted us to board trains, streetcars, subways and buses. Nothing, it seemed, was too much trouble.
There is a reassuring sense of personal safety and security in Japan. We never once experienced even a moment of disquiet, even walking the narrow streets to our hotels or ryokan inns in the late evenings. There is little conspicuous police presence, but there is an abiding respect for law and order and a culture of “doing the right thing”.
We did not find Japan expensive; however, it can be, if you want a Wagyu steak dinner or an exotic seafood dish. Japanese department store prices for clothing and accessories are comparable with Australia and all purchases are beautifully wrapped in Japanese themed paper.
Food courts and bakeries occupy the basements of most department stores and if you wait until just before 6pm (closing time), pre-prepared meals, cakes and fresh produce are sold off at a fraction of their original price.
Our experience of eating in Ramen Noodle cafes and sushi bars was that prices were much the same as at home. Knives and forks are available for the inept Gaigin (foreigner) and soup bowls may be lifted to the lips; disposable antiseptic wet wipes take the place of paper serviettes. When dining in traditional Japanese restaurants, shoes are left inside the restaurant door and seating is on cushions on the floor with feet in a foot well.
In cafes, tables and chairs are standard… and you can leave your shoes on.
Tipping is embarrassing for the intended recipient and not accepted. It is believed to be an honour and a duty to serve a guest, perhaps a remnant of the Samurai or Bushido code.
In Tokyo’s Harajuko district, we searched out the Gyoza Ro Dumpling House (a recommendation). Then, we sat at a counter and ordered a selection of the best steamed and fried dumplings ever.
Queues outside restaurants and cafes move quickly as diners sitting inside — aware that people are waiting — do not linger over their meals.
We seldom heard a smartphone; phones are set on vibrate and people are very considerate of others when using them. Smoking in Japan is in rapid decline, especially among the young and is prohibited in many public areas.
Jaywalking or crossing against the pedestrian lights is a major no-no. Public areas are scrupulously clean. There are few rubbish bins, but no litter and no graffiti.
We stayed at a mix of Western-style hotels and Ryokan inns. Ryokan inns can be modern or centuries old. Although the rooms are often small, welcomes are warm and our every need is catered for.
We left our outdoor shoes at the front doors and once inside used our own soft shoes or provided slippers.
However, inside your room, you do wear the provided slippers to walk on the Tatami matting and separate must-wear toilet slippers.
Yukatas, or cotton robes, were behind our door, and we wore them — a little self-consciously — in Ryokan public areas.
Standard Ryokan room furnishings feature a single low table with two legless chairs, a mini-fridge, a large kettle, a tray of little cups, a teapot for making green tea (bags) and a small basket of treats. The futons (beds) are stored in a large cupboard and were laid out on the floor each evening. The “ensuite” is a small bathroom and toilet.
The full Ryokan/Onsen (spa) experience may take you out of your comfort zone, but try it once or you may leave Japan feeling that you have not done everything. Plainly speaking, you wash and bathe naked in the company of others. You may even enjoy it; we felt better for it, glowing and very clean.
In Ryokans if there is no Western breakfast option, Japanese buffet breakfasts are a delicious, but bewildering array of hot and cold dishes. I followed a Japanese guest and selected the same items as he did. It worked out just fine.
Buses, trams, trains and planes maintain tight schedules. On domestic flights there is no reserved seating and passengers quickly seat from back to front. Do not tilt your seat back, it is considered most impolite.
The Shinkansens (bullet trains) travel at speeds of up to 320km/h. The speed is hypnotic. The Shinkansens arrive within seconds of schedule, then depart within two minutes.
A must-do traditional experience was our Shabu-Shabu dinner evening in Kyoto’s Gion District. We dipped sliced meats and vegetables in a hot pot of simmering broth.
The evening included a performance by a charming Meiko, an “apprentice” Geisha.
She danced and sang while accompanying herself on the Shamisen, a three-stringed instrument.
She then knelt and described her costume, training and life in the Okiya (hostel).
Then, with a charming bow she was gone… to her next appointment.
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The Travel Club Show : Japan for first-timers
The first-time visitor to Japan arrives with a lot of baggage, including the cultural variety. All those preconceptions we have about a place like Japan which, from a distance, can seem intense yet calm, modern yet traditional, compact yet spacious.
Maybe it's all these. Just think: Boys Love Manga and woodblock prints. Maid cafes and geisha tea houses. Anime and kabuki. Bullet trains and rickshaws. Crowded cities and serene villages. Hamburgers and sushi.
But the biggest thing confronting the first-time visitor is the unknown...