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Misconceptions about Japan

In this article I put paid to a few misconceptions about Japan. I have to confess that become I arrived I had some of these misconceptions myself!

Tokyo is a big bad city - biggest in the world - a huge sprawling mass of concrete with very few open spaces. Not the kind of place to go for a relaxed holiday.
It's true that Tokyo is a very big city, biggest in the world if you include the neighboring built up areas, but it's simply not true that there are no open spaces. There are many parks, including the Imperial Palace in the centre, Yoyogi, Ueno, and lots of smaller green spaces. The temple in Ueno Park is in the middle of Tokyo, and yet you'd think you were in the middle of Cambodia or Thailand, it's so peaceul. Because the public transportation is so good, and because people are calm and well-ordered, you don't get a hectic, stressful feel as in London. There is virtually no street crime and there are few if any 'no go' areas. Tokyo is one of the safest cities in the world. There are many attractions in Tokyo for people of all ages and interests.

The Tokyo Metro system is like a mass of multicolor spaghetti. You'll never be able to find your way around it.
It certainly looks like a mass of multicolor spaghetti, but once you've got the hang of the ticket machines, you'll find it to be very easy to navigate, far easier than the New York subway. Every station on every line is given a number, so even if you didn't know Japanese or English, you would be able to find your way from any one station to another simply by finding the numbers. The network is so dense, few places are very far from a Metro station. You can never get lost on the Tokyo Metro as long as you keep an eye on the map.

The trains on the Tokyo Metro are so crowded, they employ staff to push people into the carriages.
Tokyo has a reputation for being very crowded, and there are huge numbers of people travelling around the city every day. But because the trains are frequent - usually every five minutes - and long - often 10 or more carriages - there is usually enough space for everyone, even at rush hour. At off-peak times the trains are not crowded at all. My dad told me about the 'station pushers' as a child. Actually he was fascinated with Tokyo and Japan, though he never had the opportunity to visit.

Everything is in Japanese, and there are only a few token English signs, making it very difficult to find your way around.
It may have been true in the past that signs were only in Japanese, but nowadays every station sign is in Japanese and English. Not only that, many on-board train announcements are in English. Especially commendable is the the English announcement on the Hikari bullet trains, spoken by a very polite and reassuring British English female voice. Ticket machines usually have an English version, but not always. If you can't see an English version, look around, there is probably one nearby.

Japanese food is totally weird and very expensive. Unless you're keen on sea anemone, puffer fish and other strange things that stare up at you from the plate, better give Japanese food a miss.
Upmarket Japanese cuisine has a reputation for being sometimes weird and often wonderful, but the day to day reality is otherwise. As in other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, most food consists of rice and various types of meat fish or seafood. Suprisingly, one of the most popular dishes is rice and curry - pronounced 'ka-re'. I recommend Yoshinoya chain of restaurants, where you sit up at a bar and are served directly by friendly staff. I did not come across one sea anemone or puffer fish during my stay. For that you would have to go into a very expensive restaurant. Food in Japan needn't cost a lot, and at the department stores you can get food samples for free.

Japan is one of the most expensive cities in the world. Even a cup of coffee costs a fortune, hotel rates are astronomical, only rich people can afford to go there.
Japan's reputation for being an expensive country comes from the economic boom period during the 1980s when the yen rose to a high level against other currencies. At that time Japan was very expensive. but then came the crash and economic stagnation of the 1990s. Today Japan is not as expensive as it was. Visitors from the UK will be surprised to find many prices to be about the same, or cheaper than at home. Other things are more expensive. It's possible to find very reasonable hotels. We recommend the Sakura Hotel. For discounted rates on luxury hotels, try booking through Expedia or Octopus Travel. We got a well-appointed room at the Hankyu on the 35th floor for just 147 US dollars per night (81 sterling)

In Japan you'll truly be a stranger in a strange land. No-one speaks English. People will stare at you like you're from another planet.
By now, the Japanese are so used to foreigners - gai jin - in their country, they take no notice of them whatsoever. Japan has enthusiastically taken on American and English-speaking culture - Japanese is full of English words, though pronounced with a Japanese accent. Many Japanese speak some English, though it's true that the level of proficiency is generally not very high. Foreign visitors ought to make the effort to learn some words of Japanese. A little will go a long way. And despite the language barrier, most Japanese are obsessively polite, and will try their best to help you.

And some positive misconceptions...

Tokyo is a futuristic, ultra-modern place like something out of a manga comic book.
This image of Tokyo probably originates in the district named Akihabara Electric City, where all kinds of strange and trendsetting electrical goods are showcased. Other districts have a curiously retro quality. In the Ginza district, the neon lights are bright but old fashioned street lamps give it a feel of another age. In many aspects Tokyo does have the appearance of a city from a Manga comic book, and that's part of its special magic.

Everything is neat and tidy in Japan and the cities are pretty, like something out of an old woodblock print. Japanese cities are not generally pretty in the traditional sense. Mostly rebuilt after the ravages of war and occasional earthquakes, most visitors will find the urban landscape of Japan is at best unremarkable and at worst ugly. For me there is beauty in the urban landscape of Japan, especially at night, and of course, set amongst the concrete blocks, electricity pylons, railway lines and elevated highways, there are exquisite temples and gardens, where you feel you are transported back into an Ukiyo-e woodblock print.

Any questions about Japan? Please contact.

Click here to view my latest photos from Japan!


Written by Aidan O'Rourke
Posted/Updated 2005-09-09

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