Some general impressions of Japan this time, before we move on to Tokyo. They drive on the left there; if you're not used to it, be careful to look both ways before crossing the road:
...assuming you can see, of course. If you can't, there's a system of paving stones there with raised lines on them, or dots at intersections, for the visually impaired (see photo above). I've seen these (though not, I must admit, previously understood their purpose) before (in fact, as I'm writing this on the S-Bahn on my way home, I can see them outside the windows at stations), but whereas in Europe their appearance on roads is somewhat haphazard, in Japan they're universal on major roads.
Speaking of stations, in Japan we often found canned birdsong playing in stations there. Go figure.
The postboxes in Japan also look rather familiar to British eyes:
But the traffic lights are on their sides:
And maps of the area which you may find on the street seem to have north in arbitrary directions; it generally points left, right, up or down, but which varies from map to map with no observable pattern.
In coastal areas, you'll also see signs like this a lot:
Japanese writing has three alphabets: several thousand kanji or Chinese characters, which is supplemented by two different systems of kana or syllabograms. It takes children most of their time in school to learn all the kanji, so where it's really important that everyone understands, such as the above sign, you'll see the kanji spelled out phonetically in hiragana above. (We also saw this a lot in the atomic bombing museum in Hiroshima, where school trips constituted a lot of the visitors.)
I'd read many times over the years that the Japanese language is simplistic in its structure, and every syllable takes the form CV(n), i.e. a consonant, a vowel and then an optional syllable-closing letter N, but this turns out simply not to be the case, and I am at a loss to explain why this description continues to be perpetuated. Not only are there cases where this might technically be true, but it doesn't come across that way ("consonants" include ∅ (no sound) such that you can have two vowels back to back, and ts is counted as a single sound (as it also is in German and Hebrew, to name just two examples)), and also doubled consonants, but there are also numerous cases of U being silent, especially after S. It's possible such U's are pronounced in parts of Japan, but I didn't hear it (or at least notice it) when I was there. Even given that these U's cannot not be written in Japanese (rememember kana are syllabograms, i.e. represent a whole syllable, not just a single letter); I cannot explain why these U's are also written in transliteration into the Latin alphabet, including websites giving phrases for tourists, where they are distinctly misleading.
One last thing which I'm wibbling about writing systems. It's well-known that the Japanese currency, the yen, has its own symbol ¥. What I didn't realise until I got to Japan is that this is purely for use in the Latin alphabet. In Japanese writing, the yen has a completely different symbol, 円.
Japan is famous for its complicated electronic toilets, complete with heated seats, pre-rinse whenever you sit down, bidet functions, and occasionally also sound, to cover up the embarrassment of anyone worried about their bodily functions being heard from outside the cubicle.
aviva_m spent the lead-up to the holiday terrified she would not be able to figure out how to operate the toilets...
... but the basic flush functionality turned out to be the same as we're used to. One public toilet I saw amused me by having each urinal equipped with its own umbrella stand. (I saw umbrella stands in train stations too.)
For all this high technology, though, I was left rather underwhelmed by public toilets in Japan as they rarely featured soap (or handtowels/hand driers).
And let's not even talk about the fact they drink (a drink called) sweat:
Also for a country with lots of high technology, we saw a surprising number of people doing fairly menial jobs one would have expected to have been at least partially automated, for example acting as a tram conductor, or sweeping the street using not just a broom but indeed the old-fashioned kind consisting of a bundle of twigs, rather than street-sweeping vehicles.
We saw a lot of people doing their jobs in a public context, for example traffic police, wore white gloves. I suspect this owes something to nineteenth-century England, though how, I'm not quite sure.
There are lots of people in Japan wearing surgical masks; apparently something like one in four of the population suffer from hayfever.
There are a lot of USAn fast food chains to be found in Japan; I saw there chains, like Denny's or Wendy's, which I hadn't seen since my last time in the States in 1990.
And lastly, for today, the ecological niche which is filled in the UK by seagulls (black-backed gulls and herring gulls) is filled in central Japan (I didn't see this when we went further west), instead by black kites. It was quite something to see these great big birds of prey swooping low over beaches. Sadly, I didn't have a camera with me when I got to see them really close up; and when I did later have a camera, I didn't get to see any close enough up to get a decent photo of.—Originally posted on Dreamwidth, where there are comments. Please comment there using OpenID or a DreamWidth account (which you no longer need an invite code to create). Though I am leaving comments enabled on LiveJournal for a bit, please don't comment here if you can do so there instead.