I have been infected with the 'Japan Bug' since I am four years old. My first encounter with the Japanese culture was when I became friends with Takashi in kindergarten in Amsterdam. That is the first time I also started to learn about the Japanese cuisine, Japanese manners and discipline. I got intrigued immediately and never lost my fascination for Japan.
Thanks to my Japanese childhood friend in Amsterdam I got hooked on sushi, origami, Nintendo games, Japanese comics, Transformers and electric toy cars. Obviously, thanks to my friend, we had fresh supplies straight from Tokyo twice a year.
Strangely enough I never shook that passion for Japan, but it took me 32 years later to finally visit this mythical country. And, the irony is that it was work that took me there. Casio invited my father and I to visit their factories in Japan. In 1983 Casio created the revolutionary G-Shock watches, which I also got infatuated with when I was 4 years old. So, you can imagine how excited I was that we got invited to travel to Tokyo.
Today I got back after spending almost a complete week in Japan where we visited only Tokyo and Yamagata. So, I still need to process and let everything sink in, but wanted to write a quick post and share my first impressions (in random order):
People: They are so SO friendly and polite. The stereotype is so true that they bow at every occasion and multiple times in a conversation. The more respect they have, the deeper they bow. After a week you get used to it and one notices that you start bowing yourself automatically.
The locals are also very helpful and will go out of their way to help you.
Cities: I have only visited Tokyo and Yamagata, but what I noticed first is that the cities are so clean. And, the funny thing is that you will not find a single garbage bin anywhere! Almost a contradiction!
Metro: I have visited many cities and try always to use the metro system at least one. I was impressed by the Japanese network and infrastructure. Not only very clean, but also very punctual. And, a lot of people warned me that it is a difficult country to navigate in as hardly anyone speaks English and all the signs lack English. I can not confirm this. All the navigation signs (roads and public transportation) where bi-lingual or even tri-lingual (Japanese, English and Chinese). And, let's not forget all the signage on the floors to indicate walking directions and where to que up 😉
Culture: First thing I noticed that the people are very polite and well dressed. And, you hardly see people are over-weight. Or, even better said, it seems (not statistically researched by me) that 95% is lean! Then you notice that even late at night you see people leaving work at 8pm, 9pm, 10pm and even 11pm. You literally see them leaving offices, streets are busy that late at night and people in suits and business attire. Nobody bumps into each other. And, what was interesting, nobody raises it's voice. It seems that they take the issue of keeping the volume down so seriously, that it is forbidden to speak on mobile phones in the metro!
Mouth Caps: In The West we are used to seeing Asians wearing mouth caps. Especially when SARS accured. But, flying from Amsterdam to Tokyo I spotted a few people on the plane wearing a mouth cap, but as soon as we landed in Tokyo, it seemed 10% tot 20% of people where wearing a mouth cap. After a week, you get used to it and it seems normal. Everywhere you go, no matter the ago or gender, approx 1/5 of the population was wearing a mouth cap. When you enter a drug store, there are hundreds of different kinds in different sizes, available with different scents and colors. When you inquire why people wear them so much, the official answer is: People who wear a mouth cap have an infection and do not want to infect other. Uber form of politeness! Right?! But, I started paying attention and many people wearing a mouth cap were not sneezing, coughing of seemed fatiguq... So, I think a second reason is less polite and more self-centered: they do not want to be infected... Which is fine 😉
Cuisine: In case you love Japanese cuisine (read: sushi is just a small part of it), you feel in food heaven in Japan. In case you do not like Japanese food, you are not going to enjoy a visit to Japan as much as I did. Obviously you will find many different kinds of restaurants, especially as it seems that Japanese love French, Italian and American fashion & cuisine. But, I think that 90% of the food establishments are focused on Japanese cuisine. In case you love fish, I really recommend you to visit Tsukiji Market (Tokyo Fish Market - which is moving in 2016 to a new location).
Technology: I was always under the impression that Japan was the most advanced technology nation out there. I got this impression by the many technology companies they have, the innovations they launched, the focus on robots and their leading role in mobile technology. But, arriving in Japan, I noticed that I was somewhat disappointed. I did not find any new mobile phones, no new camera's, no amazing hybrid cars (which I never seen before - on the road or online), no technical innovations I not have seen before. Maybe my expectations where unrealistic as we live in a super connected world and the world is getting smaller since we are so connected and every technological innovation is adapted globally in a split second...
But, I still did not shake my sense of disappointment as I saw many people still using flip phones (fold-able phones) and old smart phones. And, what really struck me as odd: the number one phone in Japan was the iPhone... Yes, an American product! In contrary to most of the world, iOS is leading in Japan and they do not like Samsung & Android in Japan. Is it strange that I expected that Japanese phones (in combination with Android) would dominate?
But, I have never seen so many vending machines in my life. Literally every corner in Tokyo and Yamagata had a vending machine. Mostly for drinks. Most machines offer cold AND hot drinks from same machine. I drank hot milk tea and hot coffee IN cans from vending machine offering cooled bottled drinks.
Economy: It seems that the Japanese economy is getting back on track. They always exported more than they imported and Japan is a producing country. Mostly technology and innovation. VAT on products is only 8% and it seems the Japanese are real consumers. They shop a lot and like luxury. They eat out a lot and work many hours. It also seems they are a real work nation and people make many hours. As I understood from our hosts at Casio, up until 20 years ago everyone would work 6 days a week. Only in recent years they went back to an European model of working 5 days a week. But, I must say, I was surprised to see that on Saturday I have seen a lot of people commuting to work, dressed in suits with ties and carrying business bags. And, what I found very impressive, you see a lot of old (read: older than 65 years) working! In all kind of positions and functions
Tourism: Japan is very pro tourism. The emphasize on tax free shopping everywhere. All pricing in Japan is, like in North America, listed with sales tax (VAT) and added upon check-out. But, as a tourist spending more than 10,800 Yen in one shop on the same day, they don't charge you any VAT on the spot. They stamp the invoice in your passport and upon departure from Japan, they customs office only rips it out. They do not even want to see the merchandise. Talking about trust!! Although the Yen fluctuates often and has a big bandwidth, things are not cheap there. Neither for locals I have asked. Living is expensive, both housing as shopping. Nice to know: Japanese do not tip and do not expect tips. Not even bell boys in the hotels or drivers in cabs.
Cars: My expectations where met regarding cars... I expected to see 95% Japanese cars on the road, I expected Toyota to dominate, I expected to see some Europeans cars and I expected to hardly see American cars on the road. All these expectations where met. What surprised me is that I hardly saw Lexus on the road. I was surprised so hardly see sports cars on the road. Hardly Japanese and in the week I was there I have seen maximum 20 Porsche's, 1 Ferrari and no other European Super Cars. But, what surprised me more, I hardly saw Japanese sports cars...
Watches: Regarding watches I had also high expectations. I expected that Japanese watches with dominate Japanese wrists and this was definitely the case. Looking at the three biggest Japanese manufacturers: Seiko, Casio & Citizen, you would see them often on wrists. As a jeweler, we know that Japanese love luxury goods, especially European luxury, like Swiss watches. I was surprised that I did not see so much luxury watches on wrists, but in retail the following luxury brands seemed to be the most popular: Breitling, Omega, TAG Heuer, Rolex & Longines (in this specific order). And, then the sixth position in the luxury list, seemed to be filled by: Grand Seiko. A brand that is slowly coming up with hardcore watch collectors in Europe, USA, Singapore & Hong Kong.
Retail: Japan is a real retail nation. There are MANY shops, department stores and malls. Stores are open at least 12 hours a day. They have all the international brands present in Japan! There are so many area's in Tokyo to shop. One week stay in Tokyo is not enough to see it all! We hardly slept in Tokyo (literally 4 hours a night) and we tried to see many different areas. I will try to post a City Guide later this week for our experiences. What I noticed, there where hardly Western tourists there, but loads of Korean, Chinese, Cantonese, Indonesian and Singaporeans. I always thought that Hong Kong was 'the New York' of the East. But, I am starting to get the feeling it is Tokyo...
Casio: I have been wearing Casio watches since 1983 (launch of G-shock) and have collecting G-Shocks since. We have been Casio retailers for several decades and now that Casio is moving up market (read: prices between EUR 699 and EUR 2.699) they invited us to find out why Ace Jewelers should sell these lines (G-Shock Mr. G, MT-G and Edifice) in our premium boutiques and eBoutique. As I had expectations about all other aspects of our visit to Japan, I had these also about Casio. And, I can state that all these expectations where surpassed! I will write a seperate blog post about this.
Karaoke & Alcohol: Yes, this stereotype is so true. The Japanese L O V E their karaoke! It goes hand in hand with a lot of drinking! There are so many karaoke bars in Tokyo, it seems they don't like to do anything else. And, even when they are not into karaoke, they still love their alcohol. It is an interesting view to see all the people around midnight walking the street in their business attire pissed off their faces. I read in this months Time Out Tokyo magazine that Japanese often call-in sick at work due to hangovers, but hardly use drugs. It's as low as approx. 5% used cannabis, 4% XTC and 3% cocaine.
Whiskey: Since we are on the topic of alcohol. Obviously the sake is amazing in Japan and there are so many kinds and I tried at least two different ones every day. But, what is highly recommended it the local whiskey. Yes, you have read it well! In Japan whiskey is made locally and is fantastic. I read about it already on Bexsonn's blog, but only got to try it in Japan. If you are into whiskey, I highly recommend you try some!
This is what came to my mind and wanted to share with you. Please share your feedback on this post and let me know if you have ever visited Japan and how you have experienced it!
[Photo credits: All images are taken by myself. For more views of my trip check my Instragram account for more snap shots and my Flickr account for more qualitative images.]