Before we get to the grand finale and epilogue, a few random observations that I never really managed to shoehorn in anywhere else:
— Japan still has coin-operated left-luggage lockers, everywhere. Every train station. Every airport. Every large bus terminal. Most larger tourist attractions. Many of the smaller tourist attractions. They usually cost a dollar (¥100), and sometimes they were even free. Even though the Tokyo and Kyoto subways were plastered with “terrorism alert” posters due to the G8 summit, and even though Japan has adopted the same idiotic carry-on luggage rules as the USA now, nobody there has thought to make an issue about public lockers. Let me tell you: this was great. Backpack getting too heavy and hot on a summer day? Just leave it in the lockers. I did this constantly.
— Japan is handicapped-accessible. Let me reiterate that: as far as I could tell, the whole country is handicapped-accessible. Elevators everywhere. Chair lifts where they couldn’t shoehorn in elevators. Sidewalk cuts everywhere, almost no exceptions — and in situations like the Gion Matsuri parade, we saw cops forcing their way through crowds in order to help people with wheelchairs get through them. And this wasn’t just in the cities: hiking in the Japanese Alps, which you’d expect to be strictly a pursuit for the bipedal, we saw a family quite successfully pushing an older relative in a contraption that appeared to be an all-terrain wheelchair. I have no idea if this is just due to cultural reverence for the elderly or a Japanese version of the ADA, but coming after trips to China, Cambodia and Vietnam (short form summary for the disabled: rotsa ruck), this was unexpected, shocking and really really nice to see.
— Another note on vending machines: I probably mentioned that you can buy alcohol and cigarettes from them. What I should also have mentioned: you sometimes have to be careful not to buy alcohol from them. The alcoholic drinks are sometimes mixed in with the soft drinks, and on the scorchingly hot day in Kyoto when Miranda and I were walking back from the Daigo-ji temple, we ended up sharing what was basically a white peach sake cooler, because it was not immediately obvious that we were not buying a can of carbonated peach juice. It tasted great, but drinking it may not have been the wisest tactical move of the afternoon.
— Things that Japan, a famously clean and fastidious country, is strangely short on:
- Hand towels in bathrooms. Running water? Yes. Soap? Always. Some way to dry your hands other than shaking them into the sink, looking around hopefully and then sighing and wiping them on your jeans? Well… other than a few hotels and tourist attractions that obvious expected lots of westerners, no. As far as we could ever determine, most Japanese carry around a series of little washcloth-like terrycloth squares that they use to blot sweat off their foreheads on hot days, and dry off their hands any time they visit a restroom.
- Wastebaskets. This one really surprised me. You never see litter in Japan. Never. But on-street wastebaskets are rarer than bathrooms with hand towels. Apparently everyone just puts their litter (and there is a lot of potential litter, because everything you have heard about the Japanese propensity for wrapping everything individually is pretty much true) into their bags and carrys it home to dispose of.
— CANDY! Oh god, the candy. There’s so much of it, and it’s almost all perplexingly good. If I ever lived in Japan, I would gain a hundred pounds just on the Meiji Green Apple Chocolate Mint chews alone. It’s a good thing we walked everywhere.
— Tipping. Does. Not. Happen. Ever. I miss this already. It’s part of the reason food is so expensive: restaurants, cafes, hotels and the like have to pay their service employees a decent wage up front, and so they don’t have to dance for the customer to get paid. To my mind, this is really just a win for everyone.
— And speaking of money, I’m afraid Japan has made me reconsider my enthusiasm for the dollar coin. The smallest bank note in Japan is a ¥1000 note: roughly $10. Below that, there are coins for everything from ¥1 to ¥500. Result? After any day in which you purchase so much as a single thing, you inevitably end up with a bulging, heavy, noisy pocket of change. Maybe the dollar bill isn’t such a bad idea after all.
— All of the guidebooks warned us that Japan was a very cash-happy place and that western credit cards would be mostly useless there. This turned out to be a bit overblown: the only lodgings that wouldn’t take a credit card were the Zen temple and the dodgy B&B (not so surprising in either case), and I’d say that a good plurality of the restaurants we went to would take them. One thing that was noticable is that nobody blinks in the slightest about having to make change from a larger denomination bill. If you ask for ¥10,000 (more or less $100) from a Japanese ATM, it will give you a single ¥10,000 bill, and if you drop that bill on a street vendor for a ¥1 riceball skewer, they do not so much as blink. Once in all of Japan, we got politely asked if we had enough small-yen coins to round up to an even number, and that was it.
— Even odder, just about every single vending machine (of which previously noted there were lots) would happily take high-denomination bills. Want to buy a soda with a ¥1000 bill? Go ahead. More to the point, want to buy a ¥210 subway fare with a ¥10,000 bill? Not a problem, and it’ll give you exact change.
— While a great deal of signage, sloganeering and t-shirt decorative English in Japan appears to be dedicated to environmentalism, recycling, saving the forests (um, not the whales so much) and so forth, to the point that you’d really think it was a major trend, this does not prevent any retail establishment in any city in Japan in summer from opening its front doors wide open and blasting frigid air-conditioned air onto the sidewalk in hopes of luring customers in. I am not too proud to admit that this completely worked on me several times.
Okay, now on to the major verbiage…