So what lessons and ideas did I come away with from travelling through Japan? What changed my thoughts and my views?
Well, a lot actually. Japan and Australia culturally feel like literal polar opposites. So I felt like there was so much to learn from and see things differently.
Now obviously I’m no foreign relations nor Japan expert. I’m just commenting on my travels there and my personal experiences there. What I experienced may be worlds apart from what you experienced in Japan. So don’t take my word as Gospel.
It’s just my experience and opinions.
Japan and Australia
Let’s start with the basic, top-level stuff.
Australia and Japan are culturally very different in a lot of ways. Which I think is important to outline first, because someone from a culture similar to Japan’s may have different experiences and takeaways from travelling there.
Perhaps better shown with the Hofstede insights country comparison.
Individualism is one that sticks out. In Australia it’s strange. It’s very much go your own way and look out for oneself. Much like the USA. Except then we deal with tall poppy syndrome. So if one individual does succeed and stand out, they get cut back down to size. It kinda makes things weird if I’m honest.
Uncertainty avoidance? Surprised Australia’s isn’t lower. We love a punt. Love a risk. And seem to just roll with it. Wanna know just how much we love to gamble? See my post about Australia and Gambling.
Long term orientation is another interesting one. In my personal opinion, Australia and Australians operate on a pretty short time horizon.
You hear bout plans like Made in China 2025, or even just long term investments in infrastructure like Japan did with the Shinkansen railway.
I feel like we don’t really do that. I mean we’ve had like 5 prime ministers in 5 years. I think people want results right away. Which I don’t believe is the right way to go about things. Good things take time. And anything worth doing is worth doing well. Which means it won’t be quick. I just think our investments in our own futures and around us seem to have a short term view.
Hofstede’s site sums it perfectly about nations with low Long Term Orientation Scores: “They exhibit great respect for traditions, a relatively small propensity to save for the future, and a focus on achieving quick results.”
Talk about hitting the nail on the head. Neat point about traditions too. I wouldn’t say we have many traditions per se. But our way of thinking could be defined as stuck in the past and that we aren’t very progressive. I wouldn’t argue with either point personally.
Both towards others, and to yourself. I’ll explain separately below.
Towards Others and those around you
Customer service in Japan is literally on its own level. I legit do not have a bad customer experience from Japan. I can’t think of anything. Only time I remember being annoyed in Japan was because it was either too hot and humid in July, or I couldn’t choose what to eat. Other than that it was the most blissful holiday I’ve ever had. It just gives this inner feeling of warmth.
The bowing when entering stores. Although I never know I’d I should bow back or just give a head nod in return? I felt guilty almost when I was bowed too. I don’t think I deserve to be bowed to. And even worse I don’t want to be arrogant and just not bow back. So head nod / bow combination was settled upon.
The cleanliness. Barely saw any rubbish. I miss Japan 🙁
Riding public transport. It’s a wonderfully different experience.
No one taking loud phone calls. No one having a domestic on the train. No loud video games being played. I usually dislike public transport back home in Australia. In Japan I loved it.
And the toilets. Dear god the toilets. Not only are they modern marvels and feats of engineering but so damn clean. No nasty ass toilets. What a blissful experience. Like in a list of top toilet nations there’s Japan at #1, daylight, then whoever would be #2. It’s not even close.
Let’s talk about obesity rates. Is this a stretch? Maybe. But in my opinion, having a healthy body counts as respecting yourself.
And sorry if I cause offence, but I’m just going to state what I see here. So deal with it.
But one thing that really stood out to me when travelling in Japan, not many overweight looking people. And that stats back it up.
Back home in Australia, around one in three (29%) people are classified as obese. Compare this to the USA at 36%. What’s Japan’s you ask? 4.3%. Yes, that is not a typo. On average per 100 people, Australia will have 25 more obese people. And the US will have 30 more. Those numbers are insane.
You notice it when travelling in Japan. But I didn’t think the numbers would be that crazy.
But what about if we look at overweight statistics rather than obesity rates? Again, Japan is significantly better off.
In Japan on average nearly one in three (29%) are classified as overweight. Now in Australia it’s over two in three people are classified as overweight at 67.2% of the total population. USA? Again, over two in three at 70.2% are overweight.
But why such a discrepancy? There are a number of reasons but I don’t think you can pin any one reason is the cause.
Public Transport in Japan may be a contributing factor. Older study but across Australian and New Zealand Cities, an average of 5% of all trips were made using public transport. Even lower were cities in the US such as Los Angeles and New York recording around 3% of all trips. High-Income Asian cities including Tokyo and Hong Kong recorder around 30% of all trips being on public transport.
Correlation doesn’t equal causation so why would public transport usage rates affect obesity and overweight statistics? Well, for one you’re moving more by catching public transport.
Also interestingly from the same ABS study about public transport usage rates was the use of non-motorized travel like walking and bicycles. Australia and New Zealand managed to record 16% which was double than in the USA’s 8%. Still, both these forms of transport were more common in Tokyo and Hong Kong at 29%. I’ll talk later about Japan’s awesome public transport though.
I found the people in Japan so trustworthy it makes life a breeze and I wish it applied to back home in Aus. Whether it’s due to the social pressure of doing what’s right and not bringing shame. Or just due to a more community type culture. Either way, I dig it being able to trust my fellow residents.
Bikes are constantly left around with no locks. I reckon that’d last a day back home. And that’s being optimistic too.
The number of vending machines confirms this too. Having over 5 million. The machines you see in countryside Japan would never work in Australia. Someone would inevitably destroy it. Taking advantage of no one around to see it.
It’s a utopia for Public Transport. Admittedly confusing when first arriving. But arguably the best in the world for public transport. At least one of the best in my opinion. Although special mention to Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea from my own experience.
Fun Fact: Japan is home to 46 of the world’s 50 busiest stations. Pretty crazy to think this is still the case even with China’s mass adoption of rail recently.
side note: interested in the Japanese Shinkansen? Highly recommend the book “Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan” by Christopher Hood.
Commitment and Focus
Another lesson I learnt is the intense focus and dedication to their craft.
Take the example of the humble sushi chef.
Sushi chefs train for years learning to just make rice before they even touch the fish. Give the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi a watch for an example of this. He’s been in the sushi business for a while now. Like a long while. He first became a qualified sushi chef back in 1951. Then in 1965, he opened his own restaurant. So he has now run his own restaurant for over 50 years. And been a sushi chef for nearly 70 years! The dedication to the craft is real.
Would I ever commit to such an undertaking? Hell nah. But I can still admire it.
But goes back to the old adage, anything worth doing is worth doing well. And the way they do it, it’s beyond admirable. Even retail service workers, who I’d guess have study on top of the jobs and are busting their ass, commit fully in the service. And I respect the hell outta that.
Things run like clockwork in Japan.
The railway system? No exception.
There’s a famous article about how the railway company had to apologise for leaving 20 seconds early. But obviously, in the city, things are a lot more unpredictable. The Chuo line is notoriously bad for delays.
But things in Japan just work.
I know this sounds beyond wishy-washy, but do you get the feeling some places just run well and timely? It’s like Japan runs on the opposite of island time.
I just love timeliness. Nothing I hate more than tardiness. If ya not early, ya late! So Japan just appeals to my OCD timeliness I love so much with everything like running like clockwork.
So friendly it makes me feel guilty.
True story, my first time in Japan when I was 19 I met a Japanese guy at a Yomiuri Giants V Hanshin Tigers at the Tokyo Dome. Older guy with his son from memory and was a photographer I think who had travelled to the Gold Coast a few times previously so we talked about Australia.
Anyway, a really really nice guy. And he said he had a present for me? Wouldn’t take no for an answer and gave me a Yomiuri Giants Adidas Training Top. It wouldn’t have been cheap that’s for sure.
Stupidly, I never actually got his name. I blame being a socially awkward teen at the time. So I went back to the next Giants game at the dome and went back to the same spot but no luck :(. So thank you random Japanese baseball fan. You truly had a huge impact on me and my time in Japan. If I’m ever half as nice as you were that day, I can live happily.
Purely anecdotal but I feel Japanese were overall pretty darn positive. And usually took pleasure in the simple things. Overall, it made me a little more grateful for how lucky I am.
Being Small is OK
It could be a 5 person bar in Ginza. A Ryokan out in the mountains. Or a back alley noodle shop that seats 10 at the most.
Unlike Texas, bigger is not always better. These places run on their quality and charm surrounding them. It’s a personal experience. Not a cog in the machine. The person serving you is probably the owner.
But how do these places stay in business? So the owner is the one serving you, cutting employment costs. They often own the storefront, so very little overheads. Plus the word of mouth marketing and regulars are insane, so marketing costs are low.
Compared to the constant growth, growth, growth mantra in Silicon Valley and co, it’s a pleasant change. Feels more intimate and caring compared to being just another user.
Reminds me of the Mexican fisherman story:
An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.
The Mexican replied, “only a little while. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”
The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.” The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”
The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”
To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”
“But what then?” Asked the Mexican.
The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”
“Millions – then what?”
The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”
There’s no shame in choosing something small, simple, and doing it well. No matter how hyped up growth is.
Miscellaneous Japan Tips / Experiences / Thoughts
It’s a dead heat I think between Japan and Taiwan for my most wholesome holidays. I was just happy. The country is so pleasant, welcoming and nice. And so are the people! I honestly can’t wait to go back. If you’re able to do a trip, 110% recommend jumping at the chance.
Japan is well known for its four distinct seasons. I’ve done Japan in both the middle of Summer (July) and in Wintertime (December). Both totally different experiences that I loved for different reasons. I think Winter just takes the cake in this situation. It was like something out of a movie for me. Besides, being from Australia, having some serious cold was a nice change for once.
Try every type of food and see what you like! There are so many options. Udon, ramen, sushi, sashimi, mochi, curry, yakitori, takoyaki, okonomiyaki. It’s all so bloody good! The standard food in Japan is so different from standard food in Australia, so I was on cloud nine. I love fish, especially Tuna and Salmon, so it being so common and cheap over there was legit.
A good easy ramen joint I loved was Ichiran Ramen. I know I might be slammed for this and people might use the equivalent saying of going to the US for McDonald’s. But it’s bloody good. And easy for foreigners to use. Watch this TK video or this TK for an idea.
Anything that benefits from attention to and obsession over detail, the Japanese usually do best.
Unfortunately, I’ll admit I’ve only experienced surface level Japan. Surface level Japan was pretty darn amazing though. But I’m sure if I were to live there, deep dive into the culture and experiences, I would see some negatives. Reading around I’ve heard people find it hard to befriend locals with similar interests, integrate fully with the culture (not by their own fault), and the often mentioned laborious work culture.
Overall, I loved my experiences in Japan and can’t wait to go back. I’ve still got Fukuoka, Sapporo, Okinawa and more so left on my Japan bucket list!
Sometime in the future, I’d love to be able to do an extended stay whether that is through a work abroad or freelancing work while holidaying abroad. Either way I’d love to just go all in and experience as much culture as possible.
Now go watch Jiro Dreams of Sushi and book that one-way ticket!