It’s hard to explain Japan in words or pictures. You have to visit and see it in person to really comprehend the sheer volume of human life flooding the streets during commute hour. When I say the skyscraper apartments are close to one another, I mean, some only have a couple feet between them. In many places, there are so many huge buildings, that it is hard to imagine the sun ever warming the ground. At times, I felt if I reached my arm out the window of our car, that I might be able to touch the homes.
The cities are painted in shades of grey and rust, with only the periodic bursts of color in the signage. Smaller towns (Seattle, San Francisco sized) are still filled with overhead wiring for everything, but have more vividly painted buildings, and way more retail signage filled with cartoonish characters and bright colors. Step out of the cities and into the country, and the houses begin to look more like what most westerners expect Japanese buildings to look like. Beautiful tile roofs, with decorative ridge lines, manicured gardens, unique architecture and a little more space around the houses. Community gardens dot the residential areas, and plants soften any hardness of the buildings.
The Japanese city planners plan their city parks to perfection. There are many smaller playgrounds with running space dotted throughout the cities. Especially as buffer zones between industrial and residential. There are even more multi acre parks filled with huge playgrounds, walking paths, garden areas, grassy fields, man made water features, etc. These garden parks can transport one from city to countryside just by stepping out of one’s car. They are filled with families playing and older folks exercising, a beautiful juxtaposition of harshness and beauty.
There are multi lane freeways, many are elevated to take advantage of air space, and single lane two way streets. There really is no rhyme or reason the the directions. I was told that after WW2, cities just started building roads without any plans or direction. Not sure why. Parking is at a premium, and in very busy places, one might find cars on contraptions to make the most of the “air space”. In many cities, empty house lots have been converted to parking lots for 6-10 vehicles.
Food is an important part of the culture. Their imports are of the best quality, including blemish free fruits, high quality meats, etc. How it looks when it is served, is just as important as how it tastes. They cater to every sense when it comes to eating out. Atmosphere, music, sights, smell. It is a buffet for the senses. Since the homes, and therefore the refrigerators, are small, most people make daily trips to the supermarket for fresh items. It is not uncommon to see the same people walking or riding to a store every day. There are plenty of restaurants that have sit on the floor options, as well as westernized booth seating.
Some of the people are very friendly and kind and you feel like their friend when you leave their place of business. But I have found that to be less often than shopkeepers who are all business. If you smile at a Japanese person as you walk past them, they probably won’t smile back. My daughter says that is because they are on their way someplace. They aren’t looking to be friendly. One coffee place we visited in Kamakura (the Circus) was incredible. The atmosphere was warm, and inviting, with calm, yet modern music playing. It was a beautiful, simple blend of old and new for an interior. The shop keeper was friendly, smiled and laughed as he helped us. As we began to try what we ordered, he was watching intently to see what our responses were going to be to his Camembert and Gorgonzola cheesecakes. I’m sure he was confident we would love it, but you could tell he took great pleasure in seeing people happy, and great pride in his creations. Wow.
Another store we visited in Kamakura was a shop where the store owner upcycled used kimono sashes into table runners, purses, and more. The owner spoke English to us, very well, and we enjoyed learning she had spent time in Los Angeles. She was very friendly to our young grandsons also. And, I must say, our 6 and 4 year old grandsons did fantastically in the shops! Way to go mom and dad for making tourist time fun for the kids too!
Yet, in other places, the clerks would not really look at you. They seemed as if they were simply going through the motions of the sale. I suppose this is the same anywhere you might go in the world. Sorry for the slightly off topic rabbit trail, but I did want to give a shout out to those two shops.
Huge malls, with throngs of people are common. The stores are all clean, well maintained and pretty to look at. Everything is in its place. There are enough workers to make sure things are always where they belong and look as they should. There are no piles of T-shirts all messed up, only tidy-ness. Again, you really need to experience these things to appreciate them.
I enjoyed my time in Japan. Everything listed above though, is just icing on the cake. My cake was visiting with our daughter, her husband and two boys!