My Return To Japan: What’s The Same? What’s Different?

Last month I got married and my wife and I decided to spend part of our honeymoon in Japan. This was the first time I had been back in Japan in almost 3 years and while most of it was the same a few things seemed different. So I decided to do, what many lazy bloggers do, and write a list of the similarities and differences between Japan today and the Japan I remember of 3 years ago.

First the things that were pretty much the same.

5. The Trains/Public Transportation

I was very happy to see that the trains still ran on time and that Japan still has some of the best public transportation available anywhere in the world.

4. Level Of Service

Overall, the level of service still seemed very high (with one or two notable exceptions). It still amazes me that I can get better service in a restaurant in Japan than almost anywhere else on earth and I don't have to tip for it.

3. Number of Convenience Stores and Vending Machines

I was happy that I never had to walk more than a few hundred meters to find one or the other. This made buying beer, coffee and pocari sweat that much easier.

2. Getting Involved in Weird English Conversations

This is perhaps one of the things I remember most clearly about living in Japan 3 years ago. People often came up to me to practice their English. Until, this trip my weirdest experience was having Kennedy's inauguration address recited to me outside Osaka Castle. This time my wife and I got roped into critiquing this old man's English sentences in Kyoto. Some of the best included “He took one look at her and walked away” and “I hitched my horse to a post.” I am not sure when he was ever going to get a chance to use these but he seemed happy with our help.

1. The Smell Of Trains and Subways

Japan's public transportation has a very unique smell which I don't think I noticed when I was living there. However, I noticed it almost immediately after leaving the airport. It is not a bad smell just unique and it very quickly brought back many of my memories of Japan.

The Differences

5. The Smell of Sewage

It seemed to me that there was a far stronger smell of sewage in many of the Japanese cities we visited than I remember. I am not sure if it was just the time of year but there was some serious stink going on.

4. More Vacancies in Buildings And Emptier Restaurants

Although not immediately apparent I noticed that many buildings had signs looking for commercial tenants. These were mostly on the upper stories of buildings, but it seemed like there were more of them. Also, many restaurants (except the cheapest ones) that we visited seemed emptier than I would have thought they would be. I assume both of these are a result of the current global economic problems.

3. Extreme Variation Of Prices

Another difference I noticed was the extreme difference in prices for different things. For example, we managed to get a curry rice meal set with a salad and miso soup for 380 Yen each, which was cheaper than I remember being able find anywhere last time I was there. However, we also manged to pay 900 yen for two takeaway coffees at Tokyo station. Basically, the cheap was cheaper than I remember, but the expensive was more expensive.

2. Less Modern

Another thing I noticed about Japan was that it seemed less modern than I remember. Sure there are still all the neon lights but I also noticed rusting bridges, the large number of exposed overhead electrical wires and a fairly large amount of broken concrete. I don't think it is actually that different from when I was living there but these issues were more evident to me this time. Also, the cell phones didn't seem nearly as impressive as I remember.

1. More English

I came into contact with more people who seemed to be able to speak passable English than I remember being the case. This was really good since I had forgotten half of my already extremely meager Japanese. I am sure part of this seeming increase was the fact that we only visited large cities or tourist attractions; whereas I was living in a semi-rural area before.

However, one place I did notice a definite improvement was at the Toyoko Inns we stayed in. I had stayed in a few before and I did not come across any staff who I would say, spoke good English. However, this time every single Toyoko Inn had at least one person working who spoke decent English. It seems that they are trying harder to cater to foreign visitors, since there were a few staying at each one we visited.

Overall, Japan was more or less the same as I remember which is what you would expect after being away for only 3 years. Nevertheless, it was interesting to see how my memory compared to the actual experience. I am sure I will be back in Japan again at some point, but there are a few places I want to visit first.

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