Japan trip report

Itinerary:  Narita-Nikko-Sendai-Northeast Coast (Matsuhima-Shizugawa-Taro-Kuji-Mutsu)-ferry from Oma to Hakodate-Toyako-Sapporo-Asahikawa-Sounkyo-Ikeda-Kushiro-Akanko-Mashuko-Otaru-Niseko-ferry from Hakodate to Aomori-Hirosaki-Morioka-Hiraizumi-Ichinoseki-Utsunomiya-Tokyo Akasaka

Favorite roadside attractions:

  • 70m-high statue of the Buddhist bosatsu Kannon in Kamaishi on the NE coast of Honshu
  • Snow Museum, which could easily have been designed by Liberace, in Asahikawa (Hokkaido)
  • two enormous Japanese Cranes having a late lunch in a farmer’s field on the SE coast of Hokkaido then taking off, circling, and landing in another corner of the farm; there are only about 800 of these birds on the planet
  • underground public aquarium in Kuji, the Mogurampia, built into a coastal oil storage facility

And now onto some themes that recurred in my mind…

This trip impressed upon me how deep is the Japanese love affair with concrete.  They’ve really become the poets of this most modern of building materials where a guy such as Tadao Ando can find many peers.  Some of the most beautiful minimalist artworks were the concrete mesh nets that stabilize hillsides.  These comform to the waves and bumps of the hill and are anchored by enormous pins of steel or concrete.  The mesh size is about 6′.  My favorite concrete building was the Iwate Museum of Art in Morioka.

The overall security of Japan presents a startling contrast to the U.S.  I didn’t notice it that much on previous trips, all of which were before September 11, 2001.  Except in Tokyo and on the Shinkansen (bullet train) there doesn’t seem to be any thought given to terrorism or even crime.  There are hardly any foreigners in Japan to begin with so a group of 19 Saudis wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere without being watched.  There are no ID checks even on the Shinkansen.  You can park your car at the airport curb, even Narita, and walk away for 10-15 minutes without anyone complaining.  You don’t see gun-toting thugs near public buildings.  People carry $1000+ in cash in their wallets without a second thought.  Every car has a $2000 navi system ripe to be stolen and yet there aren’t car alarms.  Luxury hotels don’t bother with electronic key cards.  You can eat in almost any restaurant (except the ones listed in Lonely Planet) and not get food poisoning.  The Japanese can even enjoy the rich social life described by Paul Theroux in Africa without worrying about dying as the AIDS infection rate here is around 0.02% (source).

America really is the land of luxury when it comes to space and consumerism.  From my house in Harvard Square I can drive 20 minutes and get to miles of trails through semi-rural woods, lakes, and farms in Lincoln, MA.  To get similarly away from it all in Japan would require flying to Hokkaido, renting a car, and heading into a national park.  Real estate prices here remain savage, a good warning perhaps to Americans as we head for a population of 420 million in the year 2050, nearly all of which will be concentrated on the coasts.  A CD is $22, a DVD is $35+.  For a tourist here only a few weeks it isn’t so bad.  Your wallet suffers death by paper cuts ($4 for parking at a temple, $8 to go in, $40 in expressway tolls to get to the next temple) but you know that you’ll be heading home soon to your spacious apartment and nearby Walmart.  The Japanese just have to resign themselves to being bled for the rest of their lives.

The Japanese are able to overcome almost all of their natural limitations with hard work and competitive drive.  The Olympics are going on right now and the Japanese are currently in third place for the number of gold medals, which is remarkable when you consider the lack of genetic diversity in the population.  Craftsmen in various small towns could get by selling average-quality goods to average tourists but instead work late nights to win competitions.  Shamisen players compete and at concerts the people sitting next to me would periodically whisper “Grand Champion” when a certain artist came on stage.  A chef in the tiny provincial town of Ichinoseki could have had a nice little rice dumpling restaurant but instead worked like a demon until he became famous throughout Japan for making the best rice dumplings (he spoke pretty good English too but I learned of his fame only from other tourists).

Economically this is a country that should be nowhere.  Japan is famously lacking in natural resources and space.  The nation was closed to the West and modern technology until the mid-19th century.  Japan lost more than 3 million people and nearly all of its physical assets during World War II.  Yet by dint of nearly every worker trying his or her hardest the country is almost as rich as the U.S.  An American engineer working for a Japanese automaker has been over here for a year.  The mechanical engineers working for his company back in the U.S. are among the best, brightest, and hardest working American engineers.  “I hate to admit it,” he said, “but the guys here in Japan are even better.  They’re older and they know more and I thought they they would slack off but they work even harder and are more dedicated to getting it right.”

Most disturbing part of the trip:  watching an old movie of an Ainu (the native people of Hokkaido, related to Mongolians) community event in which a bear was chained to a pole and then shot with arrows.  The bear would roll around trying to get the arrows out and then would be shot some more.  Maybe not that different from the bullfights beloved by Spaniards but just horrible to see.

Best hotel room:  Akasaka Prince Hotel, 18th floor, sweeping corner windows, comfy sofa underneath the windows, huge bathtub, architecture by Kenzo Tange, across the street from the 400-year-old Japanese garden in the New Otani Hotel, adjacent to a public park with koi pond, and 2 blocks from the Suntory Museum of Art (fantastic Daimyo show right now).  All for $115/night thanks to (a) being on my own (double rooms are often simply 2X the price of a single), and (b) orbitz.com.

Best hotel surprise:  Hotel-onsen Kanyo in Shizugawa on the NE coast of Tohoku.  Stopped the rental car at sunset to tank up and asked the gas station manager where to find a hotel.  He said “just one kilometer farther up” and an enormous concrete hotel appeared.  The staff spoke not a word of English, the room was Japanese style, the hot spring bath was outdoors, and the pool was big enough to swim laps.

Memorable scenic views:

  • Mashu-ko, a crater lake in eastern Hokkaido.  In general the Japanese have heavily developed their seacoast (“the sea is where you go to get dinner”) but left lakeshores alone.  This lake is a lot like Oregon’s Crater Lake but not nearly so high in elevation.
  • the city of Hakodate (Sapporo) from the top of the ropeway (cable car) and also the surrounding mountains and coastline at sunset
  • cliffs and rocks of Rikuchu-kagan National Park, a not-very-developed coastline in NE Tohoku
  • cliffs in the Geibikei Gorge (near Hiraizumi) viewed from the flat-bottomed boat while beautiful koi swam alongside and begged for food from the tourists
  • various spots along the highway in Daisetsuzan National Park (Hokkaido)

Places in Japan that I’d like to visit next time:  Nara, Shikoku, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Okinawa (plus repeats to Tokyo and Kyoto to see friends and familiar sights–see http://www.photo.net/travel/japan/ for some snapshots from earlier trips)

18 thoughts on “Japan trip report

  1. Philip -Once again you have beaten all expectations in terms of how much informative and insightful can a travel article be. Well done Philip. What is outstanding about the Japanese are how much they seem to have forgotten the world war and got on with business even at persoanl level.A few things would make your report more rounded – If possible and if you have some first hand insights about these, pl. elaborate.A. Japanese work style -Long hours and culture of meetings and consensus. B. How Japanese are fighting/planning to fight ageing population. C.Japanese views about Korean competition in High-tech and China in Manufacturing. D. Views of young Japanese about Japan’s competitiveness and business culture vis-a-vis the US. E. Japan’s insular cuture in terms of language and business style- I read recently that as a turnaround strategy, a leading Japanese bank decided to operate ATM’s 24 hours.F.Japan’s fragile political system.G. Failing Japanese marriage and family lives.

    S.Sadagopan http://123suds.blogspot.com.

    P.S – I do not agree with your recommendations about the best hotel room in Tokyo – I think that the Gand Hyatt in Tokyo near the Roppongi district would score better than Akasaka.

  2. I just wanted to add my thanks. This article reminds me of your Travels with Samantha writing. You seem to have not had the time recently to write in such detail and a return to this level of detail was a true pleasure.

  3. Uh, Sadagopan, I didn’t mean to imply that my current room was the best available in all of Tokyo. Rather it is the best room that I stayed in during this particular trip. This was a trip report written for my friends and family, not an authoritative travel guide!

  4. Phil, the lack of obvious security you speak of is still in the USA, just not to be found in the big cities. In the country a/k/a flyover territory there are many places without gangbangers, where you don’t need to lock your car doors, etc. Expect that to lessen a great deal in the future as illegal immigration continues apace.

  5. This blog is frequented by travelleres so I’ll ask even though it’s off-topic. I weigh about 350 lbs., and I’m planning on taking a trip in the caribbean. Normal planes haven’t been a problem for me, I’m not quite as obese as you’d think since I’m also very tall. but I wonder if the little cessna prop planes will be? I’ve heard they weigh you because even small amounts of weight matter. Can I expect to get bumped off the flight for being so rotund?

  6. Mr. Boi: FAA standard weight for a person is 170 lbs. And the truly small airplanes, e.g., 4 and 6 seaters, usually can’t fill all the seats with standard-weight people and the fuel tanks at the same time. The 20- or 30-seat propeller planes that the average person thinks of as “small” actually have jet engines driving those props and can handle quite a bit of weight. But if you’re going to some really out-of-the-way island served by a 6-seat Cessna it would probably be best to inform the little airline in advance that you’re going to be bringing X lbs. including luggage. If it is a really short flight they might be able to get you on by making sure that the plane isn’t topped off with fuel.

  7. Thank you Philip! I think I might just drive. You are in Japan on vacation yet you still respond quickly — better than most doctors!

  8. Dogs and Demons: Tales from the Dark Side of Modern Japan
    by Alex Kerr

    From Publishers Weekly
    Kerr (Lost Japan), a 35-year resident of Japan and the first foreigner to win that country’s Shincho literary prize, contends that the Japanese miracle has become a Japanese mess. Once admired, and perhaps feared, for its spectacular economic successes, Japan, Kerr claims, has become a land of “ravaged mountains and rivers, endemic pollution, tenement cities, and skyrocketing debts.” What happened? He says that ideology and bureaucracy are to blame. Japan is in effect managed by an autonomous and corrupt government bureaucracy, driven by an ethos of economic growth at any cost and a mania for control. Everywhere Japan’s natural beauty is being destroyed by useless construction projects, as nature must be controlled and construction companies rewarded. The great ancient cities too representative of old, underdeveloped Japan are being replaced by monuments and hotels that are concrete monstrosities. Japan’s banking system has failed, yet no one really knows the extent of the damage, as the bureaucracy keeps accurate information hidden. Meanwhile, the bureaucracy continues to pour money into older industries, while Japan falls dangerously behind in the development of new information technologies. There is popular discontent, but protest is hard to come by, because the bureaucratically controlled educational system emphasizes obedience above all else. Japan is stuck, concludes Kerr, and he sees no easy way out. While perhaps alarmist in his message, Kerr fascinates with detailed descriptions of Japan’s dilemma and offers a surprising, if controversial, vision of a land in trouble.


  9. Interesting about the comment on engineering in the auto business. I was one of those mechanical engineers a few years back, working in Japan, sent by my American car company. The engineers in Japan and their management are certainly top notch in terms of automotive technical knowledge and dedication. But they can work to an excess it seems. Every day in and day out, working till midnight and beyond. I’m not sure how their families get along sometimes. There is not much of a balanced life. Weekends, it seems, are mostly for catching up on sleep.

    If entrepreneurism and risk taking were rewarded in Japan, given this much dedication to work, the Japanese would certainly thrive. I usually only see this sort of sustained effort towards work in startups in the Silicon Valley or at grad schools in the US. This level of effort certainly helped to rebuild Japan, but unfortunately, the children of Japan are not terribly excited about the workaholic lifestyle they seen in their fathers.

  10. From what I heard and saw about “working till midnight and beyond” in Japan, this mostly means staying alert at one’s desk until the boss left, and then putting down the head on the desk to catch some Zs. Granted, this is only from talking to an expat friend who spent some time in Tokyo and reading a few English-language papers while in Japan on vacation.

  11. One bright side of the construction scams described by Kerr in his book: All the wonderful Olympic-class swimming centers! At least the looted postal savings didn’t go totally to cladding the mountains and coastlines in concrete.

  12. Frank: I had discussed the Dogs and Demons book, which I’ve skimmed, with some Japanese friends while over there. They felt that the book was generally accurate. However the existence of these problems doesn’t necessarily mean that there is a crisis. A similar book about the U.S. would not the $billions that we spend on pork barrel highway and dam projects, the unaccountable and inefficient government that bleeds the citizens dry with taxes while paying an enormous staff salaries much higher than in the private sector for the same qualifications and work, big military expenditures, massive immigration by people who don’t share traditional American values and in some cases who are actively working to kill Americans and destroy American society, the inevitable degradation of the environment that will come from having a population of 420 million by the year 2050, the imprisonment of 2 million citizens, the lack of motivation and education among poorer members of certain ethnic groups, etc., etc. Yet thanks to individual hard work and initiative somehow the U.S. continues to thrive despite these structural problems. Same deal in Japan. Instead of giving up in the face of these problems the average Japanese gets an education and then works hard at doing something productive. But saying that people are muddling through doesn’t make for a best-selling book!

  13. I just visited Japan this past April. Shinkansen, regular rail, cable car, buses, and on foot, crisscrossing the country by myself (female), and I too noticed that there were very few foreigners. If you or anyone every plans to visit Japan, I highly recommend the website http://www.japaneseguesthouses.com. You will have the opportunity to stay with families and all of your meals are prepared in full traditional manner. On ocassion, I was asked to join the families and it was one of the most wonderful experiences. Also, check out the buddhist region of Mt Koya San, you actually stay with the monks in their temples. I got lucky and was invited to a mediational ceremony, (45 minutes), and talk about amazing. I had a room all to myself, and the monks would prepare my bath for me, and the meals.
    Loved reading about your experiences in Japan, sounded like so much fun… cheers, m.

  14. Concrete – “most modern of building materials”, was invented by the Romans in the 2nd century BC. The Pantheon in Rome is the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world and has been standing for nearly 2000 years. I’m not taking anything away from the Japanese who appear to have done amazing things with the material – I wish the Iwate Museum site had more pictures of the building.

  15. I think… Japan doesn’t NEED so much security for terrorism because it’s not really our FREEDOM that the terrorist hate.
    it has a lot to do with politics (american troops in israel, oil pumping, money, greed, etc). Not to be compared to our country that is hated by the rest of the world… 🙁

  16. I think… Japan doesn’t NEED so much security for terrorism because it’s not really our FREEDOM that the terrorist hate.
    it has a lot to do with politics (american troops in israel, oil pumping, money, greed, etc). Not to be compared to our country that is hated by the rest of the world… 🙁

  17. Well, Phil, if you had called Neil Bush before heading over there, he might have been able to arrange for one of those mysterious girls to show up at your door?
    How much fun would that be???!!!!

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