My favourite things about Japan

Sung to the tune of “These are a few of my favourite things”

“Schoolgirls in short skirts and multiple slippers
Pathological Politeness, edamame and Onsen
Love of things American, well all the best bits
These are a few of my favorite things

Cream Cherry blossom and dubious whaling
16 course tofu dinners and Karaoke wailing
Sprinting for trains, love and capsule hotels
These are a few of my favorite things

Vending machines, salarymen, noodles soba and udon
Futon mats, odd toilets and well ordered queuing
Snow monkeys who dive in pools for grain
These are a few of my favorite things

With apologies to Rodgers and Hammerstein….

Schoolgirls in short skirts – yes, I know it’s wrong but it’s an iconic image. In a culture of apparent conformity and social conservativeness, you see uniformed girls in their late teens having noisy fun and competing with each other as to who can wear the shortest skirt. They look great and they provide a welcome complement to others around them. An embodiment of girl power in an apparently male-dominated society. They must send them to some sort of school in their twenties to learn how to blend into the background.


Multiple slippers – Japanese carpets must be of terrible quality. When you enter a Japanese house or Ryokan, you have to take off your shoes and change into slippers. These slippers are always too small for an adult male. You then shuffle your way to your room, and have to take off these skippers to go into your room (allegedly to protect the tatami mats). Any toilet attached to your room has special toilet slippers. Incidentally, there is a shoe shop near where we are currently staying. It sells only slippers.

Pathological Politeness – This is well known, but everyone you meet is helpful and respectful. Most big cities don’t produce good behaviour. Though they’ve improved, New Yorkers are not known for their helpfulness, Londoners not talked about for their friendliness and Parisians are not world renowned for either. However, 36m Tokyo-dwelling however behave differently. If you ask for help, they will not leave until you are helped. They queue in an orderly fashion on the metro, there is no litter or graffiti, and – with the exception of their amusement halls – a sense of quietness pervades most areas of their community.

Edamame – despite the fact that Tilly adds a superfluous “n” as a second letter, we both love these immature soy beans.

Onsen – Japan is an island full of volcanos. Had Tilly known this before she came, she wouldn’t have. The Japanese love nothing more than a public hot springs bath. Our current ryokan has one. As with everything else in Japanese society, there is detailed etiquette involved in washing oneself in these onsen. First, you dress in yukata. Men have to wear their belts around the waist while women carry theirs as high as they can go. You deposit your yukata and slippers in baskets and proceed attired as God intended into the shower area. You wash yourself with soap, being very careful to remove every sign of soap. Bringing a single soap sud into the (scalding) hot bath is a definite no-no, akin to farting in front of a nun.

Love of things American, well all the best bits – You would think that you would resent a country that dropped two atomic bombs on you. To both their credits, the US and Japan have strong relationships with each other and Japan has three very significant US imports: Baseball, Denny’s and 7-11s.

Introduced into Japan in the mid 19th century and until the 1990s the only professional sport in Japan, baseball is arguably bigger in Japan than it is in the US. Teams are typically associated with companies rather than cities, my current favourite being the Yakult Swallowers. If it truly were a World Series, the US winner would play the Japanese winner. Incidentally, there are some differences between the US and Japanese rules (slightly smaller ball, differently-shaped strike zone and ties allowed) that would necessitate home and away rules.

Those who know me will be aware of my love of Denny’s or at least a partial version of the all day grand slam breakfast. It’s good to know that – in the land of sushi and noodles – they have time for Denny’s too

In the US, 7-11s may be convenient but they generally sell products full of empty calories. In Japan, they sell proper fresh food delivered multiple times per day just before the rush for that meal. See this business school case study for why they did this. Incidentally, there are twice as many 7-11s in Japan as in the US

Cream Cherry blossom – look at these pictures. What’s not to like?


Dubious whaling – Condemnation from seemingly every country around the world doesn’t stop the Japanese from “experimenting” with whale. Most of their experimentation seems to be of the culinary kind. Whale meat was not eaten much before 1945, but encouraged as a cheap form of meat after 1945 by McCarthur. It was made compulsory school food shortly afterwards. Japan argue today that “objections to whaling are based upon cultural differences and emotional anthropomorphism”. Despite Tilly’s protestations – Lorna said it was very nice.

16 course tofu dinners – Because I am a vegetarian, when I first came to Japan, I was taken to a Tofu restaurant by my business hosts. Their english was 10 times better than my Japanese; unfortunately, my Japanese extends to only 3 phrases. They were very polite and kind, but it was a long evening. I didn’t really like tofu before that evening and was surprised by its versatility. At the end of the evening however, I was so hungry I immediately bought more food.

Karaoke wailing – at the end of a hard day’s work, salarymen often end up inebriated singing in front of other men.

Sprinting for trains – I made an observation the other day that in Hong Kong (where I live), people run for trains when one is coming into the station. In Tokyo, they sprint for trains. Quite a sight.

Love and capsule hotels – different concepts. Because of the very high cost of accommodation in Tokyo, most young people live with their families until they marry. They take their romantic leisure time in love hotels by the hour (or two). Sarah Chaplain estimated that more than 500 million visits to Japan’s 37,000 love hotels take place each year, equivalent to around 1.4 million couples, or 2% of Japan’s population, visiting a love hotel every day. Sounds rather neat.


I would love to spend a night in a capsule hotel. Designed for businessmen who have missed the last train home, they are essentially cupboards with a bed, tv and wireless Internet. Lorna won’t consider one (too claustrophobic)


Vending machines – these are everywhere and my children stop at every single one. In a society where most don’t have cars, people walk to buy their produce. Everything you can think is sold in these machines. You can buy hot drinks on the slopes and peak of Mount Fuji. I’ve heard that at some you can buy pre-worn women’s underwear.

Salarymen – Employees traditionally work for the same employer for life in Japan. You see them in the morning on trains in identical dark coloured suits. Seemingly emotionless, you wonder what they are thinking. They work hard, always at the beck and call of their employers. The Japanese have a word, “Karoshi”, which means “death from overwork”. In the evening, they loosen their ties and go out with other men to enjoy themselves. They drink, they eat, they karaoke. The next morning, you see them on the trains again emotionless once more.

Noodles, udon and soba – I could have mentioned ramen, shirataki, somen or hiyamugi (but they wouldn’t scan).

Futon mats – a traditional Japanese room has a futon sitting on top of a tatami mat. Very cozy

Odd toilets – see previous blog

Well ordered queuing – Britain would definitely get Silver in any queuing Olympics.

Snow monkeys who dive in pools for grain – We went to see snow monkeys yesterday. It was terrific to see monkeys so close up. We watched for a couple of hours and wished we were there in the snow. As in China (see previous blog), they had tricks to keep the monkeys in the paid part of the park. They provided food and threw grain into the water to encourage the monkeys to swim.




2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Lisa on April 30, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    Enjoying your commentary!


  2. […] My favourite things about Japan ( […]


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