I know I lead a rather charmed life, but I very much enjoyed taking a vacation to Japan these last two weeks.  It wasn’t my first trip to Asia, but it was my first trip to Japan.  The primary reason for our visit was to see the Formula 1 Grand Prix car race at the Fuji circuit outside Tokyo.  My husband’s a fan of F1, which is a different racing series from the Grand Prix race run in Long Beach each year (though he enjoys that one, too).  Our favorite driver lost the race from pole position (OK, Lewis Hamilton, for those of you that care), but we had a good time nonetheless.

There’s much to report.  We were in Tokyo (a huge city), Nikko (a rural town), and Kyoto (a medium-sized city) during our stay, and while they were very different, I can report that all were clean and well-maintained.  There aren’t many trash cans, but there also isn’t much visible trash, and when you do find a disposal spot it’s a phalanx of cans for combustibles, noncombustibles, cans, glass bottles, PET bottles (a specific kind of plastic), and newspapers.  In our whole trip I saw a mere handful of homeless people, most of them in Tokyo.  Public and private restrooms alike were clean, plentiful and free.

The country seems well organized; a case in point is that the trains run very much on time.  We were offered a nine-minute connection in Tokyo between the train coming from Nikko and the one heading west to Kyoto; I tried to ask for a longer connection but (allowing for the fact that I speak no Japanese) my overwhelming impression was that the ticket agent was telling me nine minutes was plenty and what was I worried about?  (In fact he gave me the wrong track number for the Tokyo departure and we wound up racing up an escalator with our heavy suitcases to get to the right track – but we did catch our train and that was the worst thing that happened on our trip.)

In general we didn’t encounter as much spoken or written English as I thought we might, but we managed just fine and provoked no international incidents (so far as we know).  Dining, despite our lack of Japanese, was quite straightforward.  Most menus featured pictures of the food, so we generally ordered by pointing.  Often our check would come with the food, discreetly placed at the edge of the table, and we paid at the register when we were ready.  Tipping was not expected, and at about 100 yen to the dollar, price conversions were easy.  The word “civilized” kept coming to mind.  

Of course I have to talk about the transportation system.  Cities were arranged to accommodate a variety of transportation options:  walking, bicycling, buses, trains, taxis and private cars were all commonplace.  (However, we saw few bicycle lanes of any kind, and in Kyoto we were disconcerted – my husband might say annoyed – by having to share the sidewalks with many cyclists.)

The high-speed trains, called Shinkansen, made the biggest impression on me, though.  Our trip between Kyoto and Tokyo – about 230 miles – took a little under three hours, with six or seven stops.  Our Japan Rail pass limited us to the second-fastest type of train on this route – the fastest go up to 300 miles per hour!  The photo I took (above) was at the wrong end of the station to capture the full effect of a good dozen pointy-nosed trains, all poised to leave within minutes for their next trip.  Japan has made an impressive investment in rail infrastructure – from our 28th-floor Tokyo hotel room, we could usually see at least three trains moving by on various systems any time we looked out our window.  Notably, the bullet trains have been serving Japan since the 1960’s, and the oldest ones are already set to retire, to be replaced by still newer, faster stock.

It strikes me that Japan and California are in some ways mirror images of each other.  Geographically, they curve in opposite directions at either edge of the Pacific; while they have almost the same land area (we’re a few percent bigger), Japan somehow manages to keep 3.5 times the population fed, clothed, educated, employed, and orderly.  While we boast diversity, Japan features conformity (and, I suspect, promotes it in the service of social cohesion).  This is not to say that either Japan or California is better, only that we could take a few lessons from the types of investments Japan has made as its population grows.  We will surely find our own way; but the Japanese way seems to be working pretty well!