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« Can one be kind and still create change? | Main | Tech lessons from Tokyo »

Japanese illiteracy

Sunday afternoon Tokyo time sitting in the Delta business lounge of Narita airport which feels sorta like my second home. Flight doesn't go for a couple hours so I get a chance to think a bit about this interesting trip, my first time in Japan outside the airport.

I would consider this one of the most language-difficult places I've visited. A very low percentage of signs are in English as well as Japanese (better in the tourist areas) and I found very few fluent English speaking natives, even in the service industries. Although I am sure I had much better luck in this regard than any hapless tourist who tries to find a Japanese speaker in Minnesota. 

Despite feeling totally illiterate for about a week (perhaps a good empathy builder), I found the place fascinating. A few photos and observations below...

Yes, my nightmares about public transit were well founded. The board above greeted me on arrival at Haneda airport - the "close and convenient" airport. Overconfident after a conversation with my seat mate on the flight, I decided to jump into the mass transit system instead of taking a taxi to my hotel. After one nice lady actually got off the train car and walked me to the correct platform, I made it to the Shinjuku train station before the trains stopped running around midnight. At the station, I gave up and took a taxi to the hotel. My only taxi ride of my stay. By the end of the week, I was feeling pretty good about using the trains and subways - but I still gave myself an extra hour to get lost each trip.

This is a city of walkers. Millions of fast walkers, heads straight ahead or staring at phones, nearly everyone in salaryman's black. Individual buildings are tough to find since they are not numbered sequentially, but by chronological order of construction - the first building gets the lowest number. One guide asserted the streets were intentionally designed as a maze to protect the emperor. I can believe it. The GPS helped - a little.

The Meiji Shrine was one of the first stops on the first of several tours I took. Most Japanese are both Shinto and Buddist. They like to marry as Shintoists and die as Buddhists, since Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Very practical.

I've never seen a place with so many shops - giant department stores down to hole-in-the-wall stalls. And it's tchotchke heaven. Shop outside Asakusa Temple.

So having incense smoke blow in your face makes you attractive and in your hair makes you clever according to Japanese lore. 

However smoking is not allowed on the street. Most restaurants have smoking areas though. Go figure.

The city at night from the top of a building in Roppongi. The ASIJ high school librarian, Linda, took me out for supper, supplied me with a metro pass, and showed me this great view. The Tokyo Tower built in the late 50s is the tall lighted building.

Rush hour on the Odeo line, the newest and deepest subway in the city. Protocol demands you face out if standing and if the car is crowded you back in. Not up to Mumbai standards of sardine-ity, but a close runner up. In some cases such as at Shinjuku, finding one's way in the stations themselves was more of an ordeal than finding which line to take.  And once one sorted the subway lines from the train lines, the system worked really well.

The world's largest fish market is Tsukiji. It employees over 65,000 people and sells wholesale everything from gianormous tunas to baby sardines. Not bad smelling for a fish market, surprisingly. Gotta watch out for the very rushed guys driving propane propelled carts.

The artificial island of Odaiba was a great place to cycle. On my day-long tour on the Great Tokyo Cycling Tour (I highly recommend it), we rode on back streets, on major streets, on a lot of sidewalks, playing dodge the pedestrians absorbed in their phones, and through park areas like this.

I get the sense my son and grandsons would have appreciated the modern elements of Tokyo more than I would have. Manga comics and cartoons were never part of my childhood, but my boys all love them. This isn't Pokemon, I was told. Gundam Statue on Odiaba Island. Oh, he's the big one.

I was moved at this site near a temple (not remembering which one). Each of these small statues is a memorial to a miscarried child. There were thousands, many with fresh flowers.

The highlight of my visit just may have been attending a sumo tournament with Wouter, the elementary librarian at ASIJ. He's a sumo fan and thoughtfully described the rituals and rules of the sport. In the 2 1/2 hours we were there, I'm guessing we saw 15 minutes of fighting, but the pageantry, the butt-slapping, leg-stomping showmanship was fascinating. The sport is in decline with no Japanese top ranked wrestlers and no attempt to modernize this tradition with strong religious ties.

Mt. Fuji was clear during my tour there. Iconic is all I can say. I want to climb it, but it can really only be done during July or August. The 8 hours up and 3 down are one long queue, I understand. The trip by bus to the area took two hours. The trip back to Tokyo took 30 minutes on the Shinkansen - the bullet train. I'd have gotten a picture but by the time these trains screamed through the station, I was still getting my phone out of my shirt pocket. It's like flying on the ground.

A view of Lake Ashi from the Komagatake Ropeway. We took a short cruise on the lake in a traditional ship. A lady who looked to be in her sixties with what sounded like a British accent complained vociferously that tour brochure promised a ride on one of the pirate ships that also cruised the lake. I really wanted to go up to her and say "What are you, six years old?" Tourists!

The photo of this street scene near Shinjuku station simply doesn't do the lighting justice - or the crowds. I was amazed by the safe feeling, the cleanliness (not a scrap of litter), and the youth out and about both day and night on the streets. 

The tall structure in the back is the Tokyo SkyTree, a communications tower that replaced the Tokyo Tower, only half its height. Supposedly this was needed as buildings grew taller and television became digital. The gold building with the white top in the center of the photo is the Asahi beer building. And yes, it was designed to look like a glass of beer. The gold sweet potato is supposed to be a flame.

Sushi for breakfast? Yup. I don't care for fish so opted for the vegetarian plate. Others got huge slabs of raw fish. My red face is a result of my day-long bike ride earlier in the week, not the wasabi sauce.

At a temple one could pay a Y100 to draw a stick from a can that matched with a drawer that contained a fortune. As you can tell, mine was all bad. However, one can take this slip of paper and tie it to a small frame at the temple, thus leaving all your bad luck behind. Must have worked since I found my way back to the hotel on the subway.

The modern rickshaws were fun to ride. One does not tip in Japan for service so when a guide or rickshaw puller is effusive or helpful, it's genuine love of what they do - not a ploy for more money. I liked that a lot. While Tokyo was somewhat spendy, you weren't nickeled and dimed to death through tips, pay toilets, or the need for bottled water. 

The Akihabara District in Tokyo, home to all things geeky and electronic. 

On nearly every corner of the Akihabara District, appear these cute girls in French maid costumes touting for their "maid cafes" where one can be served coffee and get your ears cleaned (I am not making this up), by submissive, innocent-looking girls - the physical manifestation of a stock manga character. Personally, I'll take IHOP any day.

The ubiquitous vending machine dispenses both hot and cold drinks from every street corner. One piece of technology there that I could figure out. 

I enjoyed my week in Tokyo very much and always feel blessed to be able to experiences places like this. The very size of the city - both in population and physical area - made this a challenging trip for me. You have to work pretty hard as a tourist there. And as an administrator, I am just not accustomed to working that much.

Next visit, I hit museums, Kyoto, and get my ears cleaned.


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Reader Comments (3)

Thanks for the pictures, Doug. And especially for the descriptions to go with them. I love seeing photos of other people's travels (and using them to help decide my next one), but I also want to know what the shot is about and why they chose that particular one to share. Looks like you had a great trip.

May 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim Stahmer

Thanks for sharing. Yes, it's wonderful to be around so many people, while feeling so safe, and "clean". It sounds like you managed to squeeze in a lot of experiences. I remember visiting a 5 floor toy store of Hello Kitty and other Japanese characters. They certainly have a unique culture and way of looking at things and doing things. Our family loved the experience.

May 22, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVivian

Hi Tim,

This was an unusual trip for me since I booked so many organized tours. I am usually more independent, armed with a guidebook and good shoes. But given the confusing nature and sheer size of Tokyo, I am glad I went the more organized route. Next time, I am going solo!


Hi Vivian,

I kept wishing my son and grandsons were along to see the pop culture stuff so visible on the streets. I can see how kids would love this place.

I missed - places to sit in public places, trashcans and hotels willing to convert $ to Y. Odd, cultural differences, unique to Japan in my experience.


May 22, 2013 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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