[top In conclusion.....

Japan is such a huge place to take in, especially for someone coming from a back woods place like Adelaide. We have so many preconceived ideas about the country, most of which come from seeing depictions of Japan in the media. This could draw us to believe that Japan is a country full of "Salarymen" and "Office Ladies", leading a drone-like existence, working long hours and not seeing their families while they toil for the greater good of their employer and, as if by extension, their society.

Of course, this is a complete fallacy. It is true that the major cities are swarming with men dressed in suits and women in smart frocks, but there are also all those people who flunked their high school entrance exams, or weren't ambitious enough to go to cram school or work seven days a week on their homework. There is a vast army of people in Japan doing the same menial tasks as in Australia, like shop assistants, petrol station attendants, cleaners and the like. If anything, there seems to be a greater proportion of people doing menial tasks in Japan than in Australia. Not only young people, either. Japan, like many Asian countries has flunkeys of all ages - elderly people serving at Macdonald's, or pointing out the shortest queue at banks.

Travelling on subways at night, there were many office workers going home very late, but Ian and Amanda reckon that if they put in a solid eight hours work like in Australia, they wouldn't have to keep such long hours. Also, it seems that many of these men (and even a few women we saw), spend their evenings "entertaining clients" at inner city night spots, which is code for going out and getting pissed with your mates. There were many florists and sweetie shops open until about 10.00 at night, which I reckon are probably so that these "hard workers" can buy something for their wives as they stagger home. The wives, in turn, feel sorry for these guys - having to work such long hours and then get pissed, just to be a good employee.

Another preconception is that all Japanese dress the same, look the same, move in groups and frown on non-conformists. This seems only half true. Japanese don't all dress the same (naturally), but the vast majority are noticeably better dressed and neater than Australians. The women, with only a few exceptions, all wear tastefully applied cosmetics. Many young Japanese dye their hair various shades of red. A slight red tinge perhaps signifies a hint of individuality and a keen sense of fashion. Those with the full bright orange shocker are maybe the real individuals of Japanese society. Beyond this, there are even a few Japanese with blue-dyed hair and studs through their eyebrows. Looking different is principally an occupation of the young. It seems as if the older a Japanese person gets, the more they settle down and conform.

Japan is universally perceived as the most expensive place on earth. When we got back, the most commonly asked question was how we got on with the prices of things. It's not cheap, that's for sure. But we found that there were ways of working around this problem. Here are a few samples of prices we encountered, in Australian Dollars:

Food This is the essential item. A Western style restaurant main course, would cost $20 - $30. If you had to travel to Japan relying on this for your sustenance, you would quickly go broke. But why go there just to eat what you eat at home? Instead, a bowl of noodle soup or rice with a bit of meat at a cafe cost us about $6 - $11. This is still fairly costly, but affordable. Many restaurants had set lunch menus offering a little selection of several things, for about $12 - $15. You can pay through the nose for food, but if you shop around you can usually get the same thing for substantially less. If you were really daring, you could subsist on Macdonald's burgers for about $3 - $5, and donuts for $2. There were plenty of places selling Italian pasta dishes for about $10. You can easily pay that in Adelaide for a bowl of pasta. We had expected to lose weight in Japan through a wallet-imposed diet. We were accustomed to very small serves of food at Japanese restaurants in Australia, in exchange for a huge price. But in Japan we never felt hungry after any meal and it was all extremely tasty (oishi!).

Coffee A cup of coffee in a coffee shop will set you back about $4 - $4.50, which is fairly painful. And it tastes like mud. Apparently there is only one cow in Japan, because that cup of coffee would come with something resembling milk, served in a thimble. Luckily, vending machines selling canned coffee abound in Japan. A small can of hot coffee from these machines, black or white, costs about $1.30. If you are watching your weight, sorry, but sugar is compulsory with the canned coffee.

Fruit If you want to keep up your intake of roughage in Japan and eat some fresh fruit instead of all the processed stuff from restaurants, you should prepare to part with some serious currency. Apples were between $2 and $4 each; oranges about $1.20 each. Fruit was very expensive wherever we went and the range was poor compared to what we are used to in Australia. To compensate, the quality was usually fairly good.

Accommodation If you want to stay in Western hotels in Japan, booked through your travel agent before you leave Australia, you should see your bank about a mortgage. Prices of about $400 a night are fairly standard. Against this, the ryokans we stayed in were between $100 and $130 a night. They were basic, sometimes even comfortable, and usually had ensuite bathrooms and Western style toilets1. With a little research, you can usually find a ryokan near to a railway station, so they are usually quite accessible. The place we stayed at in Tokyo was about 20 minutes by subway from the city centre. It pays to arrange them yourself - the airline brochures offered the same chain of ryokans, but creamed an extra $40 per night off the top.

Taxis They have an $8 flagfall and the meter spins like the window on a one-arm-bandit. But they are interesting to ride in at least once, and for quick trips the cost is tolerable if the fare is split between two.

Entrance fees Are charged for almost everything. The only freebie on our whole trip was the Imperial Palace in Kyoto2. Everything else carries an admission charge of $6 - $10, even when it only takes five minutes to see.

Souvenirs Universally expensive.

Cigarettes Perverts go on sex tours to the Philippines or Thailand. Smokers should go on smoking tours to Japan. A packet of cigarettes in Japan costs about 1/3 of what it does in Australia! Needless to say, smoking is widespread in Japan. Looking for an investment opportunity? Lung cancer hospitals over there seem to have a certain future.

Cars Seem to cost about the same as in Australia, even imported ones. We saw ads for Audi A4 at about the same price as they sell for in Australia.

Public transport Again, this seems to cost about the same as in Adelaide, perhaps even a little cheaper.

Rice Contrary to my expectations, this was also about the same price as in Australia. I had heard that rice costs the Japanese consumer about eight times the Australian price, but what I saw in the supermarkets wasn't anything like this.
Looking in my wallet, Japan was a more tolerable place to tour than the UK. Although the accommodation was more expensive for about the same quality, affordable food was easier to find.

So, it wasn't the prices that made Japan difficult. It was the fact that it was so alien. There were really very, very few people we encountered who had more than a few English words at their disposal3. The signs were a bit better. All the railway station names had English subtitles, however we were always lost nonetheless and searching for some hint as to which direction to head in. If it wasn't for Jacqui, I would have been totally sunk. In China she was fairly useless, relying on her parents to read signs for her. Apparently, Chinese has been simplified since she learned it, so she now can't understand much of it. However, the Chinese characters in Japanese script are still the old ones she learned and she could read all sorts of things, especially place names and railway station signs. It would have been infinitely harder to get around Japan without her ability to do this.

One of the funnier things over the whole trip, Bali included, was that everybody treated Jacqui as Japanese. In Bali, she was greeted with "Konichiwa" wherever she went. In Japan, people would try to speak to her in Japanese rather than embarrass themselves with English to me. This caused her to retreat, so it was me who bought the train tickets or asked directions of people. Furthermore, she would not utter even the most basic Japanese word, like "arigato".

One pre-conceived notion which exceeded our expectations was Japanese enthusiasm and service orientation. Australian companies think "service" means "talking about service, without actually giving it". So, we do things like sack all the receptionists bar one, then install a queuing machine so that you sit on the phone to them for about 20 minutes, listening to a microchip version of "Greensleeves" interspersed with advertising messages telling you what great service they are giving you. In Japan, people are actually polite, keen and anxious to help4. Whenever you walk into a shop, restaurant or elevator, you are greeted with cries of "Irashaimase!" - from all the staff. In little cafes, the cooks will not stop or even look up from their work (this would show a lack of application to the task), but they will call out a loud "Irashaimase!" as you walk in. In a shop, it will be the shop assistants. I found this one of the most entertaining aspects of Japan, particularly when they get a bit carried away. Like Elevator Ladies. These robotic young creatures, elegantly dressed and made up, will greet you enthusiastically as you enter their lift, then babble away in this high-pitched squeak all the way to your floor5 then bow lowly as you leave. I am told that you should not acknowledge their presence, but big friendly Andrew could not allow such attention to go unrewarded, without at least a big friendly "arigato" back. I figured that it was the least they deserved and might even serve to brighten slightly their otherwise boring, thankless, footsore day.

The variations in the people between the places we visited were noticeable. The rather busy, stressed out Tokyoites mostly ignored us. Hardly anyone stared at us, even though I stood out a mile6. Once outside Tokyo, however, it all changed. The people of Nikko and Kyoto in particular were very friendly and went out of their way to be helpful. I suspect that if you got even further away from the big cities, the people would be even better.

Maybe Japan was a big tourist destination once, but it seems to me that the number of foreigners on holidays nowadays is small, probably due to the perceived expense and fairly poor marketing on the part of the Japanese. Compared to Japan, the marketing of SA is brilliant! Their tourist information centres in Japan are dingy and their brochures limited. They are staffed by people whose English comprehension is probably very good, if you write it down for them! Their spoken English is poor. Away from the regular tourist trail we followed, information for overseas visitors is worse. Inversely, there is probably more interesting things to see and you probably would be less swamped by school kids.

If you can overcome these hurdles, Japan turns out to be a fascinating country, full of sights offering both beauty and history which are highly accessible due to a superb transport system. We'll be going back for more one day.

1 We never had to use a squat toilet all the time we were in Japan. In fact, the toilets were great. There were all sort of automatic gadgets, like electric seat covers, taps that came on when you put your hands under them and urinals that flushed when you walked away from them.

2 To be fair, the Peace Museum in Hiroshima was only 50c and was a first rate place to see.

3 and they basically amounted to Mich and the hotel operators!

4 In shops and restaurants, I mean. If you asked them for help on the street, they generally ran a mile!

5 It doesn't matter that you don't understand what the hell they are telling you about!

6 At last, a population who look up to me. Only not because I'm a somebody - it's just that in Japan all the people are shorter than me. Actually, we both stood out, because we dressed like dags compared to the well-dressed Japanese.