Our three-week stay in Kyoto felt less like a “vacation” and more like simply “being there”. Which was the point. Having our own wonderful machiya with full kitchen and washer/dryer so that we always had fresh clothes and could make our own meals contributed to the “being there” experience. But having an extended stay with no fixed agenda was key. Each evening we decided what to do “tomorrow”: not what to do on “day 4 of the trip”, but simply the next time the sun came up. We rarely planned more than a single day in advance.
In the Kyoto area there are a plethora of temples to see, gardens to experience, mountains to hike up, side streets to explore. And everything is tied together by a public transport system that simply works. You can count on a train departing the station promptly at the scheduled time or a bus arriving when the bus stop sign says it will. Local electric or natural gas-driven city buses connect to longer haul buses, electric subways, electric local rail lines, and of course the superstar of Japanese transport: the amazing electric high-speed Shinkansen rail system, the main line of which runs through Kyoto Station (yes, there is an electric theme in that sentence). Whether we wanted to go a few miles across town or take a 515 mile roundtrip to Hiroshima, it was a relatively simple matter to figure out how to do it.
One of the most compelling aspects of the Japanese experience is the blend of respect for the past along with a willingness to adapt to new technologies. Ask a 50-year old man if a certain bus line stop is nearby and he will whip out his smartphone and research the answer. Observe the group of 60-year old ladies traveling together on the train use their “phablets” (sized between a big smartphone and a small tablet) while chatting away. Note that the crowds thronging the popular ancient temples are almost entirely Japanese: ancient shrines are not preserved as tourist attractions, they are an essential part of the Japanese character. The women dressed in rental kimonos in the Gion district taking selfies are invariably Japanese being tourists in their own country while seeking a connection with their past. The Japanese family preparing to hike up Mt Hiei pauses at the ancient torii gate for an iPhone photo.
Modern Japan sometimes puzzled me. For small purchases, Japan remains a cash-driven society. At the grocery store, cash was king and VISA was not accepted. On the bus, if you used cash you needed exact change: the fare machine would not let you insert a bill to pay the fare and then give you change; you first had to convert the bill into change using a separate function of the same machine and then drop the correct amount change back into the machine (the locals generally used a long term bus pass card that wouldn’t make economic sense for tourist use). Once on the Shinkansen, the conductor would examine each persons ticket and use an ink stamp to validate it even though we had already passed through an automated turnstile which checked our ticket.
In large department stores I saw legions of salespeople standing around with apparently little more to do than make minute adjustments to the product displays, yet Japan is a world leader in industrial robotics that on balance supplant human workers. Robotics companies are working hard to create “carebots”, robots to care for the rising population of elderly Japanese because there are not enough workers available for that task. It remains to be seen whether senior citizens will embrace them, or perhaps let themselves be embraced by them.
The Japanese strive to retain traditional human interactions even as younger generations immerse themselves in digital communications. Train conductors bow when they enter a car and bow when they leave. Bus drivers repeat arigatou gozaimasu (“thank you very much”) endlessly as passengers exit their bus.
More importantly, at least to me, is that in crowded situations the Japanese endeavor to give you personal space. In a packed pedestrian intersection inside Kyoto Station I enjoyed watching people navigate through the space towards their destination. No one bumps into anyone in what looks like a sea of black heads. Passing through a similar intersection in China would leave a Westerner feeling physically assaulted.
Despite packing nearly 127 million people into an area smaller than the American state of Maine, three-quarters of Japan consists of forested mountains where almost no one lives; the steep terrain makes building construction extremely difficult. Rural towns are losing their inhabitants to the cities, making the population even more concentrated (a phenomenon driven by economics and not unique to Japan). Driven by a declining population, abandoned houses are a growing problem; currently an estimated 8 million homes are sitting vacant, a figure which some forecast to rise to 20 million by 2033. That would be a third of all Japanese homes.
For now, Japan appears prosperous and busy. I am sitting in the Kansai airport hotel looking across Osaka Bay towards the seaport of Kobe (not quite visible in the photo below which shows the airport terminals at sunset). Ship traffic is continuous, planes are arriving and departing, and in the distance I can see the impressive Akashi Kaikyō Bridge which features the longest center suspension span in the world, at 1.23 miles (total length 2.43 miles). The Kansai International Airport was built on landfill because there was nowhere else to put it.
Much of Japan’s amazing infrastructure was created through government investment that has resulted in debt as a percentage of GDP rising to the staggering 250% level (of course nothing is that simple) while economic growth has been anemic since the early 1990’s. Yet the employment rate is well above the US rate (meaning everyone who needs a job has one) which is important for social stability, and the unemployment rate is very low, so salaries have started to creep up (according to this analysis). So Japan may be starting to come out of its prolonged economic doldrums.
I don’t pretend to be able to predict what the future holds for Japan. All I can say for sure is that it is a remarkable country of great beauty. I wish its people the very best, and I thank them for making our visit a delightful and memorable one.