Trip to Japan

2 minute read


I have just returned from a 10-day trip to Japan. During this short stay, I went to the Ikaho hot spring, did some sightseeing in Tokyo with my family, and gave talks at Waseda University and University of Tokyo.

The last time I visited Japan was in 2019, so I felt as if I were the Japanese forklore figure Taro Urashima. Unfortunately, my driver’s license has expired, so I need to apply for an international license if I want to drive. I visited some banks to update my accounts. Many things have changed, for example:

  1. a large fraction of people wear masks in public,
  2. there are far more foreigners, either tourists or residents,
  3. the English announcements in trains have become more natural (spoken faster),
  4. credit cards and cashless transactions are more widely accepted,
  5. many buildings and train stations in Tokyo have become nicer,
  6. everything is so cheap,
  7. many things are automated.

Regarding how cheap things are, a one-day unlimited subway ticket costs 600 yen or less than 4 dollars. I brought my family of four to a reasonably good sushi restaurant and paid 27,000 yen, which is expensive for Japanese standard, but it’s only 172 dollars. When I gave a talk at University of Tokyo, my host brought me to lunch, which cost only 9 dollars per person (which was also U Tokyo’s budget :-). Regarding automation, what struck me was a hot spring. This is just one sample and I am not sure how general it is, but upon entering the building you put your shoes in the shoe locker and receive the key; you use this key (which has an IC chip inside) to go through an electric gate; after using the hot spring, you tap the key to a machine to pay (where credit cards and other options are accepted, in addition to cash), which prints out a receipt; finally, you scan the receipt to the electronic gate to exit. This is amazing. I didn’t need to use any cash and I didn’t need to talk to anybody, though an employee (who thought I was a foreigner) taught me how to use these gadgets even though I didn’t ask.

However, there are also many things that remain the same that I failed to appreciate when I lived in Japan, for example:

  1. public transportation is amazingly efficent,
  2. streets and train stations are extremely clean,
  3. people are polite and civilized.

When I moved to the United States in 2008, I was quite pessimistic about the Japanese economy (with large public debt, government regulations, population aging, and declining electronic and automobile industries), but maybe it can flourish as a popular tourist destination.