Learn how to travel off the beaten path with the monthly HoliDaze insider guide  

One of the best things about foreign travel is the knowledge that invariably comes with it. It provides the opportunity for each of us to learn more about the world and its' many diverse cultures, as well as a little bit about ourselves. Another bonus is the chance to see which technology, trends, and practices are popular in the local region.

Think back and I'm sure you can recall a few things that made you go "Why don't they sell these back home?" or "Damn, why aren't we doing this at home?" even "Look at that, how awesome!" Most often those thoughts and semi-rhetorical questions are soon enough forgotten. But for me, at least in the case of Japan, not a day goes by that I don't miss all the great things about that country.

Japan is full of innovative ideas, futuristic technology, impressive customs, and other things that make you say WOW. Don't believe me? Take a look below and feel free to add your suggestions after the post.

Those Fancy Japanese Toilets

Let's get the obvious one out of the way first. Many people already know that these crappers are in a league all of their own. I wrote an entire article about fancy Japanese toilets and other bathroom innovations. Their toilets have features most Westerners have never dreamed of, including background noise to cover any sounds that the user may make, a warm cleansing spray, self-warming seat, built-in water-saving sink, and other impressive features. Be sure to read that post for more intriguing info.

Japanese toilets are top-notch toilets and the best Japanese innovation ever!

  Photo Gallery: Japanese Toilets 101

Underground Bicycle Garages

These things are pretty neat, Mayu showed me how to use one. Basically you just hop off your bike and roll it onto this platform. Insert your card and the machine will automatically stow your bike in a huge underground cylinder. This keeps it safe from both thieves and natural disasters while also reducing the amount of clutter at street level. To retrieve it simply re-insert your card into the attached machine and it will spit your bike back out in around ten seconds.

In areas without the Eco Cycle storage it is not uncommon to see hundreds of bicycles crammed together as part of a makeshift bicycle lot (a trend which I hope has died out since my last trip to Japan).

I don't have any personal photos, unfortunately, but I did find this  

Underground bicycle garages in Tokyo, Japan

Automated Vehicle Garages

An enlarged version of the bicycle garages, these things are amazing! They come in a variety of shapes and sizes and are pretty wild to watch in action. Some are drive-thrus that slide the vehicle off to the side. Others in the basement of high-rise buildings feature a circular pad so that the vehicle can be rotated 180° and driven out in the opposite direction it was driven it.

Automatic underground car parking garage in Tokyo, Japan
Ramps down to these underground garages can be seen all over the big cities

Other models are individual lifts that hoist one vehicle up into the air so that a second can be driven in underneath it. Walk past people's homes in the evening and it is not uncommon to see two vehicles stacked atop each other.

Astonishing Array Of Vending Machines

In the big metropolises of Japan you are never more than two blocks from a vending machine. They are usually found in pairs but sometimes also in long banks of a dozen or more. They sell all the traditional items you would expect such as refreshing beverages (soda, water, tea, milk, juice, beer...essentially everything liquid) and cigarettes (requires scan of a Japanese ID to dispense product) to other more unconventional items including ramen, electronics, umbrellas, even underwear and ties.

Vending machines in Japan sell everything from drinks to cigarettes, electronics, toys and even panties -- both new and used. Yes, seriously.

Automatically Opening Taxi Doors

This one is essentially self-explanatory, I don't know what more I can write about them. They are controlled by a button up front and swing open really fast. Oh and they are twice as great when its raining out.

Japanese taxis have automatically opening doors

Touchscreen Menus At Upscale Restaurants

These reduce the number of (and stress on) restaurant employees. Expect to see more in the future.

Pachinko Parlors That Nearly Induce Seizures

Anyone who has ever walked past one of these has undoubtedly heard the noise and flashing lights blaring out. They are basically like arcade halls combined with casinos, some being multiple levels and taking up entire blocks. I never played myself but did wander through a couple of them.

Japanese citizens love these things and have been know to spend hours playing in these giant parlors, like the stereotypical American Grandma glued to the Las Vegas slots. Not very popular among foreigners though due to the constant flashing lights and never-ending din of bells, chimes, tings, tongs, pings, and general noise of hundreds of people gambling.

Japanese crack

Love Hotels

Love hotels are plush yet discreet hotels that rent rooms either by the hour, a several-hour "short stay" period, or for the entire night. Each room has different themes with the fanciest being compared to a brief stay in paradise. These swanky rooms would undoubtedly fit right in with some of the classy hotels of Las Vegas or Dubai.

When I say the theme varies greatly between rooms, I cannot stress that enough. One could be Egyptian theme, the next dungeon-themed, another a retro-hippie love-nest, etc. I highly recommend you check out a love hotel, especially if you've met a cute little Asian girl at the club that night.

Impressive, huh? Love hotels are common in neighborhoods with lots of clubs and an active nightlife.

Other Unique Types Of Japanese Lodging  

White-Gloved Helpers...Everywhere

A variety of businesses have staff that are ready and waiting to help you at a moment's notice. For lack of an official term (that I know of) I jokingly refer to these people at the white glove crew. Whether standing next to the trash cans in McDonald's waiting to take your tray from you and dispose of it themselves or inside the elevator, eager to take you to whichever floor has what you need, these people always have a smile on their face and white cloth gloves on their hands.

The railway attendants are dressed similarly and also sport the white gloves. However, they don't always have a smile on their face -- especially not during rush hour.

Drunk Female Attendants At Clubs

It's not what you may think. Big clubs in Japan frequently stay open until sunrise. Many even have an employee on hand who's sole job is to care for the ladies that have had way too much to drink; other employees that are walking around the club will bring these women down to him. Not only does this prevent them from getting taken advantage of or robbed, but it also leaves their boyfriend free to keep partying (guilty, I'll admit it).

This employee is even armed with rubber bands and miniature black trash bags for -- you guessed it -- tying up their hair and puking. This "drunk person attendant" is located near the entrance, making it easy to retrieve your drunk person on the way home. Hope you saved money for a cab because they will not be fit to walk!

Now that is a level of service that is hard to match. Unfortunately I never thought to get a photo.

Clubbing In Tokyo  

All The Paper Currency Is Perfectly Crisp

Now this isn't so much a Japanese innovation, but rather a testament to their level of perfection. Every bank note is impeccably crisp, whether receiving it from an ATM or as change from the local corner store. No bills are ever raggedy, torn, of limp, as other countries currency often is. I suspect that the banks simply rotate out worn bills at an increased rate. Whatever it is the fact remains that this simple little thing is surprisingly easy to get used to.

Image coutesy of Japan Scene

100¥ Stores

Based on the American dollar stores, Japan revamped these into stores that offer products that are not utter crap -- even fresh food -- and people are not shopping at them because they are poor.

These stores take the embarrassment out of bargain shopping

Designated Smoking Areas Cubes

Although you can smoke inside restaurants, clubs, and a variety of other places in Japan -- basically everywhere except grocery and clothing stores -- many cities have restrictions on outdoor smoking. For example outside railway stations and airports there are sporadic smoking areas. Some are merely painted rectangles on the ground but others are actually fully enclosed cubicles with high-powered ventilation to combat the smoke, as pictured below.

Indoor smoking area at an establishment that had recently banned smoking

(Almost) No Homeless People In Tokyo

Given the fact that Tokyo is the most populated metropolis in the world (36.9 million people, over 10 million more than #2, Mexico City) I initially expected there to be a lot of homeless people as well. After all, I was born in NYC. I'm familiar with homeless people.

There is nothing more depressing than walking around a big city only to pass underneath a bridge and realize you are walking through someone's home. And damn, now I've got to keep smelling this God-awful smell until getting out from underneath this bridge and several paces away.

In my many months of wandering around Tokyo at all hours of the day and night, I only recall seeing a single homeless person. I'm not saying that they do not exist, just saying that thanks to the strong principles of the Japanese culture, homelessness is not near the problem there that it is in many other countries.

There is plenty more that makes Japan a fantastic country to visit, but you'll just have to experience it yourself and see what you find!

  What are your thoughts? Have any additions to this list?

Published in Japan
Antonio Guest House Ohrid MacedoniaThe Antonio Guest House Ohrid Macedonia

When I decided to take a road trip to Lake Ohrid Macedonia I checked online to see what the hotel prices were. The last few years I have tried to stay away from hotels, preferring instead to rent a condo or apartment. I find it not only less expensive but in a lot of cases you get added benefits that you wouldn’t at a hotel. After all I spend most of the day away from the room and no need in wasting a bunch of money on something I am not going to be using much. I have never been a Hostel kind of guy. I snore enough I don’t want to listen to someone else doing it. And I don’t particularly like sleeping in a dorm setting.

After a little research I found Antonio Guest House consisting of 6 rooms for rent and the price was great. For 15 Euros I had my own room at a place that had great reviews from multiple online sites. I booked through the internet and got my confirmation and was ready to go.

Upon arriving in Ohrid I found the place with no trouble. I am not sure what I expected but the place is basically a house. The door was locked so I rang the doorbell and Stojna, the lady of the house answered the door, pointed her finger at me and said “Robert”? I answered yes and she waved her hand and said “Come”. Entering the house she pointed to my shoes and then pointed to a shoe rack. I took my shoes off and closed the door and she started pointing at the door, then a button that unlocks the door. Then she waved her hand again and said “Come”. She took me upstairs and opened one of the rooms with a skeleton key, she pointed to the two single beds and then opened a window that looked out over the garden and said “smoke”. Then she waved her hand again and said, yep you guessed it, “Come”. She pointed at the common use bathroom and then we went downstairs where she took the other key on the ring and showed me that it unlocked the front door from outside and then waved her hand and again said “Come”. Now by this time I was starting to like Stojna, something about her said we were going to get along okay.

The GardenThe Garden

We went into the kitchen downstairs and sitting at a table was her husband Trajce who seemed to be waiting for the door to open and next to him was a well used notebook. Trajce tells me he speaks a little English. His son Antonio, who speaks good English, is currently giving a tour of the city to some Japanese tourists.

Stojna looks at me and asks, “drink?” To which her husband asks if I want brandy, juice, coffee or water. Trying to be polite and not go for liquor just yet I said water is fine. At this Stojna points and says, “Brandy”. She quickly produces a clear glass pint bottle with no label and clear liquid. Now having had more than one drink out of a no label liquor bottle I knew what was about to happen. She proceeds to pour me two ounces and then gives her husband about a teaspoon full in his glass. He smiles and says to me, “It is good brandy almost like schnapps, drink.” Drinking about half the glass and feeling molten lava run down my throat, with just a hint of fruity flavor, he smiles again and says “good, finish.” Always being one to please I drink the rest of the liquid fire and before I can put the shot glass down Stojna pours me another two ounces.

Trajce asks how many nights am I staying, after answering 3 he says “Good” and pulls out a sheet of paper with a map of the city. The map has all the famous tourist sites listed and he starts by showing me where we are. Then he tells me we are 700 meters from the old town and shows me the route I need to take. He circles several churches and tells me why they are famous drawing a route along the old town and back to the guest house. He then says “You take this tour, it will take you 3 to 4 hours”. He then tells me we are 15 Km from the town of Struga. He circles the bus stop where I need to be and turns the paper over which has all the bus times to various locations. He tells me Struga will cost me 40 Denar or about .80 USD. He then tells me we are 30 Km from St Naum Monastery and it will cost me 120 Denar or about 2.50 USD. He then circles a couple of banks and money exchange places along with a few restaurants. After this he asks for my passport and opens his notebook and dutifully writes down my name and passport info, then begins looking through the passport. He points and shows his wife my Cambodia Visa and tells me his son was recently in Cambodia and then he points to my shot glass and tells me to drink. I am really starting to like these folks. After downing the last of the brandy his wife comes at me with the bottle and now it’s my turn to wave my hand and tell her no thanks I have had enough.

The next day after a couple of British backpackers leave Trajce moves me into their room, which is a little larger and has a balcony. The rooms have free wi-fi, television a small table and a couple of chairs. Outside the room there is a refrigerator a couple of electric burners with a few pots along with silver ware, glasses, instant coffee and tea bags.

I spend the next couple of days getting up early and seeing the sights of the Old Town and having a few beers in the evening.

The last day I go downstairs in the morning and tell Trajce I will be checking out. I have someone coming to pick me up in the early afternoon so I ask if I can I keep my pack downstairs while I walk around town a bit. Trajce puts my bag in the corner and Stojna appears asking if I want coffee or tea? Having just had a couple of cups of coffee upstairs I tell her no thanks I am going to walk around a bit. Stojna doesn’t really seem to like that answer, points outside to the garden and tells me “Sit”. Trajce and I sit down and start to chat when Stojna comes up from nowhere and pours me a double shot of morning Brandy along with a slice of her home made walnut cake drenched in Brandy. So here we are at 7 am chatting and drinking Brandy. That’s when Trajce tells me he made the Brandy from the grapes growing in the garden. He also tells me he has 80 liters of the fire water and sometimes sells it to guests at a whopping price of 5 Euros per liter. Now for my American buddies that is roughly $6.20 a Quart for some high quality Moon Shine.

Trajce's Home Made WineTrajce's Home Made Wine

After a few drinks I leave and walk around town for the last time picking up a few things to take with me. Returning to the Guest House I still have about an hour or so before my ride shows up. I tell Trajce I will just sit in the garden and wait. Trajce sits down with me and we begin chatting about his life, he used to work at the train station and also at a travel agency, and Stojna worked in a garment factory. Now they run the Guest House while their son Antonio promotes the Guest House and works as a tour guide in town.  At this point Stojna pulls out a bottle of wine pours me a big juice glass full and gives Trajce a little. Trajce asks me how the wine is and I respond pretty good. He smiles and says "I made that too I have a lot." Well of course you do ya little moonshiner. So for the next hour we chat and drink wine until my ride arrives and just like family they walk me to the car wave goodbye and tell me to be careful on the road.

Now you tell me of a hotel where you can have that kind of experience.

Stojna and TrajceStojna and Trajce
Published in Miscellany Articles

When I typed “solo travel” into Google today, it returned 60 million hits – yes, 60 million! As the world grows smaller through technological advances and travel becomes more accessible, solo travel has increased in popularity. The internet is full of information both from and for solo travellers, but what is it really like to travel on your own and is it for you?

I began my solo travel career a few years back through both necessity and desire. Initially I began to travel on my own in response to the life changes my friends were experiencing. People I had travelled with in the past were now getting married, starting families or, as is often the case when you live in London, returning to their Antipodean homes after working holiday visas expired. Other single friends were burnt out by demanding careers and wanted to spend the little time off they had relaxing on a beach, not backpacking through a developing country.

I was also reacting to a lesson many of us have learned the hard way – close friends do not always make great travel buddies. When your friend wants to lie by the pool each day on a trip to Sri Lanka and you want to join some locals on a day trip to a tea plantation and elephant orphanage, you realise being great drinking buddies in a London pub does not make you compatible travel partners.

Travelling solo is not for everyone and it helps to understand the travel personality of yourself in addition to those you are considering travelling with. You may be more suited to travelling in a group but that doesn’t guarantee a perfect travel experience if you are travelling with someone more suited to solo travel.

Are you a solo traveller? Maybe the points below will help you decide.

TOP FIVE: Best things about solo travel

1. The Selfish Factor

Going solo wasn’t just a reaction to my circumstances. I was a thirty-something single, independent female who was starting to realise you only get one shot at life. Put simply, I was growing selfish and didn’t want to compromise my travel experiences. Going solo allows you guilt-free selfish moments and also helps you stick to your own budget. Remember the Friends episode where half the group wanted to go to a rock concert but the others couldn’t afford it? Travel can cause the same tension if you have different budgets and you inevitably have to compromise. You may choose to take that balloon ride over the Serengeti without your travel partner because you can afford it and don’t want to miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But do you really want to stay in the 5* hotel you can afford on your own when you travel buddy is sharing a dorm at the hostel on the other side of town?

How do you see and do everything you want when you are travelling whilst staying within your budget? You travel solo!

2. A flexible itinerary

Some people feel suffocated by a travel itinerary whilst others need a planned approach to a travel experience. I sit somewhere in the middle. Travelling solo not only allows me the luxury of setting my own itinerary, it lets me change it along the way. I am a very keen amateur photographer and I am not surprised to learn photographers usually prefer to travel on their own. There is nothing worse than missing an incredible sunset because your travel buddy wants to catch happy hour at the local bar. Or patiently waiting for someone to move out of the frame of your shot as your travel partner impatiently stands beside you ready to move on.

How do you get to the best places at the best times or return to a place a number of times to capture that magical shot? You travel solo!

3. It’s a great way to meet people

Most solo travellers I’ve met agree that going solo is the best way to meet people. Not only are you more likely to approach other people when you are on your own looking for company, but you are more approachable yourself. It makes sense right? Who are you more likely to strike up a conversation with - the intimidating group of friends travelling together or the person sitting on their own?

How do you meet people when you travel? You travel solo!

Making new friends on the road is one of the greatest parts about traveling
Hostels is a great way to meet fellow travelers to explore with

4. Local interaction

An extension of the previous point, travelling solo makes it a lot easier to make local friends. What is a group of ‘travellers’ called? Tourists! Ok, I made that up and I am generalising, but I have often found locals more likely to treat me as a tourist when I am with other foreigners. I get a very different reaction when travelling on my own and have had some unforgettable conversations with locals who have approached me simply to have a chat.

How do you increase local interaction when travelling? You travel solo!

5. Self Discovery

It’s often said that the best way to get to know someone is by travelling with them and there is no better journey of self-discovery than the one you take as a solo traveller. Not only do you have more time on your own to reflect and relax, you will also inevitably face situations that help you understand more about what makes you happy, what your strengths and weaknesses are and what (or who) irritates you. Travelling solo not only increases self-awareness but it also creates the opportunity to change. Having to face challenges on my own whilst travelling – the bag stolen in Bolivia, needing medication for infected insect bites in Uganda, missing my plane in Copenhagen – has helped me face challenges back home with more patience and less stress.

How do you create self discovery opportunities? You travel solo!

TOP FIVE: Worst things about solo travel

1. Table for one

A phobia is an irrational fear. I have an irrational fear of mice. Many people have an irrational fear of eating alone. I don’t know if this particular fear has a name, but it should because it’s so common. There is something about asking for a table for one that sends a shiver of fear through most people. They are convinced the conversation around them stops as they are led through the crowded restaurant to their table, as couples and groups throw them sympathetic looks. The sound of the waiter clearing the extra place at the table seems to echo around them and many would prefer to grab a sandwich at the local supermarket to eat in their room, than repeat the experience the next night.

How to face this challenge? My kindle is my dinner companion – it doesn’t take up too much space, it doesn’t tell me long and boring stories, and it doesn’t reach over and steal my fries!

2. Sharing

This is the hardest part about travelling solo for me. I have lost count of the breathtaking views, serene sunsets and comical encounters that I can’t re-create after the event. Whether it’s sharing a moment with someone special, laughing for days at a ‘had to be there’ moment with someone who was actually there, or having a healthy debate over the pros and cons of volunteerism after visiting a local project, having someone to share travel experiences with makes it just that bit more special.

How to face this challenge? The age of technology that we live in let’s me share experiences in my blog, by postings photos on Facebook and through emailing friends and family. It’s not as good as the real thing, but sharing and connecting with like-minded people who weren’t there is the second best option.

3. The dreaded Single Supplement

There’s no way around it – it is more expensive to travel on your own, especially with accommodation where you can’t split the cost with your travel partner.

How to face this challenge? The issue of increased expense is offset by the flexibility solo travel gives you. I may not be able to split the cost of a hotel room, but having the freedom to stick to my own budget helps me manage my finances a little better whilst on the road.

4. Safety

I have rarely felt unsafe when travelling on my own, but the fact remains that safety is a risk for solo travellers. Travelling on your own in some countries (parts of Africa for example) can feel like wearing a target on your forehead inviting trouble. Solo travellers in other countries (especially females) may find themselves the subject of unwanted attention. The most common issue for solo travellers is not having someone to watch their luggage whilst they run to the toilet or to buy some water. Falling asleep on a train makes them nervous when there is a stranger next to them who can reach over and grab their Ipod.

How to face this challenge? Sometimes you just have bad luck and are in the wrong place at the wrong time. But using common sense can help reduce the likelihood of these ‘bad luck’ moments. I always check out the ‘safety and security’ advice issued about the country I am heading to (both Australia and UK governments have excellent online safety advice) and am sensitive to the cultural differences I may face. I don’t take chances – life is too short.

5. Loneliness

I almost didn’t include this in this list, because I can honestly say I’ve felt lonelier at times back home than I have when I’ve been travelling on my own. But loneliness is a possible side-effect of solo travel and some feel it more than others. If you don’t enjoy spending time on your own at home, chances are you may struggle with travelling solo.

How to face this challenge? Overcoming this challenge will be easier for some people than others, because it often involves reaching outside your comfort zone – approaching strangers, enjoying your own company for example.

Travelling solo is not for everyone. But is it for me? Absolutely!

Want More?

How Long Term Travel Changes People Forever

Published in First Time Backpacking

Today I was thinking about what effect traveling has had on me my personality my existence. So I thought I would list them out and list the things that I have taken with me from countries. Just to give some context all the first countries in Europe in the list below were visited by a young me in elementary. Though it didnt stop me from trying a lot of things for the first time.

Japan   Tokyo what a city...Japan what a culture...I have never been more amazed by the scale of a nation. I have always been kind of a technology and internet nerd. Which I learned can be part of a culture it was amazing to see how plugged in the youth was. I learned to have more respect for people who are quiet shy and didnt seem to have the need for boastfulness. Once you take that out of the equation your left with a lot of love and good vibes.

Japanese toilet instructions

Belgium   Their I learned to appreciate real food rich cheese, dark chocolate, a real Gyro, real ice cream and delicious bread. When I came back to the states I couldn't help but stare sadly at American cheese it now tasted like plastic and served better as a play-doh. The ice cream now tasted like whip cream, giving a kid food that rich then taking it away is the equivalent to giving someone who likes energy drinks crystal meth then taking it away.

France   Before my family trip to Europe I was a bit sheltered no soda no Simpsons and plenty of church. In France after 8pm porn comes on half the channels, it was surprising to say the least. More then that though the culture there is just comfortable with nudity. There I learned that the nude body has other purposes then sex or comedy. The memories I still have of that lend to my self esteem etc helps my mind fight the culture here.

Philippines   Interesting place and a far cry from big city nights in Tokyo. When I was young I didnt have a lot of views on gay people until my friend came out and it was put in my face. I was suddenly presented with a choice and I chose to embrace people that are different. I didnt have a lot of views on poverty, prostitution and desperation until it was put in my face. It made me realize how much you can get lost in your luxuries and lose site of what real pain is. A girl their who basically offered me sex for free, but told me not to tell her pimp. I respectfully declined but it made me realize even someone as devious and sexually permissive as me, can still has lines that I dont want to cross. Dont get me wrong im not harping on prostitution I actually think it should be legal and regulated everywhere. This though is a different story and a lot of people take an advantage of these girls or lets themselves be taken advantage of by their lustful wants or naivety or both. In the Philippines I learned to appreciate the good things in life despite how I may be feeling and experienced my own character growth as a man.

The beautiful Filipino landscape

The Netherlands   My brother got kicked out of a coffee shop there for trying to steal all the roaches out of an ash tray or at least thats how the story goes. It was amazing that people could get together and puff on a joint instead of drinking. There I learned that some laws just don't make any sense and they are not absolute. Later I learned that if anything doesn't make sense with the government just follow the money and it will start making sense, sad but true.

England   While in England we visited a lot of the castles in Dover and Canterbury made me think about my history, my bloodline etc. I had a revelation like a Eddie Izzard show all of sudden I was like America doesnt have shit were to young we cant compete. Also I stayed at a little BNB there which also happened to be hosting a wedding. I could not understand a fucking word from these liquored up Brits. I hadmuch more fluent conversations with the French.

Costa Rica   Man the stars at night can be a beautiful thing especially in the middle of the jungle. As I said before I like the indoors technology the internet etc. Here though I wanted to be outside so much to look at nature wise and to interact with like the fruit farms or coffee fields. Since then I still eat fruit with my breakfast everyday I also learned thats one thing you can depend on in most counties they might not have Pringles but they probably have something natural. In Costa I learned to truly appreciate the nature earth and everything that comes with it.

Tortuga Island in Costa Rica

You never know what you will learn by traveling until you go for it!

Published in First Time Backpacking

The first time I set foot on Japanese soil I was 22 years old. I had gone over two full years without smoking any cigarettes, which I did off-and-on for a short period after turning 18 -- only while drunk though (as if that makes it any better). In Tokyo it was all different. Given their attitude on drinking, it only figures that cigarette smoking would go hand-in-hand.

Let me tell you, I was shocked by what I saw. Not only did it seem like nearly everyone smoked cigarettes, but you were allowed to smoke pretty much anywhere except clothing stores and grocery markets. Even in the McDonald's people were smoking cigarettes as they were at the counter ordering their food! (Clarification: I was not eating McDonald's but rather observing from the sidewalk.) It was unheard of compared to cigarette smoking practices back home in the States, which have become more and more restrictive (as well as taxed) the last decade, particularly in California and New York City. But no tax hikes in Japan -- prices were almost all priced at ¥320 a pack, regardless of brand ($3.50 USD).

Vending machines in Tokyo
There are vending machines every block offering everything
from soda and tea to beer, cigarettes, even electronics!
And yes, that is me on the right making a phone call.

Click the photo to enlarge.

Needless to say, between all the people smoking cigarettes and the amount of drinking I quickly found myself doing, it was not long before I was picking up a pack every few days. I fell back into the habit so quickly it was almost scary. But hey, I just went with it, knowing that once I left Japan I would be leaving the tobacco behind as well.

In Japan the legal smoking age is twenty, so of course the vending machines require you to swipe your ID. Not having one, I would either ask people in clubs (and by ask I mean stand next to the vending machine like a gaijin until someone noticed and offered to help) or visit the corner Lawson stores, which are located on seemingly every block. Kind of the way ABC Stores are everywhere in Hawaii.

It is interesting to note that the local Japanese population smoked their cigarettes a lot differently than we Westerners do. Typically in the US, when someone lights up a cigarette they will keep it in between their fingers until the very end, taking a puff every few seconds. In Japan, people light up a cig and after only a puff or two will set it down in the ashtray. They may pick it up periodically and take a few more puffs before the cigarette is done, but some even just allow it to burn all the way down to the filter without so much as another drag. Either way that cigarette spends the majority of its time in the ashtray, not in the smoker's hand. As such the Japanese unquestionably inhale immensely less of the harmful tobacco smoke then fellow smokers elsewhere in the world, at least per cigarette. However, they do light up a lot more cigarettes. Often you would see someone light up a new cigarette only a minute after having extinguished the prior one.

Another interesting thing: Marlboro owns the market here. There are even Marlboro stores on the side of streets, like it was an upscale cigar shop or something. But what I do not understand is where is Camel?

I used to be a light cigarette smoker for a brief period after turning 21 and Camel was my brand for that brief period. I would only smoke a couple cigarettes a day and only at night, with coffee or a beer. Never would I crave a cigarette during work or wake up needing to smoke, and I surely never gave a damn if I didn't have one. I guess you could say I was a social smoker and luckily never got addicted. Quitting for me was as simple as turning off a light switch.

But jumping back to before that rambling confession, what caught me by surprise was the total absence of Camel in the Japanese cigarette market! I remember trying to look it up online and getting no answer, so I tried to contact R.J.Reynold Co and tell them "hey, you guys NEED to expand your market to Japan, you'll make billions." Unfortunately, not sure if you have ever tried to contact a cigarette manufacturer but they sure do not make the process easy -- it would appear as they do not want to hear from their customers and would rather just have them continue to buy packs until they die.

Camel cigarette logo

Camel could, with their creativity and styling, not to mention their flair, flavors, and marketing, conceivably dominate the nicotine market of Tokyo and I dare say all of Japan in record time. There has to be some underlying reason why they have not done this yet. Does anyone know why?

I had originally intended to look up the statistics on lung cancer in Japan. However once I stopped smoking I found that my initial curiousity on the subject faded as well. I had not even thought about it until writing this article. Part of me does still wonder if Japanese citizens have higher numbers of lung cancer and other tobacco-related health issues than the United States does, due to the increased prevalence of cigarettes and cigarette smoke.

In closing, I just find it so damn puzzling how a culture which has for centuries strived upon achieving perfection in everything they do and all that they create, could seemingly embrace and accept something as disgusting and as harmful to one's health as cigarette smoking.

The real question is, which is worse: Smoking less cigarettes, but smoking them all the way down to the filter. Or smoking more cigarettes but with only a limited number of puffs from each?

Probably just not smoking at all, eh?

[ UPDATE ]   After moving from Tokyo I quit smoking...until I moved to Indonesia in 2013.

  Have you observed interesting smoking habits in other places around the world? If so, please share your thoughts and experiences below, thanks!

Published in Japan

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