October 30, 2004 GMT

The space bar on a Japanese keyboard is very short (on this keyboard it's two-and-a-half ordinary keys wide), and you're ever so slightly inaccurate you end up typing in Kanji or something and can't get out of it and have to close the browser and start all over again. Grrrrr.

The following is a first-timer's take on Japan. I'm sure there's wrong ends of wrong sticks in there somewhere, but as always I can only speak as I find.

What the Japanese do really well
Trains: fast, cheap, punctual, frequent, clean, incredibly easy to navigate even for a foreigner. Without question the best way to get around. And stations have multi-storey bicycle/motorcycle parks.

Food: tasty, varied, cheap, plentiful (except after 6pm in rural areas, when you have to make do with a rather bland sandwich from Lawson Station or a 7-11).

Hotels: Western or mixed Japanese/Western 4-star averages around GBP60 a night, and if there are no single rooms they always give me a discount for single occupancy.

Loos (public and otherwise): heated seats are like heated handlebars - once you've experienced them you never want to be without. I've got used to the autoflush, but the jury's still out on the spray function and blow-dry.

Firewater: boy, does that stuff creep up on you. Probably why I didn't wake up until 10 this morning. It's made from potatoes but is definitely a cut above poteen. Only around 30% alcohol but you wouldn't believe what it does to you.

Facilities for the disabled: everything has Braille, from pavements (really, and very clever and simple) to beer cans. Wheelchair access and loos everywhere.

Courtesy: raised to an art form. Even the policeman who stops traffic to let you out on to the main road bows as you ride round him. Filling the bike with fuel involves all sorts of contortions to return bows whilst sitting on the bike with a full tankbag in front of you and trying to reach around it to get the fuel cap back on again.

What the Japanese don't do very well
Navigation aids: they could never have invented the GPS - it makes navigation too easy. Even with a 1:200,000 road atlas (Japanese) and a bilingual two-sheet map to crib from, the combination of abstruse road naming and ambiguous road signs makes navigation a nightmare. Even the locals confess to getting lost all the time.

Addresses: addresses in Japan are of the form x-y-z , where is the neighbourhood (surprise), for instance 'Henwick' as a neighbourhood of Thatcham; x is the numbered part of the neighbourhood; y is the block within that part; and z is the building number (of whatever size or configuration) within that block. Even taxi drivers can't take you to an address without going around several different blocks several times, so what chance do we have?

Umbrellas: if it looks like it might rain, up go the umbrellas. Everyone, absolutely everyone, totes a brolly. Although I'm of fairly average height for a Westerner, I'm a little taller than most Japanese, so I'm lucky I still have eyes (good job I wear specs); but I feel a bit like a voodoo doll when it rains.

Road design: instead of roundabouts there are traffic lights everywhere. Even on a quiet rural road, if there's a side turning there are traffic lights. They stick to their phasing as there are no induction loops or anything. If they junked 75% of the traffic lights on these islands and installed mini-roundabouts instead the roads would appear empty at a stroke.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at October 30, 2004 05:14 PM GMT

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