I'll splurge every couple of years for that perfect Issey Miyake outfit (it travels so well!), but all my friends know I'm a cheapskate at heart. That's why I consider the economic recession that hit Japan in 1992 -- while bad news for those who lost their jobs, including many politicians -- the beginning of a new Japan for frugal travelers. In contrast to the heady days of the 1980s bubble economy, when only designer goods would do and expense accounts seemed unlimited, today's Japan is a bargain-hunter's delight. Thanks to recession fallout, we have 100 Yen stores, shops selling used designer wear, buffets virtually everywhere, inexpensive set lunches in even the toniest of restaurants, and virtually every prefecture trying to figure out how to lure more international travelers. There are deals across the country only for foreigners, including regional rail passes and plane tickets. For the cheapskate, there's never been a better time to visit Japan than now.
Not that I'm heartless about the challenges facing the Japan of today. Despite the ushering in of a new government in 2009 that promises to cut government waste, boost disposable household income, and reverse almost 20 years of deflation, Japan faces mind-boggling financial, social, and political obstacles. Certainly one of Japan's biggest concerns is its declining birthrate coupled with one of the most rapidly aging populations in the world. About 22% of its population is 65 and older; by 2055, that number is expected to double. Meanwhile, Japan's ratio of children aged 14 and younger is believed to the lowest in the world, accounting for only 13.5% of the population. This will undoubtedly lead to a shortage of labor, severely straining the country's resources for tax revenues, pensions, and healthcare.
Meanwhile, bankruptcies and corporate mergers have forever altered the relationship between Japanese workers and their employers, with lifelong employment with the same company no longer a given. Homelessness is now so common that it no longer draws stares, even in the swank Ginza District. Crime, once almost unheard of, is on the rise, especially theft. My former Tokyo landlady fears burglary so much that she refuses to open her doors to strangers.
On the other hand, crime, though undeniably on the increase, is still negligible when compared to levels in the United States, and Japan remains one of the safest countries in the world. Although it's true I'm more careful than I used to be -- I guard my purse in crowded subways, I avoid parks after dark -- for Americans such precautions seem merely self-evident. But while I'm vigilant about theft and purse snatching, I never worry about personal safety. Violent crime -- especially against strangers -- remains virtually unheard of in Japan.
In any case, the attributes that drew me to Japan in the first place and keep me coming back remain strongly in place: the country's unexpected physical beauty, its safety, and its unique cuisine, customs, and culture. Japan is much the same as when I first came here, humming with energy, crowded beyond belief in its major cities, and filled with acts of human kindness. But I also like the ways Japan has changed. I like that a greater influx of foreign visitors, coupled with a young generation of less inhibited Japanese, has forever altered the social landscape. Japan is more accessible than it has ever been, and in many ways it's also more fun. Whereas in the 1980s Japan was best known as an economic powerhouse, today it's known also for its cool pop culture, from anime and manga to fashion and food. It's still the land of the geisha, but it's also the land of Hello Kitty.
The Magical World of Vending Machines -- One of the things that usually surprises visitors to Japan is the number of vending machines in the country, estimated to be more than 5.5 million -- one for every 20 people. They're virtually everywhere -- in train stations, in front of shops, on the back streets of residential neighborhoods. Most will take bills and give back change. Many have almost nonsensical English-language promotional lines on them, such as ENJOY REFRESHING TIME. Some will even talk to you.
And what can you buy in these vending machines? First, there are the obvious items -- drinks and snacks, including hot or cold coffee in a can. But if you're on your way to someone's house, you might be able to pick up a bouquet of flowers from a machine. Your camera is out of batteries? You may be able to find those, too. Vending machines outside post offices sell stamps and postcards, while those in business hotels sell razors, cup noodles, beer, and even underwear.
In the not-too-distant past, things were also sold from sidewalk vending machines that would have met with instant protest in other countries around the world. Cigarettes and beer were available on almost every corner, where even children could buy them if they wanted to; nowadays, however, shoppers must first insert a computer-readable card certifying they're at least 20 years old. I remember a vending machine in my Tokyo neighborhood: By day, it was blank, with no sign as to what was inside; at night, however, the thing would light up, and on display were pornographic comics. Nowadays, pornographic vending machines are very rare, not for moral reasons, but because of the Internet.
Still, if it's available in Japan, it's probably in a vending machine somewhere.