A Nip In The Air

A recent winter holiday in northern Japan has provided much material for reflection. Inevitably you find yourself comparing Sapporo and its environs with Hong Kong as visitor destinations.

I am always impressed on arrival in the country by how clean and well organised everything is. There was virtually no litter at all to be seen in six full days, streets and other public areas being mercifully clear. Somehow this seems to have been achieved without the slightly antiseptic feel one gets from the same situation prevailing in Singapore. In Hong Kong we have made great strides in this area over the past 40 years (and the Occupy students gave us hope for the future) but we still have some way to go if we are to reach a similar level of public spiritedness.

The public transport system is comprehensive and reliable. If the timetable says 12.35 it’s no use arriving at 12.33 and tapping your foot impatiently – you’ll still have to wait. Similarly, it’s no use arriving at 12.37 and hoping for a lucky break: you’ve already missed it and will have to catch the next one. Ours is pretty good too, so call it a draw.

I think we have the edge in infrastructure: a single small slow-moving lift linking the arrival hall of the international airport with the railway station falls some way short of adequate. If Prime Minister Abe wants to boost the economy by improving facilities, then instead of pouring more concrete could I suggest two or even three lifts, each larger and faster than the incumbent.

In terms of general courtesy, and making way for others, I have to admit Japan is rather better. Perhaps the lower population density (outside Tokyo, at least) and the slower pace of life contribute to a gentler all round approach.

Hong Kong is unquestionably streets ahead in terms of use of English and generally making international travellers feel welcome in shops and restaurants. You can survive a lifetime here using English only. In Sapporo, the shop assistant deployed to deal with foreigners could manage only "Snow OK" by way of endorsement of the pair of boots I was examining in a prominent downtown mall. On the other hand, they proved to be an excellent purchase and only half the price my daughter had paid for a similar pair back home before departure. Shoppers’ Paradise, anyone?

Every menu in every restaurant was in Japanese only and there was much resorting to sign language to place orders.

Every TV channel in the ski resort hotel was Japanese, but you can’t say we weren’t forewarned. In the tourist coach bringing us all there, every announcement was in Japanese only, even though locals were only a small minority of the passengers. In Hong Kong I have seen ordinary bus captains cope with queries in both English and Putonghua, all while navigating their way through our crowded streets.

But there are two aspects on which northern Japan offers something special unequalled in Hong Kong. The first is pretty obvious: the spectacular snow-covered scenery. Everywhere you look is like a picture book depicting views of Switzerland. Wow!

The second is obvious as soon as you draw breath: the air, the air, is intoxicating in its freshness and cleanliness. I could write poems about that air, and set them to music too. My lungs, nose and throat will take weeks to recover. I understand Japan had a problem with air pollution 50 years ago but then took the necessary measures to clean things up. Instead of squandering millions on consultancies and studies, we should just copy the playbook of what Japan did, and do exactly the same.

There are two other aspects of the holiday which I should mention before closing. The first concerns wine: the only thing worse than Japanese white wine is a Japanese red one. Even a bottle of third rate French plonk tastes better. Finally, there doesn’t seem to be a temperature sufficiently cold enough to deter the local young ladies from parading in shorts and short skirts. A very welcome sight sure to warm the cockles of any man’s heart in sub zero temperatures.

So putting the different elements together we have the ingredients for the perfect winter holiday: adjust psychologically beforehand to the slower pace, be patient about language, pack your own wine, try not to be too blatant when ogling the local talent – and above all, just breathe that magnificent air.