Japan: sustainability dream and disaster

This summer I was lucky to get the opportunity to travel to Japan. I spent 16 days there and travelled across the country visiting all the main spots including Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima, as well as climbing Mount Fuji (without a doubt the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever undertaken!). In terms of trying to live sustainably, it was definitely one of the most interesting counties I have visited this year. I found it both to be a sustainability dream and a sustainability disaster.

The cities in Japan have a convenience culture, and this means a lot of plastic. Most of the people who live in the city get their meals from convenience stores, and considering Tokyo is the most densely populated city in the world – that’s a lot of plastic.

In western countries it’s pretty common to have convenience foods wrapped in plastic, but Japan takes it to a whole new level. There are unnecessarily large amounts of plastic – down to little bits of plastic grass in sushi boxes, just for decoration. Not to mention the fact that the convenience store employees always put your purchases straight into a plastic bag.

In the UK in the last few years we’ve definitely had a bit of a realisation about how bad plastic is, and I think that’s yet to come in Japan. It’s used to excess, and I genuinely don’t think many people realise the damage its doing.

But what Japan loses with its excessive plastic usage it makes up for in its fantastic public transport system. It is the best I have ever experienced (and I’ve travelled around a fair bit). All of the main cities I went to have an extensive subway system, allowing you to get to pretty much any part of any city via public transport. If you live in one of the major Japanese cities, a car would probably be an inconvenience.

They also have the amazing bullet train system, or ‘Shinkansen’ as it’s called there. These trains allow you to get cross country at high speed in a comfortable environment. My family and I used the shinkansen to get from place to place during our trip, and it worked great. It means that there really isn’t much of a need to fly from city to city – why would you go through the effort of flying when you can hop on a train and be much more comfortable, and have less of an impact on the environment?

Another area where it’s a little more challenging to be sustainable in Japan is eating. If you follow a vegan lifestyle like me, you might struggle a little. Veganism doesn’t have nearly the popularity in Japan as it does here in the UK. You will find fish everywhere, in amounts so small that it’s difficult to detect. And of course, there’s Japan’s problematic past (and now present) with whaling. It’s definitely possible to be vegan while in Japan (I did manage!) but expect to make a few sacrifices and eat quite a few convenience store salted rice balls!

That being said, there are some excellent vegan restaurants in Japan. I recommend the chain of Ain Soph restaurants, absolutely delicious but it is more western style. If you’re looking for authentic Japanese and vegan I recommend ‘Rocca’ in Osaka. As soon as you come in they start preparing a tray full of traditional Japanese dishes, I really enjoyed the meal and felt like a local.

Visiting Japan made me realise just how bad we, in the western world are in terms of litter. I have never seen streets as immaculate as in Japan. You will not see a single piece of litter anywhere, and this is something I’ve really missed since coming home. I loved the dedication the Japanese people had to keeping their cities clean.

All in all, Japan is an interesting place to examine from an eco-perspective. The good news is that they are making moves in terms of their plastic problem, but obviously there’s much work to be done. I was only in Japan for just over two weeks, and so these are some very surface level observations. But coming from a western perspective I think that it’s important to look at the positives we can take from countries in the East; there is something in Japan’s public transport and immaculate streets that we could really utilise here in the western world.

04 comments on “Japan: sustainability dream and disaster

  • Izzy McLeod , Direct link to comment

    I definitely agree with the juxdaposition. There’s so much plastic everywhere! Eventually my local convenience store guy knew I didn’t want a bag with my purchase when I went in… but they are top notch when it comes to recycling and there’s even a zero waste town in Japan (bucket list). I also ate a lot of amazing vegan food

    The Quirky Environmentalist

    • Olivia , Direct link to comment

      How long were you in Japan for? I was just travelling for a couple of weeks so I definitely think that makes it a little harder as you don’t know all the best spots. I never knew there was a zero waste down! Definitely need to look that up.

  • Ashley , Direct link to comment

    This was so interesting to hear, both sides of the sustainability culture in Japan. It was new information, but now I am thinking about how many countries or places have a similar juxtaposition?

    • Olivia , Direct link to comment

      Yep, so interesting! I think it’s probably a pretty common phenomenon, but Japan really stuck out to me because its so different from the western world. One of the best parts about travelling is seeing how different countries do things differently, and trying to learn from that.

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