Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Prague vs Hamamatsu: Round 1

Hey there, folks. It's been a long time, but I'm very excited to see that I'm still getting page views and comments.

As you know, I'm not in Japan anymore. It's sad. Sometimes I really, really miss being there so much that I want to cry, and other times I think how glad I am to be away.

Well, here I am in Prague, and while we all might like to pretend we don't compare our hot new lover to our previous one, it's only natural to draw up a little list of similarities and differences in our heads. Right? Well, this is what I've been doing recently with Prague and Hamamatsu, anyway. I would say the Czech Republic vs Japan, but I haven't seen enough of this country to truly decide. So, let's take a look at some of my recent observations...

1 - Restaurants


For value for money, Prague has anywhere in Japan beat hands down. Starving and hungover in Denny's on many post-sake mornings, I would find myself scouring the menu for the cheapest item. Usually, apart from salad, it was a plate for 800JPY or so - which is about £6 in my estimation. The dish would usually be tiny and unfulfilling, although occasionally I might order a massive, amazing katsudon that would fill me up. On a typical excursion to an izakaya I'd spend 3000JPY just on bits of food and a few drinks. Here in Prague you can order a full meal for around 90Kc (about £3.50), although in touristy areas it's more like 120Kc or so (maybe £5, tops). These meals are usually so immense that you won't need to eat again for days. On top of that, they taste amazing. Sorry, Japan, as much as I love okonomiyaki and sushi, the chicken stuffed with blue cheese and goulash soup and krokety have won me over....
...or this?

One point to Prague! But wait... let's look at the food again. There's a lot of cream, a lot of bread, a lot of meat, and the Czech seem to be allergic to adding vegetables to their meals (apart from pickled cabbage). Perhaps it's cheaper, but I've certainly felt all the weight I lost in Japan creeping back over the last few weeks. Hamamatsu's food may be more expensive, but it wins a point for healthiness... right? Then again, I do seem to recall eating a lot of kare-raisu, a lot of fried things and a lot of huge starchy slices of white bread.

There's also something else I miss about Japan... the little waiter-summoning button that stops overly-keen waiters from hovering over your indecisive shoulder and snooty ones from ignoring you. That's right, a little button - and when that wasn't available, it was perfectly acceptable to shout "SUMIMASEN!" across the room to get their attention. Not here, alas (and this is a pain in Europe in general). To put it plainly, the service in Prague - and I hear in the country as a whole - sucks. You come in and seat yourself, only to wait for ages until a sour-faced waiter wordlessly takes your order. If you ask for the English menu you might get an extra side order of attitude on top. I don't think they're deliberately rude, I just think that "service with a smile" has yet to catch on here. People just get on with their jobs without having to paste on smiles and extreme politeness, and I've seen plenty of customers treating waiters like dirt, so it's a two-way street. In the touristy areas they tend to be a bit friendlier, probably because they write recommended tips on your bill. Tipping isn't necessary in Prague, but it's a huge difference from Japan, where waiters will act horrified and chase you down the street should you leave behind 1 yen on the table.

It's definitely quite a shock to go from being greeted with "irashaimase!" and thanked as I leave by every member of staff, to a place where the customer feels like an unwanted bad smell (although they'll take their sweet time bringing you the bill). For customer service, while many might see it as fake, Hamamatsu (and Japan) wins a big fat point.

But... most restaurants in Japan are part of big chains, whether it's the "family restaurants" like Denny's, Royal Host, Cat's Cafe and Saizeriya or the izakayas like Watami, Doma Doma etc. There seem to be very few unique, privately owned places, which generally contributes to that "lack of soul" feeling I often had there. Over here in Prague I've found a restaurant that doubles up as an aeroplane museum, a medieval banquet or two and a whole bunch of private restaurants with their own charm and amazing food. So, for atmosphere (without service) I'd give Prague another point!

2 - Aesthetics

Yes, Japan has cherry blossoms, beautiful autumn leaves, mountains, rivers, the ocean, temples. But they are not the only ones with those things, and the way that they have treated their country in recent years has put quite a damper on this beauty. Just have a read of Dogs and Demons to see what I mean. The flowing rivers of Japan are paved with concrete, the cities nothing but urban jungles sprouting neon fruit. Hamamatsu itself might be fun, the beach might be pretty and good for surfing, and there may be some gorgeous views, but Japanese cities are generally ugly. I'm sorry, but it's true - just look at the view from Tokyo Tower. Grey boxes and massive adverts everywhere (as a result of little regulation), turning into a neon nightmare when the evening comes.

Prague would be perfect if it were by the sea. We don't have oceans here, but we do have the beautiful countryside all around it, and most of all we have an amazing ancient city that has managed to modernise without losing its character or defacing its buildings. I know that Japanophiles may be outraged by such a suggestion, after all - the Japanese are so concerned with aesthetics, beauty and balance, are they not? Well, just look at these pictures and decide.

The Neon Nighttime
Prague's eerily lit buildings..
I also have to admit that I love the fact that some of the buildings here are over 1000 years old, while most of Japan's castles are modern reconstructions. Admittedly some of that is due to the fact that Japan suffers from a lot more natural disasters than the Czech Republic, so they can't rely on building structure as much.

3 - Things to do

OK, there were plenty of things to do in Japan as a whole, but when friends came to Hamamatsu from other parts of Japan, well... this happened. Prague has more historical attractions than you can shake a stick at, if that's your thing. There are walking tours, river boat rides, museums, and a whole ton of nightlife. We won't compare the nightlife for now, because while Prague has a ton of massive clubs and a whole host of interesting bars, I really miss going into one of three places (No Name Bar, Liquid Kitchen and Tunnel) and seeing a sea of familiar, friendly faces. There are so many expats in Prague that it would be impossible to hang out in one place. But in Hamamatsu, almost everybody knew each other in some way, and it was nice.

But... I really miss Japanese style karaoke. I've tried it in Prague, but it's the old scene - loud, obnoxious people who I don't know hogging the microphone, and being unable to line up 40 Disney songs in a row. Plus people here can't hire out a lunchtime karaoke booth and just sing alone for hours even if they wanted to... and they don't... how crazy are they?! (For the record, I never did that.) Then again, it's free to watch people attempting to sing here... not sure where the point will go for now.

So, as you can see, there are plenty of pros and cons, differences and similarities. Stay tuned for more!


  1. Saying Japan doesn't have plenty of great small, family owned restaurants is false, sorry. They are a bit harder to find (non-touristy and generally non-English) but worth the find great food, CHEAPER and great atmosphere. Its too bad you didn't find more while you were here. If you ever come back hit me up and I'll help you find a few.

  2. Bryan Stephenson12 October 2011 at 10:30

    Yeah, I have to agree with Steve. I think you must have really missed out on lots of great little places with character. I'd go as far to say that the grand majority of places are local family-owned shops. They just don't stand out the same to the untrained eye and are often not as easy for foreigners to deal with.

  3. Hi Gwynnie, hope you're doing well.

    I'm not trying to be an arse and crap on your observations here, and I know this is your blog, and therefore your opinion. BUT I just wanted to comment and say that I really love the grittiness (dirtiness) of Japan's big cities. There is something in all the filth, neon and crowds of people that I find beautiful.

    I do also enjoy historical architecture to an extent, and think it would be pretty ace to be able to see all those old buildings, but for day to day life I think the city wins hands down.

    Of course, it's all opinion so I'm not trying to attack your post or anything. Just trying to add to the discussion.

    Different strokes for different folks, eh?


  4. Well yeah, Bryan and Steve, I did find some nice, cute little places, but they felt a lot less "accessible" to a foreigner... while some were very friendly (and the food was good), most definitely seemed to freak out at the prospect of a non-Japanese person eating there.

    Sarah, don't be so afraid of expressing your opinion ;)! I agree that grittiness can be great, too. Somehow, though, I feel that Prague (and generally central/eastern Europe) offers a different kind of dirtiness and grittiness, a kind of realism that's very attractive to me. The Asian-style neon grittiness has a totally different feel to it... I think what it came down to, in the end, was that Tokyo looks cool at night but is not somewhere I could live in. There are pretty spots but you have to search hard for them. ;)

  5. Really?? That is not my impression at all. Perhaps I have visited a wider selection of places. My favorite places to eat are and have been non-chain family owned places. As for comparing Prague to Hamamatsu well it might be more fair to compare Prague to Tokyo or Kyoto? Prague is the national and cultural capital of the Czech Rep and therefore is where they spend their money to maintain historical buildings, cultural attractions, and famous landmarks. Hamamatsu is a city known for having a lot of factories, industry, and an air base.

  6. Hello there!
    I like to read about a foreigner's views of the czech rep. or prague which happens to be my birthplace and hometown. Well, I just cannot resist to comment about the food and nightlife here. Yes, the typical czech cuisine is terribly unhealthy nowadays and I personally think it's DISGUSTING. There are not many vegetables because its roots are dated hundreds of years ago when most of the people worked physically all day and so a really fulfilling dish was needed. Today, nobody I know would eat the whole lunch as they serve it in all the kitchy restaurants around Prague. Most of the common czechs when going to restaurant choose a pizzeria. And the way costumers are treated in restaurants and most of the shops is pretty rude throughout the country. I guess there's no point of comparing japanese and czech level of politeness.
    When it comes to nightlife... I don't really know what to say because generally the atmosphere in bars I've been in so far makes me feel uncomfortable.

  7. If Prague is cheap for you, you should get outside Prague to see, what is really cheap ;)