The first time my mom took me to try sushi about 15 years ago, I hated it. Thank god she made me give it a second chance because after that, I was hooked. Before sushi, my diet consisted mostly of American food, Jewish food, and kids’ food. Once I tried sushi though, I felt like my whole world opened up. It seemed sophisticated, fancy, mysterious, even a little adventurous (I’d never eaten any raw foods before!). I could have eaten sushi every day, and sometimes I did. Ever since my love of sushi began all those years ago, I’ve always dreamed of coming to Japan. In my head, I pictured it in the same way that I pictured sushi (sophisticated, fancy, mysterious, and adventurous). Of course, in the past 15 years, sushi has become much more main stream and it seems as though everyone is eating it these days. But, I have never forgotten how I felt the first (second) time I ate it (when it was much less common and there were only one or two sushi restaurants in Columbus) and I’ve never lost that curiosity about visiting the country where it came from.
I pictured Japan (probably very naively) to feel overwhelmingly “Japanese.” In my head, I think I imagined that all of Japan would be like Kyoto, the cultural city, with temples and gardens and women walking around in kimono. In reality though, in many of the places that we visited (namely the bigger cities), I did not feel like I was in Japan at all. I hardly even felt like I was in Asia. I’m used to living in Thailand, where even in the huge city of Bangkok, there are reminders everywhere you go that you are somewhere foreign. From the temples to the markets to the street food, when you are in Bangkok you have a very overwhelming sense of where you are all the time. In Tokyo, however (and especially in the more business-y areas of Shinjuku, Shibuya, etc.), aside from all of the signs in Japanese and all of the Japanese people around you, it’s hard to distinguish it from any other mega city in the world. I could have just as easily been in NYC. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, but just something I didn’t expect and something that surprised me. One of the things I love most about Bangkok though is that I can see and feel the Thai culture everywhere I go, and that is something I missed in the big cities of Japan (second to the fact that there are very few movie theaters here and even those ones are playing movies that have been out in States and Bangkok for months if not years), though I did get more of a sense of it in Kyoto and the Alps.
That being said, my time in Japan has been unforgettable, and I would put it near the top of my list of favorite Asian countries (definitely after Thailand and the Philippines, maybe also after Vietnam, though I go back and forth on that one). I think that Dave planned the perfect itinerary for us. We had a great mix of big city (Tokyo, Osaka), culture (Kyoto), history (Hiroshima) and nature (The Japan Alps and Fuji), and I thought that the trip was perfectly balanced, with even a few other great places added in that we hadn’t planned on in the beginning (Nara, Kobe). I think that without any of these parts or places, the trip would not have been as great as it was. For one of the first times ever, even Dave can say that he wouldn’t change a thing or wouldn’t have done anything differently (no FOMO here).
I think Japan is a very special place to visit and definitely somewhere that should be high on everyone’s list of places to see in their lifetime, though I do think it would be a somewhat difficult place for anyone on a very tight budget to visit due to the high accommodation and transportation prices. There were a few things I missed (namely the street food and in some cases, the welcoming nature of the people) but overall, I loved being here and I greatly enjoyed my first taste of Northern Asia. Maybe it’s because they make it very easy to get from place to place or because we planned out every single detail of our trip before arriving or even the beautiful and cool weather… but the whole time I was here I generally felt relaxed and not at all stressed. And now, I am leaving Japan in the same way I leave most of my sushi meals… wanting more and excited for my next experience (which hopefully for Dave and me will be this winter for some skiing near Sapporo in Hokaiddo, the northernmost province which we didn’t visit this time around).
Now, a few more thoughts/my two cents about some specifics in Japan:
The Food: If you’ve read the rest of this post, you obviously know that I love sushi. I thought I’d be eating that all the time here, but there is so much variety of different and delicious foods, it’s hard to have any repeats. The sushi is very different from what we’re used to in the States. You don’t get to choose your own and there aren’t any specialty rolls (eg, dragon, rainbow, etc.). It’s all about pieces of fish on top of rice, and most of the time, you decide on how many pieces you want, and the chef sends you whatever he or she has fresh in stock. In addition to sushi, we loved the udon, tempura, and the okinomiyaki (a savory pancake layered with noodles, sprouts, cabbage, pork, egg, and other goodies). We knew that Japan would be much more expensive than anywhere we’ve been in SE Asia, but the food was actually very reasonable. We thought that while with my parents, every dinner would be $100 per couple, but they ended up being that price for all four of us, and often much cheaper. You can definitely get a great dinner for under $20 and lunch for under $10 for two people.
- Convenience stores and vending machines: I’d like to see the data from whoever said that Japan has the most 7-11s in the world because I don’t think there is any way they have more than in Thailand, where there are multiple on every block. But, there are tons of convenience stores everywhere you go (Circle K, Family Mart, Lawson’s), and similar to Thailand, not only do they sell snacks and drinks, but you can get a full-on meal from sushi to sandwiches to noodles. We picked up meals from convenience stores almost every day, as we almost always seemed to be on a train during lunchtime…and, none of us were disappointed.
- Vending Machines: I had always heard about all the crazy vending machines here. I was expecting there to be vending machines with everything imaginable in them – sushi, cup of noodles, underwear, everything. I was disappointed to find that of the hundreds of vending machines everywhere, there were none really selling anything other than drinks, cigarettes, and maybe an occasional snack. What they do have, however, at many of the restaurants, are vending machine type things, where you put money in, press whatever you want to order, and then hand your ticket to the person behind the counter, who then prepares your food for you. It was really confusing the first time we did it, but then we quickly got the hang of it.
- Alcohol: We weren’t sure what to expect when it came to alcohol (mostly regarding the prices), but as soon as we got here, we realized it’s pretty cheap. A big can of beer is around 250 yen, but we’ve mostly stuck to sake (which I never realized how much I love). Every convenience store is stocked with it and you can get a good (or at least we think it’s good) small bottle (300ml) for around 450 yen and a big bottle (750ml) for as little as 800 yen.
The Transportation and Getting Around: One of the things that I have loved most about traveling in SE Asia is that they know where travelers want to go and they make it very easy for them to get there. In SE Asia, you take every mode of transportation imaginable, and many times more than one, to get from where you are to where you’re going. In Japan, it has been equally as easy to get around, but much more expensive. The train system they have here is one of the best I’ve ever seen. We did a lot of research into the JR pass (which is only for foreigners and can only be purchased outside of Japan) and ended up buying the pass for 7 days (about $250pp – you will get your money’s worth if you take one long round-trip train ride). We didn’t opt for the 14 day pass, because we would be spending 5 of those days in the Alps, where we wouldn’t be able to use it at all. The trains and buses here are easy to figure out, they are punctual (literally always on time to the minute), and they’re SO fast. But, getting around here is a lot more expensive than getting around in SE Asia. And this is our biggest gripe with it. You pay a lot for every long-distance bus or train, but then you get on and it’s practically empty. This would never happen in Thailand. It seems like they could make all the tickets a bit cheaper and just have the trains/buses running a little less frequently. But, I guess to them, time is more important than money.
The People: This part of the post was the hardest for me to write, as we really experienced a mix of everything when it came to the Japanese people we met. I think for the most part, our experience was good and the people were helpful and friendly. A few times, people even went very far out of their way to help us, which we greatly appreciated (like when a local butcher in Kanazawa left his shop and walked us almost a mile to show us where our hotel was). There were, however, several occasions where we experienced the exact opposite – people being rude, unwelcoming, and even outright racist. These experiences really put a sour taste in our mouths and they affected our opinions about the country as a whole. In Japan, you certainly don’t have people flashing you smiles everywhere you go like we’re used to in Thailand, but that didn’t bother us. I think Thailand is the only place in the world where you experience friendliness like this (and maybe Vietnam) and it’s part of what makes it such a special place.
The people in Japan are more serious and much more business-like – we have literally seen people wearing suits everywhere we go and while doing every imaginable activity (eg, touring a temple, hiking a mountain, drinking, etc.). They can also be very stubborn at times and they always follow the rules, in my opinion, to a fault. It’s one thing if no one will dare cross the street unless the little walking man is green (even when there are no cars in sight), but here, there are no exceptions to the rules, even when they don’t make much sense (eg, like the woman who wanted to charge us for a full day’s bike rental in Mt. Fuji even though it was already 1pm and she wasn’t willing to negotiate at all). Rules (whatever they may be) are clearly very important to these people and they seem not to really question them or bend them no matter what.
On the other hand, the Japanese people are very detail oriented. From their preparation of food to the way they set up beds in hotels to the fact that they lay out outfits and slippers for every possible different occasion to even their bathing rituals, they do everything with thought and care. I think it is these details that make visiting this country very special and also part of what make it so enjoyable and interesting (I think that part of the reason it’s so easy to travel and get around here is because everything is so planned out and scheduled – everyone does what they are supposed to do when they’re supposed to do it). Also, unlike most of the places I’ve visited in Asia, here, no one tries to sell you anything (other than maybe a rickshaw ride) or will bother you on the streets. In Thailand, they rarely do this aggressively, but it still happens all the time, so it was nice to have a break from it.
Overall, we had some great experiences with the people and some not so great experiences. Of all the places we’ve visited, I would not put Japan in the list of most welcoming people, but they also do not rely on tourism like many of the other countries we’ve been to do… I mean would you ever expect a New Yorker to go out of their way to help a tourist or welcome them to their city? Probably not.