“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

TravelHaven Journal Japan – Part 1, Impressed and Surprised

I’ve got a lot to tell you about my recent trip to Japan. I’ve wanted to expand my travel horizons to Asia for some time now and this was the perfect opportunity, because my niece Justine has been living in Japan for a year. She has lived in Japan for extended stays before and has been studying Japanese language and culture for about ten years. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Japan with someone so familiar with the country and the customs. Besides, I just love her.

Our trip was centered on Tokyo, but we also visited Yokohama, Nikko, Kamakura, and Kawaji-yumoto. Tokyo is huge! It covers more than 800 square miles and has a population of almost 9 million. Compare that to NYC at under 500 square miles and just over 8 million people. There are so many things to talk about, but I’ll start with the things that impressed me and the things that surprised me.

What was impressive?

I have to start with the people of Japan. They are unfailingly kind and considerate. Many spoke some English and were anxious to converse with us in our language (although Justine’s Japanese is very fluent) and to help us in any way that they could. I just got a sense of total respect—for other people, for the environment, for everything really.

The streets and train stations of Japan were so clean! (not to mention the public restrooms) There were very few trash cans along the streets, in the parks, etc., but no litter anywhere. Ever. So what do they do with their trash. They put it in their purse or briefcase and take it home to throw it away. If someone inadvertently drops trash (or a foreigner unthinkingly litters), they even pick up other people’s trash to take home. I’m pretty sure that doesn’t happen much in the U.S.

                         

Very Clean Metro Station                                                                           Very Clean Public Restroom

The food both impressed and surprised. If you ask most of my friends, they’d tell you that I am a really picky eater. I confess that I don’t like very spicy foods; I don’t like food that is mounded on a plate or all mixed together. And I’m not real big on most sauces. But the food in Japan was very, very good. I tried things I might not normally try, and was glad I did. I ate black pasta, raw fish (which, to be honest, was not my favorite). Ramen noodles (I had never had them before), and other great things. I took pictures of much of my food to prove to friends back home that I’m not so picky after all!

              

          Udon Noodles, Shrimp Tempura (yum!), Black Noodles with Cream Sauce, Korean BBQ Veggies

The train and subway system was awesome. So easy to get from one place to another if you know the system. I didn’t have to do any planning to figure out which trains to take, since Justine was familiar with how to get to the places we went, but I do think it would be pretty easy to figure out with a little experience. We took the train to Nikko (about an hour and a half away) and it was a great way to travel, smooth and with very comfortable seats.

What surprised me about Japan?

The lack of wifi was unexpected. Like most Americans, I think, I imagined Japan to be some sort of technological nirvana.  I figured the whole pleace would be wirelessly connected, especially the big cities. Nope. All the time we were there, I saw only four or five places that advertised free wifi. Needless to say, I didn’t update my Facebook page or email home much.

The lack of English signage was disconcerting. I guess it was naïve to expect more English (after all, how many signs do we have in Japanese in the U.S.?), but I just thought English had become more common in foreign countries, sort of an international language. The station names on the subway and trains were in English and there were guides written in English at the tourist information kiosks, but that’s about it. It would be difficult to find your way around Japan if you don’t speak Japanese pretty well. If you’re going to Japan, I highly recommend that you go with an organized tour or hire an English speaking guide. The good news is you won’t starve to death because most of the menus have pictures and many do have the names in English, though sometimes it’s fractured ‘Engrish’ (which can be very funny).

The Japanese toilets were a shock, the first time I encountered them. Most places have Western toilets and Japanese toilets (and all the rest rooms are incredibly clean!!!). It’s really interesting to walk into a bathroom stall and find one. Luckily, I had experience with even more primitive facilities on my African safari and knew how to manage. You face the back of the toilet, pull your pants down past your knees (I always kinda held mine toward my front to make sure I missed them!) and just go. Don’t ask me what you do if you have to go number 2. Thankfully, I always found a western toilet for that purpose and didn’t have to figure it out!

                   

Traditional Toilet                                                                              Western Toilet

With all the surprises I really loved Japan. I’ll definitely go back the next time Justine is there.

Keep watching here for posts about our visits to wonderful shrines and temples, the Edo Museum, rockabilly groups in Yoyogi Park, a night at a traditional Japanese Inn (including the great food we had there), and much more.

Please post your comments and questions. If I can’t answer them, I’m sure Justine can help!