For a very long time, Japan was never on my list of places I wanted to visit. In part, this was a lack of self-awareness — my idealized vacation cast me as a jungle explorer in some remote corner of Southeast Asia — but in part it was also a lack of knowledge, knowledge that a) people don’t really do jungle exploration anymore and b) Japan is awesome. In the end, it was somewhat a product of coincidence and logistics that Alex and I booked a vacation to Japan a few years ago and, since then, we’ve been fully aware of b) and dying to go back for more. So, in the spirit of paying it forward, we wanted to wrap up our 25 days in Japan with a quick summary of why Japan is awesome, why we had a great time there, and why you should go.
Weird and foreign, bright but dark. It’s hard to convey exactly how foreign Japanese culture feels, and how central that foreignness is to the experience of traveling in Japan. The first thing that hits you is the overwhelming friendliness and politeness — the bowing, the smiling, the saying thank-you. As a tourist you are made to feel welcome, even if the person you are interacting with doesn’t speak a word of English (and most Japanese people don’t). Twice while we stood around fumbling with maps, Japanese people approached us, tried to help us with limited English and then, upon that failing, just walked with us to our destination (5-10 mins in each case). Particularly coming from NYC, I couldn’t help but really appreciate how welcoming the Japanese people are and I found myself making silent vows to stop being so damn judgey of tourists blocking street corners in Manhattan.
Next in Japan you start to notice all the weird shit. The mascots everywhere. The obsession with cuteness – “kawai” culture. The “love” hotels. The hilarious T-shirts with slogans in English that make no sense. The Japanese baths. Grown men watching Dragonball Z on the subway. The fact that there are no public trashcans anywhere. These little things that make you look twice, laugh, and wonder, are everywhere in Japan.
And then, over time, you catch glimpses or hear snippets of the darker underbelly of Japanese culture. The tremendous amount of unpaid overtime that is expected of Japanese workers. The extremely low glass ceiling. The vicious bullying in schools. The “suicide forest” outside of Tokyo where men go to hang themselves and the government has put up signs to encourage visitors that life is still worth living. (Suicide is a big thing in Japan; it’s the leading cause of death for men between 20-44. This Wikipedia article provides interesting info. One tidbit that we found particularly revealing is that if you commit suicide by jumping in front of a train, your family pays a fine for making the train late). And though all this tempers how warm and fuzzy you feel from all bowing and smiling, it helps fill out the picture of a culture that is, if nothing else, wholly foreign and fascinating.
If you don’t like Japanese food, you are incorrect. If all you did in Japan was eat three meals a day and stare at a blank wall in between, it would probably still be a worthwhile vacation. We had some amazing meals in our time in Japan and even though the real highlights were predictable— sushi at Ginza Kyubei, Hida beef shabu shabu at Wanosato— even our “average” meals were memorable. Tempura at a chain restaurant, conveyor belt sushi, okonomiyaki in Hiroshima… the list goes on. We took a lot of food pics so check them out if you need convincing.
As an extension of the culture, it’s great to be a guest in Japan. We tended toward AirBnB’s to save money, but when we were someone’s guest, it was great. In Nikko, the little Japanese lady who ran the guest house drove us around and took us into the public baths to give us step-by-step instructions on what to do. At Wanosato, a high end ryokan that was our one lodging splurge, we did laundry in the bathtub on the first night (backpacking lyfe…) and did our best to hang clothes around our cottage to dry in chilly fall air. When we got back from sightseeing the next day, we found our clothes neatly arranged on hangers in front of space heaters, which the staff had been brought in to help our clothes dry. That is the sort of service you remember.
Japan and America are sort of like two members of the genus patriae developus that by some accident of geography and history have diverged in their evolution to the point of being different species. Each has adapted to its unique circumstances, demanding advances in technology and culture that have somehow passed the other one by. In some ways Japan is way more advanced than the US — Japanese toilets and the shinkansen (bullet trains) are easy examples — but in others it is bewilderingly behind. The Japanese pretty much don’t have central heating; instead they all sit around a table with blankets attached to it that hang down to the floor and a space heater underneath. Also they haven’t really discovered chairs. It’s fun to travel around this parallel-universe developed country and see how things could be.
Sights and Experiences
Japan is both big, diverse (by diverse I don’t mean the people are diverse. In fact they are pretty much all Japanese. But there are palpable differences in the feel of different regions of the country), and eminently navigable. In three weeks we flew from Tokyo to Okinawa to Fukuoka and then trained back through Hiroshima/Miyajima, Naoshima, Osaka, Nagoya, Takayama, and back to Tokyo. Along the way we hit beaches, hiked through autumn leaves, visited temples and museums in the cities, saw great modern art (Naoshima is essentially an island converted to an art museum), and made it back to Tokyo in time for Halloween (which was totally nuts… the Japanese have just discovered Halloween and they LOVED our Anpanman / Uncle Jam costumes). And all throughout we met great people and ate like kings.
To resummarize: you should visit Japan. Also, Alex decided to be Alex and organize the shit out of all the amazing recommendations we got from our friends into an excel document with something like 10 columns and 10 tabs. So if you want a head start in your Japan adventure planning, just let us know and we’ll be happy to send it along.
We’re currently in China and Alex is working on a post about our time in Korea so expect that soon!