PSA: You should visit Japan

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.

The Culture
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.

 The Food
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.

The Hospitality
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!

                                                                - Cole

Time Beings

“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and everyone of us who is, or was, or ever will be.” – A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

It’s been quite the whirlwind since we wrote our last post just a few days ago. We’re in the midst of our heaviest travel period in Japan, and in the last few days have gone from Fukuoka to Hiroshima and Miyajima to Naoshima, Osaka, and now, a small farming town near Nagoya. And in doing so, I’m sure that we’ve actually experienced some type of time travel as we’ve traversed vast landscapes on Japanese shinkansen, climbed a mountain, biked through a wonderland, and floated on ferries through multiple bodies of water. Japan is a beautiful country for time travel.

The quote above is from a book (written by a Japanese-American author) that both Cole and I read during this leg of our travel, and it came to mind when I thought about how we have bobbed back and forth between the past and present over the past few weeks. Japan is that kind of place: in a seemingly endless stream of video game arcades, you can turn a corner to stumble upon a Buddhist temple from the 1200s. In some sense, everything—and nothing—is sacred. In Miyajima, we hiked a mountain that offered views as far back as the 6th century with the Itsukushima-jinja shrine and its “floating” torii from the 12th century. In Naoshima, also known as “Art Island,” we traipsed among traditional Japanese houses that contained modern art that beeped and twinkled and awed— a juxtaposition in itself that caused us to question our current era. Were we in the present, the 70s, or the 30s? Perhaps somewhere in between? In Osaka, between voracious bouts of eating all the amazing food in sight, we found ourselves at Tsuten-kaku, which is a tower originally built in 1912 and rebuilt in 1969. According to our guidebook, “it once symbolized everything new and exciting,” but it was clearly rundown and pretty unimpressive. Just a short walk, however, brought us to a stunning Buddhist temple with its original shrine gate from 1294.

And then there was Hiroshima. It’s hard to talk about Hiroshima. It’s hard to write about Hiroshima. But it’s the city that has thus far spurred the most dramatic time travel for Cole and me, and most connected us with beings from other points in time. Like most American kids, I learned about the atomic bombings in various history classes throughout my education, but nothing could have prepared me for the shocking reality that we uncovered in the memorials and museums throughout the city of Hiroshima. As someone for whom the events of September 11th were too close to home—literally, I could see and smell the smoke from the hilltop near my school, I knew people who were in the building or who miraculously didn’t go to work that day—I felt a strong sense of connection with the people whose stories we heard throughout our time in Hiroshima. I also had to catch myself—the events of August 1945 resulted in nearly 100 times the fatalities as September 11th. Knowing what New York, the tri-state area, and the US went through after 9/11, I couldn’t help but wonder: how could the Japanese people, and the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in particular, move on from this? How could we be standing in what is now a vibrant city (our Airbnb was within a couple hundred yards from the center of the nuclear blast and in a vibrant, fun part of the city), a mere 70 years after such a catastrophic event?

“Catastrophic” doesn’t seem like a strong enough word to describe the horrors that took place when the US detonated the a-bomb in Hiroshima in August 1945. An entire city literally brought to the ground in one instant; blown over like matchsticks by a single gust of radioactive wind, killing most in its wake and leaving others with devastating, unimaginable injuries from which many would never recover. Tens of thousands killed in one moment.

We wandered through Peace Memorial Park, the large park in the center of Hiroshima with multiple monuments dedicated to a-bomb victims and museums committed to the propagation of peace. At the Museum, we saw countless personal artifacts decimated during the bombing—the only remnants of the victims who once possessed them—and horrific photographs of victims and a city completely destroyed. At the Children’s Peace Monument, we learned that the origami cranes that our friend on the train (from our last post) gave us are a Japanese symbol of longevity and happiness. The cranes became a national phenomenon after a young girl developed leukemia a decade following the bomb (as a direct result of radiation poisoning) and decided to fold 1000 paper cranes. She reached her goal, but she died shortly thereafter. Her classmates folded more cranes, which her family buried with her. We walked by the Atomic Bomb Dome, the building just above which the bomb was dropped (and detonated 600 meters off the ground). Everyone inside was killed, but parts of the building still stand—though with vast amounts of help from 21st-century supports. Perhaps most moving was an exhibit on The Children of the Atomic Bomb at the Hiroshima National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims. There, we read incomprehensibly horrifying testimonials from children who survived the a-bomb (many of whom lost everything) 6 years following the bombing. Out on the park, we watched as a-bomb survivors told their stories to young Japanese schoolchildren, and I couldn’t help but wonder if any of them had shared their stories in the exhibit. If not, whatever became of the children who shared their stories?

In my three years in NYC I could never bring myself to walk to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum (just a short trip from my apartment) because it felt like my whole world changed that day. My childhood assumptions that war was something found only in history textbooks, my notions of “good” and “evil,” my understanding of safety—everything transformed. My heart is with Hiroshima and its people—with Japan—forever changed that day in August 1945, to a degree I can’t begin to comprehend.

- Alex


Pictures to come! We are currently at our WWOOFing host family’s house (more to come on that later) and their wifi doesn’t have the bandwith for photos at this time. Stay tuned. And we’ll try to be more upbeat next time.


Welcome to Japan

A few days ago Alex and I were on the train from Nikko, north of Tokyo, to the airport to catch our flight to Okinawa. We were both busy immersing ourselves in Japanese culture—me reading a Japanese novel from the 1950s for which its author won a literary nobel, Alex playing a game called sushi-go-round on her phone—when I was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder. The tapper was a small Japanese girl who said in heavily accented English “Hello” and then held out a small origami crane, her hands shaking slightly. I sort of froze, so she put the crane in my hands, smiled sheepishly and said “have a nice day.” 

No New York experience had prepared me for this (extreme unprompted friendliness) and as far as I can tell there really is no appropriate response for an unsolicited origami crane. I interrupted Alex’s sushi game to show her the crane, and together we said “arigato gozaimasu” (by far the most important phrase for travel in Japan) about 25 times. She seemed pleased and put on headphones, leaving Alex and I to figure out what to do with the crane. I took a picture of it. Alex held it like a toy and sort of tried to make it fly around, making crane noises (?) and surruptiously making glances at me that said “is this helping? can I stop now?” Meanwhile the girl, watching her out of the corner of her eye, took out a smaller piece of paper, and made a smaller crane for Alex. Well, shit. Commence more over-enthusiastic head-bobbing thank yous. At this point the entire train car (which is, by the way, situated like an NYC subway car with people sitting along the sides all facing one another) is watching and the middle aged woman next to the girl decides to drop some knowledge. She starts talking to us and to the girl in Japanese. We nod along, nodding and smiling to hide our confusion. Two mins later, crane number 3 arrives, small but more expertly folded, from the older lady. The first girl goes into Thank You mode with Older Lady (even though the crane was clearly for us) and we continue to look on, our faces locked in moronic, bovine smiles trying to slip in our own “arigato” and look less clueless than we feel. Then the train arrives at the station and the girl, seeing the “what the f%$* do we do with these now?” faces, gives us a pretty patterned envelope to keep the cranes in. The older lady shows us how to fold them and put them in. And then we all go on our way. Oh and when I said “girl,” she was at least 25. Welcome to Japan.

Over the past few weeks, Alex and I have been acclimating to a culture that is so polite and friendly it is mind boggling. One of my favorite anecdotes is from an ex-pat Brit we had beers with the other night (who we met through our scuba guide). He described diving from a pier and before he went down, just noticing a wallet, fat with cash, lying unattended on the pier, no one in sight. When he returned from his dive not only was the wallet still there, but next to the wallet there was now a homeless man, just hanging out, guarding it, waiting for the owner to get back. Such is the Japanese way, and it shines a pretty harsh light on Western finders-keepers customs. Apparently during the tsunami many people saw their life savings swept out to sea in safes (zero interest rates, deflation, literally nobody steals… why use a bank?). You can imagine the American version of the story— a brief frantic gold rush, a nationwide news story about the ten year old boy who found a safe and turned it in to the police, he makes the rounds on the Today show, the Late Show, everyone feels good about themselves. The Japanese version? The Japanese handed in 78 million in cash, and almost all of it was returned to its original owners.

So yea, we’ve spent the last couple weeks feeling a little out of place—we’re big, sweaty, loud, white, illiterate Westerners bumbling our way through tiny Japanese streets—but at the same time we’ve felt very comfortable, thanks to the great people who have hosted us along the way and the overwhelming Japanese hospitality we’ve encountered. In Tokyo we stayed with a couple Americans who teach English and do translation work. They took us to dinner, karaoke, shisha and a house dance party. They walked us around different neighborhoods and recommended places to eat. Our experience in Tokyo was pretty relaxed, in cool, quiet neighborhoods, largely thanks to them. In Nikko, our host was a tiny Japanese lady named Yoshiko who spoke very little English but gave us great recommendations and happily played Japanese soccer mom for two days, shuttling us around the little town to dinner, the cottage, the local bathhouse (where she took us inside and gave us extensive instructions on what to do), back to the cottage, the train station, etc. In Okinawa we stayed with a Brit who the first morning made us heart shaped pancakes. Tonight (in Fukuoka) is in fact the first time we have had a place to ourselves since Hawaii. And it feels good.

- Cole

There’s so much more to say about our amazing experiences so far in Japan, but here are a few other fun and random tidbits that are currently on my mind (courtesy of Alex!):

  • Shimokitazawa, the neighborhood where we stayed in Tokyo, reminded us of Williamsburg and is full of Japanese hipsters. Daikan-yama and Naka-Meguro were also awesome neighborhoods that we wandered around and had a similar feel to Soho or the village (but Japanese!).
  • Real life sushi-go-round is even more fun than the iPhone game, and certainly more delicious. It was filled with business people out on their lunch breaks; a hectic scene, with sushi coming around on the conveyor belt while people yelled out other orders. Cole and I were shy to order at first, but finally got into the groove and proceeded to eat some of the most amazing and cheap sushi we’ve ever had. Also, they had hot water on tap at each seat for the green tea bags, which were also in front of every place at the table.
  • Karaoke was one of the highlights of our time in Tokyo (for me, at least)—but unlike when we karaoke in NYC, everyone was dead sober when we first arrived. On the other hand the place was BYOB, so we were able to get adequate liquid courage, and we had a brave Japanese opera singer in our crew who showed little hesitation and led the way...
  • Halloween is EVERYWHERE in Japan—everywhere! The only thing they’re missing is candy corn, which is depressing but may be for the best.
  • Nikko is a tiny town just a few hours north of Tokyo and filled with temples. It is stunning and quiet and was the perfect place to experience fall in Japan. It had that crisp autumn smell, and I couldn’t get enough of it. We went on a 4-hour “hike,” which was really just a long, flat walk, but beautiful. Most of our fellow hikers were older Japanese people who looked like they were outfitted for a 10-mile steep overnight hike with no access to civilization (this “hike” was anything but that)—bear bells included. We said “konnichiwa” to everyone we passed on the trail and got a lot of konnichiwas back. It was wonderful.
  • We went to a local onsen (hot spring) bath house in Nikko, courtesy of our amazing host Yoshiko. The baths are segregated by sex, so Cole and I said goodbye at the locker rooms and went our separate ways. We each got completely naked in our respective locker rooms, surrounded by a handful of completely nude Japanese people, and walked into the bath area. It was a relaxing experience for us both, but we noticed a key difference between the men and the women: the men were silent in the baths, even if they had come in with friends or family. The women, however, were chatting the entire time, some in large groups, throughout the baths and in the sauna. In fact, I felt slightly lonely—I wished that I could speak Japanese so I could make small talk with them in the baths. The women were all very friendly, however, and even encouraged me to properly use their showers (I tried to stand up as I normally would, but they insisted I sit on a stool like the Japanese women do when they shower).
  • Okinawa is a fascinating and beautiful place (like the Hawaii of Japan!) with a complicated history. There are a few large American military bases on the main island, and there has been a strong American presence in Okinawa since WW2. As a result, more people speak English here than in Tokyo, and there are a ton of both American and “American” restaurants (it’s hilarious to get the Japanese interpretations of America- see our WTF Japan album for that). For Cole and me, who still know very little about the military, our time in Okinawa was a true exploration of multiple cultures we were unfamiliar with and the ways in which they interact. 
  • We’ve just arrived in Fukuoka, where we are staying for just one night before heading to Hiroshima. Fukuoka is known for having “the most beautiful women in Japan”—we’ll keep you posted on that one :)

PS we just uploaded some new photos — check them out!

PPS leave us comments! We love hearing from you!