On a Quest: Japan

You may have a fantasy about what Japan is like. But nothing will prepare you for the truth.

It’s absolutely marvelous. In every single way.

The people, the sights, the food, the public transportation, the shopping…and, well the toilets.

We did a family trip to Japan in December 2016 — none of us had been there — and it was such a pleasant surprise. Each of us fell in love.

Let’s start with…

The People

The nicest, most courteous people I’ve encountered in my travels so far. They will go out of their way to give you directions – even walk you down the street to make sure you get where you need to be. A better yet, no one eats or drinks on the train or on the sidewalks, nor do they talk on their cell phones in public. It’s considered very rude. How rad is that? This article really sums up the Japanese and their consideration for other so well.

The Sights

Temples, shrines, castles, skyscrapers, rickshaws, geishas, bright lights, shoji screen doors, and vending machines. There are sights every which way you turn. My favorite thing about Japan is the vending machines. You can get just about anything in a vending machine and they are everywhere. I read Cool Japan Guide: Fun in the Land of Manga, Lucky Cats and Ramen before we left and it gives you the skinny about every quirky little that makes Japan, Japan.

The Food

Where do I even begin? Well, let’s begin at 7-11. Yes, a convenience store. The food is so incredibly good in Japan and so carefully prepared, that even 7-11 has delicious fare. No joke. Then you can go all the way up to the sushi restaurants that run about $1200 per person where they get fresh fish from the Tsukiji Fish Market each morning at dawn. And then there’s everything in between – all amazing. Food is so embedded in and woven through Japanese culture and history. To get a real feel for Japanese food, I highly suggest your read Rice, Noodle Fish – whether you plan to visit Japan or not.

The Public Transportation

Who needs a car and driver when you’ve got the best transportation at your doorstep – no matter where you want to go. Subways are everywhere and they are super clean and super efficient. And you can also catch a train to every nook and cranny of the country. However, if you plan to travel around the country via train – which I highly recommend – get a JR Pass. You must buy it online BEFORE you go to Japan. They will not sell you one once you get there. 

The Shopping

All I can say is, “Bring a list.” Yes, have a list of items that you want for your wardrobe, because the shopping in Tokyo is off the charts and overwhelming. My daughter and I spent one day shopping and we didn’t buy one single thing because there was just too much to choose from at all price points. And, after the fact, with my head hanging in sorrow over an empty shopping bag, I thought, “I should have brought a list.” Next time.

Okay, now the one you’ve been waiting for…

The Toilets

Yes, the toilets. They themselves are reason enough to visit Japan. And the reason the toilets are such a spectacle, circles right back to The People. As I mentioned, it’s all about consideration in Japan, and who wants to afflict others with the smell – or even the sound – of taking care of business. Toilets are adorned with rows of control buttons along each side. You can play music (i.e. drown out the sound), emit fragrance (so your poo poo smells like roses), or wash your front bottom or back bottom. Is your tush a little chill, chill? Heat it up. Don’t want to touch the lid? No worries, there are motion detectors that will lift it upon your approach. And it’s not just in the fancy hotels or homes that you’ll find these. They are in just about every public bathroom throughout the country. Here’s some reading material about Japanese toilets for your next trip to the loo.

OUR ITINERARY

  • Flew into Tokyo
  • Took the Super Azusa from Shinjuku Station to Matsumoto
  •  Spent two nights in the sweet town of Matsumoto, where we:
  • From Matsumoto train station, we got a shuttle arranged by Tobira Onsen Myojinkan — a “ryokan” or Japanese inn with “onsen,” Japanese hot springs. If you go to Japan, I highly recommend you go to a ryokan with onsen. It is a quintessentially Japanese experience. You will find them all over the country.
  • We spent one night at the Ryokan, which, although it’s an amazing experience, is plenty. So the next day we took the shuttle back to Matsumoto and headed to Kyoto. We caught the Matsumoto – Nagoya train and Nagoya – Kyoto train (Shinkansen Hikari service) that are covered with the JR Pass.
  • In Kyoto, we stayed at the Kyoto Brighton Hotel. It was very nice, but a little off the beaten path, and there are many other better places to stay in Kyoto for the price. We had to book this one because we made reservations at the last minute and this place was the only decent one with availability. So, note to you, and to self, as a rule in Japan, book hotels far in advance.
  • Kyoto is filled with temples, places, shrines and all kinds of sights. We only had one full day there and I wish we spent a few more. Here’s what we did:
    • Fushimi Inari Shrine — the one you see in all the pictures — with all the red gates that go all the up one side of a mountain and back down. Do it. I highly recommend doing the entire walk. And wear comfortable shoes. It’s a good three-hour hike — two up, and one back down.
    • Took the train to Nara to see Todaiji Temple. This is the most famous temple in Japan, and it is also known for the deer who occupy much of the park. The temple, the park and the deer all make it worth the trip.
  • The next day we went back to Tokyo. Again, we booked our hotels very late in the game. Our hotel room was super tiny (as many are in Japan) and it was quite comical for the three of us to maneuver around. Good news is, you’re not in your room that much because you are out exploring. In the three days we were there, we didn’t even scratch the surface. So much to see and do. Rather than me reinventing the wheel here, I suggest you go to any of the millions of travel websites and read about all the places to visit and make a list. You can’t go wrong.

Things to note:

  • Make as many reservations as you can before you go. Many of the popular restaurants book up fast. Also, if you have friends or friends of friends in Japan, try to have them make reservations for you. Many restaurants don’t take reservations from Americans because we are such flakes and don’t show up or cancel at the 11th hour. Japanese take their food very seriously, buying the exact amount of fresh ingredients to accommodate their guests, and, as nice as they are, they don’t take kindly to no-shows.
  • Rent a pocket Wi-Fi so you can have 24/7 internet access and find your way around the cities and the country. It’s so easy and convenient — they will have it ready for you at your hotel when you check in, and you can drop it off at the airport.
  • As I said earlier, order a JR Pass before you go. This is a discounted train pass. You will get a voucher in the mail and you will trade it in for the actual pass when you get to the airport in Japan. Not having a pass, you’ll be paying some high prices for your train rides. Frankly, I rather spend my hard-earned dough on the amazing food.

 

 

 

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