I have been back in the States for three weeks and have yet to blog about my trip to Japan!
A little background
My brother-in-law is in the Navy and he and my sister-in-law have lived all over the world. When they lived in cool places like Sicily or Hawaii, I had young children and really couldn’t go there. And we were getting out of debt.
About two years ago, they moved to Japan. DH and I talked about going, but when we found out they were leaving Japan in winter of 2015, we figured it was now or never. We scraped up the money, had a generous donation, and our awesome families said “yes” to watching the kids. So off we went.
As we planned to travel, we chose July because of the kids’ school schedule. It is the beginning of the rainy season and it is hot and humid in Japan at that time, but it was better than never going. And yes, it was overcast most of the time, but the only thing that affected was our view of Mt. Fuji, (we barely saw it through binoculars).
We took three planes over. I won’t bore you with the delays and sprint outside LAX to the international terminal, (I HATE LAX), but here are some things to know. If you are obese like me or over six feet tall, pay for the premium economy seat. Yes, it’s more, but you will be MUCH more comfortable on the 11 hour flight. I needed the lap belt extender and DH had his legs cramped. We had more leg room on the puddle jumper from Dulles to Norfolk!
When we got to Japan and met up with SIL, we hit the ground running. It was the best way to go!
We stayed in the Kanagawa Prefecture. Closest large city is Yokohama and Tokyo is not far at all. Most of the time we traveled by train, but we walked a lot, took the car a few places, and caught the bus a couple of times. There is one card you purchase and add yen as need be and that works on the buses and trains. Also in some vending machines.
Our first trip was with some other Americans to Taya Cavern. I wish I could show you the sculptures. They are breathtaking, but no cameras were allowed in the caverns. It’s an extensive cave carved into a hillside on the outskirts of Kamakura by Shingon Buddhist monks from 1192 until 1720. We got up close to antique carvings of Buddhas, Buddhist saints, fantastic creatures, and Mantras carved in kanji and Sanskrit.
There is a flame in memoriam of those killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and stones from ground zero.
Goddess of Mercy
A visit to the Goddess of Mercy in Ōfuna Kannon. Construction of the Temple began in 1929 by the Sōtō (Zen) Buddhist sect. The outline of the statue was complete by 1934 but work was suspended at the outbreak of the Pacific War. The Ofuna Kannon Society continued construction work in 1954 and the Temple was finally completed in 1960. The statue construction is that of sections of poured concrete and was performed entirely by hand. No concrete pump trucks were used. The surface of the statue is oft painted white. The statue itself contains a small museum and shrine and both are open for viewing.
Next day we caught the bus to Kamakura. There is a touristy shopping area there with a Miyazaki store with Totoro, Kiki, Ponyo and more!
At the end of shopping area is Tsurugaoka Hachimangu. It is a beautiful area with shrines and gardens. This shrine was originally built in 1063 and was moved it to its present location in 1191. The lotus wasn’t quite in bloom, but we did get to see one.
There was a large wooden structure with barrels of sake, known as sakedaru. The decoration of barrels known as kazaridaru signifies a spiritual connection and relationship between brewers and shrines for prosperity. Most brewers donate these sake barrels to shrines for Shinto ceremonies, rituals and festivals. Japanese believe that sake acts as a symbolic unification of Gods and people. (www.farmofminds.com/ai-nihon-kazaridaru-empty-barrels-of/)
On our last day, we headed back to Kamakura and visited the Big Buddha. He weighsabout 93 short tons and has survived 800 years. Even the great Kanto earthquake in 1923, but it did move him two feet!
Hiratsuka and the Tanabata Festival
On a rainy day, we went to the Tanabata Festival in Hirstsuka. Many towns had such a celebration, but this was while we were there. It celebrates the meeting of the deities Orihime and Hikoboshi (represented by the stars Vega and Altair respectively). According to legend, the Milky Way separates these lovers, and they are allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month of the lunisolar calendar. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tanabata
The festival was crowded, even though it was raining. It’s like many American festivals, there were balloons, vendors, games, and businesses selling their wares on the sidewalk. Over the streets were displays from local businesses. Some were even animated. And here, like all other places in Japan, the obsession with Disney, especially the movie Frozen, was displayed.
The seaside town is so gorgeous. There is a small park with monkeys and birds where you have a lovely view of the beach. On a clear day you can see Mt. Fuji. We squinted through binoculars and saw the outline of it. Too overcast.
Yokohama is a beautiful port town. It reminds me of my hometown area, only clean. Chinatown is the largest in Asia and one of the largest in the world.
If you EVER go to Yokohama, get the dead skin sucked off your feet by the Kiss Fish! These fish suck the dead skin off of your feet. My husband is extremely ticklish and the fish seemed to love him the most!
Home to a U.S. naval base, many of the vendors here speak English. It was here DH and I had food at a sushi-go-round. Most pieces were under 100 yen ($1).
But I saw something I wanted to do badly that was not a typical touristy thing. We hit the Municipal Disaster Prevention Center. It took a while to find since we did not have internet access and the only thing I found said it was behind city hall. It is geared towards Japanese kids, but we had a blast! The people there do NOT speak English which makes things difficult, (like then they found out that DH was a firefighter and introduced the firefighter who worked to him. It was fun trying to communicate about firefighting). When you come in, there is Japanese firefighting gear. It’s not much different from that we use in the U.S., but they have more repelling gear and no hood. Then we walked over to where you could experience an emergency! First you watch a very animated man on a video explain what to do. Then you sit in a fake kitchen. Suddenly a 8.0 earthquake hits! What to do! We go under the kitchen table. Once it is over we had to go to the stove to turn off the gas. BUT WAIT! There is now a fire in the living room. Scream Kasai (fire)! Grab an extinguisher and put out the fire. Then leave the house down the hallway, but there is smoke everywhere! So crawl your way out. When you are done, you get to watch a video!
As with many large cities, there are several areas of the city. The first day we spent there, we went to Shibuya. When leaving Shibuya station, one of the first things you see is a statue of Hachiko. In 1924, Hidesaburō Ueno, a professor in the agriculture department at the University of Tokyo, took in Hachikō, a golden brown Akita, as a pet. During his owner’s life, Hachikō greeted him at the end of each day at the nearby Shibuya Station. The pair continued their daily routine until May 1925, when Professor Ueno did not return. The professor had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died, never returning to the train station where Hachikō was waiting. Each day for the next nine years Hachikō awaited Ueno’s return, appearing precisely when the train was due at the station. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hachik%C5%8D
Shibuya Station leads to the famous Shibuya crossing. It is one of the, if not the busiest crossings in the world. Of course, when we first got there it wasn’t busy at all. But later that night, we got a spot at the Starbucks overlooking the crossing and got a better idea of the insanity.
We also went to Don Quijote. It’s like Walmart and Spencer’s. On one floor is household items, turn the corner and there are penis-shaped water guns. Then on another floor are kids’ toys and bikes. One floor had a special area just for adults. It was wild!
In the middle of Shibuya is the Meiji Jingu Temple. At many of the temples, people buy ribbons or wooden plaques and leave wishes. Many were for things like health, peace, happiness, but my favorite written by an elementary-aged student said, “I wish that next year I have Mrs Jinks for a techer.”
Takeshita Street is where the young people hang out and where you can see interesting fashion. Not too many were out that evening, but we did see some BDSM-type clothing on display in a store. OK, maybe not that bad, but pretty close.
A trip to Tokyo is not complete without a trip up the Tokyo Skytree! The tallest tower in the world and the second tallest structure. The height of 634 m (2,080 ft) was selected to be easily remembered. The figures 6 (mu), 3 (sa), 4 (shi) stand for “Musashi”, an old name of the region where the Tokyo Skytree stands. On a lower level is a glass bottom where you can stand and look down at the tiny figures below.
From where we headed over to Sensō-ji, a Buddhist temple dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon with a large lantern. 11.7 meters tall, 11.4 meters wide and covers and area of 69.3 meters.
We went to see the Imperial Palace. Well, the gates to the palace anyway. You cannot see the castle at all for security reasons. There was a really neat bridge there, Meganebashi (Eyeglass Bridge). The bridge reflects in the water and looks like eyeglasses. What was interesting, besides the palace guards taking a nap, were the men on the grounds who raked the gravel and were pulling out grass from the area by hand!
But the most fun, for me, was in Akihabara. It’s the electronics district and there are video game stores everywhere and a photographer’s Mecca, Yodobashi-Akiba. Cameras everywhere! We hit the Gundam Cafe and then walked the streets of Akihabara. What a treat! We saw maids promoting the Maid Cafe. we saw this really cute girl walking back and forth down the street with an average-looking guy. Due to the way they were walking and interacting, we think maybe she was hired to be seen with him. Later, SIL and I got our picture taken while putting our heads in one of the many photo displays there when a woman and man came out of a building. She walked in one direction counting her yen while he walked in another direction. Not sure what that was all about for real, but I can take a guess. We also saw a boy band singing on the street.
OMG! Everything was YUMMY! Japanese curry! Indian curry! Pizza! Sushi! Kabobs! Pepper Lunch!
As someone with slight OCD, except when it comes to housework, I loved Japan.
The trains run on time, and if you miss one, another is on the way! When you are on the train, people mind their own business. They rarely talk, unless they are with a friend or family member. And cell phone use (for calls) is NOT allowed.
On trains, they nap! Any country where naps are not frowned upon is fine by me!
There are few trash cans in public places because they recycle or burn all their trash.
When at a crosswalk, the Japanese will cross only when the walk sign is green.
There is no tipping in restaurants. They seat you and you call them over when you are ready to order.
Kids are allowed to be kids. They are super well-behaved, but you rarely see them being scolded in public.
If you don’t speak Japanese, no worry. The menus at most restaurants have pictures!
My SIL’s shower was in an entire room! It rocked!
People often asked us what our favorite part of the trip was. I could only say “people watching.” Seriously. I loved all of Japan, with a few exceptions.
Squatty potties. I love my western toilets, but some places only had squatty potties. They are supposed to be better for you, but I took my chances with the western toilets, (which are much better than toilets here – bidet, air dryer, and a button that makes a flushing sound so people can’t hear you toot).
No soap. For a country that is so clean, they do not have soap in many bathrooms. We had hand sanitizer everywhere we went.
Men’s bathrooms. Some men’s bathrooms had little privacy – from the outside!
Humidity. I grew up in a very humid area, but my GOD it has nothing on Japan! People carry little washcloths with them everywhere they go so they can wipe their faces.
Little handicapped-accessibility. SIL lived at the top of a hill. To get there and to the train and bus station required a lot of steep steps. In the major cities things were more accessible. Buses and trains are, but getting there can be an issue. Some train stations required escalators or stairs. Some had elevators. Many may have, but I didn’t see one most times.
No benches. There are few places to sit except in train stations. Be ready to stand a lot.
Now I loved Japan, but you may not want to go if you are claustrophobic or agoraphobic. The public transit system is crowded and some places are small.
If you decide to go to Japan:
- Months before your visit, make sure any medication you have is allowed in the country. Many are, but under a month’s worth – including contacts. You may have to fill out a form, snail mail it to Japan, and have it snail mailed back to you. http://japan.usembassy.gov/e/acs/tacs-medimport.html
- Check into your wireless carrier’s international plan options. We did not get a plan for the trip since we had a guide and internet access at SIL’s home, BUT it would have been helpful in some cases.
- Let your bank know your plans, otherwise your debit card (sorry we don’t do credit) may be rejected. We did and they forgot about my card, but DH’s worked fine.
- Learn Japanese everyday customs. For example, when paying at a business, you put the card or yen on a small tray. They will return your change or card there.
- Go for more than a week (not including travel time).
- Airports may not have the best exchange rates. Check in advance.
- Credit cards are fine in most places. However, if you have yen, you will never go thirsty. There are drink machines everywhere.
- Do not go during the rainy season, but at the same time, beware of very busy times, like when the Cherry Blossoms bloom.
- Plan where you want to go and map it out ahead of time. You need to know the train schedules, stops, and how to get where you want to go.
- On the international part of the flight, upgrade to at least Economy Plus for the leg room – and slippers!
- Get a guide if possible for part of the trip. We were fortunate to have SIL. We didn’t need her all the time, but she planned many of our outings and helped us from looking like a stupid Gaijin.
- Bring a washcloth for the summer heat and to wash your hands after going to the bathroom.
- Bring hand sanitizer everywhere.
- If you go to rural areas, bring toilet paper or potty wipes.
- Bring comfortable shoes.
- If someone comes up to you voluntarily and speaks in English, chances are they are practicing their English. I say this because a woman started speaking to me and SIL and she asked where we were from. I got all chatty. She smiled a lot. Later I realized she was practicing her English. I should have kept it simple.
- If they speak English fluently, don’t be an ass and act like they barely speak it when speaking to them. DH saw an English woman do that to a barista at Starbucks.
- Don’t be loud or obnoxious. Be respectful and understand you are a visitor.
- There are many places where you cannot take pictures. Looks for the signs with the red line through a camera.
- Be adventurous with the food. It’s great! But keep in mind beef that is not expensive may be something like beef tongue.
- Bow. To thank people, bow. Even if you cannot speak any Japanese, by bowing you show your thanks.
- Japanese is a difficult language to learn. Download or buy a translation app for help.
- People will greet you when you come into a store or will try to give you things on the street. You don’t have to accept. Just bow and politely wave your hand in a “no” gesture.
- Do not tip in restaurants.
- There are no refills on drinks except water in restaurants.
- And drink a lot of water. Japanese tap water is just fine. Bring a water bottle.
- Do stuff off the beaten path.
- Always look up and look down alleys. Stores and restaurants are not always on the main street or on the first floor.
- And have FUN!