The look on most people’s faces when we tell them that we spent ten weeks, not days, travelling through Japan is priceless. It’s part disbelief, part surprise, part curiosity. We get asked a lot if it cost us a fortune, if it was hard to navigate for that long, and finally… just why?! It’s a long time to be spending in one country for a ‘holiday’, I get that, but it really was my dream destination. I’ve wanted to visit Japan ever since I missed out of a school trip when I was twelve; it only took close to twenty years but when we finally arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun, my heart was bursting with excitement and apprehension. Would it live up to the lofty expectations I have held for it over the years? Friends, it did. We can both, hand on heart, without a single ounce of hesitation, say that Japan was our favourite of all the countries we visited during our stint away.
It’s so hard to succinctly explain the lure of Japan; it is a country of contrasts and contradictions. It is fabled for being overbearingly ordered and controlled, yet you will find pockets of disarray which challenge the norm. It is high tech and cutting edge, but painfully traditionally in so many aspects. The cities are big, bold and bright, while the countryside is overwhelmingly green and peaceful. In ten weeks we were able to explore the country at a slower pace than most, taking in all the beauty and quirks of this country, but even then, there’s still so much more we want to experience and are already plotting a return visit… hopefully I don’t have to wait so long next time. Here are a couple of lessons (trivial and otherwise) I learnt from those ten weeks in this incredible country…
A few basic Japanese phrases go a long way
We spent our first four weeks in Tokyo, expecting that would be a good way for us to get used to the local lingo whilst still being able to get by with English. However, we soon noticed that it was not as widely used as we expected… I’m not so entitled that I think everyone everywhere should be able to speak English, in fact, I frequently acknowledge how lucky I am that it is usually the default second language. I was just a tad surprised given the number of Japanese students we saw toting round giant English phrasebooks and reading them non-stop. It seems they can be a bit hesitant to use it for fear of making a mistake and causing any offence or embarrassment. We, on the other hand, were not encumbered by the same hesitancy when it came to attempting some basic phrases in Japanese and often hoped they saw it for the sign of respect and necessity that it was, and didn’t cause offence.
I’ll confess that I did take Japanese language classes at high school, but as those of you who have learnt a second language will know, if you don’t practice, it very quickly slips from your mind! Being in the country did help unlock some of those memories and I was able to remember some words and get the right tones when speaking but I was far from fluent. In addition to the hello, pleases and thank yous, we also had a stockpile of useful phrases we used on a daily basis. The ones I would recommend you learn if you’re visiting Japan are:
- Sumi-masen – use this for ‘excuse me’ or an informal ‘sorry’, and when trying to get someone’s attention in a restaurant.
- Ko-re o kudasai – this translates as ‘this please’ which is helpful when you want something in a shop or restaurant. Or you can substitute ‘ko-re’ for whatever you want if you know the word for it.
- Ei-go ga hanase masu-ka? – this means ‘do you speak English?’
- Sumi-masen, wakari-masen desu – this means ‘I don’t understand’
- Chotto matte – ‘one moment please’
Don’t Leave Home Without Your Yen
It really surprised us to find that the Japanese are still very much into using cold, hard cash when it comes to their everyday spending. Even though you can buy so many things via a machine or without any sort of human interaction, you’ll pay with cash. Even though they’re a bit funny about handling cash (general rule is that you put the money on the tray, and they’ll put your change on the tray), you’ll still pay with cash. There might be instances where you spot a card machine and think you’re in luck, but don’t get your hopes up because it is unlikely to accept your foreign card. Just save yourself the hassle and always have yen on you – we found that the best places to withdraw cash was at the 7Eleven ATMS because they’re plentiful, accept foreign cards, and don’t usually charge a fee.
Do not walk and eat in the Street
Everyone who has ever been to Japan will preach about the wonders of the convenience stores or ‘kombini’ which, unlike Western equivalents, sells food which is not only edible but quite delicious. Their offerings are varied and plentiful – go in and grab onigiri, sushi, sandwiches, hot croquettes, salads, desserts… but make sure you don’t eat them on the go. It would seem counter-intuitive to those of us who are used to munching on a filled roll or something enroute somewhere but that’s not the done thing in Japan. A lot of convenience stores have small designated seating areas so you can wolf down your snack or meal before heading off, or just hang around outside, but in an orderly fashion of course.
Ordering ramen from a vending machine is awesome
We arrived in Tokyo around 9pm on a Wednesday night, tired and starving. Ramen seemed fitting for our first meal so we took to the streets of our new neighbourhood Ginza and started our search. The first two places we walked into looked promising but the lack of wait-staff around and the vending machines by the front doors left us a bit bamboozled so we moved on. However we quickly cottoned on that this was the norm as at the next two ramen bars we were again welcomed by the daunting machine. So we loitered by the door, waited for someone else to walk in then watched the process unfold. The man’s hand hovered in front of the machine for a few seconds before he found the right button, put in his money, grabbed the ticket it spat out and passed it straight to the ramen chef.
No confusion in orders, no waiting to be served, no money exchanging hands, and once you have finished eating, just get up and go – what a fantastic system! Using one of these vending machines may seem daunting but they’re actually very easy to navigate. There are often pictures of the dishes either on the buttons themselves or on some board either outside of near the machine. If you come across the later, take a picture and compare the characters to the dish you want. But if that is still too overwhelming, just choose the top left button and hope for the best – it’s usually where they put their signature or standard dish!
An Onsen Experience Will Improve Your Body Positivity
I thought I had a fairly good relationship with my body; I’m still a bit self-conscious about walking around in a bikini but I also don’t sit here and pick at my faults with vehement self-loathing. Like most people, I don’t make a habit of walking around in my birthday suit so as you can guess, stripping off and walking into a public bathhouse completely nude had its challenges. Throw in all the unfamiliar rules and etiquette of onsen culture and I was right at the opposite end of my comfort zone with literally nothing to hide behind. The tiny modesty towel you can take in is really not that useful. However, once I got over the initial shyness, I began to embrace a bit of this new-found nude confidence. I was inspired by these Japanese ladies who stripped off and strolled in without a second thought – some were there to enjoy the peace and quiet, others came in small gaggles for a gossip. The nudity seemed a non-event, and it was quite refreshing!
Food is beautifully presented but painfully over-packaged
The Japanese take a lot of pride and care over how food is presented – it not only has to taste good, but look good too. Not in a ‘it’s so instagrammable’ kind of way, well not traditionally anyway, but in a ‘I want to serve you the very best’ kind of way. We’ve had stunning breakfasts where each of the elements, of which there were many, were meticulously prepared and served on individual plates. I’ve wandered wide-eyed through the country’s famed depachika, the basement food halls in department stores, which are filled with the most elegantly packaged food. Buy a cake and it comes in an elaborate box, most likely with a bow on top, or treat yourself to a box of biscuits, each individually wrapped to ensure freshness. It’s a joy to see food held in such high esteem but the sight of it also raises red flags in my eco-conscious brain. Japan has a strict rubbish and recycling sorting policy but even then, I wonder if all that is enough to combat the amount of single use waste that they must produce!
Japan is Clean and Green
Every time we mentioned that we were from New Zealand (because everyone always asked) we got the most excited, jubilant responses. People would tell us how beautiful it is, how much they loved their visit, or how much they want to visit… they would ask us about the All Blacks and the haka, and whether it really looked as beautiful as Middle Earth. Their enthusiasm for the greenery of New Zealand constantly surprised us as we found much of Japan’s countryside to be just as verdant and stunning, but actually much cleaner. We in New Zealand like to perpetuate this ‘clean green’ image but I don’t think the reality quite lives up to that. Meanwhile in Japan, every path we walked down, every river we crossed was absolutely pristine. Japan’s cities are thrilling, but the small towns are quite serene and inviting – some of the rural parts of the country were our very favourite stops!
Japanese sake is fantastic, Japanese wine is not
All that time I thought sake was a bit sharp and burnt your throat as it went down the hatch… it was just because I had been drinking truly terrible sake. The real stuff is decent, the really good stuff is quite a revelation. We got an intensive sake education at a fantastic class by Ninja Tours, but also enjoyed an afternoon of sake tasting at the Sake Centre in Tokyo. The latter has a very relaxed environment and a huge range of sake to choose from – get a tasting flight and start getting to know your junmai from your danginjo sakes. On the contrary, I also learnt that the Japanese wine is probably not going to take the world by storm anytime soon… we took a day trip to the Katsunuma, Japan’s wine country, had a wonderful time but drank many truly terrible wines!
There is a very civilised seat saving system
I’m sure we can all think of a time when we’ve been to an event with no allocated seating – there’s a mad rush to get in and throw anything you have on hand on a seat to indicate that they’re yours. Then begins the convoluted system of ensuring someone from your party is seated at all times to ensure they don’t get pinched. It’s a faff, and sometimes takes up so much brainpower, that drink you were going to get up for almost doesn’t feel worth the hassle. The Japanese know no such dilemmas because they have the most basic yet civilised seat saving system I have ever come across. Basically, once something (and this can really be anything, like a newspaper or the show programme) is on the seat, it is taken. It’s really that simple – the Japanese take this etiquette very seriously and would never consider purposely taking someone’s seat! This was great when we went to the Sumo Tournament and got our pick of the seats… not so great at the Japan Derby where all the seats were already taken by the time we arrived!
Japanese are friendly but not always welcoming of Gaijin
Throughout the ten weeks we were in Japan, we found the locals to be incredibly friendly. They were happy to help when we asked for it, they were patient with us when we couldn’t quite find the words or gestures to say what we wanted. It was exactly what I expected from a country which is often described as overwhelmingly polite with a strong culture of hospitality. However, what did surprise me was that we didn’t always feel welcomed. The first inkling we had that the Japanese might not actually be all that enamoured with gaijin roaming round their streets were the stickers all over our Airbnb apartment block: a picture of two people with suitcases and a big fat cross over them. This was further emphasised by a note in the apartment manual stating that ‘not all the neighbours are as friendly as we would like’, alongside strict instructions not to speak to anyone. We were turned away from some restaurants or unable to make reservations at high end ones simply because we couldn’t speak Japanese or have a local vouch for us. At first this felt frustrating, then I got over myself… I was a guest in this country so perhaps I should expect to play by their rules.
Japan has been a fairly closed and homogenous country for centuries, which probably explains some of the attitudes they have towards foreigners. Based on our time there (longer than most tourists who might not ever notice this behaviour, but brief compared to long term expats who have experienced real discrimination), my observation is that foreigners are treated with anything from indifference to friendly fascination to suspicion. Luckily our experience was mostly at the friendly end of that spectrum, which I think was helped by the fact we tried to speak some of the language and read up on some of the everyday etiquettes they have. So it seems a bit obvious but abide by their rules, and everything will be just fine!
Have you been to Japan? Would you agree or disagree with some of the lessons I’ve learnt?