Strangely enough, it has been my childhood dream to visit The Land of the Rising Sun. Ever since my uncle came back from Japan when I was in my early teenage years and brought back a Licca doll for my cousin, a small red lantern and photos of people feeding a flock of very approachable deer, I have had an enormous desire to visit this far away land. To me, Japan was synonymous to exotic.
East Asia, in general, has always been a source of fascination for me and visiting China the previous summer was certainly an extraordinary experience but it wasn’t until I landed in Japan that I was able to feel what I envisioned was the spirit of Asia first hand.
Perhaps the most striking thing to me about Japan was their state-of-the-art, crowded train stations. My travel buddy and I got lost many times trying to navigate these humongous, maze-like structures. I read in one of the travel guides that you can never find the same place twice in Shinigawa Station, but I believe that to be also the case with Shibuya, Tokyu (this is how they spell it) and many other a station. Some 14 million people go through Tokyu Station each day; in layman’s terms, that would equate the entire population of Bulgaria times two! Heck, we barely managed to get on the line we were looking for, going in the right direction. Surprisingly, we missed a station only once and almost got on a train going in the opposite direction once. The Tokyo train stations are not what a Westerner would imagine. They are nothing like those in Paris or New York; the best way to describe them would be as huge shopping malls, with a plethora of restaurants, shops, department stores, newsstands and other miscellaneous vendors, all in one conglomerate. You can certainly get your nails done, dine out and have all your shopping needs met in these giant web-like structures.
A word of caution to fellow Westerners: trash cans are not widely available in public places throughout the country. In fact, it is very challenging to find one and they are usually attached to a vending machine and divided for recycling purposes, with small openings for bottles and cans, so nothing else can fit in. It was explained to me that the reason for this very obvious anomaly was a terrorist attack involving poisonous gas placed in a bag inside a trash can that took place at a crowded Tokyo train station in the 90s. Expect to lug your rubbish around with you all day long; for your sake I hope it isn’t anything organic.
Public bathrooms are widely available in train stations and other public spaces; however, soap and tissue paper is a rare commodity. Most Japanese carry around a small towel, usually imprinted with a favorite cartoon character for drying their hands, following a soapless rinse. I don’t know how sanitary this is but I preferred lathering on my travel size sanitizer on such occasions. Most public restrooms featured both a Western style toilet and a Japanese style squatting type toilet. However, these were a modified version of the traditional squatter you can find in Eastern Europe or China, where you squat facing away from the hole. It wasn’t until the end of the trip that I realized this, nevertheless, which means my face was often where somebody’s behind would have previously been. You live and you learn… Some older public restrooms also featured very exposed female urinals, which I understand women used back in the day. I am not quite sure how this worked but apparently they used to be able to direct their stream straight into the urinal while standing up. Now that’s what I call emancipation; who ever said women couldn’t pee standing up?
Just so I exhaust the bathroom topic completely, I will mention the so-called Sound Princess here. This is an unheard of machine, which produces flushing sounds as soon as you wave your hand in front of it. Despite the very public female urinals, Japanese women are apparently embarrassed by the sound of urination in public restrooms; therefore, they often flush while they go. This, however, is in shark dissonance with Japan’s natural resource preservation policy, so that is how the Sound Princess came along. I am told that some people still prefer actual flushing to the fake sounds produced by this machine. Go figure…
The last bathroom thought that comes to mind is the wide availability of high tech commodes in hotels and residences all over the country. These toilets are equipped with all sorts of bidet and shower functions, strength of water flow dials and seat temperature controls. I have to say I was slightly intimidated by them at first but found them to be very refreshing once I went over the drill a few times, usually resulting in major splashes.
There is something to be said about the importance of taking a bath in Japanese culture. In both hotels that we stayed at, there were bath salts provided and the tubs were extraordinarily large and deep. This nation takes its baths very seriously and so did we. It is indeed something very relaxing at the end of a hectic day spent fighting human traffic in the Tokyo metro and rushing for trains, though highly underappreciated in the West. To preserve water, families share the tub water, which is only used for soaking purposes. (You are supposed to wash yourself off outside the tub first, while making an effort to keep the tub water pristine). Luckily, in hotels we could each have our own soaking water.
After careful observation of customs and behavior, I can deduct that as a whole (forgive my generalizations and stereotyping here), the Japanese are:
- Extremely polite, professional, matter-of-factly and business-like
- Formal, strict, if not a bit stiff and robot-like
- Orderly, structured, clean and neat
- Honest, humble, hard-working and tireless
- Well-dressed, trendy, self-aware and mindful of name brands
- Well off, for the most part
- Friendly and willing to go out of their way to be of service
- Aim to please and try hard not to disappoint, avoid saying “no”
- Expect the highest quality of product and service and are able to provide the same in return
- If a bit infantile, if only for their affection for animated characters, toys and oversized cell phone charms
- Used to huge amounts of advertising everywhere and addicted to their cell phones.
Speaking of fashion, I thought I was fashion conscious until I visited Tokyo. New York and Paris can kiss Tokyo’s butt when it comes to having the earliest adopters of couture on a mass scale. I saw ensembles and outfits that bordered preposterous and that I thought were better suited for the famous Jenny/Licca dolls. There were teenagers dressed in anything from slutty Catholic school girl getups and grown-up babies with fluffy, pink one-piece concoctions and frilly bonnets all the way to Gothic Lolita street styles that can be spotted around Harajuku in large numbers. In Tokyo, anything goes and the trends are definitely ahead of their time. All in all, a deeply humbling experience for someone who thought she had style.
While we are on the topic of fashion, I should mention that I purchased my very first, authentic Louis Vuitton handbag. Although used, this bag was in impeccable condition and frankly rocks my world every time I look at it. It was a great investment and I was able to purchase it at a deep discount and at a much lower price than I could have ever found it on eBay. Needless to say, I ditched my Chinese fake as soon as I got back as it looked quite inferior next to its certified counterpart. The market for used LV bags is well established in Japan; I don’t know how but at least one in 10 women on the metro carried one and most of the time they were last season bags that would retail for thousands in the States and are even pricier in Japan. I later found out that Japan has approximately 80% of LV’s market share, which means the population spends an enormous amount of dough on these brand name carry-alls.
Other than hotels lowering their prices and people fishing in the local canal, the global recession that has certainly affected Japan as well, was not as noticeable as I thought it would be. Perhaps the lack of tourists was the biggest symptom I could witness. To my surprise, we didn’t see many Westerners at all, even in Tokyo, but the numbers certainly dwindled even more, the farther we travelled into Honshu.
Here are some highlights from the places we visited during our week-long stay. The good thing about Japan is that it isn’t that big and can be easily travelled by Shinkansen (bullet trains). Montana, with an area of 147,047 square miles, is the U.S. state closest in area to Japan (145,883 square miles).
Imperial Palace & Gardens
The palace and inner gardens were closed but we walked around the outside gardens, which were more or less like a big park in the middle of the city. Besides from a few interesting torii gates and sculptures, I didn’t find this green spot that exciting.
Although an interesting structure, this tall Eiffel Tower-esque building can be seen from many remote spots and we didn’t feel it was necessary to see it up close or to climb on top of it.
Famous for its nightlife, we visited this district at twilight and noticed how Westernized the area around the new Roppongi Hills complex was. Home of the biggest Louis Vuitton store I’ve ever seen (about the size of a typical YMCA gym), this district was infested with Westerners, Starbucks and other chain establishments. It was probably the most familiar I ever felt while in Nippon.
Famous for its gigantic red lantern, Kaminarimon (Kaminari Gate), Senso-ji Temple and Nakamise shopping street, this is an area that should never be visited on a Sunday. Without exaggeration, the whole Tokyo was on these little streets when we visited them. It was exhausting just going through them and waging incoming crowds and the jet lag certainly didn’t help. The second time we visited this area, we got rained on but it was less crowded. Certainly worth checking out for the souvenir shopping and the warm street vendor sweet sake. Though, souvenirs are not cheap in Japan; really, nothing is. Although I left China with suitcases full of “authentic” merchandise, about the only things I acquired while in Japan were a kimono, which doubles as a Halloween costume, and some inexpensive memorabilia trinkets.
Akihabara (The Electric Town)
I didn’t find this district overly spectacular but my travel companion (a self-proclaimed geek) found it necessary to peak in a few different techy stores just to see what kind of gadgets they had. Since Japan is certainly ahead of its time in many ways, including technology, there were devices we had never seen before and that looked like they were sent from the future to give us a glimpse of what’s coming.
Our hotel was in Akasaka so by virtue of proximity, we often hung out in the area at night. It is very much a business district with its bustling streets and hurried business men and women during the day and rather quiet at night (which was great for sleeping purposes). We did find a few good places to eat, including a very authentic Turkish restaurant with a belly dance performance, in which I partook. Turned out I wasn’t so bad at it so I’ve decided to pursue this interest by taking a Middle Eastern dance class.
Tokyo’s famous shopping street (the Champs Elysees of Tokyo) is what you would expect of any expensive shopping area; tons of brand name stores, from the staple Louis Vuitton to the Swarovsky crystals and the inexpensive Zara’s and H&M’s, which allow even folks like me to brag that they have shopped on Ginza. Other than the flashy windows and cars, Ginza didn’t impress all that much.
Known for its fashion-forward teenagers which dress to impress while standing on a bridge every weekend in an overly exhibitionist manner, this district doesn’t have much to offer besides shopping on the famous Omotesando and Takeshita streets. We visited it for strictly tourist purposes, like snapping a few shots with signs that said “Harajuku” and people watching. Given that most Tokyo teenagers dress in rather interesting outfits, I didn’t find Harajuku to be much more outrageous than what I had already observed all over the metropolis.
This famous store resembling a silver bullet on the outside, is the Japanese teenage girl’s paradise with its over seven stories filled with outlandish “junior slut” attire at somewhat affordable prices (still, prices I would have never paid to look this trashy). We had the privilege of walking into the store right when it opened at 9 a.m. on a week day and had to wait in a very well organized line, managed by several uniformed security guards, who directed hoards of teenage Harajuku girls waiting to get their fix. Once inside, we thought we were a part of a live circus show. The salespeople, who looked much like the customers themselves, were yelling—what I could only guess were—announcements about different sales and brands over loud speakers, creating an unimaginable cacophony of sounds, music and exclamations. The hoard of teenage fashionistas quickly made their way into Goth, skater and other outrageous street trends, taking over the merchandise like true vultures.
Aqua City Odaiba
Odaiba is a remote district along one of Tokyo’s shores which houses many skyscrapers and various architectural marvels. It is also home of the Aqua City shopping mall, which is a very family-friendly establishment with tens of restaurants, shops, a dog daycare and a spacious Toyota/Lexus showroom. We had delicious crepes here and hopped on a gigantic Ferris wheel, which provided some of Tokyo’s most amazing views, as well as a great photo op.
After Tokyo we visited and stayed in Osaka for a few days. Osaka is a smaller, yet still a very much metropolitan, well-developed and industrialized city. The feel was similar to Tokyo and the train stations no less confusing. Known as the culinary center of Nippon, Osaka is good for experiencing different-tasting foods, such as okonomiyaki (pan-friend batter cake), takoyaki (octopus dumplings), udon (noodle soup), and other traditional Japanese treats. You can taste many of these in restaurants along the famous Dotonbori street, which was once a pleasure district. There was quite a bit of shopping available on this street and it was crowded until the wee hours of the night.
Another landmark worth visiting in Osaka is the Ancient Osaka Castle, located in the middle of a spread-out park-like space. Although the castle was demolished during one of the wars and later rebuilt, it is still a spectacular architectural gem and offers some great views of the city from the top floor observation terrace, as well as a glimpse into Japan’s history throughout the ages in the multi-level museum inside.
On several day trips we took while stationed in Osaka (literally, our hotel was in the super busy Osaka train station), we visited several notable destinations, including the old capitals Kyoto and Nara, Hiroshima and Miyajima Island. Here is a rundown of some of the cool places we visited on these day trips.
We didn’t spend nearly enough time in this city, which was once the capital of Nippon. It was considered a prime candidate for the A-bomb in 1945, but it was saved due to some sentimental circumstances. The Secretary of War (what kind of a position is this anyways?) at the time, Henry L. Stimson had admired Kyoto since his honeymoon there decades earlier. I can see why. This city is on water, like most Japanese cities but it has an unprecedented charm. The modern downtown, shopping streets and high rises mix with old temples and shrines in an inexplicable fusion of ancient and new. We walked along the Path of Philosophy at night, which is a 40-minute walk along a tiny river path, connecting several of Kyoto’s holy places. It was the most quiet and serene walk I have ever been on. We walked through some of Kyoto’s oldest, traditional neighborhoods filled with quaint, little family craft shops which have persisted throughout the ages. The windows of many of these tiny, doll-like houses were lit but there wasn’t a sound coming from inside of them. It was as if Kyoto had been frozen in time, much like a scene in the Midgewater Marshes from The Lord of the Rings. Some of the sighs accessible via the path include the Honen-in, Ginkaku-ji, Nanzen-ji and Eikan-do Buddhist temples and the Ootoyo-jinja and Nyakuouji-jina Shinto shrines.
Another ancient Japanese capital, this city seems to have remained still over the years. With its very rural feel, Nara features some very interesting old districts, a five-story pagoda, the Todai-ji temple, featuring the world’s largest wooden building as its prayer hall and a colossal bronze Buddha Vairocana, and last but not least more deer than people. The deer we saw were aggressive, although de-antlered and had an affinity for McDonald’s (“Makku” in Japanese) fries. We witnessed a child carrying a happy meal get attacked by a flock of ruthless deer, resulting in the child running away while surrendering his lunch to the crazy, likely rabies-infested four-leggeds.
Everyone knows the story of Hiroshima but until you see the A-bomb dome, memorials and museum, you don’t know Hiroshima. Although today Hiroshima is a modern city with few reminders of the events of 1945, the area around the river, known as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial park, is still spooky and ghostly. There was a stork on top of the A-bomb when we were there, which looked like a vulture that sensed blood and came to collect. The National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims was a remarkable tribute to those who lost their lives to the war. I sat in The Hall of Remembrance, looking at the 140,000 tiles that make up a 360-degree panorama of the destroyed Hiroshima, trying to fathom how it was possible that each tile represented a human life lost during this tragedy.
There were also some heart-breaking narratives of A-bomb witnesses on the ground level that I could have listened to for hours. The Peace Memorial Museum further cemented my understanding of what an inexplicable event the drop of the A-bomb was in the history of humanity and my incomprehension of how anyone could have possibly justified it in their minds. Not that there is anything in war that makes sense but wiping out hundreds of thousands of civilians with an effortless drop of a device from a plane, while filming the aftermath with another plane seems like an atrocity of extraordinary proportions. I left Hiroshima in tears. Japan’s no war policy today is a clear testament to the fact that they have learnt their lesson but has America?
Home of the Itsukushima Shrine, the floating torii and deer, more blood-thirsty than those in Nara, this place is definitely worth the 25-minute local train (read: not Shinkansen) ride from Osaka. We took the ferry from the mainland and were able to take some amazing shots of the torii while on riding the ferry. To me, this red torii is the epitome of Japan. The island itself has a very rural feel to it and it seemed like it had seen livelier days. Most of the countless souvenir shops were empty and the hotels seemed uninhabited. Nevertheless, admiring the torii up close and walking through the Senjō-kaku Temple, which has a spectacular five-story red pagoda (Goju-no-to Pagoda) next to it made the trip worthwhile. There is also a ropeway on the island and the notable Itrukushima Shrine, which is one of the few holy places that charge an entrance fee in Japan. The area leading up to the ropeway station is mountainous, filled with magical forests, bridges and picnic areas and would have been excellent for a hike, if it wasn’t for my short skirt and Puss-in-boots-like, well, boots.
While on Miyajima, we tasted the famous momiji-manjyu treats (small leaf-shaped cakes filled with sweet bean paste), which I took quite the liking to. We watched them being made in one of the storefronts along the shore in special molds, then took a box perfectly wrapped in several layers (like everything you buy in Japan) back with us.
Between Kyoto, Nara and Hiroshima, we racked up several UNESCO World Heritage Sites under our belts. If you don’t go anywhere else in Japan, visiting these three would be worth your while.
Looking back on this trip, it was certainly the experience of a lifetime. I dare to say I have never seen anything so different from everything else. Despite what I think was a remarkable effort of deciphering maps in Japanese, next time I visit this country will be with a Japanese-speaking friend or guide. Things I am saving for that time are participating in a traditional tea ceremony, seeing more of Kyoto, visiting some of Japan’s remarkable Zen gardens, staying at a traditional Japanese hotel, meeting a geisha (there are only about 2,000 of them left today), learning more about the samurai, taking in the cherry blossom season, visiting Okinawa, soaking in onsen (hot springs) and climbing Fuji-san (Mount Fuji). I better start saving for my next Nippon adventure.