Until about 2 years ago, Japan had not really been high on my bucket list. Yes, it sounded intriguing and different, but how much of high-tech, modern cities could one actually take? Milos changed that. He had always wanted to see Japan - for the mix of modernity and traditions, cities and nature, the possibility to be completely lost (in translation and otherwise). After reading more about Japan, I had to agree. It would be quite a different travel experience.
Our itinerary was ambitious. Part of me felt that we may need a vacation from our vacation, but on the other hand, we seem to like it that way. We wanted to go, see, do as much as possible. You can see the map below, but for a quick recap the "tour" included: Tokyo - Yudanaka (close to Nagano) - skiing at Shiga Kogen (some runs were used for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics) - Tsumago and Magome (and hiking an 8-km portion of what used to be the old trading route between Kyoto and Tokyo back in the day) - Kobe - Osaka (incl. sumo tournament) - Koyasan (center of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism) - Kyoto - Hiroshima - Miyajima (island off the coast of Hiroshima) - Kyoto - Nara - Tokyo. (Phew!) It sounds crazy but actually we never felt super rushed. Japan has probably the most efficient train system on the planet (or at least from the parts of the planet that I have visited). They all run on schedule to the second; they are super fast (we could take most bullet trains with our Japan Rail Pass), spacious and clean. It was actually pretty hard to return to Economy class on our flight back. I could cover each place we visited at length, but that would take way too long (and also probably put you to sleep.) But I will note the things that stood out for me the most from the whole trip.
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Stepping out into Narita airport, I felt like I could have been anywhere in the world. Airports are generic like that. But as soon as we got onto the train to Tokyo and then into Tokyo itself, differences became immediately apparent. Aside from the obvious (i.e., signs in Japanese everywhere), we also noticed that everything was super clean; there wasn't a single piece of garbage to be seen anywhere. Which was somewhat paradoxical, given that we also immediately noticed a lack of trash cans in public spaces. (We still haven't figured that one out. We were told this was for security reasons; yet, they have storage lockers at all train stations, which would seem to pose a bigger threat if we are talking about someone potentially planting a bomb. Others told us that the Japanese carry their trash with them until they get home. But nothing was confirmed.)
The Japanese take great care in making sure you are given all the information you could possibly need (and this is done not exclusively for tourists' sake, although we did notice a large number of "Thank you" signs from the official Japanese Tourism Agency). Overhead monitors in trains list not only the next station stop and the time it will take to reach it, but also on which side the doors will open, and where the nearest station stairs/escalator/elevator are located relative to the train car you are in. Over the two weeks, we noticed this many times, which I interpreted this way - they don't want you to feel any confusion or frustration. If you look lost, someone will immediately approach you to help you out (even if they speak little English); if you are asking for directions, they will go out of their way to show you the way (one woman stepped out from her shop into a snow blizzard in only her t-shirt in order to point us in the direction of our guesthouse). Which leads me to perhaps the biggest impression our trip left on me: how helpful and genuinely friendly Japanese people are. From the lady I mentioned above, to a Japanese photographer who gave us a ride back into town (and even offered to drive us on to our next destination), to a man who operates a rest-house in the middle of the hiking trail between two small towns on the old trading route between Tokyo and Kyoto who provides free tea and pickles to all hikers and maintains a personal log of hikers' home countries as a hobby, to the staff of all hotels/hostels/guesthouses we stayed in... the list goes on and on. Now, I have heard from foreigners living in Japan that it is hard to make friends or, at least, it can take a long time. But I guess when it comes to interactions with strangers, they seemed quite open and helpful.
From what we saw, Japanese people lived up to the stereotype of following rules and not straying from the norm (and the crowd). We didn't see a single person jay-walk or cross the street at a red light - even with no cars around. When waiting for the subway, everyone lines up at indicated spots where the doors open. There is no pushing/rushing to get into the train; they let passengers step out first, before attempting to enter. (What a difference from NYC!) Although they were less formal towards foreigners, the formalities during interactions between locals (and I am not referring to friends or family members) are interesting to observe - bowing at the beginning and end of the conversation, formal language (we were told) - which apparently varies in formality based on who you are speaking with, cautious initial approach. I read somewhere that the language can be very indirect, i.e., requests are made in a very round-about way as being direct is considered impolite (obviously, we could not catch this ourselves given our non-existent Japanese language skills, but it makes a lot of sense to me, given everything I have seen/read). That is I guess why some translations of signs into English sound so indirect and awkward - most are literal translations from the Japanese. They are also taught to be considerate of others: signs and announcements on the subway/train tell you to silence your phone and if you must take a call (this applies to train only), to do so in the vestibule outside the train car. Near priority seating areas (for the elderly, disabled, pregnant women, etc.) phones must be completely turned off. I am not sure if everyone complies with this latter rule, but they definitely do with the former - we never heard a beep or ringtone.
What surprised me is that there were actually quite a few signs in English (or at least using the Latin alphabet) and even announcements in English on the trains, subways (in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka) and some buses. I had expected it to be a lot more difficult for us to get around, but we didn't have too many "lost in translation" moments. (And as a side note, that scene from the movie when the director's long rant is translated with one short phrase into English could actually represent reality. We found announcements in Japanese - on the plane or train, for example - to take much longer than the English versions. I guess, they just have a long-winded way of saying things. Anyway, back to what I was saying before.) Even if all signs were in Japanese at subway stations for example, you could always read the subway line maps, since all stations are numbered using a system of one letter and a one- to two-digit number (e.g., R2, T15). The only times when we felt completely lost was when we first arrived in Tokyo and stepped out into the bustle of Shinjuku Station, with streams of people flowing in all directions. There were signs in English to get us to the exit, but beyond that we were completely clueless. Street names were impossible to read; we had the hotel address, but had no idea where we were in order to be able to tell from our map in which direction we would have to go. So, we asked a station police officer. Our first of many helpers along the way. He spoke no English really but he quickly pulled out a map that he could read, read the name of the hotel we gave him, checked the map, and then pointed us in the general direction.The second time was when we arrived in Yudanaka in a snow storm and it was already dark. Again, we had a map but could not tell which street we had to take from the train station - the shop lady I already mentioned above showed us the way.
Although they make quite a few concessions when it comes to tourists (like skipping the formalities, not demanding that you take your shoes off in all temples), there are some instances in which the Japanese draw the line. Several of the Buddhist temples we visited (although not all) did not allow photographs inside the temple or of the Buddhas. It was somewhat refreshing to see that there are limits to commercialism. Another thing we noticed was that sometimes several people were doing a job that could easily have been done by one person or even a sign, such as directing people from a temple parking lot to the entrance. Or that they had people working in places where you normally would not have anyone in other countries, such as on the sidewalk directly in front of a parking garage exit - to let pedestrians know when a car is exiting the garage and to let the driver know when it is safe for her to continue on her way out. Sometimes there were even two people doing this job. Now we have an idea of why unemployment is so low.
I can spend ages talking about the food alone - everything was so delicious - from soba/ramen/udon noodles, to all sorts of sea food (raw, smoked, cooked in a variety of ways), to delicious beef in the form of shabu shabu and sukiyaki, to okonomiyaki. I felt like we spent a good chunk of our time simply eating. We had plenty of traditional dinners and breakfasts, where the presentation mattered as much as what was on the plates. We would be presented with a platter of different-sized and shaped plates and bowls, each holding something different, but it always included at least the following in one form or another: soup, sticky white rice, seaweed, fish, tofu, pickles, and some vegetables. I learned that miso soup is primarily a breakfast soup. I am not a big tofu person, but I must say that I had some delicious tofu in Japan. The best was probably what we were served in the Buddhist temple we stayed in in Koyasan - part of their traditional Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. There are also millions of desserts to choose from - Kit Kat alone has a dozen flavors, among them green tea, wasabi, red bean, strawberry, and seasonal cherry blossom. (It is true - the Japanese are obsessed with their cherry blossoms! They even follow what is going on with those trees they gifted to the US that draw the crowds in DC.)
And a few final notes on the brighter side. From our experience, the Japanese are quite curious about foreigners. We had people stop us several times to ask where we are from. This included a lady at Osaka train station who upon hearing that we are from "Bulgaria and Serbia" replied "Oh, I'm so happy". And while we heard stories of waiters and shop assistants disappearing mysteriously upon realizing they might be faced with a foreign language situation with a tourist, we found quite a few people who were eager to practice what English they knew (even some who spoke very little English).
And finally, I had a really hard time understanding young Japanese women's fashion sense. It is hard to describe, but to me it often looked like a bad mixing and matching of styles, colors, and season appropriateness. Most wear high heels, many wear super short skirts (even in winter and often just bare-legged, although it definitely was not warm), and I noticed that very few wore jackets/coats of any kind. (I definitely felt the need for my jacket the whole time we were there; temperatures varied between 8 and 15 degrees C). The knee-high socks are definitely a hit, as are ankle-high socks with lace ruffle. I was pretty amazed by many of the outfits.
In the end, that's one of the things I love most about traveling - you get to see things that surprise, shock or please you, and you always learn something new. Daydreaming of the next trip already...