Japan: Book it or Bust

I have to admit that traveling to Asia hasn’t always been on my list, but something in the last couple of years triggered my desired to hop around and experience the culture there. I probably can thank Anthony Bourdaine for that, as he is pretty obsessed with Asian countries and always seems to uncover the most unique things at each of his stops.

What I loved about Japan is how different their customs and traditions are. There were several things that I noticed during my time there that would always make stop and stare inquisitively because it’s just not something I’d see in the states.

What I loved:

The People.

I’ve traveled to many countries where as an American I seem to get treated differently (poorly) because of political relations or they just frown upon our culture. I can’t say that I haven’t pretended to be Canadian (who can hate a Canadian??) or even German ;)

I never once felt like someone had ill feelings toward me, even though I stuck out like a sore thumb with my blonde hair and was several inches taller than most. Despite the severe language barrier, shop owners, restaurant servers and metro staff among others were so genuinely kind and were always happy to help us out in a pinch.

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One thing that worked in our favor was utilizing a language translate app where you can select your languages and speak into the phone and it will not only write out, but also speak your phrase, translated, to the other party. This was a LIFE saver and made communication so much easier!

The other perk that made our experience a bit smoother than normal is we chose to stay with a home host through couch surfing. He graciously offered up some bedding on his floor and the three of us shared his tiny room, all as part of a cultural exchange. He had the time to show us around the city one day and even went as far as chauffeuring us back to the airport for our departure. Kazushi is studying International Communications, so he was very interested in learning about us and spent time with us when possible.

If you’re interested in learning more about Couch Surfing and how the program works, check out this YouTube video created by my husband, Andrew, on his channel The Backpackers Budget.

Forget spending half your travel budget on a place to stay! Couch Surfing offers a unique cultural exchange, and an opportunity to live like a local. www.couchsurfing.com https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qRJB-rW5mjw

The Food.

Oh sweet Lord. It’s a good thing we left after a few days because I was absolutely loving the food culture in Japan! Sushi is among one of my favorites and the fish is so incredibly fresh in Tokyo. In fact, it’s home to the world’s LARGEST fish market! Coming from Seattle where we have Pike Place Market, I’m not easily impressed (I mean, we have flying fish…how do you top that?!) but this was pretty spectacular and the food was so beautifully crafted and hard to beat.

I also had my first bowl of REAL udon ramen…as in NOT the stuff from a cup where you put hot water in it. It was ridiculous. Everything was so fresh and I know for a fact it was because you can watch them cook your meal right in front of you!

Growing up, I was trained to properly use my fork and knife and unfortunately those fine tuned skills really didn’t come in handy in Tokyo, whatsoever. Word to the wise…practice using chopsticks before you get to Japan (or any Asian country for that matter) because that’s all you will have to eat your food with!

Funny enough, I actually learned how to use chopsticks from two of the most adorable Chinese grannies when I was little. We were visiting China Town in San Francisco and I still remember vividly them giggling about my form and coming over to my table to show me how it’s done.

Well, I had déjà vu all over again because when we were eating our sushi at a little, tiny 4 person stall an adorable aged couple sat down next to us and the grandma was CLEARLY laughing at me as I was attempting to dunk my sashimi in the soy sauce. I mean, I’m no expert but lets just say the food was {mostly} making it into my mouth!! She grabbed a pair of chopsticks and grabbed my hand, showing me the finger motions on how to do it. Apparently, I never got it right ;)

One of my FAVORITE parts about the food scene is they are obsessed with sweets!! There is candy and beautiful hand made sweets around every corner and it was so difficult for me to pass anything without trying. They had beautiful rice cookies, these cute little chocolate bean filled waffle things that were made from a little press, sweet dumplings, ice cream everywhere you looked, candies, crepes galore… you name it!

The other funny thing that was different on the food scene was the fact that they had vending machines EVERYWHERE! I swear like every street block was yet another vending machine with a variety of options…and when I say options, I mean they have every kind of drink you can think of. Cold coffees, energy drinks, several types of bottled teas, sodas, flavored waters. Often times, I would want to try something new but it was really a guessing game and judgment on how the bottle looks since I couldn’t read the labels!

The specialty beer scene has started to pop up everywhere in Japan and it’s growing at an astonishing rate. We had our “goodbye beers” at home before we left for our trip, unsure we’d be able to find anything other than a piss pilsner (sorry, I just really don’t like them!) We were able to find microbrews and imported beer almost everywhere and were very impressed!! We even came across the most beautiful brewery I’ve every been to, and that’s saying a lot. Spring Valley Brewery offered a high end pub fair in a gorgeous, modern building with tasty beers to boot. Muti-millions must have been put into this thing. I was impressed.

 

The Culture.

SO many things about this country were interesting and surprising to me. Staying with our couch surfer was so helpful because when I had questions about why something was a certain way, he could explain that to us.

-FASHION-

I knew that Tokyo had a big fashion scene but HOLY MOLY I wasn’t expecting this! Keeping in mind it was something like 90 degrees and very humid, one would think you would dress according to that weather…my mind says shorts, tanks, moisture wicking materials, hair in a top bun, etc. Not for the women in Tokyo. They were constantly dressed to the nines wearing heals all around town, beautiful skirts, dresses & sweaters (yes, sweaters), their makeup was flawless and hair styled.

Not to mention there is a serious love for designer handbags. It put my petit Marc Jacobs cross body bag to shame. Everyone had a designer handbag, and I mean men too! Chanel, Louis Vuitton, YSL, Tory Burch were among the favorites…everyone downtown had designer everything.

It seemed as though image is very important to their culture (in the city mostly.) What I thought was really interesting was how the women are value light skin. No matter how hot it was, I’d see women completely covered with these little arm sleeves so they wouldn’t damage their skin. I kid you not I saw some of the most beautiful, flawless, porcelain skin of my life…no wonder they didn’t have any wrinkles! This was just so amazing to me because in the states it’s quite the opposite and being tan is more desirable.

-TOILETS-

This might sound strange, but I was REALLY impressed with their toilets!!! I called them “smart” toilets because they had all different functions and buttons to push. If you get pee shy, you can push a button that makes a flushing sounds so you can do your business without anyone hearing you. There were also two different kinds of bidets and some of the toilet lids would automatically pop up and close when you walked in and out, which in my opinion solves a life long battle between men and women!

-MONEY-

One absolutely shocking issue that we had in Tokyo, which caught us off guard, is it is so incredibly difficult to find places that accept visa. Most shops, restaurants and ATMS don’t take VISA!!! It’s totally bizarre and landed us in a few tricky situations when we were almost stranded at a metro stop because we couldn’t buy our tickets with our visa, and we couldn’t use our visa in the ATM to get cash to buy our tickets… hmmmm. So, if you do travel to Tokyo, just because it’s a massive city and world hub doesn’t mean you can use your card all the time! Plan on travelling with lots of cash so you don’t get stuck

-METRO-

Before we got to Tokyo we read many complaints from previous travelers that the metro was hard to navigate. They must have also had too much sake because in our opinion is was pretty dang convenient! The ONLY thing that I can see confusing is the fact that there are multiple companies that own certain parts of the metro lines – sometimes one terminal can have two or three separately owned lines, meaning you have to exit one “area” and re-enter in another part of the station. To stay on top of this, just make sure you know which “line company” you’re riding with and follow the signs. Most stations have English names on the maps as well. What’s great about the metro system is it’s HUGE and it will take you virtually anywhere in the surrounding areas! We didn’t take a taxi once.

The one thing that SAVED us in navigating was our Google. Google has a train direction feature so you can map out your journey and it will literally tell you which lines you need to take, how long/how many stops it will be and how much it will cost. Definitely consider getting T-Mobile or an international data plan with you carrier so you can use this function!

Overall, we absolutely adored our time in Tokyo and would do it again in a heart beat.

The verdict....Tokyo: BOOK IT!

Vanessa and I just spent four days logging a lot of miles in this massive city! In total we spent about $500, including accommodations, food, transportation and entertainment.