HouseOfCadillacs recently visited Japan and I thought it would be fun to ask him about his experience. Thanks, HouseOfCadillacs!
I had never been to Asia before so I figured that Japan would be a good country for the first trip, plus two of my close friends had been there on business trips and highly recommended it.
What was your itinerary?
The trip started with 5 days in Tokyo followed by a Shinkansen ride (177 mph!) to Kyoto where we stayed for 4 days and then back to Tokyo for the last two days. We did a day trip to Nara while we were in Kyoto.
What were your expectations before you went? Did they come true?
My expectations were that it would be a very modern, high-tech country with lots and lots of people crowded together and that getting around on our own was not going to be a problem. This was all based on my extensive research (I don’t like to go on organized tours, prefer to explore on my own) before the trip and what I gathered from my friend’s first hand experiences.
I’d say most of my expectations were pretty spot on but there were also some surprises. Probably the real positive surprise was that the crowded streets and subways did not intimidate me at all due to the Japanese being so friendly and organized. Walking down a busy street in Shinjuku during rush hour was memorable in terms of how everybody knew intuitively where to walk and how to cross without holding anybody up.
What also left a big impression on me is how clean and safe it is, especially in a huge metropolitan area like Tokyo. At no point did I ever feel worried about my personal safety even at night. On many occasions I saw people leaving their wallet/cellphone/purse on a table while they went to the restroom, something I don’t think I would ever do. I think the closest in safety would be Oslo, Norway, which I visited last year.
The biggest surprise was probably the weather. I’d read that fall is a good time to go to Japan, but it was still very hot and humid, with quite a bit of rain in the forecast. Apparently, the summer in Japan stretches all the way to the end of September and into October. Fall for them would seem to start at the end of October and into November based on a bulletin board we saw at the JR travel office in Shinjuku. It showed a map of Japan with the trees turning color and predictions for when the color would be at peak. They were all for about three or four weeks later.
It was also surprising that in a city as large and cosmopolitan as Tokyo so few people really speak English. It made things like trying to order in a restaurant more challenging. You kind of had to roll the dice with the picture menu, which does not tell the whole story (yakitori chicken gizzards anyone?) and the often hilarious English translations, which may or may not actually reflect what you will get on your plate. Anybody want some “weak coffee”?
As someone from Austria and now living in the U.S., what did you think of the Japanese culture?
Fascinating, homogenous like Austria in the 70s/80s when I grew up (conforming to a set of norms), willing to follow the rules even unwritten ones. Japan feels like an extreme example of this even to this day while Austria like many other European countries has definitely changed to more diverse societies. Very formal even from an Austrian point of view. Notable lack of ethnic diversity.
What did you enjoy the most? What was disappointing?
Well, I have to admit the pastries won me right over on the first day. The cleanliness and friendliness, peacefulness on the street and on the metro (the default mode is to be quiet vs. the default mode in the US is to talk). Of course I loved the Shinkansen!
The weather, as already mentioned, was a bit of a surprise because it made being out running around all day kind of difficult. About the third or fourth day we figured out that we needed to duck into someplace air conditioned on a regular basis to cool off for the next wave of sightseeing.
Also, in the culinary district, the fake food, which we’d thought would make cool souvenirs, turned out to be very expensive. A fake bowl of tempura udon was about $350. The fake food in Japan is like an art form.
What was the most unusual thing you saw/experienced?
Without question the Hedgehog Cafe in Tokyo. I guess because people live in such small spaces and work such long hours in the city having a pet is out of the question for most of them. This has given rise to a truly unusual variety of animal cafes where you can pay by the hour or half hour to be around and pet and hold all different types of animals ranging from bunnies, cats, chinchillas, owls, snakes, and of course the most famous of all, hedgehogs (which are cute for about 30 minutes until they either start pissing and shitting all over the place or curl into a ball and poof out their little quills so you can’t play with them any more).
The second most unusual thing was the variety of toilets, something for every taste and style. Rustic Asian, i.e. a hole in the floor, to the basic western style “sit on the throne,” to the fully automatic computerized models with built in butt washer and drier that play music for privacy. Of course, the Japanese love instructions and there were explicit “how tos” with pictographs included to explain how to properly use each type.
Any great meals?
My Austrian heritage will show in this answer. Something that I didn’t read about in my research was that sweets and desserts are so popular in Japan. I was truly impressed with the number of bakeries and patisseries and the multitude of offerings. I had no idea that the afternoon coffee & cake tradition, that I’m used to from Austria, is so popular in Japan. I ate many great cakes but what really stuck in my mind was a curry flavored baguette that had just the right hint of curry seasoning. Also loved the Hokkaido Sweet Corn Mochis.
Did you see any cars there that fascinated you?
Of course I was looking forward to seeing a Toyota Century in real life and it did not disappoint. Unfortunately the test drive track at Toyota MegaWeb in Tokyo was closed on the day of my visit, sure would have loved to drive one. While there I took a closer look at the Toyota Crown Majesta, which I kept seeing everywhere. I love the styling but the interior is a little disappointing, at least if one is used to Phaeton interiors. Also love all those aggressive looking Minivans like the Toyota Alphard which has the front end of a Lexus sedan on steroids. Then there are all those cute Kei cars with funny names, like the Suzuki Hustler!
How would you describe Japan to someone who has never been there?
Peaceful, clean, safe, organized, ZEN. A harmonious blend of ancient and modern.
Why do you love to travel?
I love to see new places and experience other cultures, gives me a new perspective on home both the positives and negatives (the BART ride home from SFO was a stark contrast to the train ride to Tokyo to Tokyo-Narita). I also enjoy architecture and Tokyo certainly did deliver on both ancient and modern buildings.