What did I really know about Japan?
So my expectation of Japan was that I would feel like an alien, surrounded by mean workaholics! What I actually found was quite different, and actually a lot more familiar than I expected.
Japan with the Thais
Now, it’s worth remembering that my immediate reference point is my life Thailand. I only understand around half of what’s going on almost every day. There’s a scene in ‘Lost in Translation’ where Bill Murray is filming the commercial for Suntory whiskey. The director gives a lengthy explanation in Japanese only to have the translator covert this to three words of English. This is quite an accurate representation of my day to day existence in Thailand.
And being used to that experience brings with it a relaxed, ‘go with the flow’ kind of attitude when faced with the same situation in a new country. As the first four days of our trip were on a Thai tour it was like a double whammy of cultural and linguistic oblivion.
We spent day one exploring Shirakawa-go and Takayama in the Shogawa River Valley, a mountainous region in central Japan. What captures your eye immediately are the strikingly vibrant autumn colours of the leaves on the trees. Maybe it was just the contrast with Thailand where this season does not exist, but it was incredibly captivating.
Another Thailand contrast was the cool, fresh air. I immediately felt my cheeks getting rosy and a sense of vitality returning to my body.
Nothing can happen without food!
We spent our first night in Matsumoto and after a tasty Shabu dinner, we headed to the local Irish pub. We set off as a group but a few of our Thai friends were immediately distracted by what Family Mart had to offer. There must have been something spectacular in Family Mart as an hour past before anyone turned up at the pub!
Bearing in mind that we’d all just had dinner together and had stuffed our faces with snacks all day, the amount of crappy snack food that everyone insisted on ordering was remarkable! I don’t think Thais can do anything without eating!
Now, where is that mountain?
The next few days continued in this way, getting on the bus to go who knows where, listening to tour guide speak in Thai for hours but assuming he didn’t say anything important, going to a restaurant, getting back on the bus and then going somewhere else to explore. All in all quite a simple itinerary and definitely focused on just absorbing our surroundings! Unfortunately, we spent one day looking at Mt Fuji from different angles but it was so overcast it was invisible. There were a few other things to do, buy and eat, but it probably wasn’t quite as interesting as it could have been. Fortunately, we were able to see the mountain from the Shinkansen later in the week and it was awesome!
Leaving the Thais…
On day 4 we abandoned the Thai tour and set off on our own! It was quite a weird feeling to leave the security of being in the Thai group to travel across Japan alone. A culture we still didn’t really know anything about and a language we definitely didn’t speak!
Throughout our trip, I found myself constantly comparing Japan to Thailand. Maybe I’m ignorant in assuming that Asian countries might have similarities? This week someone on Twitter got lynched for saying that they were surprised that Kuala Lumpur was different from Bangkok! However, when you’ve lived in one culture for some time it’s difficult not to make immediate comparisons when you visit another country. So I apologize in advance that I found myself surprised at how different Japan was from Thailand.
Trains, buses, and automobiles…
Our first challenge was navigating the Shinkansen which really was no issue. Very clear signs on where to go, everything in English and Japanese, clear announcements… just perfect. And even on the train, there is actually enough space for your luggage and plenty of legroom. In fact, all public transport we experienced in Japan – bus, JR train, local train, metro was amazing! A bit different from the old buses in Bangkok belching out toxic fumes and barely stopping to let people off!
And getting a taxi was also a surprisingly hassle-free experience. I had been concerned about our ability to communicate our destination effectively but thanks to the Booking.com app, we were able to show the driver our hotel address in Japanese and this was enough. The taxi drivers were all dressed in a chauffeur style uniform and lacked the inexplicable fidgeting that seems to afflict most Thai taxi drivers.
Feeling moved in Hiroshima
In Hiroshima, we visited the Peace Memorial Park, containing memorials for the atomic bomb. There were various inscriptions around the park and the language used was incredibly strong and powerful.
The most moving part of the day was at the Children’s Peace Memorial. This statue commemorates all children who died as a result of the atomic bomb, but specifically, one girl called Sadako Sasaki. She was two years old when the bomb hit and died ten years later as a result of radiation-induced leukemia. Before her death, she attempted to fold 1000 origami cranes to be granted one wish. Her wish was World Peace. She didn’t quite manage it but now children bring origami cranes as an offering to the memorial.
Whilst we were there we saw a group of school children on a day trip with their teachers. They stood together in front of the memorial and recited some sort of mantra. Each of them said their bit, with no apparent coordination from their teachers. They then all sang a beautiful song together where the lyrics are all about praying for world peace.
Feeling ‘zen’ in Kyoto
A few days later in Kyoto we told our guide about our experience in Hiroshima. She was so pleased that school children were still visiting the memorial and performing this ritual.
Other than the Peace Memorial Park which was fairly busy with tourists, and also the random Ramen festival we stumbled upon, Hiroshima was a fairly quiet city. Kyoto had a lot more going for it in terms of bars, restaurants and food markets. We unwittingly booked ourselves into a hotel just down the road from Nishiki Food Market which was nice to wander through, gawping at weird looking food! We did enjoy a nice matcha ice cream crepe there and Chris helped the lady that owned that particular shop put up a new shop sign. For the first time on our trip his superior height was an advantage and not a source of head injury.
We took a one day tour of North West Kyoto, taking in a bamboo forest, Ryoan-ji rock garden, the Golden Pavillion and Nijo castle. For lunch we had Omurice. This is something I’ve been making quite a dodgy version of in Thailand after seeing a video on Instagram. We traveled by a combination of trains, buses and walking which really added to the whole experience. Our guide Yuri was around the same age as us, very chatty but very knowledgeable so for the first time we got an insight into Japanese history and culture. We probably would have got some of this information from our Thai tour guide who talked a lot but we just didn’t understand!
Trying to be ‘hipster’
We attempted to be ‘hipster’ in Kyoto and found a cool, katsu curry restaurant. It only opened for 3 hours and could only seat 10 people so we had to wait in line for 45 minutes before we could get in. The katsu curry was delicious though so worth the wait.
The final leg of our trip was a few days in Tokyo. We’d actually already been to Tokyo on the Thai tour. We spent the night in Shinjuku where Chris became the world champion of darts against a Japanese bartender. But Tokyo is huge so you can stay in different areas and feel like you are in completely different cities.
Taking in Tokyo
This time we were staying in the central and pretty upmarket area of Ginza. We made no real plans for Tokyo and instead decided to follow recommendations that we picked up along the way. Other than temples and shrines, I don’t think there are actually a lot of things to do in Tokyo. I think it’s more of a city just to ‘be’ in, walking around, taking in the atmosphere, stopping for lunch, having a coffee, people watching. So that’s pretty much what we did.
We took in the main sites – the Imperial Palace, the Asahi Tower, the Shibuya crossing and the Meiji Shrine. Here we befriended some Japanese students who wanted to practice their English by giving us a private tour. We also hung out in a cool area called Shimokitazawa which is full of vintage shops and coffee houses. Obviously, we were completely out of place but we soaked up the atmosphere anyway!
Fashion seemed to be a big thing in Japan, Tokyo especially. Everyone wore the most amazing clothes. Everyone looked like they’d stepped out of a magazine in their elegant Autumn apparel.
Order or chaos?
Since living abroad, I not only find myself comparing all countries to Thailand in general, I also seem to consider what it would be like to live in those countries. Obviously, when you’re on holiday everything probably seems rosier than it really is, but at the time I felt like I could totally see myself living in Japan!
But at the same time as thinking everything was so user-friendly, I also felt a bit bored. Getting from A to B was just too easy. In Thailand, I build in extra time because I will probably get lost. Or I wait forever to cross a road because the pedestrian crossing is only for show and I still have to just walk out into the traffic.
In Japan, the pavements were flat and even. There were no motorcycles hurtling towards me insisting I get out of their way. People were riding pushbikes on the pavement but were able to easily avoid pedestrians. At no point in my trip to Japan did I feel there was a risk of dying!
I spent the whole trip reflecting on how much I despised the chaos of Thailand but ultimately, I found myself missing it. On some level anyway.