I have just returned from a beautiful trip to Japan where I got to visit my brother with two of my best friends, Megan and Renee. We stayed in three different cities—Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka and did a few side trips to more rural areas as well. Before arriving in Japan, I had this idea in my mind of what Japan would be like from various media sources…the temples, food, people, architecture…but as I was telling my brother on our first night in Tokyo, Japan FAR exceeded my expectations in every way.
What’s That Smell?
I vividly remember meeting Ezra outside an Excelsior café after getting off the bus from Narita airport and smelling a fresh, clean, slightly soapy scent. At first I thought it was a new cologne of Ezra’s, but then I realized that it smelled like that everywhere. One of my favorite things about Japan was how clean and polished everything was: the streets, the buildings, the public transportation, the toilets, and the people. They value tidiness so much that they purposely don’t have trash cans in public spaces so that there isn’t garbage outside. I don’t think this idea would work in an American city like L.A., crap would be everywhere, but man does it work well in Japan. Another cool thing under the cleanliness theme is their bidet toilets. They are everywhere, even at a bathroom at the top of a mountain. I was really excited to try it, but we stayed in hostels and I didn’t feel comfortable using it since we had shared bathrooms. However, my brother tells me that the bidet’s are absolutely life-changing so you should try it if you go to Japan.
Fashion and Independence
The people in Japan are super stylish and I was entertained just by staring at people on the metro because of how sleek and elegantly they dress. One cultural aspect that Ezra shared with us is that it is normal for children as young as six take public transportation and walk around the city by themselves. While Japan is a more community-minded culture compared to the U.S., they highly value independence and this shines through in letting their kids navigate by themselves. The students wear uniforms and little children on field trips wear adorable colored caps to show that they’re part of a school group. A big difference is that Japan is also a very safe place and I felt secure and respected by people the entire trip.
Another cool thing is that there are public restrooms in most places, so you don’t have to slip into a restaurant bathroom or pay to pee, like if you were in Europe. Despite Japan’s many cutting-edge qualities, one of the darker sides of their country is their intense working culture. Apparently its pretty normal to put in a 60-hour work week but I have no personal experience in the matter.
Never have I ever eaten at a 7-Eleven in the U.S. and nor do I plan to anytime in the future, but the food quality of 7-Eleven’s in Japan is pretty darn good. We would stop in for fruit, a warm dumpling, cute Japanese snacks, or onigiri (triangle-shaped rice/seaweed sandwiches). These stores are virtually around every corner so you never have to worry about hunting for a snack. Some of the foods we ate in Japan: ramen, pork dumplings, udon, okonomiyaki (pizza-like savory pancake), curry rice, shabu shabu, dorayaki (red bean pancake), The real mochi, and my personal favorite…matcha flavored soft serve ice cream (truly a divine creation and something you must try). I will say that Japan is a tough place to be for vegans. Megan is vegan and we were fortunate to come across some good vegan restaurants, such as Ripple and T’s Tan Tan, but it was a bit of a challenge and requires some planning ahead.
Tokyo is the most populated city in the world. Despite this fact, I felt very at ease and comfortable amidst the high density of people. There is something so streamline and pleasant about Japanese cities that I think has a lot to do with the deep respect and consideration people have for each other. Even when you are packed in the metro like a sardine, they respect your personal space and exude so much kindness. This approach seriously needs to spread its influence to each and every corner of the world because we all would be better off.
In our ten day trip, we did a lot. On average we walked ten miles per day by wandering through various parks, markets, and temples. One of my favorite things that we did was climb Mount Takao. It was a serious and consistent uphill climb, but the sun was shining, the fall leaves were out, and all the way up the mountain were markets and food stops where you could revive yourself with fried rice balls, warm dumplings, or some soft serve. Walking through the Bamboo Forest was also a special experience because it was my first time witnessing bamboo trees of that height. Just next to the forest we came across this gorgeous turquoise river with traditional boats floating past as the fall leaves drifted in the wind.
In Kyoto, we stayed at a hostel in which our room consisted of three futons on the floor for us to sleep on and a skinny side part where we squished in our bags. It was not the comfiest sleeping situation, but made for some good quality time with my girls. One thing Renee and I did in town near Osaka was go to an onsen. Going to the onsen is a social outing for the Japanese. It is something you do with your friends or family and is very normal. At the onsen, there are several hot water baths indoors and sometimes outdoors too. The onsen’s are separated by gender and everyone is completely naked. Renee and were the only non-Japanese in our onsen and everything was in Japanese, but we managed to navigate okay. The baths and supposed to be very good for your skin and have healing qualities. It was both of our first times and I liked it honestly. Got in some good bonding time and sweat all the toxins out of our bodies.
We came across a lot of other tourists on our trip, some young couples but mostly families or older people. I felt extremely lucky to do this trip with two very special friends whom I met my freshman year of college in Portland. Kinda crazy to see our progression since then and reconnect in Japan five years later. If you go to Japan, I highly recommend purchasing the Japan Rail Pass online because it was super helpful for us to take trains from city to city and made traveling much easier. I would be more than happy to give specific recommendations too because Japan is definitely a country worth exploring.
P.S. Thank you to Ezra, Renee, and Megan. You are bright stars in my life…whom I love more than words can express.