DAN- Johannesburg to Tokyo…. whoo. First impression, this is the quietest, cleanest city in the world. The mix of electric vehicles and everyone trying not to be noticed means that even the largest city in the world is eerily quiet. Combine this with the lack of English speakers and uniqueness of culture, Japan takes a bit of adjusting even for the seasoned traveler, which our kids now feel themselves to be. Writing this a little while after our time there is a good thing. I believe the experience has grown on me the more distance I get from it.
Whether it is a vending machine for everything, the fastest trains or views that will knock your socks off, Japan offers so much. Just don’t expect it to be more of what you know. Speaking of, one of the most enjoyable snippets of the whole trip so far for me was a moment in the Harajuku district just off of Takeshita street. Our little crew, grouchy and hungry, followed Tucker in the upstairs of a mini mall. As it would happen, there was a boy band competition serving up overly happy songs with a side of happy. The crowd of young girls were so excited that you could almost hear them cheer. Sitting in that food court, turned Japan-idol set, was a pure moment of magic for me. I would try to explain more, but you simply have to experience it. What a wonderful world.
Kyoto offered a bit of the historical Japanese perspective. Sword and cooking classes, Geishas in training and shrines. The pace of Kyoto is noticeably slower, but there is endless cultural depth. We were, of course, only able to get a layer of two deep, but I believe each of us felt the strength of this place.
My favorite moment here was standing in the bamboo forest, hearing them breezily rattle against one another, accompanied by the sounds of a busker softly playing a handpan. It was as if a natural cathedral had been built simply for me to have that one experience.
TUCKER- We just left Japan and it was awesome. At first we stayed in Minato City for around six nights. We rode around the city on the subway and visited palaces, ate delicious sushi, and saw a LOT of temples and shrines. We got to have dinner under The Tokyo Tower. I, of course, had to get a burger. After seeing lots of cool things in Tokyo, we took the bullet train down to Kyoto. The Bullet train is the fastest train on Earth. It can travel at speeds of 200 mph. It also has free Wi-Fi. In Kyoto we saw the bamboo forest, The Thousand Gates Temple, and even fed monkeys.
We also got to have a samurai sword class. During the class, we learned how to use a throwing star and even a katana. They taught us about the history of the samurai and the meaning of clan crests. It was really fun and one of my highlights from Japan. Next we went to a small lake town called Hakone. In Hakone, we stayed in a nice house looking over Lake Ashi. I stayed in a very traditional Japanese room where I slept on a comfortable mat on the ground. But none of that matters. The only important thing in these houses are the toilets. The toilets in Japan are magical. If you have the means, I would highly recommend picking one up. Near our apartment was a Japanese onsen, (hot spring) it was a very fun experience and very relaxing. Last but certainly not least, we went to Tokyo Disney!!!! We spent one amazing day touring the park and going on rides. My favorite ride was Thunder Mountain. On this ride you experience ups and downs, twists and turns, all at a high speed. In the end, I loved Japan and all it had to offer.
AVA- Wow, I absolutely adored Japan. There is such a profound difference in the culture compared to the rest of the world. The streets are so quiet, yet there are thousands of people all around you. The sushi train was fascinating. You walk in, a machine gives you a number of a table to sit at, and then you order your food off of a tablet! Then your food comes down a conveyor belt, arriving with a light *ding*. The only time you talk to anyone is when they scan your used plates to see how much everything costs. I really enjoyed walking the streets and seeing all of the signs, regardless of the fact that I could not read them. This city is so clean. Everything is orderly. When walking on the streets, everyone wears neutral colors. I wonder if it is about fitting in, or what they are most comfortable in. I would guess both. Mom really stood out in her bright red rain jacket! Something that I don’t hear as much about Japan is how amazing their noodles are. A warm bowl of noodles is just what you need after being in the chilly weather.
When we were looking around a Halloween store, a camera crew was there, and I was doing my best to stay out of their way, only to find out that they wanted to interview us! We were in Japan 12 days after they re-opened to tourists without a covid test, and apparently stood out in the crowd. They were interviewing us to see what we thought of spending Halloween in Tokyo. We tried telling them we were spending Halloween in Hakone, Japan, but eventually just said what they wanted to hear. It was quite fun none the less! I like to think about what we would have sounded like with a Japanese voice over.
One night we were very hungry after a long day of walking around the city, and so we just walked into a random food court. Little did we know that a battle of boy bands was going on! Aroma Fancy (one of the group) and another group were battling it out. There was a crowd of about 15 people. It was NOT what you would expect to see in Japan. Vibrant colors, loud music, and big dancing. The funniest part was at the end when they would finish a song, and the audience would give a polite golf clap, reminding you that you were still in Japan.
Kyoto was kind of what I stereotypically expected of Japan. The bamboo forest was magical. When you were walking through the wind would blow and all of the bamboo would lightly brush against each other. We walked through the orange gates, which is quite the fantastical experience. I am shocked more movies aren’t filmed there. We climbed a mountain to visit monkeys! They were so cute! You could also hand them food from behind a fence, and it was one of the cooler things I have ever done. The monkeys are completely free to go where ever they want, but the mountain top has been their home for a long time, and is now a conservation effort. A monkey could run across your toes if it wanted!
We also visited Nishiki Market, which is full of life, yet very different than the souks in Dubai. No one calls out to you, everyone is in their respective area, and it smells very heavily of fish. I love a good market, and could have spent hours upon hours looking in every single shop. The samurai class down the street was quite a treat! We learned the history of the samurai and ninjas (ninjas used to be farmers!), learned how to use throwing stars, and learned the proper way to use a katana. This was a big highlight for Tucker, as he had been researching katanas long before this journey began. Also in Kyoto we saw lots of women and men wearing traditional kimonos. We even spotted some Geishas! It was fascinating to see their traditional way of dress. I think it is very elegant. The Yasaka Pagoda was on a steep street with many traditional homes and businesses. This is where I felt the most local, for everything was quiet, the pagoda shone in the sunset, the houses were completely traditional, and many people wore kimonos.
Hakone was a beautiful place to stay. We were fortunate enough to be able to see Mt. Fuji from our Airbnb, and I loved watching it peak above the clouds. Halloween in Hakone consisted of “trick or treating” from mom and dad, and a spooky escape room that I created for the family. No one celebrates Halloween in Hakone, so it was fun to think of ways to bring it to life.
Tokyo Disney was absolutely amazing. Everyone waited in straight lines to get into the park, and it was very busy. It was so fun! The castle is about the same as the states, and a lot of the rides are as well. Watching Buzz Lightyear speak in Japanese will really twist your brain. There is an area of the park that has a very western theme, which was interesting to experience across the world. I wonder if that is what some people expect to see when they visit the states. They would be disappointed, but hopefully not for long when they try stuffed crust pizza! Tokyo Disney is a day I will never forget. Overall, Japan is so different from anywhere else in the world, but I would not change a thing. The Japanese culture is so fascinating, and I can’t wait to go back some day!
When we heard Japan was opening to tourism in October, we headed to the embassy to figure out what was required and if we could really go. We have been trying to follow the sun and do not have much cold weather wear with us so getting there before the end of the month was important.
Our travel there was long (Johannesburg, Doha, Bangkok, to Tokyo), tiring, and exacerbated by a pretty significant time change from South Africa. We made our way to the Airbnb Tucker found for us in Minato City and settled in to the culture shock that Japan offered. Our tiny apartment was within walking distance of a small restaurant. No one spoke English and we did our best with pantomime and smiles. It was so quiet in this place that all you could hear was a customer enthusiastically slurping his noodles and letting out a loud sigh of satisfaction. I lost it and could not stop laughing. So, that was the start of a very fun, challenging and enlightening time in Japan.
Tokyo – The city is huge but nicely connected by a trains and subways. I have consistently relied on the App Citymapper to assist with public transportation in many large metropolitan areas. Many of the train stations are like little malls where you can grab food and necessities. There is so much that is uniquely Japan; pin-drop quiet subway trains, 7 story shops dedicated to drop-claw machines, mall boy-bands, dinner from 7-11, full-time mask wearing, organized escalators and “desserts” of red bean paste. We loved the conveyor belt sushi, beautiful clothing, fun shopping, history and culture of this country and we all would go back.
Shibuya – Watching the 5 way street crossing with a crush of people is something I could joyously spend hours doing (I recommend finding a window seat upstairs the Starbucks across the street). We crossed multiple times just for fun. Our next stop was the 6 story Don Quixote store which sells everything you can imagine and more. We split up and I gave everyone 20 minutes to find the best item priced under 750 yen (about $5). No one seemed to like my picks – overnight foot masks that siphoned off dirt. Ava won with a squeezy plastic chicken that popped out an egg. A close second was a myriad of Kit Kat flavors. As we picked out Halloween decorations, we were even interviewed by a local reporter. We never found it online but would have loved to see us dubbed in Japanese.
Harajuku – Takeshita Street
Takeshita Street is a dip into the youth culture of Japan with clothing stores, dessert shops and even a Puppy Cafe that we had to try. I was constantly entertained by the English word mash-ups on clothing and flyers -“Hey You, Loverly Girls,” “Listen Flavor,” “Drughoney” and “AC/DC Rag” were only a few. We happened upon a boy band called “Aroma Fancy” as we dropped into a food court and it was loud, synchronized and mesmerizing. If you ever want a giant cone of cotton candy, Totti Candy Factory is your place.
Nearby, you can take a relaxing stroll, away from the noise and crowds at the Meiji Shrine. It is a serene forested area in the middle of the city. Livejapan.com has a great video about what you need to know when visiting a shrine in Japan.
Yushukan War Museum – We have visited a lot of war museums during our time on this trip. This was our first, but not last, from a country that was not our ally during war. Viewing the airplanes and manned kamikaze torpedoes was sobering. One thing that stood out, especially after visiting multiple French war museums, was the lack of any mention of the Holocaust during WW2. They detailed the isolation that led them to war but overlooked the atrocities committed by their ally. Reading the devastation in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was incredibly sad. The museum house an amazing tribute to every soldier they lost with a picture and personal stories. It was a reminder of the grave impacts of war and loss on every side.
Kyoto and Hakone
I loved Kyoto. We stayed in a more traditional part of Kyoto, within walking distance of many of the shrines. We rarely made reservations for but were lucky to happen upon a multitude of great restaurants. We were only there a short time but every day was filled with beautiful sites, delicious food and culture. We walked miles upon miles through old parts of the city.
Samurai and Ninja Museum – I booked the guided tour with the experiences for our family. We learned about Japan’s history and stories of the warriors dating back to the Edo Period. We were able to try on their armor, throw ninja stars, and learn how to wield a sword. Sadly, no blowdart action due to Covid but overall, the experience was a blast.
Other must do’s – Arashiyama Monkey Park, Bamboo Forest, Fushimi Imari Gates, Kiyomizu-Dera, Nishiki Market, the Bullet Train and more.
Hakone-en – We stayed in an AirBnb on Lake Ashi that hosted a stunning view of Mount Fuji. You could watch the fog dissipate on the lake while the Pirate Ship came to the port. It was the perfect place for a few days of respite away from the cities. We took the bullet train from Kyoto to Odawara and a taxi to our home. On the way out, we took local buses back to Odawara and caught the train the rest of the way to Tokyo. Highlights included walking though the small town along the lake, a visit to Hakone Kowakien Yunessun (more of a water park onsen than a traditional one), and delicious baked goods and noodles.
Although we had two weeks in Japan, we only scratched the surface of what it has to offer. We do not speak Japanese and of all the places we have been, there were fewer English speakers. We relied on Google Translate and the good will of the locals to help us figure things out. It was a lot of fun to get out of our comfort zone. I am sure we will be back someday.
Japan was by far one of my favorite countries, for the food, culture and everything else. Sushi has always been my top food, but here it was better than anywhere else in the world. One of the best places to eat was sushi belt restaurant, where the food comes to the table by conveyor belt. The restaurant works like this: when you enter, you sign in to a little screen to get a number and table. Then, when your number is called, you head over to your table where there is a screen to order certain rolls and drinks. The table has chopsticks and cups, a faucet for hot water, and a little container of green tea power. Next to your table, you will also have two conveyer belts – the bottom one has random rolls, wasabi and ginger coming around, and the top belt is where the things you order off the iPad arrive. After you are done with your meal you press “complete order” and someone working there will come to your table and count your plates (it helps if you organize the plates by color stacking them on top of each other, because the plate color determines the price). Then, they will give you your bill. These restaurant are also very well priced. We had so much fun at these restaurants and kept coming back!
Tucker and I had to plan one day. We chose to take the family to The National Museum for Modern Art, The Imperial Palace, and The WW2 Museum. The WW2 Museum, also known as the Yushukan Museum, was the craziest thing. There was no information on the Nazis or the Holocost, and I only saw one paragraph of Hitler. For them the war was about other things. Their goal was to gain more territory and conquering parts of Asia.
One of the best places we went to was the Harajuku neighborhood where we got the biggest cotton candy ever at Totti’s Candy Factory. Along that road there is also a puppy cafe and tons of cute little shops. In Kyoto we got a samurai lesson, where we learned how to weild a katana, and threw throwing stars. I was obviously the best in the throwing star competition and even hit a bullseye. After the lesson Tucker bought a katana. For the last day in Japan we went to Tokyo’s Disneyland. All the rides were so fun. My favorite ride was the Haunted Mansion. It was all super exciting, but hearing Buzz Lightyear in a different language is pretty weird.
4 thoughts on “Japan”
Be present for every moment, what a gift in time.
Love you guys
Ava et all,
Your travel journals are more fun than a bucketful of water balloons! Japan is every bit as complex a culture as is America. Just when everything appears to be beautiful, peaceful, orderly, and quiet, suddenly the Asian world erupts in monster cotton candy cones, the best sushi on the planet floating past on conveyor belts, monkeys to feed, puppies to hold, bullet trains, teen spirit with welcome loud music and girls in a swoon, Disney world with Bugs Bunny and scary rides no less, a crush of people in the multi-intersection, and nobody understanding a word anyone else is saying. Add to that non-stop walking, and my feet ache without even getting out of the house!
In reflection, having left Japan for the time being, you all must be breathing a sigh of satisfaction akin to that fellow who had been noisily slurping up noodles. I had to laugh too. No one wants to step on someone else’s toes or cause embarrassment, but, in reality, we all long for acceptance, friendship, maybe even a great big hug. That might be going too far.
I’m especially nervous about kantana and all those other length Samurai swords,Tucker. Take care, please, with your thrilling memento of Japan.
Your family’s friendly, smiling faces, fine writing, and colorful pizzazy video are necessary antidotes to hatred, war, political divisiveness, greed, and the recent, horrifying earthquake death toll in Turkey and Syria. Would you believe that on top of all that I just listened to Thomas Harris’s horror story “Silence of the Lambs”? Yesterday I rented the Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins movie version which I had seen years ago. The film is well done, but the book is better. Today my job is to try not to eat too many sweets and play only consoling hymns and spirituals (Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition is best.)
Your trying-to-remain-hopeful Aunt Jan
Your experiences in Japan sound amazing!
Hi guys❣️This is the most interesting place to me that you’ve described so elegantly. I’m jealous and happy that you’re having experiences of a lifetime. And eating sushi! We miss you and enjoy being with you if only on paper. Love to you all and big hugs.