In November 2015, me and my then-fiancee-now-husband João travelled to Japan and visited a few cities for 15 days. It is to this day the best trip we’ve ever done and the place we cherish the most.
I miss Japan. I long to go back soooo badly.
As my brother and sister-in-law have landed in Tokyo a couple of days ago, I’m dying with envy! I just wish I could be there with them and show them all the amazing places we visited, eat all the amazing food we ate and go to the new places they’re going and we didn’t (yet).
So, as I’m missing Japan, here are some of my favourite things about the country and places we visited.
I know it feels like an odd thing to start with, but the moment we got in the ANA airplane we understood that Japanese costumer service is well above average of what we’re used to.
Great plane with very acceptable personal space in economy (João measures 1.92m /6 3 ft so “public” transport is always a challenge), lovely staff and tasty food we could choose from a menu. Yes, you read that right: several options of equally tasty food! On an airplane! #saywhat
Every single interaction in the country was friendly (even with the language barrier), everyone seemed knowledgeable and eager to help. From what I understand, generally speaking of course (with all the dangers generalisation comes with) Japanese people do not like to say the word “no” so they will try to find a way to help you even when they can’t or tell you “no” without telling you “no”. This article explains it quite well the reasoning behind this.
In Hiroshima, we missed the last train back to Himeji (where we were staying at) and the staff member at the train station was struggling to find a way to tell us there were no more trains to where we needed to go – even though there was nothing he could do about it. And as much as he was struggling with basic English, his main issue was that he didn’t want to say that there were no more trains. So he just kept repeating that the next one was in the early morning. Driving wasn’t an option (we were just an 1 hour away by train, but 4 by car – that’s how fast the trains are) so he helped us getting a room at the hotel next to the station as all the foreign rooms available in the city were booked (there’s a quota of rooms available for foreign visitors in the country, I believe).
At every single restaurant/store we were greeted upon arrival and departure and offered help.
Their basic standard is so high that it’s offensive to tip Japanese customer service. Could this be replicated in the rest of the world? Not in the next 100 years if not more. This attitude is rooted deep within everyone’s early education, both in school and at home. A lot would need to be changed on this side of the globe for this to happen. And don’t feel bad about it as they do not accept tips, but their wages are much better compared to the same jobs on this side of the world (where I live in at least).
Coming from a Disney Customer Service training, I find their customer service in general absolutely amazing. They even apologise for 20 seconds early train departures as this Telegraph article suggests.
Oh, the food! Every single thing we tried was rated (by us) as good or amazing. From sushi to tempura, ramen to tonkatsu, okonomiyaki to gyozas, or suakiyaki to all their French influenced bakeries.
And you don’t need to spend a lot of money to eat really well. On one of the sushi restaurants we ate in Kyoto, we ate sushi as if it was our last meal ever. We dreaded for the bill to come but when it did we were pleasantly surprised to find out that the total was £19.11. For really decent sushi and a very decent amount of it. For two!
I also loved the fact most of the restaurants have open kitchens, or chefs cooking right in front of you. I believe this is because they believe in honesty and integrity. João did say at the time that policemen have white gloves for this reason too. So they will cook in front of you to show you they’ve got nothing to hide.
A particular thing I also found amusing related to food, was the miniature fake food. In front of some restaurants there will be a display with the main dishes the restaurant serves made of plastic with the exact presentation of what you will eat inside. There’s a whole business of plastic food in Japan. You can also buy these in shops. It’s funny.
Old versus new
Japan is as traditional as it is futuristic. I love how the cities are laid out, especially Tokyo.
There’s so much contrast and it’s so busy! I love how the modern buildings and the beautifully preserved parks and temples seem to be perfectly intertwined.
Another interesting thing is that it’s as peaceful in the small parks as it is busy on the main streets. Old and traditional buildings or entrances fit in next to large neon signs. Temples are isolated despite surviving in the middle of skyscrapers. There’s little shrines in the most odd places. And it all looks great together.
That was one of my first impressions of Tokyo and I can vividly remember the first one I got into at the airport. The technological toilet seat ones are amazing! I’ve even checked the price of them for when one day I own a house as I’m definitely going to save up to have one!
Not for every one of the options on it though. I wasn’t too sure how to use the water jets. The one time I tried it at one of our hotels, there was too much laughter and awkwardness involved, despite being alone in there. But mostly for the auto cleaning of the seats, the lovely heat on the borders for when you sit down, and in public toilets, my two favourite buttons: the loud waterfall sound and the perfume spray. That’s it. The two buttons every single public toilet in the world should have! #makeithappenworld
And why you ask? Because first of all, no one could hear whatever business was going on in there. And should women feel like making a “number two” (which women do, by the way, #biologyhappens) who could tell after you pressed that perfume button (which in some cases was simply automatic whatever happened in there)? I know this must be #tmi for a lot of people, but guys, #thestruggleisreal. Women will be in pain if necessary by avoiding number two-ing outside their houses. But if no one can hear it or smell it, that’s a game changer!
On the other hand it was also quite funny to find the old “hole on the ground” toilets. There were (and probably still are) quite a few of these in Portugal when I was little. To a lot of Westerns and definitely the newest generations these is a foreign concept but I found some of these in the more traditional locations/cities we visited. They can look to some like third world toilets, but the truth is they are much more hygienic. Unless you drop your phone in there. I wouldn’t recommend leaving it on your back pocket when using one of those. #justsaying
The organisation in the country’s public transport is undeniable.
On the underground metros there’s marks on the floor to help people queue away from the doors so that the whole process is quicker – people out, people in. During rush hour in certain stations, there’s staff along the platforms to ensure everything is smooth and that no accidents happen. I’m sure a lot of us have seen videos online of staff pushing people into the trains when they’re at nearly full capacity. We avoided rush hour most days so I can’t corroborate that fact.
On one particular occasion, I was very impressed at something else, as they had a staff member ready to usher a wheelchair out of the train by standing at the right door. Doors opened, the staff member put a little ramp on the door, the wheelchair came out easily, the people too, he folded the ramp and the door closed. Super efficient.
And then the bullet trains. What an awesome experience. It is fast! It’s quite impressive just standing on the platform and watch them pass. Basically you’re like “Here comes one!”, you try to take your camera out, you get ready and it’s gone! Haha It happened to us quite a few times.
All the seats face forward, which means that at the end of the line they are all turned around by a train staff member! Watching them quickly do this is another amazing experience. And if you’re in a group of four people (or if the train is fairly empty) you can turn the two-seaters around yourself so that you face each other like on European trains.
Hotel rooms and apartments are small in the big cities. Like, really small. Like barely fitting small. Which is cute on one hand and might be frustrating on the other hand for some people. We were happy. We had good night sleeps which is what matters.
Hotels tend to have normal beds, but some Airbnb’s are a bit more traditional and have the old mattress on the floor. I like firm mattresses, so that didn’t bother me at all.
And Japanese are clean. Not just on hotels, but generally. Really, really clean. To the point that on the first hotel we checked in, they had such high standards for themselves that there was a spray bottle and a black light next to it, so we could spray the surface and check the cleanliness with the black light. I kind of regret not making the test, but the presence of it just made me trust that it was indeed clean.
All the tiny things
Talking of small apartments, Japanese seem to like tiny things. Tiny apartments, tiny plastic fake food, Bento boxes with tiny sushi, ceramic miniatures to hold chopsticks, tiny plush toys to hang on bags, tiny cars, tiny vans, tiny Kit Kats, etc.
The fact that things are small in general, became even funnier when we were about to ride Space Mountain at Disney Tokyo and one of the cast members tells my husband: “Is this your first ride?” “Yes” “Well, you might need to cross your legs in order to fit in the carriage as you’re tall and these rides are made Japanese size”. Yes. She said “Japanese size”. Which we thought was pretty cute and and quite funny.
I thought the Brits were really good at queuing until I met the Japanese. They’re so good at queuing that even when it doesn’t look like they’re queuing, they’re queuing.
Look at this picture:
Does it look like a queue? No? What if I told you that it is a queue? You don’t believe me? Well, it is. These people are queuing. If you pay close attention you’ll see one line facing forward, one line facing backwards. They’re basically queuing in a continuous “S” shape. Remember the old Nokia Snake game? That’s how this queue is shaped once you had too long of a snake and had to zig-zag it around the screen.
Last (for now) Japan is so safe. Kids start doing grocery runs at 3 years old. That’s how safe it is. This is the place I felt the safest in the world.
I could hang all my “gear” around my neck (well, a camera and a phone… We all define wealth in different ways, haha) and just walk around in any street feeling safe. It’s the country I visited where I felt the safest ever. It’s so freeing. Apparently, one can leave a bag in the middle of the street and come back to it untouched hours later. It just sounds (and is) amazing.
There’s so much respect for others or for the community that everybody understands that when we put community first, we all benefit from it. I just hope the rest of the world catches up on this pretty soon.
And so much more
I absolutely love Japan. There’s so much more I want to talk about, so much more cities I want to visit. Everyone I know that has been to Japan comes back mesmerised and wanting to go back.
I really want to go back. But I need to let my kiddo grow up a bit. You see, humans are not allowed to make sounds above a certain amount of decibels in Tokyo. The chirp of a bird is higher than the government “allowance”. Hence why most cars are bizarrely silent in the city and why you can hear birds singing around Tokyo. Another fascinating fact. But I’m not sure how loud my kid is going to be, so I kind of need to make sure he is cool before we take the risk.
If you want to know where I’ve stayed and where I’ve been, keep an eye on the blog. I will be posting my suggestions and telling you where I’ve been in the next posts.
P.S. – Interesting articles I came across whilst putting my post together:
Ultimate Japan Travel Guide: Everything You Need to Know for Your First Visit