It's taken me quite a while to put this last post together. Part of it is trying to get back into things here, part wanting for the experience to sink in a bit before reflecting. Instead of a regular blog post, I decided to summarize odds and ends our trip in a series of bullet points, with some final thoughts at the end.
- The most useful site was Japan Guide. It seems to get updated quite often.
- The general outline of our itinerary was Japan Guide's Best of Japan in 14 days, but stretched to 28 days; we didn't go to Himeji.
- Melody did the heavy lifting of adapting our itinerary, which was no small feat. She figured out the number of days in each location, taking into account how much there would be to see and giving us days which were less busy. What days things were open and how long it would take to get between cities was also a consideration. Then finding lodging on top of all of that.
- We also used Michelin Green Guide Japan both before and during the trip.
- Lots of great suggestions from Alice, Noël, and Melody's friend Reiko.
- We used a shared note of our entire itinerary with the general outline. It was just a long file with date, city, and things we planned to do that day
- For the first day of each city, we put the hotel's name and a photo onto that day's entry (the photo was really useful).
- To-do items also went in the shared note so we could check them off when they were done.
- Laundry days were planned in advance, and a to-do item added, along with how much it would cost (when we knew). That was really helpful so we would know to plan a couple hours to do that.
- A shared calendar contained the hotel, tagged with the location so it was easy to tap in the calendar to bring up the map. Also, since the hotel was an all-day event that spanned those nights, the Maps application knew that was a destination we cared about and it usually showed up first in search suggestions, so it was easy to plan a route back.
- Looking back, I should have also added major attractions to the map (with approximate times) so they would show up in maps. We spent quite a bit of time typing in names of places, or places nearby, trying to find routes.
- We had a second shared note with a completed itinerary. At the end of each day, that day's entry got moved so the current day was always at the top of our itinerary file.
- Knowing we were there for a long time, we didn't cram a lot of sightseeing in each day, usually finishing up by mid-afternoon. This made it easier to do the day-to-day itinerary changes, as well as have enough energy that we didn't feel the need to take a whole day of rest.
- Traveling for four weeks, we knew we wanted to save on lodging where we could. Mostly hostels, all but one with private rooms.
- We had private baths in a couple of the hostels, but the rest had baths down the hall. The rooms with a bathroom included were generally smaller than the ones without.
- With those places where the bathroom was down the hall, we didn't have trouble getting into the shower.
- The one place where we couldn't get a private room, we ended up with beds next to each other. This hostel provided lockers with locks (often you have to rent or bring your own lock) so that worked out well.
- The business hotels worked out well, but we didn't have access to a kitchen in those places.
- We did splurge on the one night in the farmhouse in Ainokura. We wanted to have that experience, and dinner and breakfast were included in the price.
- At all the places we stayed, people were very helpful and nice. Not surprising in itself, but the level of helpfulness and kindness was quite high.
- Favorite place we stayed is probably K's House Hakone. Big room (Japanese-style), well-sized kitchen and dining area, and free access to their onsen. It was fun to stay at the farmhouse, and it felt luxurious to have dinner and breakfast prepared and served to us, as well as have a bath drawn for us.
- We expected to do laundry on the trip, but the trick was figuring out the longest we could go and still want to carry that many changes of clothes. We settled on packing five days' worth.
- We also took enough shampoo, conditioner, etc. to last us the whole trip. Because they were provided where we stayed, we ended up not using our soap, very little shampoo, and only about ⅓ of our conditioner.
- A small bottle of dishwashing liquid was handy, especially for the early days when we had only a couple plastic utensils so ended up washing them. In the end, we had so many plastic utensils from stores that we got rid of them.
- Each of us took a backpack and a bag which fit in the overhead compartment and tried to keep each less than 10kg.
- We almost certainly consumed more sodium than normal, with all the shoyu and broths.
- Breakfasts were mostly the same as what we do wherever travel: some sort of bread, yogurt, and fruit. Yogurt was the easiest to find (often we got plain then got a small jar of preserves to add to it), then fruit (we often ended up with satsumas or bananas, but pineapple towards the end). The most common bread we saw was dinner rolls, Japanese-style sliced bread, or sweet, danish-type things. We did find some pretty good whole wheat rolls with either raisins or nuts, and also found raisin bread that was good.
- Even though it's easy and inexpensive, we didn't have noodle soups (ramen, udon, soba) as often as I thought we would.
- Everything was quite fresh. The meals, on whole, were heavier on starch and lighter on vegetables than we usually eat.
- Food at convenience stores is not like here. We had several quite good meals from them, especially with onigiri or sushi rolls.
- Top three meals:
- ramen at Asakusaseimenjo in Tokyo (noodles just the right firmness, excellent broth),
- okonomiyaki at Chabana Shijo Shimmachi (highly skilled and fun yet non-fussy chef, great flavor),
- chirashi near the Hakone Open-Air Museum (didn't get the name, but extremely fresh, great presentation),
- honorable mention to the meal served to us at the farmhouse in Ainokura.
- Neither of us gained weight on the trip. We did that with some portion control, but we were very active during the whole trip.
- Ended up walking over 500,000 steps. Most days were between 15,000 and 20,000 steps, with a few days over 25,000 and one day under 10,000.
- About 1,000 flights of stairs (at least how my phone measures flights). Most was 162 going up Mt. Misen on Miyajima, second was 102 along the Old Tokaido Road in Hakone.
- Jet lag wasn't too bad. Both of us had a bit of trouble getting to sleep the first night in Tokyo but settled in after that. Coming back wasn't bad, either, other than taking a few days to adjust those last couple hours.
- I used a journaling app to take notes during the day of things I found interesting or wanted to remember (I do this even when not on the road).
- I would often jot (or dictate) a few words for each entry, then flesh them out later in the day.
- During the evening, I'd do an outline of the previous day, then fill it out with text. Details would come from the web and handouts from the various places. I would then add anecdotes as I remembered them, then check with the journal if there was anything else I would want to add.
- The entries ended up mostly being between 1,200 and 1,500 words.
- After posting, if I had time, I would start a rough outline of the current day for writing the next day.
- Having a WiFi hot spot was fantastic. Connectivity was great in general, except for some places on long train rides.
- We had some sort of WiFi access at every place we stayed. Really fast speeds at most places. The fastest connectivity was in Hakone, but Kyoto was also quite speedy.
- Being able to figure out routes to destinations or looking for places to eat was very nice. Completely changed how we travel, compared to our other long, overseas trips.
- We still used printed maps for several places, especially when they had walking tours, but supplemented with live maps.
- No signal in Ainokura, but the farmhouse did have some connectivity, but it was quite slow.
- Subways are great. Tokyo may have a complex system, but it works quite well. When maps apps use station numbers (rather than just the names), that makes it really easy to get to the right platform and to get off at the right stop.
- There are so many people in Tokyo, there's no getting around dealing with crowds. The trains don't wait very long, but you do have time to get on.
- Japanese are much more comfortable with squeezing together than Americans. They probably pack 50-75% more people on a train than what would be considered full here. Don't be surprised if you're standing there and feel a mass of people pushing against you; they're trying to board.
- Each of the trains we saw had a lot of cars, like 10–12, compared to the two or three in Seattle (the stations can handle up to four). In addition, the seats are arranged to optimize for rush hour and just have them along the windows facing in which creates a big aisle. Seattle's trains are more like buses, with seats in pairs on either side of a narrower aisle.
- There are several brands of transit cards, and for Tokyo and Kyoto, there were no differences between them for us.
- Card readers are very fast so people can just stream through. Gates are open by default, but close if you don't have enough money on your card as you're going through the exit (there are kiosks where you can add fare if that happens).
- The bus works pretty well, too. You pay when you leave and in most of the cities you board in the middle and exit at the front (where you pay or use your pass). For routes where you pay according to distance and you don't have a pass or transit card, you pick up a small piece of paper which says where you boarded. You can then read the board on the bus which shows the fare for different boarding locations.
- More people would ride Amtrak around here if they were more like the Shinkansen. Smooth, efficient, and like an airplane inside except there's a lot more room. It's not cheap, but having a Japan Rail Pass made it worthwhile, especially since you could get reserved seats for no extra cost. Considering all the train travel we did, as well as being able to use the pass for the Miyajima ferry and some busses, the pricey passes paid for themselves. The places we traveled worked out so we started using the 3-week pass the day we left Tokyo and it ended the day we went back to Tokyo.
- We lucked out with the weather. Shorts for the first couple weeks.
- While we were out and about, there were only a few days where there was rain, and not very heavy at that. We used our raincoats mostly for keeping warm than keeping dry.
- Very heavy rain came during the night in Kyoto, Ainokura, and Takayama.
- We saw many temples and shrines, as expected. While it may seem that temples and shrines would start to look alike after a while, several of them had unique features which make them interesting. We did try to see a variety of kinds of sights wherever we went.
- Where feasible, we tried to get as high as possible to see vistas. Some were in towers/buildings, some were on hills.
- We rarely waited in long lines for things. That means we missed out on some opportunities, but if we felt there were other things we would rather do, we'd skip the line.
- Top three sights:
- Shinjuku Gyoen, Tokyo (beautiful garden and the greenhouse is as interesting for its architecture as its collection),
- Hakone Open-Air Museum (amazing works in a wonderful setting),
- Daisho-in Temple on Miyajima (easily the most interesting temple with little nooks and crannies everywhere, including a cave which is candle-lit from the ceiling; we also heard someone praying with amazing musical talent),
- honorable mention to the Children's Peace Monument, Hiroshima (easily the most moving place we visited).
- Ended up taking about 3,000 photos.
- Of the photos I posted, the vast majority of them are on Flickr. A smaller number of them got posted to Facebook.
- Instagram got photos the quickest, many right after I shot the photos. I only posted photos taken with my phone there.
- Instagram got all the food photos, while Flickr and Facebook got notable ones.
- For my main camera, I took three zoom lenses (ultra-wide, wide-to-short-telephoto, telephoto). I considered not taking all of them or renting one with a wider zoom range, but I thought I'd be happier with the quality of what I eventually took, and that ended up being true. Less weight would have been nice, but it wasn't too heavy.
- Took a few filters. Ended up not using the close-up filter, but did use the polarizing filter (mostly for shots of koi or trying to reduce reflections when I wanted to see what was behind glass) and the neutral density filter (better water photos in bright light).
- My camera battery lasted 5 or 6 days, and I carried a spare.
- I ran an app on my phone to log my location so I could geotag photos. In addition to it being nice having that data, sometimes it told me where I was when I took a photo if I needed to double-check what the subject was.
- Carried an external battery for my phone. I only used it about half the days, but it was really helpful when I did need it.
- I'm not good at taking photos of people. It wouldn't occur to me to take pictures of people we'd talked with until after they were long gone.
- That said, if there were things where I wouldn't be able to wait until there weren't people in the frame (or that would never be the case), I tried to work the people who were there into the photo.
- Since it's hard to pick favorite photos, here are three which, to me, summarize our trip.
- The last couple of weeks we started to see a lot of fall color, no more so than in the mountains such as this photo in Ogimachi. The gassho houses with the thatched roofs also represent Japan's heritage of which they are very proud.
- The Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto is just one of several we visited, but it involved quite a walk (and going uphill) to get to. We did see lots of tourists on our trip, but people seemed to be enjoying themselves, such as in this photo. The school kids represent all the youth at the temples, and it was great to see them not forgetting their heritage.
- The floating torii at Miyajima is one of the most iconic representations of Japan's spirit I can think of. Seeing it at sunset reminds me that no matter how photogenic something may seem, it's more real when you're there in person.
- The bonus photo is more personal. I was hoping we would get to see Mt. Fuji during our trip, and we did, twice. Once without snow, once with. Plus, the blurred tree in the foreground represents all the travel we did around the country (the photo was taken while moving almost 170mph), enabling us to sample a wide variety of what Japan has to offer.
The Japanese experience
- Shoes went on and off often. We each took slippers like one would use in a hostel over here, but ended up using them in only a few places.
- Most places provided indoor slippers. Some also had bathroom slippers (if you're on a tatami mat, you don't wear slippers, put on the inside slippers to walk to the bathroom, then switch to bathroom slippers). Most of the provided slippers were too large for our feet.
- When we were in the UK for a month, it took me a long time to get used to people driving on the left. It didn't really sink in during our month in Japan. Trains also tend to be on the left set of tracks, so I would sometimes look the wrong way to see if the train was arriving.
- For the most part, people walk on the left side too, but it's fluid (sort of like people tend to walk on the right side here, but don't always).
- Wiping the table after you eat in a shared dining area is more of a thing than it is here. It only seemed to work when there were signs which asked people to do it, though.
- You usually get some sort of wet cloth (often in a plastic wrapper) when you get to a restaurant, so you can wipe your hands before you eat. It's not, however, a napkin, so no wiping your face with it. A few places we went gave us warm cloths, which was nice.
- No tipping. Had to switch my thinking when we got there, and then back the first time I was at a restaurant after returning.
- Spontaneous lines showed up in a lot of places, especially museums. Subway and bus stops too, but that was more hit-and-miss (except when queue markers were on the ground).
- Far less smoking than I had anticipated. Most restaurants don't allow it, nor do trains (though many have smoking rooms). The places we stayed were also smoke-free.
- The streets and sidewalks were clean. As in sweep-falling-leaves-regularly clean. In many cities, this was accomplished even though there were few if any public trash cans. For the most part, people deposited trash at home (or if food was purchased somewhere, that place would provide receptacles).
- In several places we saw very subtle barriers for places people shouldn't go. We did see a lot of signs warning people to keep out, mostly at attractions which had a large number of tourists.
- People are very helpful. Not only at tourist information centers or hotels, but people on the street. Even those who don't speak a lot of English will try to figure out a way to give you a hand.
It's hard to summarize a month-long trip to a foreign land (which is why this post is much longer than all the others) but I'll try.
My ancestors came from Japan, and that's a large part of why we decided to make this trip. However, it's also a place which is on several people's bucket list, and we wanted to make the trip while we were still healthy and mobile.
We've been to other places with different cultures, but Japan is by far the most exotic. We tried to read up on what to expect, but as with many other things in life, it's best to just dive in. People there will help you not do the wrong thing.
I've been trying to think about how the trip has changed us, and I think the big one is how we travel. We relied much more on technology than on any other previous trip (our last Vancouver trip was close, but we didn't have cell phone access) and once we figured out a good workflow, things went quite well.
So that was a cheat; I think the way the trip changed us is being in a place where people are so invested in society as a whole showed that you don't have to be so completely rooted in the past that you don't adapt to new situations. I think Japan not being the melting pot we have over here has a lot to do with it, since there aren't huge competing cultures trying to blend together.
There's also a lot more trust among people, and with that comes a willingness to be a part of society. There's also much more conformance to society, but you definitely see that there's a fringe, those willing to act or dress or live a bit differently than the norm. The societal conformance is not something you would ever see over here, for a variety of reasons. But they have it, choose to hang onto it, and it works for them. All they ask is to respect their ways while you're there.
Would we go back? Of course. Should other people go? I think it's worth it, just for the cultural experience alone. The sights are a bonus. And go with someone you deeply care for. Photos and words help document your journey for others to see, but gaping at an enormous temple, tasting a fabulous meal, seeing a monument that moves you, or meeting people who become indelible in your memory, those experiences resonate louder when you can turn to that other person and think, “This will always be a part of us.”