I will miss the trees. We visited a lot of gardens and parks to see cherry blossoms, but the blooms aren’t the only attractions. The trees, the green moss, the water features. Although Japanese cities were not all blessed with a lot of parks or green space, those that exist are so well taken care of.
I’m going to miss the small streets, with restaurants and shops that cluster together, usually near a train station. Each city has its share of large arterial roads, with plenty of car traffic and sometimes intolerably long signal phases, leaving you standing for minutes waiting for a pedestrian walk signal. But, when you find the area of small streets the entire nature of that city changes. Narrow and mostly car free or very car light, the small streets give you an opportunity to feel you’ve stepped back in time.
Within these fine grained streets, with corners hiding the next view, are the amazing small restaurants. I’ve mentioned the awkwardness of sliding open doors and facing a tiny space perhaps already packed with customers. It can be cringe inducing, but so rewarding to be able to eat at a restaurant that is run by people who focus on one thing. This type of food – we do this and we do it well. You will wait the required amount of time, you will likely be served on hand thrown ceramic plates, and the food will be exquisitely displayed.
If it’s possible to desperately miss something you only got to do twice then we will desperately miss the Yatai of Fukuoka. The Tenjin neighborhood has small food stands, Yatai, which set up each night to serve up food in a space half the size of the storage unit holding all of our possessions back in the US.
The number of Yatai was shrinking, but in the last few years they’ve enjoyed a new renaissance and there are about 150 now. In addition to dinner at one we spent a hilariously fun evening drinking at a Yatai bar. Everyone is friends at a Yatai bar which measures 10×8 feet.
What else will I miss about Japan? The safety. The ability for Japan to have nice things that people respect and take care of. Public restrooms which are clean and stocked with rolls of TP which are not stolen. And the quirky things. Things you see and go, oh yeah, that makes sense to have.
You will always feel you missed out on experiences and places when traveling. We immediately have a list for “next time”. It says a lot about a place that you want to come back, soon. Regret is a rear view mirror. So what do I regret about our time in Japan now that we’ve moved on?
This is when Rich and I say to each other “I used to do important things.” Recalling our previous professional lives where we earned money, and made multiple decisions a day that impacted people and projects. And we laugh at ourselves. Another regret? Hotels in Japan supply you with pajamas. Really. Instead of a robe you get pajamas or a button up nightgown contraption or a yakuta, a light cotton kimono. Somehow the pajama tops and bottoms fit both me and Rich, sometimes with pretty funny differences. Do I have a single photo, let alone a collection of photos? No. If you go to Japan learn from my mistake and take photos of yourself in the pajamas in your hotel rooms. And take a notebook to collect the stamps.
No regrets that we visited Japan. Such a lovely place with wonderful people. Goodbye Japan. Hello Korea.
There are things you know about a country before you arrive and are looking forward to – food, specific sights, cultural norms that are different from your own and therefore fascinating – but the things that catch you by surprise are the gifts of travel.
Plentiful water. Still a mind bending notion to someone raised in Southern California. The city of Shimabara has a castle, a lovely neighborhood of samurai houses, and so much free flowing water. Water under tea houses where koi appear to float in midair, a visual trick of the crystal clear water. Water running between houses in fern lined canals. Water fountains with ladles handy so you know the water is drinkable. So much water. And yes, some of it hot thanks to Mount Unzen, an active volcano which rises and steams and bubbles a short bus ride away.
After admiring the water in one neighborhood, we had lunch, a lovely set menu which is a wonderfully easy thing to order. Then we headed to a spot on the map marked as public foot bath. So far all the water had been cold and clear. Foot bath? That sounds interesting.
Feet refreshed and ready for more walking we headed off to see the neighborhood of samurai homes. The canal which runs through the neighborhood was a perk for these high ranking, hereditary, military nobility.
We headed back to our hotel, craving a proper onsen soak, but first we had to pass another fountain, and stop for another drink. How could we pass up this lovely landscaped fountain, which seemed to be part of the neighboring house’s garden.
One easy bus ride from our waterfront hotel took us winding up the mountain. The bubbling mud and steam clouds of Obamachounzen quickly let you know this volcano is not playing around. “An eruption in 1991 generated a pyroclastic flow that killed 43 people, including three volcanologists. “ The slopes of the mountain down to the sea will look familiar to anyone who has visited the big island of Hawaii. Lava field slopes.
Even though we hadn’t done much walking yet, just a few kilometers around the steamy and bubbly area of Obamacho Unzen, we headed right to the public foot bath.
We did a lovely hike after the foot bath and enjoyed the views of the volcano while having a picnic on an observation platform – keeping a wary eye on the plumes of steam. Then it was a bus back to the hotel, a lovely relaxing onsen and outdoor rotenburo soak at our hotel, and dinner at a local Izakaya. It was time to move on to Kagoshima, which was a ferry ride and train ride away. But first – foot bath by the ferry terminal!
The blessings of volcanos. Hot springs. There are more than 27,000 hot springs in Japan. The volume of water that flows from them is 2.6 million liters per minute. I was a volcano fan before this trip to Japan, now I’m a volcano fanatic. And we weren’t done yet! Next up, a ferry from Kagoshima to see the slopes of Mount Sakurajima and yes, another foot bath.
We’re in Korea as of today, but still catching up on all the fun we had in Japan. I was struck by the relationship the Japanese have with their volcanos. The idea of the blessings of volcanoes, and the use of the hot spring water, gives the volcanoes a different feel. Yes, potentially deadly, but also useful and part of life. Japan has the potential to harness this geothermal energy, mostly unrealized so far, but what an additional blessing that could be. But our feet were happy to take advantage of the blessings of the volcanoes.
We’ve been so thoroughly enjoying every day in Japan that we haven’t had much time or energy left to Blog. It’s a fantastic place to travel. But no place is perfect, and Japan has its weaknesses too, especially in the bike and pedestrian realm.
We’ve been travelling our preferred way by train, bus, ferry, streetcar, subway, and bike. With a lot of walking to the beach to explore and get to our lodging. We’ve been luxuriating in the clean, punctual, and extensive intercity train system. And the local public transit is always clean and reliable, if not always fast.
So here are a few transport observations. For you transport wonks and mega walkers, they may give you the same joy and a maybe bit of frustration if you visit.
1. JR Rail Pass- Unless you are going to only visit a few cities or rent a car, then it’s a no brainer to get one of these passes subsidized for tourists. We bought two three-week passes and planned our trip to max its benefit to a 4 week visit by setting the activation for the day we left Tokyo and expiring when we get to Fukuoaka, where we are spending our last 3 days. This way we were able to exchange our vouchers at off peak time at Shinjuku station and avoid the mob we saw at Narita airport trying to exchange them to use immediately from the Airport. We instead bought $20 local rail tickets to central Tokyo. It was then easy and cheap to get IC (tap) Transit cards to get around for a few subway and loop rail trips in Tokyo until leaving Tokyo for Kanazawa.
2. IC Card – Good for transit in most major cities. There are a dozen or so “brands” by region and they can mostly be used in other cities, although acceptance is a bit hit or miss outside the home zones. Don’t put too much on it initially, 5,000 yen ($40) is my recommendation, as you can always top it up but it’s hard to get a refund. You can also use them at many convenience stores.
3. Train Seat reservations – With your JR Pass, you can make free seat reservations for most higher speed trains (and Shinkansens). I found that I could get our choice if I booked at least 2 days prior to our next trip. You can do it at green JR Ticket machines in almost all JR stations. So I’d often get our seats for our next leg when we arrived to a city. If you book too early and want to change your trains later, you won’t be able to do it at a machine if the new journey overlaps with the old one. You will have to go to a JR ticket office which could take some time at busier times and stations. But, you can alway board in the unreserved cars, so no serious worries other than maybe sitting apart or standing for a bit.
4. Buses and Trams – they run on schedule (especially buses). You board at the back door and tap your IC card if available or if not, take a little paper ticket from a dispenser that indicates your boarding zone. You always pay at the front door as you leave, calculating your fare from the easy digital sign at the front. Put your stop ticket and fare in the box or machine. They can always make change. This also applies to some of the small independent (Non JR) local trains. Once you get the hang of it, it’s pretty straightforward (Especially with IC Card), but it seems pretty inefficient at crowded times as many people still pay cash fares. There is a flow from the back of the bus towards the front door, but it doesn’t match the ease and speed of a proof of payment system.
5. Walking – You will do a lot of walking in Japan which is mostly great, and wandering the alleys, hidden temple stairways, and quiet back streets is one of the great joys of Japan. One downside though is that the arterial traffic signal timings are long, so get ready to wait for for 2-3 minutes at some crossings. It’s very annoying, and really delays walking trips across town. The only time you see Japanese run is for crossings, as they know it’s a long wait if you miss the light.
Also, pedestrian crossings can be spread out on major arterials, with occasional overhead or underpass ped crossings in lieu of at grade crosswalks. It seems like a legacy of 1960s traffic engineering that continues in philosophy today, but stairwell underpasses are not good for an aging population.
So what about Jaywalking? A few people, especially in larger cities will jump a signal or cross midway, but 98% of Japanese wait until the light is fully green. As time has gone on in our travels here, we are getting less and less patient, and will cross at will when it makes sense and traffic is clear. We are surely going to incite a pedestrian revolt here!
6. Bikes: There are many more than you think, especially in flatter cities. But the bikes share most sidewalks and it’s all a bit chaotic, which could be solved by more on street protected lanes. Cyclists routinely cut corners and swerve across intersections and are an outlier to order on the streets. (Yeah cyclists!)
So my quick transport report card for Japan based on our scientific analysis:
Trains – A-….ok, amazing at a high level, but deductions for lack of App based e-tickets/seats please…and stringent bike policies keep it from A+
Buses: B+ Reliable; on schedule, and fair pricing but they get stuck at long traffic lights too, so can be slow in cities. And there are few express buses. BRT?
Walking: B- Wider sidewalks are needed in many places. Alleys and many quiet urban streets are very pleasant and low stress to walk, but many arterial sidewalks are a bit narrow or degraded by detectable rubber strips. I appreciate that these assist the vision impaired, but sidewalks are just not wide enough to accommodate them and side by side walking space. There seems to be a legacy of traffic lanes and road capacity. Giving more road cross section to peds, bikes and tram boarding is needed. Smart traffic signals could be used to mitigate lane reductions. Many heavy pedestrian neighborhoods in Tokyo and other larger cities have nice wide sidewalks in a new generation of streetscape designs, but many places still have a 1970s-1990s feel.
Cycling: C+ Quiet back streets and sidewalk cycleways do the trick, but more on street protected bikeways are needed everywhere
But enough nitpicking. As a traveler, the lack of personal safety concerns and good transport frees you up to focus on the unique culture, sights, and most of all, the food and friendly people. And oh man the food is SO good.
And it’s good value for most lodging and food, as long as you are willing to give up western norms and keep some distance from the tourist hot spots. The yen has weakened against most currencies over the past 5 years, so it’s a great time to travel here. Except in Tokyo, there are great 3 to 4 star Hotels in the $100-$125 range, and a bit more on the weekends, especially Saturday nights. And most include breakfast.
If you go for more modest 1-2 star hotels, then you can find many in the $70-$90 range. Remote or resort area hotels (often with Onsen or Rotemburo baths) are definitely higher in the $150-$300+, so will be a splurge if on a budget. It’s definitely better value than most of the US, and similar to Europe, although I think a bit cheaper overall. A few other lodging tips. Book some nice Ryokan or Onsen properties well in advance as they are lovely, but don’t do anything but go up in price or sell out. Small or exclusive places are not into last minute bargains.
And big western brand hotels in major cities here often 2-3x as expensive as local alternatives for a similar (or better) product. Avoid them, unless you only have a week and a surplus of loyalty points to burn. (For example, during the Sakura of late March, Marriott properties in Tokyo ranged from $600-$2000/night!). Big waste of money.
Another tip. Many western style rooms are cosy in Japan, at 120-180 sq ft, but if you book a twin instead of a “double”, the rooms are larger at 180-250 sq ft. They have two full or queen beds that can usually be pushed together. So you have a lot more space, often for just a bit more money. “Twins or Quads” seem to sell out first as locals know this too,
But as great as it is to travel here, it’s not all easy, as travel in Japan has its own breed of travel stress due to constant language and cultural nuances. And the country faces a battery of challenges, including rural depopulation, economic stagnation, and a location in an increasingly volatile region, just to name a few.
But we are judging against a high bar, as we are already talking about coming back to bike tour, renting an apartment for a month in Tokyo, or even a car tour to see more rural sights that are tough or impossible by public transit. If you do want to rent a car in Japan you will need an international driver’s license.
We are excited to head to South Korea next week, but first we are going to eat as much amazing food as we can in quirky and cosy settings, served by some of the most dedicated and friendly people in the world.
Our arrival in Tokyo happened to coincide with an early cherry blossom season. We had already made our flight and room reservations when a representative from Japan Meteorological Agency stood beneath a signal tree at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine and announced the season to be underway.
Unfortunately, it was a rainy stretch in Tokyo as the fun got underway. Fortunately, we don’t melt. Parks and gardens are prime blossom viewing spots of course. So off we went. First was a night time cherry blossom event where the trees were lit up. It was beautiful, and wet. Very wet. But picking through the mud puddles was worth it to see huge trees and bamboo lit up with dramatic intensity.
On a dry Friday as we wandered parks filled with blooming trees we overheard other blossom peepers talking about what variety of cherry trees we were seeing. There are over 100 varieties of cherry trees in Japan, a few are wild and native to the forests, but most are cultivated. These trees don’t produce edible fruit, but flowers are pickled and used as tea and in other confections. We love seeing a forest mountain dotted with blooming trees mixed in with conifers and maples.
Blooming trees are not confined to parks. As we walked around Tokyo we found allées of blooming trees, or simply single trees, putting on a show worthy of admiration.
We left Tokyo for Kanazawa where we had a new batch of parks and gardens to explore. And a lovely castle. And more cherry blossoms to photograph.
You find new ways to view the blossoms, hyper aware that the blossom season is fleeting. People are super friendly and nice about snapping photos of each other. Cherry blossoms bring you all together in one place, for the purpose of admiring the beauty, and recording this fleeting moment.
Hemeji, which was a day trip from Kobe for us, has one of Japan’s most stunning castles. And with the blooms it was a crowded site. Rich got us there as early as we could, and it was worth braving the crowds. I’m particularly taken with the old trees – gnarled trunks, branches propped up with bamboo poles.
After the bloom comes the time of Sakura snow. The petals blowing off and drifting, or, if it’s raining, sticking.
Being here in Japan for Sakura was a happy accident. We assumed we would be too early to see the bloom in Tokyo, but Sakura has been earlier than usual the past few years. If you do come to Japan for Sakura, be aware that hotel prices go way up. Rich booked our place in Tokyo before the season was announced, post announcement he looked to extend our four night stay and a single night extra would have cost as much as the four nights together.
We’re in Japan for two more weeks before moving on to Korea. We feel so lucky to have seen Sakura in a variety of cities and landscapes. Cherry blossoms and a Japan Rail Pass, what more could we want?
Somewhere around week two in Sri Lanka I announced that I missed abundance. It’s ironic since part of our decision to pack up our lives and travel was the desire to experience a less cluttered life. To have the freedom to shoulder our backpacks and go wherever we want. Well welcome to Japan, where abundance is always an option.
We made our first trip to Japan in 2007, before smart phones with translation apps. This time, we were ready for all Japanese menus. Our index fingers and thumbs were all warmed up for google camera translate. Uh huh. We bought SIM cards from a vending machine at Narita Airport but had not installed mine correctly yet, and Rich was using our US cell phone data sparingly until he got his new SIM installed. Well, long story short- the first restaurant we walked into we failed to navigate the confusing situation and quickly abandoned ship! Thankfully we found a small place with on screen ordering and settled in for our first meal.
The automation is fascinating to see. As with many countries Covid accelerated cashless payments and waitstaff free ordering, but in Japan you get a fun mix of traditional and modern.
A Sakura (cherry blossom) post will follow with many photos, but this is all about food. We were craving Japanese food for the past few weeks so we’re thrilled to walk and sightsee and eat. Our walking mileage has gone up sharply which helps with the eating. We took a train out from Tokyo to Koganei Park to visit the Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum. There was a festival going on despite the rain so we snacked our way through that.
With four nights in Tokyo we had a chance to try to get into a small neighborhood izakaya restaurant on Friday, and when it was full up, make a reservation for the next night. Another good travel hack, especially in places where you either have no local phone number or where calling is beyond challenging due to language barriers. Two folks working the small restaurant, no fancy automation here. We were grateful for our young server/owner’s help. We always find the further out from the heart of a tourist district the more patient and helpful the locals are.
After four nights in Tokyo, and a longer stay running into Sakura prohibitive pricing, we hopped on the trains to head to Kanazawa. Our JR Rail passes will be getting a work out this trip as the Japanese train system is beyond amazing.
Our first night in Kanazawa we struck out three times, a conveyor belt sushi restaurant with a closed waiting list, an unagi (eel) restaurant which was closed despite the hours listed showing it should be open, and another full up sushi restaurant all by 8 pm. We figured out it was spring break week for schools so things were quite crowded. We finally saw a small tempura stand restaurant and got two seats at the bar. Another kind and helpful waiter sat us, got us an English menu, and took care of us the entire meal. We had a great view of the chef working his tempura fryer with chopsticks and tongs.
So far no breakfast photos, you might be thinking to yourself. Well, we’ve been having hotel room or apartment breakfasts of Musilix and fruit and yogurt, but we did get out early for cherry blossom viewing and then had a second breakfast our first morning in Kanazawa. Cafe Tamon is a small easy to miss but for the help of a passerby who saw us looking in confusion at our phones, pancake specialty cafe.
Remember that conveyor belt sushi place with a closed waiting list at 7:40pm? We went back the next night at 6:40 and put our name on the list. About an hour later we were in! The nice thing about being the only tourists willing to figure out the drill, was that the host knew who we were – not one of many tourists: the only slightly confused looking non locals.
Conveyor belt sushi has had a hard time recently, apparently from a social media trend that has attention starved youngsters misbehaving and filming themselves. Insert eye roll here. I’m not sure if the screen ordering is a result of that stupid trend, but it worked out just fine for us.
Our third and final night in Kanazawa we were determined to try the unagi (eel) restaurant again. The Japanese name came through Google translate as eel welfare. We marched over at 6 this time and the lights were on! Yay! We went in and congratulated ourselves on being some of the first customers of the evening. One gentleman was just leaving, and another man came in and placed a to-go order. The sole proprietor sat us at the counter, gave us a menu and bustled about behind the counter. We got two draft beers and settled in.
Our eel man turned away a group of five Japanese, and then two western tourists. What is going on, we wondered? This is a frequent state for non Japanese speakers here. Confused but pressing on! When it came time to order all became clear – he only had two pieces of eel left. Ah ha! That’s why he had been closed two nights before- he closes when he sells out of eel. Two pieces of your best (only) eel, sir, and some tempura. So many times as a tourist a mystery remains a mystery, so we were happy to have this one solved.
It’s been a good start to our four weeks in Japan. We’ve honed our perception and empathy skills since our last visit here, and we know how quickly the world can change under your feet. (Poor conveyor belt sushi restaurants. ) We feel empowered by google translate, but a few key phrases in Japanese learned on line (link in our link page) quickly telegraph both our helplessness and our desire to be polite and thankful. There is so much more to experience and share, but for now itadakimasu! Let’s eat!