We returned from our trip to Japan on Wednesday morning, and I can pretty much sum it up in one word: epic. Peter and I both LOVED everything about Japan and are already eager to go back! I'm pretty sure we could have spent the entire duration of our trip in any one of the cities we visited and still feel like we didn't see it all. I thought I'd start with a little bit about our trip and a few general observations before jumping into our first day.
5 days in Tokyo
2 days in Kyoto
1 day in Osaka
1 day in Nara
2 days in Hakone
- The Japanese people were amazing. Although there was a significant language barrier, everyone we encountered was welcoming and tried to help in any way they could.
- Almost no one spoke English fluently. This one surprised us a little bit, as we assumed we would be able to communicate relatively easily with at least a good portion of the people we encountered. In general, knowledge of English was limited to basic words, or words that were specific to a person's job. For example, most of the train station employees were able to speak a few phrases in English that pertained to directions or specific trains. Other than that, we got a lot of blank stares, and spent a fair amount of time staring blankly.
- People were pretty quiet in general. No one spoke on their cell phones on public transport, and we rarely heard anyone raise their voice above what I would consider a pretty soft tone. I know Americans have a reputation for being extremely loud and excitable, and after experiencing Japanese culture, I can see why!
- The country as a whole was extremely clean, even the Tokyo metro area, which is home to 37.8 million people. To put that in perspective, the entire population of Australia is 23 million.
- People dressed really well, especially the girls/women. I saw lots of heels and skirts and most young women looked as if they put quite a bit of effort into their hair and makeup. We picked up on a few big fashion trends, especially in Tokyo, which I'll post about later.
- The whole anime/cartoon thing seemed to be a big part of the culture. I saw a lot of Hello Kitty, Snoopy, etc. There were huge video gaming centers spread throughout Tokyo as well, which were always buzzing with primarily young guys.
- Smoking in restaurants and and other public places is perfectly legal, but there are often designated smoking rooms (usually with doors) that do a really good job of keeping any fumes at bay. We really couldn't smell any smoke in the non-smoking areas, which was nice.
- At times, I felt like a bit of a unicorn with my blonde hair, especially in the smaller cities. I noticed a couple of people try to take discreet photos and one or two just stopped and straight-up stared as I walked by. I felt like some sort of D-list celebrity! Seriously, if you're blonde and want to feel special, go to Japan.
Day 1- Arriving in Tokyo
We took an overnight flight direct from Melbourne to Tokyo, which was nice for one of us who actually sleeps on airplanes (hint:not me). While Peter slept, I read and watched a movie or two. Surprisingly, the 10-hour flight went by pretty quickly, which I think is only due to the fact that my new standard for a "long" flight is the 16 hours from Los Angeles to Melbourne. Before moving to Australia, 10 hours was probably the longest I had ever been on a plane.
Anyway, we successfully followed the airport signs down to the information desk, where a super nice lady wrote down, in English, exactly how to get to Ikebukuro, the neighborhood in Tokyo where we were staying. I think this initial interaction gave us a bit of false hope for how easy it would be to communicate with people! We boarded the train and got to Ikebukuro Station rather uneventfully, although it took over an hour to get from the airport to the city. Unfortunately, we didn't anticipate the struggle that would be actually getting out of the station. There were some English words on the signs indicating directions, but that didn't help us much when we realized we had absolutely no idea which exit to take. After some trial and error, we finally found our way out and used Google Maps to navigate ourselves to the hotel. Because of the language barrier, we decided we had to have access to the Internet at all times, so we bit the bullet and paid $5/day to access our data through Vodafone, which ended up being a really, really good idea. We were also able to connect to public WiFi at times, but it wasn't always reliable and was not universal by any means.
Here is the sign for the exits in Ikebukuro Station, where we stood for approximately fifteen minutes staring.