Sunday, July 5, 2009

Should you go?

If after reading all this, you are thinking of going to Japan, here’s some things to keep in mind. These are based on my experiences of traveling on my own (without a local guide or as part of a tour).

· You will almost certainly get lost frequently. If you can’t read Japanese, some signs will confuse you. And, Japanese maps work differently than US maps – it goes by district, block, and building number, not street and number. Luckily, there are many maps in train stations, on the street, and inside buildings. I think that some Japanese natives have trouble finding their way, so don’t feel bad if you get lost. To me, part of the adventure is trying to figure out where you are going without having to ask for help. We did resort to asking a couple of times (with mixed results). But, for the most part, we made our own way. If you have no sense of direction, can’t follow a map, and don’t like navigating, you may not want to travel in Japan on your own.

· On the other hand, people are very helpful, despite some language obstacles. They are understanding of people who don’t speak or read Japanese. If you’re patient, you’ll get there.

· You have to be willing to experiment with food. Japan is not for the picky. As a very picky child, my Mom probably still can’t believe the things I’ve eaten while traveling. You won’t always know what the ingredients are in the food you get, even after you are eating it. But, you’ll find new things you like. And, when it works out, it’s very rewarding. My favorite meal on this trip was in a little restaurant on a side street in Kamakura. There wasn’t a word of English in the restaurant or on the menu. And, no one working there spoke English. We were able to order some noodle dishes by bringing the waitress out to the street and pointing to what we wanted in the plastic food disply outside the restaurant. It was delicious, and they were very friendly to us. What fun!

· There’s no tipping in Japan. Period. Once you experience this, you realize how dumb a system based on tipping is. People in Japan generally take pride in their work and would be insulted by the offer of a tip. It’s so nice to not have to think about how much to tip and whether one is necessary.

· Japan is a very noisy place that is full of overstimulation if you can understand it all. But, it’s strangely relaxing to know that you can ignore almost everything you see and hear since you can’t understand it.

· Japan is very crowded, but very orderly. People walk (and drive) on the left, and wait in very orderly lines. If you’ve ever been stuck behind someone on a moving walkway who doesn’t understand (in the US) ‘stand right, walk left’, you’ll like Japan. People always stand on the left on escalators, leaving room for walkers on the right. This happens on the longest escalators and in the biggest crowds. If you love it when things are thoroughly organized, you’ll like Japan.

· Your hotel room will be small. Our room, although nice and comfortable, had almost no storage space. There was one small closet and one shelf. We lived out of our suitcases. And, if you wanted to just throw your stuff on the floor, you’d run out of floor space quickly. We adapted quickly and developed a routine of where to put things so that we could still move around the room. I imagine that for some people things would get cluttered fast.

· Things go more smoothly when you follow the rules. Many times, people will insist on you following rules that obviously don’t matter much. But, if you don’t follow them, they will keep asking you to do it. So, just follow along. Get in your assigned seat on the empty bus. Don’t cross the street against the crossing light even when there is absolutely no one around. Always take your receipt when you buy something. The first time I didn’t do that, I got the impression that the store clerk was going to get fired if somehow she didn’t convince me to take it.

The best part of all of these experiences is when you realize what Sam did on our first day in Japan –“They do everything we do, they just do it all differently!” Maybe visiting a place like Japan can help you realize that there are always many ways of doing things, not just the way you are used to.

Japanese Sensibility

One thing you realize when you travel to Japan is that certain things there seem odd to someone from the West. I posted earlier about the Humping Dog USB drive for a PC. We saw a few other weird things in stores. There was the Pole Dancer Alarm Clock (sorry for my bad photo),

the store display advertising the scary novel written on toilet paper,

and the Interesting Max pen holder where you put a pen into Max where it really shouldn’t go.

Or, the use of English isn’t quite right, such as the umbrella gripper that is “Hard to Lose. Happy!!, and Little Bit Stylish."

The things that are border line obscene to Westerners are funny because, in general, Japanese people are conservative and somewhat shy in public. And, the almost right English always brings a smile to your face when you see it.

It was rainy season during our trip, and everyone had an umbrella on the street. Stores were selling umbrellas, including one with a sign saying “Enjoy Rain!” That’s optimism.

When you ask Japanese people who speak excellent English about these things, they also think that they are funny. It's just a sense of humor that seems odd to us.

Another favorite daily sight of ours was this apartment building near our hotel that had three large gold camels built into the structure.


Thursday, July 2, 2009


We’re home finally, after some flight delays. It’s late, and hopefully we can get some sleep. I’ll write a couple of post-trip posts in the next day or two.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Will have to return

We turned back and returned to the 5th station. Not sure where we made the wrong turn. May try to figure that out after a snack. One positive - we will make the last express bus back to Shinjuku and will be back at our hotel by 6 PM.

Sam was a real trooper. Once we realized that we had made a mistake that would cost us our chance to approach the summit, there were some tears of disappointment. But, then she said "we'll have to come back again so we can climb to the top." That's my girl!

We did find the correct trailhead at the other end of the parking lot. In hindsight, it's obvious. But, at the time, our nicely groomed and marked trail seemed like the main one. We did see about 7 people who made the same mistake as us.

I spoke to some guys who did climb today. They said that the trail was very rough after the 7th station. They stopped after 8. Sam admitted that she'd have to do some training in order to make it as she was pretty tired after only an hour.

In the end, we had a very nice mountain hike, with a picnic all by ourselves. The weather was much warmer and nicer than I expected. And, it looked like rain was coming soon by the time we left. If we had gone the right way as far as the 8th station, we would have probably got stuck in a downpour. So, we ended our day with a mixture of disappointment and happiness.

Mt. Fuji or (is a) BUST!

A beautiful mountain lies in the distance. Snow capped and immersed in clouds, Mt. Fuji lies innocently, creating a picturesque scene to any and all onlookers. Yet this mountain, belonging in a piece of art, shall prove to be evil. Making our start (the beginning of our mistakes) up the side, we thought we were on the right track. But we were conpletely on the wrong one. It's too painful to talk about, so I'll just let Dad fill you in. But I can say this: YOU HAVEN'T HEARD THE LAST OF ME FUJI!!! I'LL BE BACK, AND WHEN I DO, I'LL GET YOU MT. FUJI!!!!!!

Wrong turn - probably giving up

About 90 minutes into our hike, we started to think that we had gone the wrong way. The path, which had been well groomed and dotted with benches and signs (in Japanese) got very rough. And, we haven't seen any other hikers. We went down the rough path for a while, but have now turned back. We're going to explore one more route, but we may just turn and go all the way back as we have now wasted 2 hours on what looks like the wrong trail. With that much time gone, we don't have a chance to restart.

Almost at 5th station

We're almost at the 5th station bus stop. The skies have cleared and the sun is poking through! And, the light rain has stopped, at least for now.