Well, the borders are still closed and it looks like they will be for a while yet but honestly this doesn’t make a lot of difference to my plans. I have two two-year-olds and no money, I wasn’t going anywhere anyway. So I’ve decided to travel…into my memories. In this series, I will enlighten you with wisdom from my travelling past by reviewing – wait for it – not just a hotel, not just a restaurant, oh no! – an entire country!
Oh, I don’t know, it’s Japan, isn’t writing this kind of silly? You all know Japan. It’s a long island country in Asia, mountainous and forested, with enormous cities, intense weather, a huge population and a fascinating culture. People from the West are drawn to Japan, some obsessed with it, the image of the country occupying a certain space in the imagination where exoticism and coolness and nerdiness and wistfulness collide. In reality you find yourself somewhere less stuffy and less traditional but also less dazzlingly modern than you were expecting. Still, even occupied by normal people living their daily lives as it is, Japan impresses and excites.
EASE OF TRAVEL: 6/10
Helpful things: Safe. Comprehensive public transport, lots of tourist information around, signage often in English. Plastic models of food outside eateries are helpful. You can eat delicious Michelin-starred food for not very much money if you eat food that’s traditionally cheaper anyway, e.g. ramen or if you opt for a lunch set-menu special.
Frustrating things: Expensive. Crowded, clamorous cities. Some insanely huge and cavernous train stations that take half-a-fucking-hour to exit. Sprawling. Getting anywhere takes a million years, two different trains and a bus. Weather can be challenging. Don’t go in summer! The sun literally rises at 4:30 in the morning! It’s terrible! Terrible, I tell you!
ACTIVITIES AND ATTRACTIONS: 10/10
Japan has so much cool stuff! First of all, they have anything you could desire for a “cultural” experience: museums and art galleries, open-air modern-art sculpture gardens, palaces and castles, historic districts in ancient cities. There’s wonderful scenery and tea-ceremonies and tradition. Japan is OLD and has been rich and powerful for a long time, accumulating all the trappings that come with that e.g. art and beautiful buildings. A lot of this has been meticulously preserved. Most wonderful are the temples and shrines, so different looking from anything at home (assuming of course that home is somewhere like New Zealand) and so beautiful. I’m not a spiritual person but I’ll never forget the eerie sense of power emanating from some of the temples. However, you can easily get “temple-fatigue” in Japan, it’s a thing people write about. It’s best to space out your days with a mix of things, and don’t worry, Japan has you covered!
Where Japan really gets interesting is in the mix of the old and the new. A bit tired of culture? Why don’t you go relax in an onsen? Perhaps you want to do something fun. It’s time to visit a cat cafe or the ramen museum or, best of all, what about a theme park? You could go to Tokyo Dome City, where Barnaby feared for his life on the roller coaster that sped down the side of a building, but that’s not for me. Let’s talk about the cream of the crop, the reason that we currently squirrel money away in a bank account in the hope of taking the kids overseas in five or six years: Tokyo Disney Resort.
SO I’M A DISNEY NERD and Japan has two Disney theme parks, Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Disneysea. People in the know reckon they’re up there among the best in the world but I’ve never been to America and so, sadly, I can’t weigh in on this. What I can tell you is that Disneysea, at least, is mind-blowingly incredible. We spent a day there in 2015. I love Disney. I love theme parks. I was completely primed and ready to love Disneysea, and so I am perhaps not the best gauge of how entrancing it actually is. Take, then, Barnaby as an example. Barns is not a Disney fan. He vaguely likes some of their movies but he at least tries to resist the forces of capitalism and cultural imperialism that Disney epitomises. He planned our trip there as a gift for me. He bloody loved it. I once overheard him telling people it was the best day of his life six months after our wedding. All I can tell you is that it’s real, the magic I mean. It’s real.
I will add this caveat: The best attractions in Japan are scattered over the entire country so expect to spend a lot of time and money on public transport. Tokyo city proper is weirdly light on things of interest. Pack light and expect to move around a lot.
Japan isn’t heavy on activities of the water-sports variety, but the skiing is famous if you like that kind of thing. I’ve never been hiking there but I’d love to. It looks beautiful.
If you can’t find something you want to buy in Japan then you must be walking around with your eyes shut. Excellent things you can buy there include: snacks, handicrafts (I covet beautiful washi paper and furoshiki), electronics, nerdy paraphernalia, high end bean-to-bar chocolate, kitchen goods (Japanese knives are world famous), and Studio Ghibli merchandise. I love the Ghibli / Noritake collaborations. I mean, look:
And that’s just stuff that I personally am interested in shopping for. Obviously they also have clothing stores and shoes and, well, basically anything you could fancy. Oh hey, I read that they have wonderful fabric shops if you’re into sewing, and of course there’s sake and whiskey if you like drinking. There are model train shops, and specialist model air plane shops, huge crafting stores, dusty caverns that specialise in doujinshi, and the list goes on and on and on.
Sorry, France! Apologies, Italy! Japan actually has the best food in the entire world. And this is coming from somebody who doesn’t eat sashimi or seafood (except for cooked fish, I do eat that. Does fish count as seafood? I’ve never been clear). I’m told that if you do, Japanese food is even better. This is hard to imagine.
But what is so amazing about Japanese food, you ask? Pull up a chair. This may take a minute. Well, first of all, Japanese people love dining out. The food scene in Japan is absolutely enormous. I’ve read that Japan has the highest concentration of restaurants per capita in the world (although I can’t seem to find anything to substantiate that) and if you put that together with one of the world’s largest populations, well, you get the idea. Now factor in that Japan, like most of Asia, takes eating very seriously. Not that there aren’t fun cafes and restaurants, there totally are, but the food industry in Japan is full of dedicated artists of the type who get up before dawn to scour markets for the finest ingredients and spend decades honing recipes both traditional and modern. For their part, the dining populace subject the full scope of food from high end kaiseki to humble bowls of ramen to the same level of scrutiny and the results speak for themselves.
Next, Japanese food has a tremendous range. There are lots of different dishes and cuisine types to experience. This is helped by strong regional and seasonal elements, which is very pleasing for the traveller in search of the new. It’s exciting to go to a different city and try whatever the speciality is there.
The third wonderful thing about Japanese food can be summed up with one word: umami. Oh, I just love it! That little pucker of the mouth, that tang! And the different ways this elusive flavour is explored, played with, in Japanese cooking, well, no other cuisine can compete. It’s all just so darn tasty.
There are delicious sweets too, don’t worry, although to be completely honest the appeal of jiggly Japanese cheesecake continues to elude me. And mochi. Yuck. But there are lots of nice sweets! I particularly like things filled with sticky red bean paste. It’s sort-of an old fashioned taste but in a good way.
The cherry on top is that Japan is the world-leader in the snack department. It’s impossible to leave a convenience store without an armload of mango flavoured popcorn and green tea pocky and consomme flavoured potato sticks and wasabi kit-kats or perhaps even more exciting and unusual treats. It’ll all be nice, too, with decent quality chocolate. It makes wonderful souvenirs if you can get it home without devouring it all on the plane.
Japanese people are famous for being polite and helpful for good reason. The customer service in Japan is generally excellent and people are mostly kind and tolerant. I remember taking restaurant employees outside with me so I could point at the plastic model of the food I wanted without anyone minding, I remember people asking me if I was lost in the train station, I recall a very busy and harried convenience store employee taking the time to help us buy our Disneysea tickets from the kiosk. People really tried to help us even though we were bumbling around their country and generally being inconvenient.
You may encounter some racism or sometimes people will be too shy and not want to deal with you. Don’t show that you’re cross – in Asia, the person who gets angry is automatically in the wrong. All you can do is to try not to take it personally. When I first visited Japan 17 years ago you’d still see the occasional NO FOREIGNERS sign on an otherwise appealing looking little shop, even though this was supposedly illegal. I tried to take the view that it was an opportunity for me to learn about my white privilege and what it might feel like to be a different race and maybe grow a bit as a person but truthfully it wasn’t a nice experience. We didn’t see any signs like that when we were last in Japan, which was 2015, and Barns never saw any while he lived there so hopefully it’s now a thing of the past entirely.
Japan is famous for having a lot of etiquette rules but it’s really not that complicated and you can learn them, easy. Promise. Anyway, in most situations it’s enough to try. Japanese people will be forgiving if you’re trying. I forgot myself and wore my shoes into my friend’s house which is massively rude and she just laughed, but like, she really laughed. I didn’t do it again!
Hmmm, turns out I like Japan the best out of all the counties I’ve visited. It’s officially the raddest. Go Japan!