Thursday, 14 December 2017

10 things you must know before you travel to Japan

One of my friends is teaching English in Japan so I was keen to take advantage of the cool travel opportunity while also spending time with her. However, even with my previous travels and my friend to guide me, things still took me by surprise while I was there!

Therefore here are my top 10 tips you must know before you travel to Japan!

Mt Fuji from the Chureito Pagoda @orange.girl.deb

1. No credit cards

Like, anywhere! Cash is still very much a thing and most places won't even have a card machine. While I was doing my travel prep shopping (hello travel mini section of boots) I exchanged a bit more than I expected to spend so that I had an emergency fund. I was super glad I did this as I didn't really believe how sparse card payments would be so I only exchanged more money begrudgingly. Most places will offer a buy back guarantee so that if you have spare at the end of your trip then you can just swap it straight back again. It did make me feel rich while I was carrying 10000 yen notes.

You also can't just hand people money either! You have to bow and put it in a little tray next to the till for them to pick up even in restaurants. I have no idea why. Sometimes they hand your change back to you (bow again and take it with both hands if you can) but sometimes that goes in the little tray too and you have to pick it up as tipping isn't a thing! The little tray clearly has more complicated rules than I understand.

2. Vending machines are awesome

I arrived at 10am having spent the previous 16 hours on a plane so I was in need of coffee. Ami instantly pointed me towards a vending machine. They are literally everywhere and each one will have about 30 things on offer some cold and some hot. I'm not talking hot drinks like a hospital waiting room coffee, but proper already sealed pre-prepared drinks which are vended at a lovely toasty temperature! Once you get over drinking a coffee from a normal bottle its actually really useful and means you can reseal a warm drink and put it in your bag rather than lose an arm all afternoon to hold your starbucks. I got quite into the lemon tea which was sold everywhere but you could also get milky tea, coffee, soup, and ramen too!

Taken from 'Cool Japan Guide' by Abby Denson which was a great book!

3. Rubbish is hard

So now I've had my toasty beverage and I want to throw away the bottle.... well there just aren't bins. You have to find another vending machine that will have a bottle recycle attached to it. Even in people's homes you have to split waste into paper, plastic, PET plastic, burnables, food waste, and goodness knows what else. I found myself contemplating "does this burn? is it paper? paper burns but it goes in paper not burnables? its got a plastic layer so is it plastic? what's PET? what am I doing with my life?!" Some places insist you put your name on your bin bag so that if it contains incorrectly sorted waste then it can be returned to you to try again!! Who knew you could be incompetent at throwing something away?

I do hope however that all this rubbish sorting is for a good amount of recycling. David Attenborough keeps telling us that we're killing the oceans with plastic and I really don't want to make David sad. On a side note how good is Blue Planet II???

4. Shoes need to be easy

This was something that completely bamboozled me at the first restaurant we went to but I quickly got good at. You have to be able to put on and take off your shoes quickly and ideally without touching them or falling over. Houses, hostels, and some restaurants will have little steps where you need to stand with your back to the step, slide your foot our of your shoe, and step backwards onto the raised platform. Outdoor shoes can NOT go beyond the little step. Slippers are a must, as are presentable socks so I made sure to pack matching pairs with no holes! I had packed tall boots and converses which hardly got worn as they both need significant touching to get on and off. Plus you need to be able to put shoes back on when your legs have gone to sleep from sitting cross legged on the floor at the diner table.

5. Prepare for rice

While I'm talking about restaurants I will talk about food. I was really impressed with how tasty the food was while I was out there. You get to have a lot of fun with your food unlike the UK. We cooked our own okonomiyaki (a kind of chunky omelette pancake thing), we ordered sushi on a conveyor belt including natto (fermented soya beans), and I ate a cartoon character (gudetama)! You can also pick crockery up to have food close to your mouth which felt excitingly naughty (I know I am very sad). Most of it was lactose free so I had no issues there and for the most part it was low fat too! The only issue was it's low everything else as well. Most meals you get:
  • soup - usually miso or a broth
  • while sticky rice
  • a protein thing - usually fish or pork but about a quarter of the portion size I would expect at home
  • pickles
  • something else - cinnamon omelette/ lemongrass tofu/ something unidentifiable but tasty
So while everything was nice I felt a little lacking in vitamins, protein and fibre. Each of which showed increasingly throughout my trip and my little sniffle turned into a large cold, my flight aches didn't heal, and well.... I was reminded why fibre is an important part of any diet.

At all the convenience stores (called Kombinis) you can buy a plethora of tiny bottles of supplement drinks to offset these dietary deficiencies. I didn't see any protein ones but certainly vitamin and fibre drinks were widely available. What was also on offer were a range of drinking aid supplements which apparently help your body cope with alcohol. We got some prior to a night out and I deliberately drank it before I googled to see what was in it -  beef liver and turmeric if you're interested but how they managed to make it taste like orange soda I will never know. I have no idea it it made any difference at all but even a placebo effect is useful!

6. Look up

I haven't even got through the first day and I'm already on #6 of things you need to know! It really is a different world in so many ways but, to my surprise, it wasn't alienating. My first day passed in a surreal combination of over stimulation, confusion, laughing, and jet lag! 

We headed into Tokyo city for dinner. We stepped into a building and Ami instantly headed for he lift. I was confused but she explained that different floors had different things on them and we were headed to a restaurant that occupied the entire 8th floor! It seemed such a strange thing for restaurants and shops to be up in the air without it being a shopping centre or a place of work. 

So for the rest of my trip I was constantly looking up to see what was on each level of the buildings. There didn't seem to be any theme to buildings either - a building could be a pet shop on the ground, clothes shops next, and then restaurants and bars too! 

7. You're now a Gaijin 

In Yoyogi Park @orange.girl.deb
Gaijin literally means "outside person" and anyone who isn't Japanese will fit into this box. Initially I assumed it just applied to westerners or Caucasian people but on closer inspection there don't seem to be any people of colour in Japan! Or at least very few. Being a gaijin means people stare at you. I never felt uncomfortable with the stares and they felt more out of curiosity than hostility. Even while walking through some touristy areas or right in the city centre where you'd think that seeing a white woman wouldn't be that unusual, eyes looked at me.

On my second day there we got all the stares by renting kimono in Harajuku (an area of Tokyo) and going for a walk to a large city temple - the Meiji shrine in Yoyogi Park. Some people stopped us and asked for photos which was fun, and some people took our photos from afar which seemed rude to be honest. A couple of times older ladies approached us and told us we looked nice so overall the reaction seemed positive! I was unsure about renting kimono as it is literally cultural appropriation for a pair of white women to wear traditional Japanese dress for fun - cultures are NOT costumes. But I was assured from multiple sources that the Japanese encourage tourists to experience their culture including the clothing.

That being said, you can never stop being a gaijin it seems. Even if you spent 60 years in Japan or were born there - if you have international features you will never be Japanese and accepted fully into a community. This seems sad from a British point of view and I guess another thing I didn't understand while I was there.

8. Do you know where your towel is?

Sadly this doesn't mean that the Japanese are all Douglas Adams fans but it genuinely means that most people carry a little towel with them wherever they go. Ami gave me one when I arrived and it has Mt Fuji on it - super cute. But this is actually something really useful... I'll explain. 

Toilets are everywhere in Japan - it's wonderful! They're all free and clean and always have loo roll! The Japanese must not know the struggle that is struggling to find 30p to visit the loo at Euston station while desperately trying not to wet yourself or be trampled on by the huge queue backing up behind the turnstile. There are loos in kombini, in train stations, by the side of the road, on trains,everywhere! Its a glorious buffet of commodes. However what nearly none of the loos had was a way to dry your hands! Hence the little towel. 

What was more worrying though was that a lot of them didn't have soap either so may people simply don't bother to wash their hands,.... gross. It now makes a lot more sense why so many people wear face masks as genuinely the lack of hygiene combined with how expensive non-prescription medications are means that it must be super germy everywhere. I kept my towel and wished I had brought hand gel.

9. It's beautiful 

This one struck me time and time again no matter where I was. The country genuinely is beautiful. The countryside was beautiful with its autumnal foliage, the mountains were beautiful with their snow capped peaks, the cities were beautiful with not a 70s concrete monstrosity in sight, and even the suburbs were beautiful with little winding streets and a peaceful stillness that I've only ever felt before on a mountain top in Brazil. Design seems to have been considered a lot and even when an environment hasn't been artificially designed it seems to have developed organically to be in balance. I wish I had more skill with a camera as some of the views were stunning.  

Walking up to Chureito Pagoda @orange.girl.deb

10. It's weird but safe - go with it

My last and final thing you must know before you travel to Japan is probably the one I would recommend most - its weird but don't worry just go with it! I am good at watching my back while away and keeping myself safe but none of my danger spidey senses kicked in at all this trip! Well actually no, a guy approached me at a club purely because I was white which made me uncomfortable but he left once I found my friend and even then you get creepy dudes in the UK so I wouldn't count that as a unique experience to Japan. 

Other than that, the trip was a brilliantly surreal experience without any hint of a dangerous situation. And when I say weird I do mean weird. Literally everything we did has something that was at the least slightly comical/strange. I saw an indoor carnival with giant robots, I went to a real pokemon centre, I visited a giant statue of a rabbit setting a raccoon on fire, I met Nathan Fillion (!), I ate at a restaurant based on a sad egg, and I observed some of the most weird and wonderful social etiquette just to name a few! But if I had been somewhere else I might have worried about safety and I might not have had such a rich experience. 


My Week in Japan:

Day 1 - Tokyo
Visited: Royal palace, robot restaurant
Ate: ominomiyaki
Highlight: meeting Nathan Fillion

Day 2 - Tokyo
Visited: harajuku, Meiji shrine, Club Camelot
Wore: kimono
Highlight: being dressed in a kimono and 7-Eleven karaage chicken (not simultaneous) 

Day 3 - Tokyo
Travelled: Shinkansen (bullet train)
Felt: hungover 
Ate/Highlight: The best ramen ever

Day 4 - Komoro 
Visited: shopping mall
Ate: natto sushi at sushiro
Highlight: buying all the things at Daiso (100 yen/66p shop)

Day 5 - Komoro
Visited: Nowhere I was ill
Felt: Ill
Highlight: Nothing I was ill

Day 6 - Tokyo
Visited: Pokemon Centre, Gudetama cafe
Ate: giant apple, gudetama, matcha tea, pork and sake
Highlight: the restaurant host having an Arsenal shirt above the bar!

Day 7 - Mt. Fuji
Visited: Lake Kawaguchi, Kachi Kachi Ropeway
Ate: gross rice stodge on a stick and then Japanese Curry and beer
Highlight: autumnal colours round the lake

Day 8 - Mt Fuji
Visited: Chureito Pagoda
Ate: matcha kitkat
Highlight: Waiting for Mt Fuji to peep out through the clouds