Last month, I toured Japan for three weeks with G Adventures. As you know, I was very excited. I had high expectations for a country that I had for years dreamed about seeing. And when you have high expectations, you can be easily disappointed. But Japan didn’t disappoint — it exceeded my expectations. I loved Japan! Loved it beyond anything I expected. The food, the people, the architecture, the culture — it was bliss. Just how much did I love it? Let me count the ways:
Temples and Zen Gardens
The temples of Japan are beautiful. The bells, the Zen gardens, the bamboo, and the torii gates really do instill a sense of peace and serenity. I’m going to create one of these for my future home.
Sushi was one of the things I was most looking forward to eating while in Japan. After all, Japan is the birthplace of sushi. Even the worst sushi I had was still as good as the average sushi I’ve had elsewhere in the world. The sushi trains (those little conveyer-belt sushi shops) even had great toro (high-quality tuna)! And the best sushi? The Michelin star, drain-your-wallet kind? So good, it makes you cry tears of joy. The flavor, the soft texture, the moist rice — heaven.
I couldn’t get over how amazingly polite everyone was. People went out of their way to be helpful. While getting lost looking for my Couchsurfing host, a guy walked me all the way to the address to make sure I got there. A security card who spoke no English just walked me to the ATM because he couldn’t explain the directions. There was always an offer of helpfulness at the slightest indication of confusion. There was always an apologetic “sorry” — even the signs, when letting people know something was not allowed, began with “sorry.” There is simply a courtesy and helpfulness that permeates the soul of Japan.
The woman who ran out of her house to talk to our tour group. The man who let everyone take 1,000 pictures of his dog. The college students to whom I gave English lessons. The owner of the noodle shop who spoke no English but wanted to have a fake game of baseball with me when I told him I was American. The old couple who just smiled at me while I ate at their sushi restaurant and gave me a thumbs up every time I said oishii (“delicious” in Japanese). The man who helped me place my order in Japanese and was shocked when I knew the names of fish in Japanese. Everyone was just helpful and genuinely friendly.
While in Osaka, my Couchsurfing host took me to the nightlife area and we did a little people-watching. There on the street were young men and women dressed in bad pop-star outfits chasing down rich men and women in order to be their “friend for the night.” And I don’t mean in a hooker way. They are simply paid for their company (and even bought stuff!). Weird, right? How come no one pays me to hang out with them? Apparently, they earn up to $1,000 USD for this per night, and there’s no expectation of sex at all! This makes the list for one reason: it’s fascinating. Talk about something that is culturally Japanese! I could sit there on the street with some popcorn and watch as girls and boys dressed like anime characters chase after sugar daddies and mamas who might buy them drinks or bad outfits.
Bullet trains cut nine-hour journeys down to 2.5 hours. That’s what more of the world needs. Spacious, clean, fast, and semi-perfect — they just need Wi-Fi and electrical outlets.
Sidewalk Vending Machines
You are never more than 10 feet from a vending machine in Japan. Everywhere you look, two or three machines are lined up to give you everything you need — beer, sake, water, tea — to quench your thirst. Even on tiny, small-town streets without a soul in sight, you would see the glow of one of these machines. Now, if only they had food vending machines!
I love the crazy and wacky outfits people wear in Japan:
Multipurpose Train Stations
When is a train station not just a train station? When it’s a Japanese train station. In Japan, train stations aren’t just for trains, they’re also for malls, supermarkets, huge restaurant areas, and office buildings. Talk about using space effectively.
Asian countries always have much better hotel service than in the West, but Japan takes it to another level. I left my bags out one day and they were brought to my room. Towels brought up just because they thought I might need extra. At the traditional hotels, my bed mat was set up at dinner and taken away while I had breakfast. Hotel owners wave you good-bye. Everything is done with a bow. Everyone is helpful. American hospitality is great, but even we could learn a thing or ten from the Japanese.
I’m not a fan of bathhouses. Sitting around naked with a bunch of people isn’t my thing. I gave the Japanese onsens a try, but there were just too many naked men for me. However, I did venture out when they opened first thing in the morning to have them to myself. I have to admit: sitting in a hot bath with a little waterfall near you is pretty damn relaxing. I want one in my house…when I get a house.
Japanese rice wine is one of my favorite alcoholic drinks. The smooth taste, the fine finish, the fruity flavoring — mmmmm. It makes for the perfect accompaniment to Japanese food. Sake in Japan doesn’t taste better than anywhere else in the world; there’s just more of the good stuff (a fact I took full advantage of!). I especially enjoyed how you could get free sake samples at stores!
Leave it to the Japanese to turn a simple toilet into a technological marvel. There you sit down on a warm seat, while music is playing, and (sorry for getting graphic) have a jet of water come and wash you from the front or back. It’s pretty awesome.
As I watched the sunrise over Mt. Fuji toward the end of my trip, I dreaded leaving Japan. Japan exceeded all of my expectations, and I only scratched its surface. What wonders did I miss? What other secrets does Japan have to offer? From Hokkaido to Okinawa, my mind darted to all the sights on my list I didn’t get to see. I already long to go back. Within a day of leaving, I had withdrawal. Like a bullet train, Japan had sped to the top of my favorite countries list.
I’ll be back soon. And when I do, this list will surely get longer.