The summer flew by, with hikes, kayaks, and swims, plus a long-anticipated trip to Japan. For the first part of the trip, we travelled with a small group of teenagers as part of an exchange program our town has with a school district in Aomori Prefecture. Later, my son and I travelled about on our own. Here’s a start to a series of posts on that trip, this one focused on some of the contradictions and quirks of modern Japan.
Our visit began with breakfast at the Mercure Hotel in Narita, home to Tokyo’s airport. For the teenagers: pancakes with maple syrup and a heap of french fries, topped off by pain au chocolate, buttery croissants, or cereal, and fresh fruit or salty pickled plums. Those who wanted to mix in more traditional could select grilled fish, miso soup, tofu, noodles, cabbage slaw, and more pickles. Eggs for everyone, along with cafe-quality coffee produced by a single-serve machine that brewed coffee, latte, and cappuccino with a press of the button and no throwaway plastic cups. Why don’t we have these at home?
At the hotel, hallway vending machines were stocked with beer along with cold green tea, sodas, and water. Over time, we learned that the bottle with the green Japanese maple leaf, not the bottle with the rain drops, contains water rather than some sugary flavored version of water. On the street, sidewalk vending machines didn’t offer the beer, except in Kyoto, where I spied one in the Gion area.
Japan is really hot and humid in the summer, but nobody drinks water, or at least not the way Americans do. Temperatures were 95 or higher almost every day of 17-day visit. We never left our lodging without full water bottles and were constantly refilling at vending machines. But crowds of Japanese tourists seemed immune to the heat, at least when it comes to drinking water. We soon took up the Japanese habit of wearing towels around our necks to absorb sweat.
In Japan, shinkansen — the bullet train — whisk passengers hundreds of miles in a couple of hours, but I needed to go to the Japan Rail office in person to make train reservations and collect my paper tickets. A dot-matrix printer buzzed with the transaction. We were traveling with Japan Rail passes used only by foreign tourists; passengers paying an ordinary fare can buy their tickets online. Even so, I had to wait in line quite a while as many Japanese passengers managed their reservations and purchases in person.
Japan is high-tech but in many ways remains an analog society. Old-fashioned cash is king, and the vast majority of businesses and tourist attractions only accept cash. Banks offer rows of ATM kiosks for people to do all their banking electronically, but it’s hard to find a bank staffed with people, so if you have lots of dollars to exchange for yen, as I did, it’s difficult to do so in a bank (to get the best exchange rate).
Vending machines stock many brands of iced coffee (and sometimes hot coffee) for about $1.20 a can, but in a café, a teacup-sized coffee runs about 500 yen, or $5. Refills are not free and I soon realized that I did not want to spend $10 on coffee a couple of times a day. Unless coffee was included as part of a meal, I enjoyed my coffee canned. Prices are strangely high for some items, like $5 apples, but you can get a delicious filling bowl of ramen for the same price.
At our AirBnB in Tokyo, we recharged in an air-conditioned studio apartment, but began to swelter as soon as we stepped into the hall, because such public spaces are often AC-free. We were glad that our host provided a pocket wi-fi device to keep us connected as we travelled around the city because public wi-fi is not common in Tokyo. However, on the upper reaches of Mount Fuji, wi-fi ruled, maybe because people love selfies and posting them from the mountain.
Travellers can drop their luggage off at a Seven-11 and ship it almost anywhere in the country for next day arrival for about $30. But if you arrive at your hotel before check-in, don’t count on getting into your room, no matter how empty the places seems. Hotel staff will gladly store your luggage, but rules are rules in Japan — 4 p.m. means 4 p.m.
In the older sections of cities, sleek cafés with their $5 coffees sit cheek-by-jowl next to restaurants where a chain-smoking owner grills yakitori chicken on a single burner portable gas stove, as future chicken meals peck around in the back courtyard.
Ice cream and pastry shops are favorite afternoon hangouts, but nobody in Japan is overweight. Also, it is easy to eat well without cooking. You can get a fabulous take-out meal at the local supermarket, and a pretty good one at a 7-11 or Lawson convenience store. French-style bakeries with Japanese twists, like edamame baked into pastry twists, are the best.
Public trash cans are few and far between, but litter is non-existent. You never have to hunt for a public restroom — they are everywhere and always clean, which we definitely appreciated as we drank our gallons of water.
Before traveling to Japan, I had some trepidation about visiting a country where the signs would be incomprehensible to me, and few people speak fluent English.
Although it’s true that your average person doesn’t speak much English, in Japan, I learned, it’s never hard to understand something, or to be understood.
Information at train stations, for example, is always posted in both Japanese kanji and English, and recorded English messages on trains provide clear direction on the various stops and connections.
But most of all, Japanese people want to visitors to enjoy their country and most will do whatever they can to point you in the right direction.
Tokyo will host the summer Olympics in 2020. Tempting, very tempting. Must remember to bring my neck towel.