Its been a month since we’ve touched back down in the USA from our trip to Japan.  Reflecting back on our two weeks there, we wanted to share our top 10s about Japan.

Top 10 Things We Loved

  1. Politeness and courtesy.  Everyone is so polite.  People respect each other’s space.  Nothing is ever locked up.  For instance, in Kyoto, we walked through a sea of literally hundreds of bicycles at Kyoto University not one of which had a lock on it.  This was common everywhere, a bike just sitting against a building unlocked, patiently waiting for its owner’s return.  And what’s not to like about bowing at and being bowed to by people as you meet them.
  2. The food is more than sushi.  Many people were shocked to hear that we only had one full meal of just sushi.  While sushi and sashimi accompanied many meals as a course or a side, we had many other types of meals from traditional “chef’s choice”-like multi-course Japanese meals, to teppanyaki to yakitori to ramen.  The food is fresh, interesting and delicious.  And you don’t have to be afraid of things like eating whole fish (yes, heads and all), blowfish, intestines or other interesting meals, most places in Tokyo and many in Kyoto have English language menus and there are lots of non-Japanese options.  The Italian food, steak houses and pizza places are fantastic.
  3. People want to practice their English.  We were stopped by countless school groups who wanted to ask us questions and practice their English.  Waitstaff, cashiers, etc. also like to practice and when we told them we were from the USA nearly everyone smiled and said how much they love the United States whether they’d been there or not.  That said, be prepared for some people not speaking any English at all.  We never really understood the need for pictures of food on the menu or kiosk before, until we got to Japan.  Just pointing to what you want definitely comes in handy.
  4. Signage and t-shirts.  Somewhat along those same lines, the signage can be hilarious.  The images selected or English phrasing can be really entertaining.  There also seemed to be a real desire to just have English words or logos on things you wear, from a woman who had a shirt with just one word: “Hilarious” to the little school girl with a Playboy bunny backpack to the store sign which read “Always Relaxation” (I assume this must be a brand of some kind, though we didn’t check out what they sold inside), it can be pretty entertaining.
  5. Mixture of old and new.  It is very common to find a temple in the midst of many modern buildings or to see people in kimonos sitting next to tourists or men in business suits.  This was particularly common near temples and shrines or in Kyoto but the cool mix of modern buildings and really really old temples and shrines is done very tastefully.
  6. Green space.  Tokyo is massive, Kyoto is big and both have lots of parks or green space available.  In Kyoto, the temples and shrines encircle the city and much of the park space is around it near those sites.  In Tokyo, it is easy to find a park (see our post on the parks of Tokyo).  As a couple of people who enjoy a good park stroll, this was important to us.
  7. Finding less known sites.  There are plenty of popular sites to visit, but its worth just wandering around to find off-the-beaten path parks, shrines, temples or spots.
  8. Cleanliness.  No lie, there is no litter, there’s barely any graffiti and no dog waste.  Don’t get us wrong, we LOVE Europe, but we just can’t get behind the dog poop everywhere.  Step at will in Japan people, your shoes will not suffer.
  9. The toilets.  Enough said, don’t knock ’em ’til you try them.
  10. Ryokans, Yukatas and Onsens.  We stayed in two ryokans (traditional Japanese inns) and strongly recommend at least a night in one.  Wear the yukata (we didn’t go cowboy underneath, though others in our group did) and enjoy the onsen (hot baths).  There are public onsens (same-sex, as you clean yourself before and soak in your birthday suit) or privately reserved ones (for whoever you want to bring along).  We did the private ones, but would try the public ones on our next time back.

Top 10 Travel Tips

  1. Take the time to learn the public subway and rail system, buy a rail pass and never throw away your ticket (you’ll need them if asked or upon exit).
  2. For an ATM, find a 7-11 (or 7i Holdings, as they are known).
  3. If you’re hungry, find a department store – lots of great options in the basements or top floors.
  4. Hand wipes come with every meal (come on America, let’s do this).
  5. Garbage cans are hard to come by, but again 7-11 is your friend.
  6. Avoid smoking sections on trains, etc. (unless you smoke, of course).
  7. When exiting a taxi, don’t close the door.  The doors close automatically.
  8. No tipping – except rounding up for taxi drivers who mostly wouldn’t take the tip.
  9. Show respect – take shoes off where asked (temples, Ryokans, etc.) and respect the no photos signs.
  10. As with anywhere, a few words go a long way.  Learn how to greet and thank people, at a minimum.