Friday, June 20, 2014

Japan Adventure - Day 9 (The Last Day)

Ahhh, the last day. We arrived in Tokyo late Thursday evening, so by the time we had checked in and I had taken care of some e-mail it was past 1am on Friday morning (officially, Day #9). As I lay in bed drifting off to sleep, I felt a most remarkable and disconcerting feeling: our room (on the 36th floor) was gently rocking back and forth.

That can't be right, right?

The whole experience probably lasted only a few seconds, and Shira slept right through it. But I was more than a little alarmed. I got up and hurriedly checked the web. While there was no news on the Japanese Government Weather and Earthquake site, Twitter did indeed confirm my suspicion: we had just experienced an earthquake. I wasn't the only traveler more than a little alarmed by the experience (though, not so alarmed that I took any real action. I figured no loud sirens meant there was nothing to be concerned about.)

This morning the Japanese Weather and Earthquake site did have a log entry for seismic activity 1:48 AM JST that was indeed felt in Tokyo (though it was a "1" on the JMA Seismic Activity scale). When I asked the front desk about it, they had no knowledge of the quake. Apparently, it's just us tourists that are bothered by these things.

We didn't have much time in Tokyo this morning, so we spent it wandering the area around our hotel and doing some last minute shopping. We had breakfast at an overpriced coffee shop, which included bread and bean-paste-spread and delicious chocolate-chiffon cake. Cake for breakfast? Heck yeah, this is my last day of vacation, I'm living it to the max.

Here are some parting thoughts on Japan...

What *Didn't* Surprise Us

  • People, especially children, were polite and kind. For the most part everybody went out of their way to help us (except for a supermarket employee in Osaka, who didn't want to play my game of "let's figure out Japanese tea" - but I can't fault her for that). We even had two ladies stop us on the street in Hiroshima to chat with us. They wanted to know if we were tourists and how we were enjoying their city. Shira and I kept waiting for an ulterior motive, but it never came. I think they were just being nice / curious.
  • The trains ran on precise schedules and were easy to navigate. In the large stations, the signage would often alternate between Japanese and English. If we did have a question, any station attendant was glad to direct us to the right track number.
  • Residents of Japan really do wear surgical masks the same way we might wear a baseball cap. Apparently it's part health tool, urban camouflage and fashion statement. By the end of the trip, they were almost invisible.
  • English is found where you really need it (in the train station, on some menus, etc.), but you can't depend on the residents being able to speak it. And why should you? This is Japan, after all. See the point above about people being nice. Between the language section of our guidebook, our magic food card, and lots of smiling, we got our point across just fine.
  • The city is spotless. We saw few if any homeless people, and there were absolutely no pan-handlers. I can't recall traveling anywhere in the world that didn't have at least a few pan-handlers.

What *Did* Surprise Us

  • The water served in restaurants was among the best tasting and purest we've ever had. I know this may seem like a random point, but it was that good. It also made the trip a lot less expensive (I'm looking at you Europe and the UK) in that we didn't have to order a drink and could just enjoy the water they served us.
  • I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that the Japanese take their toilets *very* seriously. When we arrived at our first hotel, the toilet had an armrest full of options. I jokingly took a snapshot of it assuming that it was just our hotel being extravagant. Not so. The hotels we stayed at, many of the restaurants we ate at and many of sites we visited had just as sophisticated toilets. Heck, the toilets at the aquarium were equipped with a music option. The Powder Room in one of our restaurants had a hands free model: you walked into the room and the seat magically lifted up, when you left, it flushed. Perhaps the interest in toilets goes along with other hygienic practices like not wearing shoes inside, or getting a warm towel handed to you when you sit down for a meal (or even the surgical mask fad mentioned above)? All I know is, I like it. America needs to step up our toilet technology if we want to compete in the 21st century. We're way behind. Ironically, as sophisticated as these are, you will also find non-Western squat toilets. In fact, we often found places that gave you a choice.
  • Apparently, the Japanese don't do napkins. Either they offer the flimsiest of napkin options, or none at all. For a guy who regularly covers himself in food, this isn't ideal. The solution: I purchased a handkerchief for $3.00 and used that as a napkin. That may be the solution that many Japanese use, and it makes sense. Why waste all those paper napkins. I know that the bathroom at one of the large train stations we passed through had no paper towels or hand dryers. When Japanese men or women would come out of the bathroom, they'd produce their own hand towel, use it and return to their pocket or purse.
  • They like their stamps. At quite a number of attractions there were stamps available for kids to use to memorialize their trip. I think there's a tradition of using stamps in Japanese culture, so this may be connected to that. Regardless, if you're traveling with kids in Japan (which I think would totally work), make sure they bring along a blank journal to fill with stamps.
  • The hotels are generous with amenities. In all 4 hotels we stayed at (which were high quality hotels mind you), they provided free WiFi, free water and an extensive set of toiletries for your use (toothbrush, toothpaste, razor, shaving cream, comb, etc.). More impressively, they restocked them every day. Every day we'd use the complementary 1 liter water bottle, and find it replaced when we got back to the room. I'm not sure what any of this means, but I wish American hotels would be so generous.

What was Somewhat Surprising

  • Bikes. It's Asia, so we expected there to be lots of bikes. But man, the amount of parking and their utility was beyond what I expected (double-decker bike parking was seen). It seemed like I could have purchased a shiny used bike for as little as $80. In both Kyoto and Hiroshima the standard was to have a child carrier in the back, and either a child carrier in the front or a basket. We saw a few folks riding around in spandex, but the vast majority of riders were regular folks just getting from point A to B. There's just something impressive about a mom, wearing high heels and a skirt, shuttling her two kids around like it's nothing. Probably because to her, it is nothing. Adults almost never wore helmets, though kids sometimes did. One last point about bikes: I've always been told that the proper way to size them is to have the seat high enough so that your legs are full stretched out to reach the peddles. Nearly all the bikes we saw had the seats way too low by this standard. Perhaps this arrangement works better for the stop and go city driving these folks were doing? Or maybe I've been doing it wrong all this time.
  • Food: it had its easy and hard parts. In some respects, eating was tricky because there are just some Japanese cuisines that don't have vegetarian/fish options. One night we must have walked into three different restaurants and were effectively turned away because they had nothing that we could eat. On the other hand, the restaurants knew exactly what we were talking about when we asked for a vegetarian / fish option and were glad to work with us to find an option. Heck, one restaurant just had a sign on their menu: we have no vegetarian meals. On the easy side of things, many restaurants had English menus, which made ordering much easier. But, Shira was convinced that the options on the English menu were limited when compared to the Japanese menus. In the end, it was impossible to starve while in Japan, but there were definitely times when finding food was on the trickier side.

For most of this trip I've been racking my brain trying to figure out if Japan is any more or less foreign than other places we've visited. Sure, the written language is impenetrable, but we were in such tourist friendly places that it didn't really matter. And did a Spanish menu in Buenos Aires really mean anything to me? (No, not at all.) Sure, we got tripped up by a number of conventions (ooops, we walked into the Thai restaurant without taking off our shoes first), but these were relatively few and far between. In the end, the question is probably irrelevant. What makes travel fun and interesting is embracing the location you're in, and being willing to look like an idiot. Once you can do that, everything else (except trying to buy Japanese tea in a grocery store) is easy.

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