Adventures in the Land of the Rising Sun

Our 12 day stop in Japan is now history. Here’s a short recap of what we got up to:

WARNING! In this post you will hear a lot about trains. I am sure that I have never taken so many trains in a 12-day period before in my life. We took all sorts of trains: fast trains, slow trains, enormously long trains, tiny single-carriage trains, subway trains, scenic trains, regional trains, commuter trains – OK I think you get the idea!

Small cafe in Osaka at night

Firstly, I have to mention how amazed I was by the sheer scale of the infrastructure the Japanese have built for public transport, especially rail. It is truly mind-boggling. The Japanese train system is a model of efficiency too. Now for some geeky statistics (thanks to Wikipedia): Passenger trains make up nearly a third of all journeys undertaken in Japan, blowing all competitors out of the water. Switzerland comes in a distant second at 17%. The Japanese train system is 100% electrified, so even the Shinkansen bullet trains don’t belch out clouds of diesel fumes! Japan also, to my complete astonishment, comes in ahead of India in terms of number of passengers carried by rail (data from 2015, so this might no longer be true). So there you go, Japanese trains kick ass. Now onto our visit.

Our first stop was Osaka, Japan’s second largest city. We arrived late at night to an eerily deserted airport, and Sophie had the excellent idea to book us a room at the airport hotel, rather than try to figure out the trains and get into town past 11 pm. The hotel was excellent, and we had a nice rest there. The next morning we looked out of the window to see Japanese Navy ships going past. The airport is built on an artificial island in the middle of the sea! We got our stuff together and went down to the reception to check out, but before we could even reach the counter, we were greeted and asked what we would like by the impeccably well-mannered staff.

Worn out after a long day on the trains

Our next task was to figure out the train system, and get on the right train towards Osaka. We booked a flat through my least-favourite accommodation website, whose name I shan’t mention, but begins with A, and ends with B. We were provided with reasonably clear directions on how to get the the flat, but still managed to get lost on the final stretch. We stopped outside a tiny hairdressers to re-examine the directions. No more than two minutes passed before the hairdresser herself came out of her shop to try to help us. She spoke no English, and we spoke essentially no Japanese. After a few attempts at communicating, she called in the reserves. Another man appeared, and now we had two helpers. Sophie showed him a picture of the building on her phone, and he went “Hai!”. That was the word we wanted to hear. He motioned to us to follow him, and off we went (not before thanking and bowing to the nice lady). Literally 50 meters further down the road, and we were standing outside our building. D’oh! This was to be the first of many demonstrations of kindness towards us strangers by the Japanese people – even though they speak little to no English, they will go out of their way to try and help you.

Our apartment was the size and shape of a shoe box. No beds, no chairs, or any of that other junk us westerners have cluttering up our houses. In fact, it was so minimalist that there was only 4 cups and 4 spoons by way of cutlery, crockery, and cookware! Needless to say, we didn’t do much in the way of cooking there. The apartment block was also brand new, and still had that “new” smell to it. All the labels and tags were still on the appliances too. All the decorations were tastefully minimalist, and the whole place was spotlessly clean, even the common areas (which are not heated either, which I thought was a great way to save energy).

Greg at Osaka Aquarium

Our time in Osaka was spent seeing the sights, and getting to grips with how differently the Japanese approach almost everything compared to us. For starters, the Japanese love to cycle and there are bicycles everywhere. They also have no problem sharing the pavement with pedestrians, which would cause complete chaos anywhere else. Once you know to keep an eye out for bikes, it’s easy. They also take crossing the road very seriously. If the little man is red, nobody dares cross, even on tiny side-streets with no traffic to be seen. This would blow the minds of more than half the world’s population.

Girls in kimodos

It’s quite a strange experience walking around cities in Japan. We walked around Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo, all huge cities in their own right. But the strange thing is just how peaceful and quiet it is, you can hardly believe you are in one of the world’s largest cities while strolling around residential Tokyo. The same applies to the other cities we visited, it was dead quiet. No loud mopeds, trucks, or noisy buses, no traffic jams, no honking, just everyone going about their business in a quietly efficient manner. I’m writing this from Bali, which is a complete contrast. Yesterday, a little kid rode his bike past us with a few yogurt pots stuck into his spokes to make it sound like a motorbike. Sophie and I joked that this one kid made more noise than we heard in downtown central Tokyo!

Shopping madness on Shinsaibashi

Now, let’s be clear, there are notable exceptions to this: the large transportation hubs are extremely busy, but nonetheless very orderly. There are orderly lines clearly marked on the platforms, and people queue up and wait in line for trains, instead of a scrum forming around the doors like in the rest of the world. Then there are the pedestrian shopping walkways, such as the Shinsaibashi shopping street in Osaka, and walking up it was like trying to swim up a fast flowing river of people. Forget standing and looking in a window, you will be swept downstream in no time. And last but not least, are the tourist traps.

The great crowds at the Great Torii

We encountered our fair share of these around the country, and each time I had an allergic reaction to them that made me want to turn around and go in the opposite direction. Whether it was the hordes of tourists milling about around the great Torii on the beach at Miyajima Island, or the never-ending line of tourists heading up Mount Inari, I felt like a sheep being herded and this kind of spoiled the experience for me.

Shinkansen bullet train arriving (photo by Greg)

We made good use of our 7-day unlimited Japan Rail (JR) Passes, which cost a pretty penny, but are the only way to go really. We literally must have taken 100 different trains. On one day, we counted 9 trains, and that was a pretty ordinary day of getting about. We went on a day trip from Osaka to Hiroshima on the Shinkansen (or bullet train), which was so quick and easy. Then we moved to Kyoto, and did a few little trips around the region, including one trip up to the northern coast of Honshu island, that took us around the shores of huge Lake Biwa and up through the mountains, which was a really beautiful journey. We did this trip one day earlier than intended, as we got onto the wrong train in the morning and before we knew it we were hurtling past the shores of the lake. We ended up in an industrial city called Tsuruga and went for a walk about. We headed for a hillside park with a view of the bay, and were unexpectedly greeted with a view of a giant coal unloading facility, and cement factory! This was the real Japan, away from the tourist traps, in fact, not a single tourist was to be seen here. I was a happy camper.

Shopping in Tsuruga

We also managed to find one of the few things in Japan that are cheap to buy: shoes. The kids were badly in need of a new pair of walking shoes, since their current ones were literally falling apart, so we headed into the department store in Tsuruga and picked up two nice pairs of shoes for the kids for only $30 a pair, as well as a nice hooded top for Nina ($30) and a new rucksack for Sophie ($35). The return journey was via Maibara on the opposite side of the lake, taking a super express train and a Shinkansen all the way back to Kyoto. Overall a great day out.

About to try Fire Ramen in Kyoto

By the time we left Kyoto, I had fallen in love with Japan. I loved the quiet efficiency of the place, the helpful and friendly people, and the vending machines selling hot drinks everywhere! We did not get to try the full array of restaurants that were abundant in Japan due to budgetary considerations, but we did try the famous Fire Ramen on Kyoto, as well as the other fast food noodle shops, which are also a model of efficiency: as you enter, there is a kiosk where you choose what you want, place your order and pay. You then sit down at a table and wait for only a few minutes while your meals are prepared. The waiter brings you water followed by your food. You eat, and when you are done you just get up and leave. You are literally in and out of there in less than 30 minutes, this compared to the hour plus we had to wait for our food in Bali, then the waiting afterwards to sign the bill etc.. such a waste of time! We also fell in love with the little bakeries dotted around town selling all sorts of strange baked goods, that we had fun trying without have any idea what was inside. Sometime we got a surprise when what looked like a sweet doughnut turned out to be filled with a spicy savory filling. Then there are the Seven-Eleven stores and Family Marts that are everywhere, where you can pick up some goodies for lunch. Nina took a liking to the egg sandwiches, and literally had that for lunch every single day (well, almost). Dinner was some tempura and sushi or ramen noodles bought from the supermarket. In this way, we managed to keep food costs within our meager budget. I was also very impressed by the gourmet supermarkets in all the major railway stations, where the sheer variety and quantity of foods available is overwhelming. Just was well we couldn’t afford any of it 🙂

Where is Mt. Fuji???

From Kyoto we headed east towards Tokyo on the Shinkansen. We stopped overnight near Mount Fuji to see the mountain, but unfortunately for us, the clouds and rain had moved in and we only caught a glimpse of the mountain from behind some hills near our accommodation. The next day, we made a valiant effort to see the mountain from closer up, but the weather was still against us, so we had to give up. Had I known that the view I had from the train the previous day would be the best we would get, I would have snapped a bunch of photos. But no, I thought that we would have a way better view from our destination, so I didn’t bother. Epic fail.

Tokyo by night

Not long after, we found ourselves in the world’s most populated metropolis: Tokyo. This is one enormous city, but unless you are in a main station or on a shopping street, you don’t get that impression at all. Again, the streets are so quiet, and we wandered along little pathways with running streams flowing alongside, then found ourselves at one of the many tidal rivers, that have high anti-tsunami embankments with smooth asphalt for cycling, roller-blading, or simply walking. On the riverside of the embankment are soccer fields, parks, and most commonly baseball fields. The Japanese are baseball crazy, which I should have known, but was reminded of many times during the trip. It was a Sunday when we strolled along the embankment, and the fields were all full of players and the stands were full of spectators. This, again, was the real Japan that I wanted to see. We did go to some tourist traps, such as the harbour, the Ueno Zoo, and the main intersection where you can film the crowds crossing. Personally, I could have done without seeing these places, but traveling as a family means compromise, after all.

Our stay in Japan came to an end after 12 days, and despite having some reservations beforehand, I was really pleasantly surprised by Japan, and will be coming back again for sure. Thank you Japan for your warm welcome and Sayonara!