- Women, one of my favorite topics of comparison. Japan is still remarkably traditional when it comes to gender roles. There’s still an expectation that women take care of the home while the patriarch earns a salary. I found women generally subservient and passive in nature. Of course there are exceptions to the rule. The movement for career women is emerging, but those who choose this path often forego marriage entirely. In addition to reestablishing norms, the independence is contributing to two things: reduced birth rates and increased men who virtual date (yes, dating fictional characters in a virtual reality).
- Castles. Almost every city has a castle made of wood, in the traditional Edo style. Most are now replicas of the originals. Matsumoto had my favorite castle. But let’s note something: wood? Wood burns with fire. Our guide in Matsumoto explained that they put tiger-fish ceramic figures on the top of the castle. These creatures, called shachi, were said to fill with water to spray at enemies. Call me a non-believer but I’m pretty sure these statues would not have protected against even a tiny flame.
- Ice cream. I’m not sure if it’s for the tourists or the locals but there is soft serve EVERYWHERE. Around Lake Kawaguchi, it was almost the only thing offered to eat. Unique flavors include matcha green tea, black sesame, lavender, and honey.
- Handheld electric fans. To cope with the August heat, many people walk around with handheld electric fans wrapped on a string around their neck. For $10 you had a cooling device everywhere you went.
- Train station craziness. My dad and I spent a LOT of time in train stations over our week because of the Rail Pass. These things are really glorified malls, like a whole other shopping world underground. Except this mall is packed with people running every direction and covered in signs pointing all over for different lines. Go in with a purpose, use Google to tell you what line, and only find signs for that line. Google will also tell you the platform.
- No hugs. Japanese people are not big on hugs. I never realized how natural of a greeting it was until I saw the greeting without one. You’ll see two friends come running up to each other, stop 2 feet away, and wave violently. I mean seriously cringe worthy for me to watch. Same thing happened for goodbyes.
- Style. We did a lot of people-watching and prominent styles emerged for sure. Lots of monotone clothing (starkly contrasted with the cosplay colors), lots of platform shoes (‘I feel like I don’t know how tall Japanese people really are because they’re all cheating’ –Dad), and women almost always in long skirts and dresses.
- Fun fact: Darth Vader’s helmet was designed after Japanese samurai helmets
- Nature. Japan is about 70% forest and very hilly. They pretty much built on every inch of flat space and anything in between is a rolling hill. Japan also experiences most natural disasters: regular earthquakes, typhoons, hurricanes, and volcanic activity.
- Praying at a shrine is a three step process: bow twice, clap twice, then bow again.
- Try the plum wine. Sake and Japanese whisky also good.
Monday- to Fuji!
- Took the train, to another train, from Tokyo to Lake Kawaguchi. On a clear day, this lake has an amazing view of Mt. Fuji. Well…we had to use our imagination a bit.
- Note: probably because of its proximity to Tokyo, this was not a cheap lake. We stayed at a nice but pricey hostel near the station called Samurise. Anywhere else this would have been less. To get around the lake, you can buy a $15 dollar local bus pass for 2 days. Food options are limited and no bargain either.
- That being said, we took the bus to Oishi Park on the north of the lake and slowly made our way back, walking and hopping on and off the bus. The park was beautiful and the towns around it also nice. It was SUPER refreshing to be out of the city.
- The fashionably late typhoon dropped in at night and we curled up and watched some stand-up.
Tuesday- Lake Kawaguchi
- Maxing out on our 2 day bus pass, we went to the south side of the lake then to the neighboring Lake Saiko.
- Yagizaki Park was stunning. Quiet, green, and an amazing view of the mountains. Fuji still not showing, in fact, does it really exist? But the other hills with the lake in the foreground, damn, so good. I remind you: mountains and water are truly the best combination.
- Lake Saiko was quaint, much less travelled, and surrounded by campgrounds that made me long for a tent and campfire.
- Took the train (a local train decked out in Thomas the Tank Engine décor) to another train through the hilly middle of the country. The ride was STUNNING, long (~3 hrs) but lined with nature and small Japanese towns.
- Landed in the mountain town of Matsumoto, situated at the foot of the Japanese alps. Grabbed a soba noodle dinner, a dish they’re well known for, and caught the castle at sunset.
- Matsumoto castle was just amazing, traditional Edo style, on a moat, with the peaks in the background. And oh by the way, the clouds made purples, blues, and pinks light the sky.
- While admiring the castle, a 78 year old man stopped us and dropped some knowledge on the city. He was a fascinating guy, on his way home from French class so he could give tours in French, a former Canon employee who spent time around the world marketing cameras. My dad and I talk to a lot of random people, but it’s very rare someone questions us first. One for the mems.
- Check into our hostel for the night, a former Miso factory. We were ‘lucky’ enough to get the koji room. Koji is a fungus used to ferment soy and other grains. Needing to have low humidity and stable temperatures, the room had a door made for oompa loompas. Aside from the limbo exercise needed to enter our room, we met some cool people in the hostel as well.
- Morning tour of Matsumoto castle. Pro tip: not highly advertised and kind of off to the side of the ticket booth is a place to get free, personal tour guides in any language you need!
- Our tour guide was a former Japanese local news reporter who spends his Wednesdays giving tours to visitors. This service was truly free (no tips accepted) and so worth it.
- The castle itself was really cool to enter. You could almost feel the samurai running through the wood halls, shooting arrows through the little holes, and dropping rocks down the castle walls to knock opponents. Asian pro tip, repeated: always wear socks. No shoes were allowed in the castle.
- Walked around downtown, trying regional foods like Oyaki, a small buckwheat dumpling with vegetable filling. The fresh peaches were also delicious and if you’re feeling experimental, try something with the red bean flavor!
- The mascot of this city was a frog. Even if I didn’t Google it, there was no hiding the tens of frog statues lining the streets. My dad noted ‘it is fitting that this was our favorite city. Mike’s nickname was frog’. Mike is my uncle that passed when I was young who spent a lot of time living in Japan. <3
- What’s that? We hadn’t taken a train yet today? Oh don’t worry, the two hour ride to Kanazawa filled the void.
- Dad listened to podcasts and I listened to my audio book until we arrived in the rainy city. Nothing to special to note, another castle, a cool samurai neighborhood, and more lighted city streets.
Thursday- City -> Beach -> Lake -> Bowling
- Trying to escape the 90% chance of precipitation in Kanazawa all day, we headed out to Tsuruga, a coastal port city on the North-West side.
- Pretty sure the locals thought we got lost when we got off the train and started walking around, definitely not a tourist place. But all the better! We got a real taste of Japanese suburbia.
- Walked to the beach and the ‘pine tree forest’ that I think would’ve been a lot more exciting to someone that didn’t grow up in New England. Served as a reminder that Japan is an island.
- Lunch and back to the station for another ride to Lake Biwa, directly north of Kyoto. We almost skipped this stop because of train schedules and exhaustion but of course, it was worth it.
- Got off at the Omi-Maiko station, a 5 minute walk from the lake shore. We were greeted with a lot of trash and teenagers loitering by the water. BUT walk a little farther, there’s another beautiful lake next to it, and then a stretch of private beach.
- In what only felt like a fateful meeting, we crossed paths an amazing Japanese American woman who grew up in Australia and was now living by the lake trying to preserve Japanese arts/textiles in Kyoto. Beyond her work, she had a great outlook on current Japanese culture, resenting the overuse of technology and highlighting the affects climate change is having on the country. I could go on and on but yeah, we could have talked to her for hours.
- Train back to Kyoto for bowling with Parea as part of the Kyoto Farewell.
- Brunch at Choice, an entirely vegan and gluten-free café in my neighborhood. $12 for GF pancakes but #worthit
- Pack up and say bye to Dad. I will never forget the time we had together, so glad he made the trek to visit.
- Work in the afternoon and finish packing. Rain did not help the drying of laundry. Sad to say by to the house, I really enjoyed living there.
- Final walk through the city before a treat of black sesame and matcha green tea ice cream from Nanaya. Worth the stop if you’re in Kyoto!
- Head out of the house for the 2 hour ride to the airport and 10pm flight to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
- Nothing like an overnight flight to get back into a normal routine….hey, at least I had an entire row to myself on the flight! Never laid down on a plane before like that.
- Day one in KL coming soon…
If I were to sum up my thoughts on Japan it’d be like this. I appreciated the cleanliness, the efficiency, and structure, but sometimes it was too much. I got ‘tsk tsk’-ed many times for eating and drinking in places I was not supposed to and for walking in places I should not. But c’mon, lighten up a bit, we will live if I open this bag of chips in the store. I loved that Japan has its own vibe, Tokyo was maybe the most unique city I’ve ever been to, but anime culture is not really for me long term. I was not a fan of the culture for women of either being domesticated or taking the opposite extreme, not marrying and leading an entirely independent life. I think there needs to be more of a balance, but really just a culture shift that makes it ok for women to be both a housewife and a successful worker, or anything in between. I would never really fit in for the sheer fact that dresses and skirts are not my daily style as they are here.
On a personal note, I also found it really hard to eat because gluten free options are sparse. Ramen, udon, and soba noodles all have wheat flour in them. Sushi is gluten free but is almost always covered in soy sauce. On top of that, the lack of English in the supermarket makes it really hard to interpret ingredients. My dad and I cooked at the house or had Indian food because that was seemingly safe. One of my friends brought up that the homogenous society (98% Japanese) allows them to categorically cater to one diet. Japanese tend to have sensitivities to dairy, hence it’s found almost nowhere. With the exception of ice cream of course.
I was really impressed by the lack of animosity towards the United States for our actions during World War II. Perhaps it was out of guilt for their actions as well, but the overwhelming emphasis on peace for the future was impressive.
If I had advice for people travelling to Japan in the summer, it’d be to get up and do things early. Things start to get packed around 10am and of course, the heat gets worse. I’d also highly recommend getting out of the cities. Definitely see Kyoto and Tokyo, but some of the beauty is outside.
Overall a good month and I really did get to see a lot of the country. One thing’s for sure, I loved the mountainous country side, and taking trains freely was a lot of fun.