We spent two fabulous weeks in Japan over cherry blossom season and were totally captivated by the country, its culture, and its quirkiness.
Our 14-day trip covered Tokyo, Kyoto and hiking the Kumano Kodo on the Kii Peninsula south of Osaka, one of only two World Heritage-listed pilgrimage walks in the world.
We’re part of an increasing number of Australians holidaying in Japan. In 2018 Japan was the fastest growing overseas destination for Australian travellers, up 17 percent on the previous year. Japan now sits at number seven on the list of most popular international travel spots for Australians.
And what’s not to love?
It’s in the same time zone, is only a 10-hour flight away, has great food, is a wonderful mix of old and new culture, has an intriguing and complex social etiquette, incredible powder snow for ski lovers, plus it’s safe.
Here are a few things we learned in our two weeks in Japan, which will give you a flavor of this fascinating country and some insight into what to expect on your travels.
1. Everything is small in Japan
Everything is small in Japan: the people, the hotel rooms, the delicate food with each cake, biscuit, rice ball individually wrapped, even the cars are tiny. Compact and contained is king here. It’s the complete opposite of the US where big is always better and everything is super-sized, especially the cars and food servings.
2: The slipper shuffle
It’s etiquette to remove your shoes when you walk into a house or hotel. On our hiking trip outside the main cities, the entrance to one hotel we stayed at was lined with rows of hiking boots that guests had removed. There was a separate line-up of slippers suitable to wear in the hotel’s common areas.
In your room you had to change into a different set of slippers to wear inside but not on the tatami mats, pop on yet another pair to go to the toilet and different ones again to wear in the onsen.
I felt sure I was destined for Japanese slipper hell. I got so confused by all the different slippers you had to wear and failed miserably at the slipper shuffle: I kept forgetting to swap the indoor, outdoor, onsen, toilet and tatami mat slippers.
It’s serious slipper business and hard to change the habits of a lifetime in a two-week period.
3. The Japanese have a collective sweet tooth
The Japanese might be big consumers of sushi, sashimi, ramen and noodles which all seems so incredibly healthy but bakeries and delicate sweet deliciousness are everywhere.
Gelato, cheesecake, matcha biscuits and cakes, sweet rice dumplings, lollies and sweets in all different shapes and sizes, Japan is absolute heaven for a sweet tooth like me.
We found a great self-guided foodie tour of Tokyo and discovered the most amazing treats, like custard filled mochi (rice cakes) at the Tsukiji markets and melon bread (melon pan) and anbata pan, a sweet red bean paste in bread, at the Kimuraya Bakery in Ginza.
Two weeks in Japan wasn’t great for my waistline despite all the walking we did!
4. The Japanese are unfailingly polite except…
Politeness is almost a religion in Japan and their service is next level. The only exception is in crowded places like on public transport in Tokyo.
You’ve probably read about or seen how packed the trains are in cities like Tokyo, yet it’s quite confronting to experience it. You have to push through scrum-like to get off packed trains and no-one really moves out of your way.
I struggled with the complete lack of personal space on the trains in Tokyo; at times I felt trapped and unsafe and our trip to Haneda airport was a nightmare, my feet were barely touching the ground we were so tightly jam packed!
5. The transport system is incredible
The trains may be crowded but the transport system is incredible. The trains are clean, there’s no graffiti, they run on time, destinations are clearly shown on a map and the voice over system is clear and comprehensible. If there was a competition between Swiss and Japanese trains, I’m not sure who’d win.
The Shinkansen, fast trains, probably give Japan the edge. They’re amazing. But a word of warning, be prepared for your stop. The trains only stop for 60 seconds at stations to let passengers off and on, so you need to have your bags ready and be waiting at the doors to disembark.
While Japanese trains are famous for their efficiency and punctuality, the system isn’t infallible. Our first Shinkansen trip from Tokyo was cancelled at the last minute due to mechanical issues and we discovered by sheer chance that we had to dash to another platform to catch a different train. We left 20 minutes late and luckily managed to make our connection in Osaka by a mere 10 seconds. Phew.
6. It’s compulsory to have a bento box on your fast train ride
If you haven’t had a bento box on your fast train ride then you haven’t really been to Japan.
Eating a bento box on the shinkansen is a rite of passage. You can buy them on the platform or on the train. All the locals have one. It’s like a beautifully packaged treasure chest full of goodies.
7. Beware, plastic is everywhere
They use an alarming amount of plastic in Japan – everything from food, slippers, biscuits and sweet treats wrapped in individual plastic packs – which seems so at odds with the country’s reputation as an advanced, high-tech society.
They’re definitely behind the times when it comes to sustainable, recyclable packaging. Make sure you bring your own reusable bags.
Plastic food is also big business in Japan. Faux food window displays in restaurants may be kitsch but they’re quite impressive and I was intrigued by their design and detail.
8. Rubbish, what rubbish?
Despite having some of the most intricate packaging and over-packaging in the world particularly around food and delicacies such as sweet treats, there are very few garbage bins anywhere in public locations. Yet, the extraordinary thing is you won’t find rubbish anywhere.
Japan is one of the cleanest countries we’ve visited so do what the locals do and take your rubbish home with you.
9. The toilets are an art form but where do you wipe your hands?
I haven’t met anyone who doesn’t love the toilets in Japan. They’re an art form: creative, super high-tech, functional and an absolute pleasure to sit on. Warm seats, privacy buttons, deodoriser buttons, bottom washing buttons and even a tap on top to wash your hands when you flush!
What’s even better, they’re everywhere and they’re super clean. Unlike many other cities where you’re desperately holding on as you search in vain for a public toilet that isn’t filthy, Japan’s public toilets are probably cleaner than your one at home.
But it’s a mystery that the Japanese have almost perfect public toilets, yet they don’t provide paper towel or hand dryers to dry your hands afterwards.
Take a tip from the local ladies and carry your own towelette for this task.
10. Pillows are like wheat bags and other hotel room quirks
In more traditional Japanese accommodation, the pillows are like wheat bags and not to everyone’s liking. It was a common complaint on review websites. I didn’t find them too uncomfortable though they were rather small by Western standards.
Similarly, the futons were a bit short. We stayed in numerous traditional Japanese inns, ryokans, where the bedding is rolled out every night. If you’re a reasonable height, expect your legs and/or feet to be hanging over the edge.
While most of the places we stayed at had facilities to make tea in our rooms oddly there were never any spoons.
And in keeping with everything is small in Japan, the first hotel room we stayed in near Ueno Park in Tokyo was teeny tiny. I could not stretch both my arms out across the width of the bathroom and the double bed was hard up against a wall with only a small bedside table on the other side.
11. You can buy your dinner at a vending machine in a restaurant
It’s a novelty to go to restaurant and order your food from a vending machine. Our first night in Tokyo we stumbled into a ramen restaurant around the corner from our hotel and had to work out what we wanted and how to order from a machine. It was a bit of a challenge and a bit of fun.
But this wasn’t a get a ticket and wait for your number to be called gig. The restaurant actually had wait staff to bring your food to the table as well as take drink orders.
12. Onsen etiquette
On the hiking part of our trip we stayed in a mix of small hotels and ryokans in country areas. Our rooms didn’t have showers and the only way to wash was in the communal onsen.
After a day of walking it’s therapeutic to hop into a hot bath to relax and loosen up your muscles. But sitting on a plastic stool, with a hand-held shower hose and a bucket to wash takes a bit of getting used to for ‘prudish’ Westerners.
There’s a strict protocol for using the onsen and we read a few variations of what to do (there are plenty of YouTube videos as well) but you must wash first before hopping into the hot bath, and you never put your head or hair in the water.
13. The Japanese still smoke in restaurants
Smoking in restaurants has been banned in Australian restaurants for a long time, so it’s quite a culture shock to dine in a restaurant full of cigarette smoke. Probably not as much of a shock as seeing horse sashimi on the menu…
While not all restaurants we went to were full of smoke, it was not uncommon in restaurants frequented by locals.
14. There’s no such thing as tipping
You read that right. There’s no such thing as tipping in Japan. Hallelujah. In fact it can be considered an insult and can put staff in an awkward, uncomfortable position. So enjoy the experience of paying for your food or service without having to agonise over how much extra you should leave on the table.
We only scratched the surface of this beautiful and fascinating country during our two weeks in Japan and we can say with certainty, it’s one place we’ll definitely visit again.