Monday, 21 July 2014

Japan Journals

Good Day Everyone,

Even though it’s been a few months since we returned from our Japan trip, I’m really enjoying re-living the experience as I go through our photos, ticket stubs (does anyone else do that... keep ticket stubs from tourist attractions, concerts etc?) and brochures in preparation for my Japan Journals blog posts. We absolutely loved Japan and enjoyed our trip immensely! Japan is such a unique country with a fascinating culture and society, and I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to visit this amazing country.

I have to say that the people of Japan are one of the nicest people I’ve ever met on our Asian travels (along with the people of Cambodia). Everyone we encountered was so friendly,  polite and helpful. Even though we don’t speak the language and many Japanese people don’t speak much English, whenever we asked for help with things like directions people would go out of their way to help us. 

One thing that really surprised me about Japan was how little English is spoken. In all the other countries that we’ve travelled to in Asia (Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Singapore obviously) English has been very prevalent and is often the second language. Given that Japan is a first world country and English is just accepted as a global language I expected it to be much more widely spoken than it was. I guess what surprised me even more was that in many (not all) of the tourist places we visited signs and brochures were not in English. Despite this, we still picked up the brochures as often they’d include maps that did proved to be useful. 

We managed to catch up with some Japanese friends whilst we were in Kobe and they explained that the reason for many Japanese people not speaking English is that the education system doesn’t teach in English, as is the case in some other Asian countries. Rather, English is taught as a language at school for about 6 years. So I guess it’s a bit like the way us Brits learn French at school but soon forget it once we leave school. Our friends explained that the Japanese culture is one of obedience, respect and toeing the party line, and that Japanese people do not tend to express their feelings or opinions. As a result, people are too shy to speak English in case they make mistakes and the embarrassment this might cause. In addition, whilst there is an expat community of foreign workers in Japan (who are often English speakers) it is very small especially compared to other Asian countries like Singapore and Malaysia. Consequently, the vast majority of business meetings are conducted in Japanese with an English translator present so people don't get to practice their English. We discovered from our friends that because a lot of people, especially the older Japanese, don’t speak English many of them holiday within Japan itself. This explains why the vast majority of people we saw at the tourist places we visited were Japanese, rather than foreigners like us.

Something that my hubby and I loved about Japan was just how well everyone dresses. The Japanese are very stylish dressers indeed. We didn’t see a single pair of leggings being worn as trousers (one of my bug bears), or any tracksuit bottoms or guys with jeans halfway around their knees! People in Japan don’t necessarily follow fashion trends, rather they all seem to have their own unique and individual style that they freely express. We even saw girls dressed like Little Bo Peep complete with the bonnet on the subways… can you imagine people’s reaction if they saw someone dressed like that on the London Underground?! There were many girls with an anime inspired style as well as others with a more rock or goth style. I would say a significant proportion of the girls I saw dressed very girly and femininely with lots of frills, colour, lace and pearls. Platform shoes seemed to be really popular in their various styles... dolly, pumps and wedges. I admired the girls teetering around in their sky high heels as you walk a lot in Japan. Oh and did I mention eyelashes… Japanese girls love their false eyelashes like no other. I went into stores with walls and walls of eyelashes… it really was something else! My Japanese girl friends said that there is a lot of pressure in Japanese society for women to look good and well put together. It was very common to see more mature ladies (I’m talking 60+) dressed smartly in blazers with neck handkerchiefs and their lippy and pearls, even just to go to the park.

The men didn't let the side down either ;o). Older men especially were equally smart with blazers, hats and pocket squares…my hubby couldn’t have been more at home! For those that know my hubby personally you’ll know exactly what I mean. For those that don’t, lets just say that my hubby really should have been born in the era of Jeeves & Wooster. It was very common to see men with man bags… something that I’m trying to convince my hubby that he needs as he’s always asking me for tissues / money / hand sanitizer / mints etc when we’re out and about. People really seem to take pride in their appearance and I loved that.

Now one aspect of Japan that I won’t be able to provide you with much insight is Japanese cuisine. My hubby and I are not the most adventurous eaters. He is a carb and sugar addict with a love for tomatoes, and I tend to live off fruit, veg, nuts and seeds with a few natural carbs thrown in for good measure. Neither of us is a fan of meat or fish so there certainly wasn't any sushi on the menu for us. In fact, food was the one aspect that I struggled with on this trip.... 11 days without access to my own kitchen was tough going. Surprisingly, we came across a lot of Italian restaurants and pancakes seemed to be in trend too. So needless to say, this trip was a total carb fest on the food front (great for my hubby but not for me). Whenever I came across a Caprese salad on a menu… I was all over it ;o). At times I even resorted to buying fruit from the supermarket and storing it in our hotel room refrigerator.

The architecture wasn’t quite what I was expecting in Japan. Tokyo was as I expected, all bright and colourful crazy lights everywhere but in most other places, with the exception of the odd building here and there or in city centres, it was very much grey, concrete-y, boxy and a bit depressing if I’m honest... Perhaps I've become too accustomed to the colourful buildings of Singapore! Also, there were cables and wires everywhere whenever you looked up from the streets and it all looked a bit messy. In my mind, I was expecting to see many more contemporary, futuristic, snazzy looking buildings given that Japan is associated with great technological advancement and engineering… something more along the lines of the type of architecture that you see in Singapore. 

Having said that, I loved the contrast between the grey concrete buildings and the country’s natural beauty. One minute I’d be looking at a very dull street full of dark cables and wires and then right in the middle of it there would be a bright pop of pink from the cherry blossoms. We managed to see a fair bit of Japan whilst travelling on the bullet trains and the natural beauty of the country is stunning. I can imagine autumn / fall being spectacular when the leaves changing colour.

In terms of getting around in Japan, we travelled by bullet train from city to city. We had bought the Japan Rail Pass prior to our trip to save money (more on this in my next Japan Journals blog post). Within each city we used the local subway and trains. The subway system isn’t as modern as the MRT system in Singapore.... in many respects it was very similar to the London Underground. I was quite surprised to see female only carriages on the trains and subways but apparently women being hassled by men can be an issue in Japan, according to our Japanese friends. We didn’t use any of the buses due to the language barrier and taxis were very expensive. The only time we used a taxi was to get from a train/subway station to our hotel and vice versa simply because we had suitcases. 
People use bicycles a lot in Japan to get around. It was something we noticed most in Kobe and Kyoto and I'm not talking about the hardcore cycling with helmets and lycra but more of the basket bicycles. I rarely saw any of these cyclists wearing a helmet and perhaps this is because car drivers in Japan are probably some of the least aggressive I've ever seen.

As my hubby had been to Japan on a business trip a few months prior to our holiday, I already knew that the trip was going to be challenging on the language front so I did a lot of prep beforehand (my inner Monica was released ;o)). Now I know this may sound a bit OTT but I actually compiled a Word document detailing the attractions we may want to visit, with their opening times, ticket prices as well as directions and nearest subway/train stations, for each city. I knew from my hubby that many of the train/subway stations are really big in Japan with numerous exits. So where possible, I also noted which station exit we would need for each of the tourist attractions. 

As part of my prep, I printed colour copies of the train and subway maps of each city we were visiting and marked all the tourist attractions and places so that we could see where they all were relative to one another, and relative to our hotel. This meant that we could plan outings and routes that minimised the amount of travelling we needed to do, as I get very tired very easily due to my arthritis.

I took photos on my iPhone of Google Maps showing where our hotel was located relative to the nearest train/subway station. That way if we got into a taxi and the taxi driver didn’t know of our hotel, we could just show it him on Google Maps which had street names in Japanese. This actually came in very handy with our hotel in Tokyo…twice! In addition, I also took the name, address and contact details of our hotels written in both English and Japanese… again something that came in most useful.

I also put together a Word document with some Japanese phrases that we might need that we could carry around with us. Just simple things like, “please”, “thank you”, “how much is this?”, “can you tell me how to get to … please?”, and dietary specifics which came in very useful like “I don’t eat meat or fish”.

The main reason why we visited Japan in March/April was to see the cherry blossoms, something that’s been a dream of mine and they truly did not disappoint. I had the best time walking around in the sun just taking in these truly magnificent wonders of nature. The colours were sooo pretty. Cherry blossom festivals and gatherings are a significant part of the Japanese culture. I’m sure you will see plenty of photos of these beauties over the next few blog posts. The gardens and parks in Japan were breathtakingly beautiful. I get the impression that the Japanese take gardening and nature pretty seriously. We spent many hours wandering around and soaking up the surroundings. We noticed that Japanese gardens always seem to contain water in some form or another such as a fountain or pond often with koi carp fish. 

Whenever my hubby and I go on holiday we have a tradition of buying something that we can keep forever as a memento of that trip and so you guessed it… we went shopping :o) Plus there was something specific that I desperately wanted to buy from Japan but I will keep the mystery and do a separate blog post on shopping in Japan ;o)

I hope you enjoyed this little bit of insight into our trip. Over the next few weeks I will do blog posts on each of the cities we visited covering where we stayed, what we ate, and which tourist attractions we saw.

Have you been to Japan? Where did you go? What was the highlight of your trip? 

Love Sheen xxx

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