Everybody who visits Japan has amazing things to say about the country. Everything from its culture, people, and food is so unique and incredible. So, let me talk about some of the highlights from our trip, and why I think Japan is an amazingly unique country.
1. The People
The Japanese were some of the nicest and most genuine people we’ve ever met. At so many occasions random strangers went out of their way to help us. The people of Japan are truly the most hospitable people I’ve ever encountered on my travels.
Incident #1 – At Daiba, Tokyo
We landed at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport around 9:30 PM. Now, Narita is quite far away from Tokyo as is but what we didn’t realise was that we were staying in Daiba on our first night. Daiba was another 20-30 mins away from city centre. We had to change 4 trains from the airport, and for those of you who have been to Tokyo you know that Tokyo has the most confusing and intimidating metro system in the world! Anyway, 4 changes also meant 4 tickets and it became hard to keep a track of which ticket was for which train.
By the time we made it to Daiba, with all our heavy luggage, it was almost 1 AM. While I managed to keep track of all my train tickets, my wife ended up losing her ticket for the final train. And that’s when we realised that we were trapped inside the station. The station master’s office was shut and there was no soul on the station except us. Daiba wasn’t exactly buzzing like Tokyo city centre at 1 AM. While we sat there contemplating all our options, 3 men came out of the station from what I could probably assume was the last train of the night. We approached them for help but neither spoke any English. Through the use of sign language and gestures, they finally understood our predicament. That’s when one of them pressed a buzzer on the side of a wall and a few moments later we heard another voice from the speaker. They exchanged a few words and suddenly out of nowhere (well this little machine which I didn’t know existed) came out a new ticket! They picked up the ticket and handed it to us. We really didn’t know how to thank them!
Incident #2 – at Hakone
The second incident occurred when we boarded a local bus on our way to Lake Ashi. An elderly lady, who was also a tourist, approached the bus driver because she didn’t know where her stop was. My experiences with bus drivers in Hong Kong have conditioned me to believe that bus drivers are rude and don’t like to be disturbed while driving. But here, the bus driver went out of his way to help this old lady. The whole bus could hear how patient he was because his mic (yes the driver has a mic to announce stops) was switched on. He even gave her his own map because she found it easier to read and understand than the map she owned.
Their conversation lasted a good 5 minutes while the whole bus sat patiently too. But we were so surprised by how kindly the bus driver had spoken to this elderly lady. Later when we reached Lake Ashi, the same driver didn’t have adequate change for our bus fare. So, he made an announcement on his mic and someone stepped up with the change for us. Incredible! I can’t imagine this happening in any other country.
2. The Shinkansen
The Shinkansen or the bullet train is one of those iconic Japanese symbols of speed, safety, and efficiency that has no parallel in the world. The bullet train makes distances look easy! We were doing 400-500 kms a day without breaking a sweat or feeling tired. The seats offer so much leg room that I could stretch my legs out and still see my toes!
But of course, the most impressive part about the Shinkansen is its efficiency. The Germans and the Swiss probably don’t even come close. The trains arrive and depart on-the-second. At each terminus, a crew enters the train just as the last arriving passenger gets off the train. They clean the coach and rotate each seat to face the direction in which the train will be moving, all within 5 odd minutes. In 2014, Japan Rail Central reported that the Shinkansen’s average delay from schedule per train was 54 seconds. This includes delays due to uncontrollable causes, such as natural disasters like earthquakes. The record, in 1997, was 18 seconds!!!
The JR Rail Pass – Get It Before You Enter Japan
There are very few words that I can come up with to describe the incredible experience traveling on the Shinkansen in Japan. Of course, traveling in such luxury and speeds does come at a very steep price. During our time in Japan, a ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto was priced between 11,000 – 15,000 Yen! But luckily, tourists are entitled to the Japan Rail (JR) Pass which gives them unlimited travel on JR trains. But here’s the catch, the JR Rail Pass can ONLY be obtained from outside Japan. You have to reserve the JR Pass in your home country before coming to Japan, and when you arrive in Japan show your reservation slip and non-Japanese passport to pick up the pass from a JR Rail office.
Also important to note that the Japan Rail Pass can be used on all Shinkansen trains except Nozomi and Mizuho trains, and all local JR trains.
3. The Food
After visiting Japan, I developed a new found love for Japanese food. Living in Hong Kong, one is often exposed to amazing Japanese food, from ramen to sushi. But of course, there’s so much more to Japanese food, and much to discover while in Japan.
During our trip we feasted ourselves on some of the best soba, sashimi, okonomiyaki and matcha ice-cream!
4. Harmony of Modern and Ancient Cultures
I personally felt that one of the most beautiful things about Japan was how their old buildings, new modern structures, and nature blend together in perfect harmony! Nothing looked out of place or incompatible.
5. The Vending Machines
Vending machines were the most ubiquitous sights in all of Japan. They are everywhere, selling everything. Outside our hotel in Daiba, Tokyo there was a coffee vending machine that sold more varieties of coffee than a Starbucks. At some restaurants that we visited, vending machines took orders for food. They swallowed up our money and sent the order ticket to the kitchen.
I didn’t realise how much I missed vending machines till I returned to Hong Kong. I often find myself searching for a vending machine while waiting for a train at a platform. Get vending machines, Hong Kong!
6. Sakura – Cherry Blossom
There’s a very good reason why Japan is worth visiting during March-April. That’s because it’s cherry blossom season. It’s not just the parks and gardens that look beautiful with cherry blossom laden trees, but the whole country that looks insanely gorgeous in full bloom! While we were travelling between Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima on the Shinkansen, the whole country side was full of cherry blossom trees in bloom. It was too beautiful for words!
7. All The Crazy Stuff
If there’s one thing I knew about Japan from its wacky TV shows is that the country has a very crazy side to it. So, apart from entering into Takeshi’s Castle, this is all the crazy stuff in Japan that we saw and did!