Food is one of the best and most interesting things about Japan and I have to say it was a complete suprise to me as although have eaten lots of Japanese elsewhere, I was surprised it was generally much heartier than I'd expected with bigger portions. This turned out to be great as it was winter, but it's amazing how everyone is so healthy with all this eating!!
Bread & Cake
Noodle and strawberry sandwiches had to be up there with the strangest but you got such interesting bakery goods.
Sake & beer
I would really like to have tried more sake. I know you could do flights, like in wine testing but the budget didn't stretch unfortunately.
Hot sake we both loved on those chilly days but mostly I became familiar with the one-cups you pick up in the convenience stores.
It amazed me that beer was often more expensive that wine. I imagine this is because it is taxed so much, but that wine would fall into a category with sake and they don't want to tax that so much because of it's religious and cultural associations. Just a guess.
We found beer always had a big head which annoyed Mark to begin with until he realised it was just a thing.
This really is one of the most amazing thing and actually one of the most handy. You might not know exactly what you're going to get, but as a tourist in a place that doesn't speak much other than Japanese, having these really helps when you first get there and they are just frankly so cute. I could fill my house with it.
You also get some quirky little displays too.
I've had Japanese curry before but had no idea what a massive thing it was. It's also really good value for budget wary tourists. You often get it for good prices at the ramen shops and there is also specific curry places. The one we went to was called CoCo. The principle was very simple - you had curry and rice, but you could pick everything - umpteen different sizes, different heats of the curry and of course different foods in the curry.
It looks really unappetising doesn't it? but trust me, it's delicious.
You can't go wrong with katsu, pork cutlet curry for me, but Cheese curry? Hmm, not sure, but didn't try - it could have been amazing.
Why not dress your food up? I love it. I'm totally like a little kid and I love that in Japan that sure, the cute food dishes are for the kids but no one bats an eyelid if you have anything cute as an adult too. Play with your food
Mayonnaise is a bit of a thing - you get it on all sorts. Certainly wasn't expecting that. I'm not quite sure what it is - it's not cheap jar mayonnaise but it's not fresh, posh homemade mayonnaise, but you'll often find if you buy street food it will be put on so make sure you speak up quick if you don't want. But actually, although it seems like it won't go, it generally just works.
Convenience store bits and pieces
Lot's of weird and wonderful things to be found in the convenience stores.
This ice-cream is from a vending machine in Ueno park and is delish!!
Green tea and wasabi flavours - why not?
Eating Etiquette & Environment
I didn't learn much eating etiquette but I did learn that you NEVER leave your chopsticks in your bowl. It's something that's done at funerals/associated with death somehow.
And you don't tip -it's rude. This actually makes life very easy - tipping is often such a pain and confusion when you're travelling.
For some reason so many restaurants play Jazz. All over. All different types. And I hate jazz. But somehow it was never that annoying jazz they play at mediocre Italian restaurant sunday brunches back home. It was ok. It's like it had been scientifically researched to be exactly what it should be - soothing background music. Well it is Japan!
Queuing at the bar - in an orderly line - it's a sight to behold.
Cooks and bar staff, shouting out when you leave bars/restaurants, particularly in ramen shops, is a bit disconcerting but you get used to it. They are basically shouting some kind of formal thank you for being their customer.
Similarly, in restaurants where the cooks etc are behind the scenes, when you have paid your bill, the person serving you will often do this in a quieter manner, but which often goes on for a lot longer. It is a verbal patter and don't feel you have to stay till the very end everywhere. It feels really impolite to walk away, but if you didn't, you'd never get anywhere.
I gave up most soft drinks years and years ago. Apart from the odd tonic (can't go without a g&t now), I pretty much avoid them but have found in the hotter climates when travelling I occasionally drink them as need the sugar for energy. Now, Derek-san had suggested Pocari Sweat as a little helper the next day after drinking. We'd noticed this advertised about the place and found it's name unappealing to say the least but when feeling a little weary on day (I had been taken by a terrible cold!), we got some out of one of the vending machines and hence began our love affair. It's not like a soft drink as such it is a very smooth, unfizzy drink which doesn't have a particularly strong taste but definitely works well as a pick me up.
The girls style is so adorable and it is so odd that what in other cultures would be seen as a bit sexual just isn't. You see very young girls with short skirts and over the knee socks. But actually, this originally came from the look of school girls and has somehow been turned into a more sexualised look because of school girl fetish type stuff. Anyway, that's not what this is about. Cuteness is just everywhere. From the lolitas to the normal school girls. They are just adorable.
The really little kids, maybe 5 or 6, you see with these very smart uniforms and a big leather satchel on their backs. I so wish I'd taken a picture. They are scrumptious.
I noticed a real difference to the shops in Japan and the shops in South East Asia, particularly in Bangkok. You can buy everything in Bangkok, often the same things, but the shops are jam packed and you're almost overwhelmed. The shops in Japan are chocca but the stuff is pretty organised which I just find so much better - it's easier to hone in on the individual items. Though this is actually a bad thing because I wanted to buy so much. So much stuff, from clothes, accessories, cosmetics, home stuff - all my style. I have vowed to go back one day and buy the place up.
Loved this place where you could go in and get your dog photography!!
There are lots of specialist shops for traditional Japanese things. Tea, chopsticks, kimonos etc, especially in the Ginza area. This is really nice to see as in the UK, so many of these kind of shops close down each year.
These are the shoes that are traditionally worn with Kimonos (and socks). I believe they are often used as slippers too.
This however, was just not acceptable:
I love Kewpie and Kewpie was everywhere. It was too much to bare. But I did manage to buy a few pint sized ones to take on my travels with me.
I liked the tattoo'd Kewpies, particularly as Mark has the massive Kewpie tattoo himself.
The trip also coincided with Kewpie's 50th anniversary - go Kewpie!
Dolls are kind of a thing in Japan and for me. I like Blythe which I won't explain if you don't know what that is but if you do, I stumbled across an exhibition of another similar doll, Pullip. Mark ran screaming while I spent a little time going around the timeline exhibition and loved it!
Engrish & Signage
Mark always love a bit of engrish, but unlike through most of asia which was often just spelling mistakes, the engrish in Japan is quite special. It is often a correct translation but just the way it is translated and the way the Japanese language is put together, sounds quite funny.
It's often really quite beautiful when something very straightforward is translated - you get a very floral language. I so often delight in a translation in a tourist information leaflet, for instance.
Signs are generally more animated so are quite cute:
This was a hand washing sign that went into very detailed steps:
There was lots of interesting architecture in Japan. Old and new. Often new, particularly in Tokyo for obvious reasons. What I like is all the different yet complimentary designs. There is such great style all over. And they're not afraid to throw in a replica old building if they feel like it either. Odd, but they get away with it.
The old fashioned looking taxis were intriguing. We tried to avoid them as they can be pricey but we did have to use them a couple of times.
The driver is often suited - at least with shirt and tie - sometimes even white glove. Many have kind of crocheted/lace style backing on the seats.
The train system, both local and national were amazing. Like with bars, you queue to get onto trains in an orderly fashion, in the designated areas.
Something we found at a few stations was they were playing bird noises - presumably to put off other birds. We weren't sure especially as this included some underground stations.
Occasionally you would see some interesting modes of transport. There wasn't as many cars as I had expected in Tokyo at all - it never felt particularly congested. I was surprised by the lack of little cars though - not full of smart car type vehicles, like I'd have imagined.
We loved these cool, long bikes that we saw a fair bit about the place (usually in the really trendy areas).
So, I'd gotten used to people wearing masks everywhere and I'd even become quite attached to wearing one myself. But the thing I can't get my head around is why people wear them in cars they are in alone. Cannot fathom this.
Lot's of the places we stayed had the same setup. A shower over a deep, short, bath. Bathing is a big thing in Japan and they like it deep. It tends to be a ritual before bed and they shower before hand so they are clean when they bathe. I've never liked baths much but partly I've never liked that half of you is out getting cold - I get it much more in these deep tubs. Particularly when it's cold to ease aches and pains. I was particularly in love with the bathroom in the traditional Japanese family home we stayed in and would love to translate this into my own home one day.
It's very odd, I was watching it one evening and it went from young men/boys in big white underpants cleanings urinals to a quiz with young kids winning prizes.
There's some great quiz shows. They are super kitsch and glitzy. There was also a kind of Japanese catchprase which had the similar noises and characters from the UK one.
Mark's favourite was the English language show on the Japanese Open University. There was a rather eccentric and charasmatic English guy with his younger Japanese sidekick teaching people English in the most bizarre way. They were teaching them regional accents. Brummie of all things. It was truly amazing. I thought the guy had somewhat of the David Soul about him!!
Efficiencies, rules and respect
I just found that everything made sense. Be it products, services or rules. Much differently to how you'd imagine. Japan doesn't feel like it's about over consuming. I don't think anyone has the space to over consume and fill their homes with crap. It seems more that things are bought for quality and purpose or for beauty, less so just because.
Some of the mundane things that tickled us along the way were:
- In a tea shop - the most functional tea strainer I have ever used. We were in awe.
- Rests for your handbag at the counter in hotel receptions and shops
- Water fountains and phone boxes are available all over the place, outdoors and in, simply because of the lack of vandalism
- It's so safe that really, really young kids travel about on trains on their own to go to school etc. I mean super young. The kind of young you wouldn't let out of your sight even in the back garden in the UK (depressingly). The first time I saw one I freaked right out and was looking around to where the parents might be or who I should tell about this child at risk? Later I saw little groups walking around Tokyo city on their own as well. I think they weren't going far, but they were so young and definitely not accompanied by an adult - it's a gob smacking sight. It's lovely that it is so safe that this can still happen and long may it continue!!
What didn't I like about Japan?
- Finding way around was tough
- Smoking everywhere in bars and restaurants
- Lack of Wifi & especially wifi - only LAN in hotel rooms - wtf?? and even Starbucks you had to be a member
- The cheesy cheetoh crumb on First Kitchen's fries - grim
- That I couldn't afford to be there for months and months
That's it - not much of a list!!
We, especially I, adored Japan. It surprised and interested and charmed and delighted. I literally pined for it after I had left. I know it's not perfect, no country is and of course it has it's dark sides like everywhere. It has challenges to be there for longer, like cost and language, but I would love to spend more time there. I felt a real affinity. It really just suited my personality and tastes in so many ways. There is always something beautiful, quirky or interesting going on. I love the people, the food, the shopping, the art, the food, the architecture, the culture, the food. Luckily, this is my last Japan blog so you won't have to hear anymore gushing after this. But did I mention I loved the food?