Why Japan? Motivations of a Traveler

From the time I began saving up my pennies and planning my first trip to Japan (Oct 2017), I’ve gotten 3 particular types of responses from my friends and family:

  1. OMG JAPAN!? FJKEANJACMJNDKFNJAKENLK TAKE ME WITH YOU
  2. Japan? Wow that’s gonna be an amazing trip for you!
  3. Why Japan?

What kind of reaction do you have when thinking of yourself or someone else traveling to Japan? This blog post is aimed more toward questions of the latter sort: those who don’t understand the origins of the intense enthusiasm that many non-Japanese travelers have for Japan, especially Tokyo.

As I am returning to Japan soon with my hubby (Christmas in Tokyo!) I’m getting more of these reactions from people again, including a new question:

4. Why Japan again? Didn’t you just go there? Why not go somewhere else?

and so I’ve been thinking that sharing my thoughts about vacationing in Japan would be an awesome blog post.

Streets of Ikebukuro during daytime.

A quick note: this post reflects my personal experiences and feelings as a foreign tourist in Japan based mainly upon one previous visit. I have not traveled around the entirety of the country, and I know that from region to region cultures, dialects, cuisines and customs vary widely among Japanese people. While I am very interested in Japan and enjoy reading Japanese literature, news, and so on, I am certainly not an expert on Japanese culture. Also, as a visitor on holiday in Japan I explore the country in a privileged way that is surely very different than how Japanese citizens experience living there day to day in a variety of ways.


It’s complex for me to explain on the spot why I love visiting Japan so much because there are so many factors at play- it’s certainly not just about anime and manga! Although, since that’s what comes to mind for many people, I guess I’ll start there…

Why Japan?

Anime & Manga Culture

The explosion of translated manga and anime into North America has found a very enthusiastic audience, resulting in a lot of new foreign tourists flocking to Japan to be closer to the source of their interests. Manga, which is the Japanese word for “comic”, is a format that presents stories of any genre and style, but which also often has uniquely Japanese humour, references, and settings throughout. Anime, similarly, is Japanese animation, often based on manga series. Both anime and manga are formats that are used to tell stories for every age and interest, so anime and manga fans are similarly diverse.

Rumiko Takahashi’s InuYasha is one of my favorite manga and anime series.

Anime and manga culture extends from comics and animated shows into video games, visual art, music, and many other aspects of life. Specialized museums in Japan focus on the history and impact of manga and anime, and I greatly enjoyed visiting the whimsical Ghibli Museum in Mitaka.

Some popular manga and anime series even become scripted theatre/musical shows, or will have fan events with voice actors, pop-up cafes with themed food and drink, and so on.

A couple of pages from my Japan journal, featuring a few anime characters!

These niche interests are catered to avidly in the big cities of Japan, and pretty much not catered to at all in Canada aside from a sprinkling of yearly conventions, so it means that I am very excited about immersing myself in otaku hotspots like Akihabara and Ikebukuro!

Amazing Food And Desserts

I love sushi– sashimi, nigiri, maki, give it all to me! But Japan has a lot more than sushi to offer. Wherever you go you will surely find delicious meals of all kinds.

If you aren’t a picky eater, you will face tough decisions – not what to eat, but what not to eat, because you will want to try so many things! The distinct and savoury taste of umami was discovered by a Japanese scientist, and there are ample opportunities to experience this “fifth taste” while in Japan.

Japan is big on local and seasonal food, so every prefecture will surely have something special and delicious to offer any time of the year. Street food is also something to look for, and there are many different kinds to stumble across during festivals or in certain areas such as the walking paths toward some shrines and temples.

You’ll also want to leave room for dessert, though, because Japan serves up some seriously impressive treats: from traditional wagashi sweets to overloaded parfaits, gourmet chocolate, shaved ice confections, matcha ice cream, and taiyaki. You can’t go wrong.

Even the convenience stores in Japan are leaps ahead of the ones you’ll find in Canada, stocked with really tasty foods made daily.

These sandwiches are soft, delicious, and addictive.

Each Prefecture Is Beautiful In Its Own Unique Way

For this upcoming trip, we will be staying in Tokyo pretty much the entire time. However, on our last visit we did some bullet-train trips to other prefectures, and I found myself in the most gorgeous places I’ve ever been. These are the sorts of places that make you want to soak every scene into your mind forever because you honestly can’t believe the beauty of what surrounds you. Kyoto, Tokyo, Osaka, Gunma, Hyougo: each offers its own distinct charms.

Thinking back on my trip always gives me so many lovely memories of winding roads, crowded streets, temples, shrines, parks, quiet pathways, and scenic bridges. We didn’t even make it off the main island of Honshu, but from north-most Hokkaido to Okinawa in the south, Japan offers everything from snowy skiing to sandy beaches. Japan changes a lot with the turning of the seasons, so I know I will always have reasons to return!

The prefectures of Japan also celebrate different festivals, and specialize in unique types of impressive handicrafts, so there is so much to see and do wherever you might go.

Dancers in Ikebukuro
Autumn festival in Kinosaki.

Kawaii Everything

Anybody who knows me knows I am a sucker for cute things– especially animals and stuffed toys. Japan offers 100% more cuteness than Canada: informational signage, manhole coverings, kitchen tools, stationary, anything is a candidate for being kawaiified. The arcades in Tokyo have claw machines with quality items you ACTUALLY wanna win! Dollar stores and grocery stores offer items with adorable packaging and products, and many traditional handicrafts are also quite cute.

Prefectures and cities have their own mascots, most of which are super cute. I fell in love with Gunma-chan!

Gunma-chan.

Of course not everything is cute in Japan, but it’s certainly a lot easier to find cute versions of everyday things like stationary, dishes, and decorations– at least that’s what I’ve found in shopping destinations in the big cities particularly.

Hospitality

Aside from sleeping over at my grandparents’ or aunts’ house, I’ve never felt more taken care of than when staying at a ryokan (traditional inn).

We stayed in 3 ryokan on our last trip: Takaragawa Osenkaku in Minakami Gunma, Mikunia in Kinosaki Hyougo, and Sawanoya in Ueno Tokyo. Each was a lovely, relaxing experience.

The gleaming floors of Takaragawa Osenkaku.

Ryokan offer rooms and facilities with traditional touches, and provide yukata robes for visitors to wear during their stay. They are often located in scenic areas that are a joy to peruse.

Locations near hotsprings are often peppered with ryokan, as a special feature of many ryokan is their indoor and/or outdoor onsen bathing facilities fed with geothermally heated springs. Visitors always thoroughly wash and rinse their body from head to toe first, then enter the water and soak for as long as they wish. Traditionally onsen are communal, but some ryokan also offer private onsen that can be reserved. When a ryokan doesn’t have hotspring access, you can still soak in a deep ofuro bathtub.

Imagine tucking in to an elaborate kaiseki meal with hot green tea in a dining hall or brought straight to your room, then soaking in the ofuro or onsen and returning to your room to find cozy futon bedding spread out on the tatami mats for you.

Tokyo: Big City Life Done Right

Here are a few ways that I think Tokyo does city living right:

  • Public transportation is easy, cheap, and hella reliable
  • The streets generally feel very safe, even at night (this is due to a variety of reasons, but gun control is also very strict in Japan)
Streets of Ikebukuro at night
  • Shopping in Tokyo is amazing, whether you’re interested in quirky knickknacks, fashion, name brands, anything really. Certain areas cater to particular interests:

    – Jimbocho is the “book district” where you can find many shops selling used and rare books
    – Shimokitazawa is a great place to explore stores selling gently-used vintage clothes
    -Shin Okubo is Tokyo’s Koreatown where you can find Korean resturaunts, kpop merch, and some excellent skincare stores
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    – Ginza is a luxury district where name brands and expensive high-end shops are clustered
    – Akihabara is known as the centre of all things geeky, and Ikebukuro features similar sorts of shops, but with more focus on targeting geeky women’s interests
    – Shinjuku Ni Chome is known as Tokyo’s Gay district, with many LGBTQ+ friendly businesses, bars, and dance clubs

    These are just a few examples- there’s much more to explore!
  • Even in huge cityscapes like Tokyo, you will find peaceful sanctuaries and green spaces like parks, temple grounds, and so on.
  • While Japan has room for improvement with regards to equitable access and opportunities for people with disabilities, it is great to see yellow tactile ground surface indicators throughout big cities which help to direct visually impaired people situate themselves while out and about.
Yellow tactile ground surface indicators
  • Theme cafes can be found all over Tokyo, and they are really fun! I enjoy that even as an adult I can immerse myself in a playful fantasy for a while. Maid Cafes are the most famous, but there are also cafes based on game and anime series, Sanrio and San-x characters, and special themes such as the Vampire Resturaunt in Ginza.
With Vampire Rose in Ginza.

And so…

I could continue to wax poetic about Japan endlessly, but I will close here by simply saying that if you’re thinking about Japan as a potential travel destination I highly recommend it!

Japan Memories: Videos!

Last October was the 1 year anniversary of our 2017 trip to Japan, and I revisited all of the memories in a series of daily blog posts featuring my photographs and journal writings (check them out if you’d like, starting with day 1 here!)

I miss Japan very much- it’s like a reverse homesickness where I have a special place in my heart that aches to visit this far away place again. I am still thinking about Japan every day, and I convinced Dustin that we need to go back sooner rather than later- so we are going to spend Christmas in Tokyo this year!

When we went in 2017 we traveled around from Tokyo using a JR pass to get to Gunma, Kyoto, Osaka, and Kinosaki. We saw so many gorgeous places and ate so much amazing food. It was a fantastic trip.

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This Christmas we are planning to spend the whole time in Tokyo so that we aren’t moving from place to place so much (resettling into new inns and hotels, moving our luggage around) and we can just explore at leisure from our home base in Ikebukuro. There are so many spots in Tokyo that we have only barely explored, or not at all. I can’t wait. I even have 2 tattoo appointments penciled in with a studio in Shibuya!

Wish us luck! I’m saving all of my pennies… (well, figuratively- they don’t make pennies anymore in Canada…)


 

I finally made some videos with clips from our 2017 trips around Japan 🙂

These are just mashups of videos taken from my cell phone, my camera, and probably a little bit of Dustin’s cell and camera too. Some parts are a bit shaky but I kept them in because they were still cool memories. A few of these seem to be things that I didn’t even realize I was filming at the time… each video has a whole bunch of quick clips featuring some of the cool and beautiful things we saw in Japan.

Video 1: Tokyo- Ikebukuro, Ikebukuro street festival, Shinjuku, Shinjuku park, Shibuya, Shin Okubo, Harajuku, Ueno, Nagano Broadway, etc.

Video 2: Gunma- Takaragawa Osenkaku onsen ryokan (family run hot spring inn)

Video 3: Kyoto, Osaka- Higashiyama, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Universal Studios Japan, Harry Potter World, Kyoto Station, etc.

Video 4: Kinosaki- Mikunia onsen ryokan and ryokan town (hot springs town), autumn street festival, kaiseki meals, etc.

 

 

Japan Memories Day 10: Goodbye Gunma, Hello Kyoto!

This is day 10 of revisiting my journal from our trip to Japan last year! If you’d like to start at the beginning, here is day 1.

So, day 10, here we go!

From Shauna’s Journal

Day 10, October 10th, 2017

This morning I got up at 6AM and went for one last dip in the rotenburo. I thought few people would be up so early, but there were quite a lot actually. When I returned I was locked out of our room for quite a few minutes, standing in the hallway in my yukata, tapping incessantly on the door. I thought Dustin had left for the onsen, or was deep asleep not hearing me, and I was getting more and more peeved (trying to knock loud enough that he would hear me but not so loud as to disturb other people sleeping)- it turns out he was having a nice leisurely shower, oblivious to my struggle T-T

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I got a few more pictures of gorgeous Takaragawa before we returned our key and checked out. I told the staff how beautiful I thought Takaragawa was, and they gave us a free keepsake DVD. We took a shuttle bus through the winding roads back to Jomo Kogen station.

Now we are enroute to Kyoto ❤ I was getting a bit hangry from hunger and being hot and tired lugging around our bags again, but now I’m fed, aboard a comfy shinkansen, and much more at ease. We got ekiben (train bento from the station) and these fancy sweet cakes from Tokyo Banana!

 

Shinkansen (bullet trains) are great. They rocket you to your destination, they are efficient and on time, the seats can be rotated to face the way the train is heading, and it fits more people than an airplane while being more spacious and comfortable. Even the bathrooms are nice!

When we reached Kyoto we took a taxi to what will be our home for the next 4 nights: M’s Inn Higashiyama. I had paid in advance for the entire duration at M’s Inn, and this was the booking that caused me the most anxiety… after I booked it I realized that it has a very modern check-in system where there are no staff during most hours- you use a tablet to check yourself in with an emailed code, and your inn room also has a code for entry! I was worried that if we encountered an issue with codes or language barriers there would be no staff to help, but everything went smoothly!

M’s Inn has a deceptively small, simple, traditional looking exterior, but inside it is a spacious new building with many rooms and modern art by Junko Funada throughout. Our room is a blend of modern and traditional, with bed or futon option, a tatami & shogi screen area, a washer and dryer in one, little kitchen, toilet & sink room, and a shower/bath room. This place was a bit on the expensive side, but we feel it was worth it. Dustin is smitten with this little place.

 

Out one window we have a view of a tiny rooftop garden belonging to a neighbor. Out the other we have a view of a street where you can see many pedestrians coming and going, as well as a beautiful shrine! We spotted a woman posing for pictures in a lovely pink Kimono.

 

Tomorrow is day 11, World’s Smallest Museum of Ukiyoe, Boar Temple, & Exploring In Kyoto.

Japan Memories Day 9: Learning to Relax, and Sentimental Musings at the Onsen

This is day 9 of revisiting my journal from our trip to Japan last year! If you’d like to start at the beginning, here is day 1.

So, day 9, here we go!

From Shauna’s Journal

Day 9, October 9th, 2017

Wow, this place is so lovely I can’t believe i’m here. This morning we woke up and had a delicious breakfast in the Gekko room. I tried things that I have no idea what they were, and some were so delicious! I especially enjoyed the crispy fish that were grilled for us. One was split down the middle so that it looked like one large, flat fish, but Dustin pointed out it was just grilled that way.

I’m extremely glad we decided to make this a 3 week trip, as it’s going by incredibly fast. I don’t miss home yet (usually I do… I mean, of course I miss Tegan and Butters, though!) but I do miss Ikebukuro! I was really starting to feel comfortable there, getting to know the streets, the train station, the “We Road”- so I am glad we are going back there for a couple nights when we return to Tokyo. 

We still have plenty left to see and do- Ghibli Museum, Shibuya, Nakano Broadway, Sawanoya Ryokan, Ueno Park, etc… and yet I am already dreading leaving Japan because I know I will miss it a lot! There is a special feeling in Japan that I’ve never felt anywhere else. I enjoy experiencing uniquely Japanese things, and practicing my Japanese with locals.

I will definitely, definitely want to come back to Japan again. (Every year? Please?!)

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~~~

So right now I am sitting at a large granite table next to a giant suspension bridge that connects our ryokan to the rotenburo (outdoor onsen area). The Tone river is rushing loudly underneath me. To my right is a lovely path that winds down the riverbank and connects to the different onsen baths. Two are mixed and one is women only. This morning I took a dip in the women’s bath. It was very relaxing but I couldn’t handle it for very long- the other women were also getting out after their soak remarking “atsui desu ne!”(hot, isn’t it?!)

I need to practice the art of relaxing. In the last year or so I feel like I’ve been working on being happy in the moment, in the now, and I am doing better with that. But still, sometimes I struggle with just enjoying peacefully doing nothing in particular- the kind of full relaxation a ryokan invites. Dustin definitely struggles with this also. 

This afternoon I decided to open the big window in our room to let in the air and the sound of the river. The little beetley-bugs that had been resting on the outside of the window rushed in on me in a sudden ambush on my hair and Yukata. The bugs are cute but they startled me and I was squealing! I was able to gather them up and shoo them back outside with a handtowel…

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One of my Japanese friends pointed out that I am too tall for the Yukata supplied by the ryokan- it’s supposed to go down to your ankles!

Dustin and I went down to the indoor onsen again today. I had a good soak. On my way back up the elevator a man and woman got on next to me- the man was saying “samui, ahh, samui” and clutching his arms (“cold, aah, cold…”). Having just come from the steaming onsen, I chimed in when he met my eyes and said, fanning myself, “Samui? Atsui desu! (“Cold? I’m hot!”) and they laughed with me at my little joke. When the doors opened at their floor he walked off smiling and saying in English in a funny voice “I’m cooolllddd!!!”

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A display in a public area of the ryokan- that’s Gunma-chan on the left!

There is a cute little gift shop here that has specialty chocolates and foods, and lots of unique handicrafts made by local artisans. A kind woman works there, and I bought a few souvenirs and gifts today- some cloth coasters, a kokeshi doll, some chocolates, and a Yukata. I asked the woman if she thought a green or pink obi (sash) would look better with the green yukata I picked, which had subtle pink flowers on it. She suggested pink looked cute, so I got the pink. I said “these chocolates look so delicious!” in Japanese, and she complimented me “Nihongo wa amari jouzu desu ne!” (your Japanese is very good!) to which I responded with the polite denial approach “made, made” (more to go, more to go!)- even though I know she was being kind and my Japanese is very basic, it really made my day. I’d been studying my books and trying so hard to learn. A simple “good evening” “that was delicious” or “thank you very much” in Japanese is so appreciated here, so I try to keep these phrases in mind. 

After I bought my purchases the woman said in Japanese “hold on a second…” and grabbed a box of sesame oil chocolates I had been eyeing. She put it in my bag and said “a gift for you!” It was so sweet of her! I was flabbergasted and thanked her profusely.

I’m not a very spiritual person or anything like that, but something about that little shop and that woman reminded me of Nanny McKim, who was very interested in Japanese culture and had so many Japanese handicrafts and dolls in her house. I know what Mom would say- “Nanny wanted you to have those chocolates”. And, coincidence or not, the sesame oil chocolates the woman gave me ended up being my favourite ones. ❤ 

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Tomorrow is day 10: Goodbye Gunma, hello Kyoto!

Japan Memories Day 8: Shinkansen to Gunma and Takaragawa Onsen- the Most Beautiful Place I’ve Ever Been!

This is day 8 of revisiting my journal from our trip to Japan last year! If you’d like to start at the beginning, here is day 1.

So, day 8, here we go!

From Shauna’s Journal

Day 8, October 8th, 2017

This morning Dustin and I bittersweetly said goodbye to our home base in Ikebukuro (for now) and headed for the Shinkansen that would take us to Gunma! We ate some delicious ramen and parfaits at the station and reserved our tickets for the bullet train. We were a tad confused- Dustin asked a security guard where our platform was and he gave Dustin a wry smile, saying “You can do it! Fighto, fighto!” with a pat on the arm while pointing us in the right direction.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We did go to the right platform but we boarded the wrong train! It took off so quick that we just stood there worrying about what to do. A Japanese couple took pity on us- a young woman approached me and told us where to get off to catch our correct train! ❤ I thanked them profusely (the train staff did eventually come to talk to us, but the friendly woman saved us a lot of anxiety!)

 

Finally we made it to Gunma. I bought a few Gunma-chan  (Gunma’s mascot) souvenirs and soon we were on our shuttle to Takaragawa Osenkaku Ryokan. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The bus ride to the onsen ryokan was breathtakingly gorgeous. The most beautiful lush trees and mountainous skylines i’ve ever seen. A well lived-in, country feeling. Narrow, winding roads. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The ryokan itself is astounding. Resting upon a river valley, it has amazing views, indoor and outdoor onsen baths, and a well-cared for living area with shining wooden floors, shogi screens, glowing lamps, tatami floors, everything so lovely. 

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We had a delicious kaiseki dinner of all kinds of Japanese foods. We are (so far) the only westerners here from what we can see, and we could tell people were curious about us coming way out here! What a special experience.

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Video and pictures are understandably not allowed in the onsen, but this promotional video from the Takaragawa website shows how amazing this place is year-round:

 

 

We visited the segregated indoor onsen tonight- so peaceful. So hot. So steamy and

relaxing. Ah, I can’t wait to eat more good food tomorrow and bathe some more! 🙂 zzZZzzZZ

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Tomorrow is Day 9: Learning to Relax, and Sentimental Musings at the Onsen