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 13: Fushimi Inari Shrine, Osaka BL Cafe, and Being Lost (Without a Care!)

This is day 13 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 13, here we go!

From Shauna’s Journal

Day 13, October 13th, 2017

Dusty wanted to visit the Handicraft Centre in Kyoto (which I had already visited) so I set out on a solo adventure today.

I decided to walk to the Fushimi Inari Shrine first. It was raining, so I took a hotel umbrella. Walking the narrow streets of Kyoto with a bulky umbrella is not an easy task. I bumped a car, a boy on a bike, and a building before I got the hang of it. 

It was nearly an hour walk.  The quiet residential streets suddenly gave way to touristy shops and street vendors selling snacks and sweets. After partaking in some of these, I headed to the shrine.

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Fushimi Inari is definitely an impressive place, so I can see why it comes recommended so highly by travel books. Huge red tori gates layered along a winding path create the iconic look that tourists flock to. Wise looking fox statues stand guard.

Yet, a lot of the magic of the place was stunted for me by the masses of people blocking walkers by attempting to get the perfect selfie amidst the shuffle. I understand, it’s a special opportunity, but the result was that it was crowded to the extreme. I should have gotten up earlier and left the inn sooner if I wanted to beat the rush of people. However,  I really enjoyed going off the main path onto smaller, quieter trails that were MUCH quieter and just as lovely.

After Fushimi Inari I felt that I didn’t have it in me to go to Arashiyama, Nara, and the Golden Pavillion (the places I had originally planned) because I figured they would also be packed with people. So, I decided to go back to Osaka and explore. I visited a Loft store and I love their style philosophy of simple and basic yet good quality and chic items. I picked up a couple pairs of cute, affordable shoes. 

I visited a Super Potato and found a Diabolik Lovers game second-hand! By this point I was hungry and headed into the thick of Otaku Osaka, where I decided to be brave and visit… Theme Cafe #7 of the trip, the Osaka branch of Ikegaku BL Cafe!

The cafe was a bit hard to find (had to take an elevator to a 3rd floor of a nondescript building) and I lingered in the hallway for a moment looking up a restaurant phrase in my phrasebook. When I knocked and entered I think they had heard me in the hall because the staff were all sitting in perfectly arranged compositionally pleasing poses in the room! It was like I walked into a reverse-harem scene in an anime or something.

It became rather awkward because I was the only customer and, unlike the Ikebukuro branch, the staff barely spoke any English. I was the only visitor in the place for over an hour, so they were trying their best to entertain me as I anxiously picked at my curry rice which was shaped into a Mickey Mouse head. 

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Some conversation:

Me: “This (taxidermied) rabbit- I don’t know if it’s kawaii (cute) or kowai (scary)”

Staff: “The rabbit’s name is Christine”. 

Me: “Hi Christine! She’s beautiful.”

Staff “Christine is boy. Beautiful boy.”

One of the staff, who the others teased and called “big girly boy” had gorgeously manicured nails. They were impressive… I’ve never even had a manicure before ^-^’ 

We drew pictures on the napkins together. I drew Christine. They showed me some various ways to make hearts with your hands (thumbs and pointer fingers together, all fingers together, pointer and middle fingers together, 2 people’s hands together, over-head heart) and I invented a “Canada Style” heart with elbows together to form the bottom of the heart… (I made this up, but they liked it, and maybe it will spread? XD)

I got a Coupling Pocky before I left, which involved a scenario where the staff enacted out trying to read out the menu in English and arguing about the translations (I think!?) and of course ending in a tense Pocky battle of nosebleed proportions…

Before saying goodbye to Osaka, I checked out an arcade, Lashinbang, Animate, etc. I love how all of the Animate and Lashinbang stores have totally different inventory on different themes- it’s worth it to visit each one that you can, because you will find very unique types of selection at each one.

Then, heading back to Kyoto, I got TOTALLY AND COMPLETELY lost in the Osaka station. I finally found my train after getting help from several kind security staff… I got confused on the train as well, missing my stop and having to backtrack. Then I got off the train and unknowingly walked in the complete OPPOSITE direction that I intended for a bit!

Well, I made it back eventually, and getting lost is part of the fun of traveling 🙂 I feel very safe in Japan too, so I wasn’t worried (though my feet were killing me by the end of the night!)

Tomorrow is Day 14: Goodbye Kyoto, Hello Beautiful Kinosaki Onsen Town!

 

Japan Memories Day 11: World’s Smallest Museum of Ukiyoe, Boar Temple, & Exploring In Kyoto!

This is day 11 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 11, here we go!

From Shauna’s Journal

Day 11, October 11, 2017

On my morning stroll I happened upon “The World’s Smallest Museum of Ukiyoe”, which I was hoping to visit (I didn’t realize it was just around the corner from the inn!). 

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Mr. Ichimura was sitting outside and invited me in. He told me to call him Ojiisan (Grandfather). The “museum” is the entry hall of his home. In these cramped quarters his magnificent prints lay scattered over the counter and the entrance floor where he sits. He showed me a few of the woodblocks he uses for his printmaking. (I counted at least 8 pieces for Hokusai’s wave!) 

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Ojiisan is a sweet old man. Between my basic Japanese and his basic English, we were able to discuss a little bit about his craft. He told me that some prints use watercolour, and some use oil. He discussed how Ukiyoe is an old tradition, how gradation of inks is important, and how a man visiting from London designed his English signage oustide: it reads “I open when I wake up and close when I must go to sleep. When I’ve had enough, the store is closed.” We agreed that it is quite funny!

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He was very humble, wanting me to understand that his part in Ukiyoe is in the printing of the inks only- he does not carve or design. Yet, the printings are impressive feats of many different layers, each of which must be pressed exactly in alignment, and featuring lovely gradation of colours.

As we were discussing and I was preparing to pay for some prints, a young man stopped by- I felt bad for making him wait as Ojiisan dealt with my prints and money >.< so I apologized. Ojiisan gave me a free extra print of purple flowers ❤ I got several prints as well for some gifts, for my journal, and to display at home! Ojiisan also gave me a paper with information about the Small Ukiyoe Museum and the craft of Ukiyoe.

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 I feel like being able to meet and talk with Grandfather was a special gift, and a it was a highlight of my trip for sure.

Now if this ain’t just the cutest lil duck you ever did see… (I’m obsessed with this duck print).

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After my Ukiyoe adventure, I got a “morning set” (eggs on toast) at a little cafe down the road.

Next, I visited the lovely temple across the street from our inn. It has images and statues of boars everywhere.

I bought a fortune and couldn’t get much out of it with google translate, but some of it sounded like ill omens, so I tied it to the fortune tree. 

Dustin and I did a bit of exploring in Kyoto together today. We checked out the Kyoto Disney Store (an employee there noticed my SHINee keychain and told me she is also a Shawol! It was exciting!), PokeCenter, and a few other spots. I got some Diabolik Lovers manga (!) from a bookstore. We had tasty sushi at a conveyor belt restaurant.

In the afternoon Dustin headed back to the inn and I walked to the Kyoto Handicraft Centre. So many lovely artisan goods there! I got the attendant at the centre to call me a taxi since my feet were KILLING me after a long day of walking. I had a nice little conversation with the taxi driver who thanked me for complimenting Japan and he in turn complimented my Japanese. 

 

Tomorrow is day 12: Universal Studios Japan!

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.