Japan roundup 🇯🇵

We travelled nearly the full length of Japan during our 33-day visit. We started in Kyushu (the southernmost main island) where we gorged on ramen and were buried alive in a sand bath. We then travelled up through Honshu (the largest and most populous island) where we spent Christmas in Hiroshima and Osaka, and joined George & Erin for cat cafes and karaoke rooms in Tokyo. Next we continued north to Hokkaido (the northernmost main island) where we brought in the new year in Sapporo, skied in Niseko and rode a ropeway to the summit of Mt Hakodate. On our way back down through Honshu we stopped off in Sendai for beautiful island views and a snowy outdoor onsen. Finally, we returned to Tokyo to meet Katie, before checking in to a Ryokan in Kyoto and soaking ourselves silly in Kinosaki Onsen.

We spent far longer in Japan than any other country, and yet we knew that it still had so much more to offer. We would have loved to visit the tropical Okinawa Islands, but hey, it’s always good to have a reason to return 🙂

Carbon 🚅

Japan’s rail network has got to be the best in the world. We got the impression that a love of trains is by no means a niche interest here, based on the Shinkansen-themed shoes I spotted a little boy wearing, and also the bento boxes we saw for sale.

We travelled further in Japan than in any other country, and yet our carbon footprint was minimal and the journeys were never arduous. We managed to travel pretty much everywhere we wanted to go by train, and even when the high-speed network ran out, the extensive conventional trains often went the last mile.

Although our travel in Japan only emitted 185 kgCO2e, this pushed our total emissions since leaving London to just over 4 tonnes, so we’ve offset another tonne of CO2 through Gold Standard’s Climate+ Portfolio. This time the offset went towards providing efficient and clean cooking stoves to households in Honduras, which will reduce the amount of carbon emitted by burning wood, improve air quality and reduce deforestation. As always, while it would have been preferable to not have emitted any carbon in the first place, carbon offsetting is the next best way to take responsibility for emissions that can’t otherwise be avoided.

Cost 💰

Japan was our most expensive country to date, both in total expenditure and also when considering our spend per day. While the Japan Rail passes (which allowed us unlimited use of almost any trains) certainly weren’t cheap, they weren’t solely responsible for our increased costs. In fact, it was our ski trip to Niseko that really pushed our budget, while our accommodation and transport costs were only slightly higher than elsewhere.

Cats 🐈

Japan came in dead last with 1.55 cats per day, despite our intervention at the cat cafe in Tokyo.

Bizarrely, Japanese folks seem to love the idea of cats (we saw cat cartoons and plushies everywhere), but we saw very few actual cats. Once again, some of the Japanese cats might have been staying inside in the warm and out of sight, but this can’t be the only reason for Japan’s disappointing cat count.

Culture 👨‍💼👩‍💼

I think part of the reason why we found Japan so interesting was because it felt both strangely familiar and subtly different to life in Europe. Minor cultural differences were everywhere, which made even the most mundane of tasks (like visiting a supermarket) an experience in themselves. Here are a handful of observations, which when taken together, give a flavour of Japan’s unique culture. For more observations (and a much more credible, informed source!), we found this recent BBC article fascinating.

Japan felt incredibly polite and considerate 🙇

Honestly, I have no idea why the British have a reputation for queuing, because our queuing skills are nothing compared to the Japanese. Unsurprisingly, waiting for trains, buses and trams prompted orderly single-line queues to form. But what really brought it home was queuing for pedestrian crossings while waiting for a green man. A few times we walked right past people to reach the kerb only to realise that an orderly and socially-distanced queue had formed behind us that stretched 10 metres back from the road. This begs the question of how many faux-pas we made without even realising it 😬

Old-school automation is everywhere 🤖

I definitely had the preconception that everything in Japan was going to be super modern and high-tech. And while it’s true that many verbal interactions have been replaced with interactions with a machine (e.g. vending machines at the front door of restaurants to place an order), it was the age of these systems that surprised me. Both restaurant vending machines and train station ticket machines felt like systems that were introduced 20 years ago, and have been meticulously maintained rather than replaced as technology moves on. These machines felt like perfect examples of both Japan’s love of technology and passion for tradition.

Station platform staff really do point and talk to inanimate objects

Pointing and calling is a method of occupational safety employed in Japanese train stations which staff use to perform checks of monitors, timetables and platform safety. Although I’d read about this previously, I didn’t really expect to see it in action at every station, and it felt like a great illustration of just how seriously Japanese people take doing a good job. Our favourite instance was when Sara noticed a train conductor frantically pointing and calling at one of the platform monitors as a Shinkansen train sped out of the station. For context, the trains are probably doing about 100 km/h by the time the last carriage leaves the platform!

cartoon characters are everywhere, and every tourist site has its own mascot 🐰

I love that the cat in the photo on the left is wearing a bear-themed hoodie. The one on the right is the mascot for the Mt Hakodate ropeway, who featured on a ton of merchandise which was available for purchase. We were a bit baffled by the sheer variety of cartoon characters that we came across, but they certainly were cute!

EVEN MID-RANGE Hotels offer every possible amenity (including pyjamas!) 👕👖

We really enjoyed making full use of the amenities that Japanese hotels had to offer, if only so that we didn’t have to fully unpack our bags! I think this is the whole idea – that you can stay in comfort without having brought anything at all with you. In addition to the extensive set of toiletries, we particularly liked the pyjamas and slippers that were available at almost every hotel. These ranged from shirt and trouser combos (which inevitably came up comically short on me) to one-piece night gowns that Sara thought made us look like we’d discharged ourselves from hospital without getting dressed.

But public toilets were light on amenities 🧼

Given that Japan seemed like an incredibly orderly and clean country, we were surprised at the lack of facilities in public toilets. Not only did sinks often offer very cold water and no soap, but there also seemed to be a notable absence of any hand drying facilities. While we saw that a handful of blow dryers had been taken out of service during the pandemic, we’d also read that hand dryers have always been somewhat rare in Japan, to the extent that Japanese folks often carry a handkerchief to dry their hands after washing them. This made us feel very unprepared!

Excellent and affordable food was so easy to find 🍜

Japan really excelled in delicious casual dining – our favourite way to eat. It seemed like eating alone in restaurants was very common, especially at the six-seats-around-a-counter type restaurant that we quickly came to love. On top of this, free water or tea was always available at the table, which made quick and cheap dinners so straightforward. Given that we mostly paid for meals in advance (e.g. by using the omnipresent vending machines) and tipping is simply not a thing in Japan, this meant we could just get up and leave when we were finished. Maybe not everyone gets our level of payment and tipping anxiety when wrangling with foreign currencies, but we found the whole thing much more relaxed. Although on one hand I wish this style of restaurant was more common elsewhere, I’m sure that would also have made dining in Japan feel slightly less special.

After having spent two months in the Far East, our tour of South Korea and Japan has finally come to an end. Our next destination will be Vietnam, and we’ll share more plans in our next post. 🇻🇳

Japan in 12 hot baths

I’ve really enjoyed discovering more about bathing cultures across the world – in the UK, spas are expensive and not really an everyday activity, so finding that I could visit a lovely Soviet bath house in Almaty for around £8 or a luxury Korean jjimjilbang in Busan for around £13 was a bit of a revelation, and I had high hopes for the onsen of Japan. They didn’t disappoint. In fact, I’ve just counted and during our month in Japan, I had 16 baths in 12 different onsen. Not bad!

My top 3 onsen experiences

Before we came to Japan, I knew I wanted to visit at least one onsen, but I thought we might need to seek it out. Not so – they are EVERYWHERE! Technically, to qualify as an onsen, they should be filled from a natural hot spring source rather than artificially-heated water, but actually even this wasn’t as scarce as I’d expected (Japan being as seismically-active as it is), and most baths we visited were true onsen.

Onsen come in both private form (e.g. in a hotel or a ryokan) and public form (e.g. in an onsen town). They are mostly sex-segregated and fully nude, but not all. Some are indoor, some are outdoor (known as rotemburo), and many offer both indoor and outdoor bathing. Some pools are made of roughly hewn rock, whereas others are made of smooth cypress wood. There are even some onsen that are on beaches or in rivers that have little-to-no infrastructure surrounding them and are totally free to visit (such as Mizunashi Kaihin in Hokkaido) – in short, there’s something for everyone.

Best Rotemburo: Ganiba Onsen

We took a 500 km day trip on the Shinkansen to reach Ganiba Onsen, set in a ryokan in the small mountain village of Nyūtō Onsen. Admittedly it was rather a long way to travel to take a bath and it wasn’t fancy (in fact, the facilities inside were pretty basic and the outside changing room was literally frozen!) but bathing in the forest while surrounded by deep snow drifts was positively magical.

Best hotel onsen: Dormy Inn, Shimonoseki

Actually, we stayed in several hotels that had really lovely, modern rooftop onsen with views over their respective cities, but this was the first and was a really pleasant surprise. It felt like a very worthy consolation prize when our ferry from South Korea had been cancelled and we found ourselves arriving in Japan a day late and in a different city than originally planned!

Best novelty bath: Saraku sand baths

This one was mostly memorable because it followed the frankly bizarre but lovely experience of being buried in hot volcanic sand on a rainy beach! Oli says he got over his fear of public (well, onsen-based) nudity here, although he promises not to take advantage of this newfound freedom too often when we return to the UK.

Etiquette (i.e. How not to scare your fellow bathers)

Step 1: Don’t have a tattoo

Ok, I appreciate the ship might have sailed for some people on this! But fortunately for me, I don’t have any tattoos so this step was easy. In Japan, tattoos have a strong association with members of organised crime syndicates and so they tend not to be welcome in onsen, since it is presumably less risky for staff to ban all tattoos than to tell members of the yakuza that they can’t come in. I assume that no one genuinely believes that a tourist with a heart on their hip or a butterfly on their bum really has anything to do with the yakuza, but it’s difficult to tell – it’s hard to read the subtext when you can’t even read the text. In any case, I’ve read that making an effort to cover a tattoo (e.g. with a bandage) is normally enough, or there are some onsen towns (including Kinosaki Onsen, where we visited) that are happy for people with tattoos to enter.

Step 2: Remove your shoes

This is very important! Sometimes there are lockers, sometimes there are shoe racks, but either way, your shoes (or slippers, if you’re already inside a hotel) come off before you enter the building, pay, or do anything else. Don’t do as Katie did (inadvertently) and leave your shoes on for even a moment too long. The horrified reaction was honestly like she’d killed a kitten for fun.

Step 3: Get dressed up in your birthday suit

Most onsen require you to be naked, but apparently not all – there are some mixed outdoor onsen where women can wear swimwear or more commonly a yuami-gi (bathing dress). Perhaps it says all that is needed about attitudes towards gender in Japan that this isn’t deemed to be necessary for men – from what I read, women covering up in mixed-sex baths is sometimes seen as necessary to avoid staring, but the same doesn’t apply for men. In fact, men aren’t even allowed to cover up. So self-conscious men need not apply!

Anyway, I didn’t visit any baths where people covered up – in fact, I read that to do so might give people the impression you are trying to hide a disease 😬 So, in short, Step 3 normally involves popping all your clothes into a locker in the changing rooms before entering the baths. This is also the moment to remove your face mask (which are still widely worn in Japan) – or as I like to think of it, “no knickers, no mask”. Do with that motto what you will! You should also leave your big towel in your locker and only take the small towel into the baths.

Step 4: Wash wash wash

This is an easy bit – basically take a pre-bath shower so that you are clean before going into the shared water. But just to keep you on your toes, the showers aren’t the stand-up affairs you might have in mind, but are normally taken perching on a low stool. There’s usually free shampoo, conditioner and shower gel, and sometimes also things like facial cleansers. These were often quite nice products even in otherwise no-frills onsen. Just try not to slither off the slippery stool and onto the floor once lathered up with soap suds!

Some places also encouraged you to splash yourself with water from a jug before climbing into the baths, in order to get accustomed to the temperature (they varied, but some baths were seriously hot!)

Step 5: Time to soak

Ok finally, it’s time to actually take a bath. Hair, towels, or anything other than your now-clean body are not welcome in the water for hygiene reasons, so you need to find somewhere to put your small towel, since there are normally no hooks or shelves in the bath. There’s an easy solution – just perch it on your head! I tended to twist mine into a turban (which had the added benefit of keeping my hair out of the way), but most people really do just fold the towel neatly and balance it on the top of their head!

Step 6: Dry with your small towel

Now it’s your small towel’s big moment. Before going back into the changing room, you need to dry off with your small towel, as bringing any drips into the changing room is frowned upon. Quite why this can’t be done with your big towel is still a bit of a mystery to me, but it’s just not the thing to do. Once you’re dry, you can then re-enter the changing room, where your big towel awaits but is now pretty much superfluous.

Step 7: Enjoy the powder room

Once dry and dressed (perhaps in your yukata), there are rows of stools in front of sinks and mirrors to dry your hair and complete your beauty routine. Some onsen had pretty extensive ranges of free products available, and I’m reliably informed by Oli that the men’s powder rooms were just as well-equipped with beauty products. Nice to see some gender equality there, at least! His hair was quite long while we were in Japan, and he kept emerging from the baths with some alarmingly gravity-defying hair styles, having got quite into blowdrying his hair.

I found it pretty interesting to observe that Japanese women really do visit the onsen to wash and get ready for the day – it’s not at all a novelty ‘spa’ experience. So, in the mornings, the powder rooms of hotel onsen tended to be busy with women who were travelling for business in their work attire doing their hair and makeup. I also joined in and did the same (without the ‘going to work’ part) – in many of the places we stayed, I didn’t even use our private bathroom!

As you can probably tell, I’m a massive convert to the onsen way of life, and I can’t wait to try out more bathing experiences elsewhere in the world.

Meeting the world’s most polite deer in Nara

We noticed that not everyone received an email for our last post. If you were one of the unlucky ones, you might want to check out Soaking up the atmosphere in Kinosaki Onsen before reading this post.

We split our two remaining nights in Japan between Nara, a small city south of Kyoto, and Tokyo. Nara is only a short 45 minute local train from Kyoto, and made for a very convenient short excursion. The city is well known for its resident deer population, who are loved by both residents and visitors alike.

We bought some ‘deer cookies’ (rice crackers) from a vendor as soon as we saw the first group of deer hanging out in a little park, and immediately a group came trotting over meet us. Some were more persistent than others, with one of them head-butting my bag and his little horns clonking against my metal water bottle. Another even gave Sara a light nip on the back of her leg (although this might have had more to do with the fact she had a piece of bacon in her pocket that she didn’t find until later – and no, she can’t explain why it was there). I really don’t want to give the deer a bad rep though, as most were incredibly well mannered and would even bow their heads to request a cracker. These must be the best fed deer in the world.

Nara is also home to a number of temples and shrines, the largest and most impressive of which is Tōdai-ji. In fact, Tōdai-ji is the largest wooden building in the world, and is also home to a 16m tall buddha statue. The temple itself was genuinely quite atmospheric, with the beautiful architecture accentuated by the smell of incense and sound of the chanting monks.

We spent the rest of the day walking through Nara-kōen, a large park to the east of the city, which is home to many more shrines and temples, some with a beautiful view over the city.

It was at this point that we realised that there was no shortage of deer, with small herds of deer dotted throughout the park. They did seem a little cheeky when left to their own devices though, as we caught various deer disassembling shop displays, peering through restaurant windows, and generally hassling cookie vendors.

On our way back into the city we paused at Kōfuku-ji, another Buddhist temple home to an impressive five-storey pagoda. But of course, the area in front was occupied by more deer, who seemed more than happy to dismantle the small barriers that stood between them and tourists with rice crackers. The best part though was that many of the tourists patiently put the barriers back together each time, only for more deer to arrive and dismantle them once again. The security guards were less concerned with the futile barrier maintenance, and we even noticed one had a pocket full of acorns to feed his deer friends, who clearly knew what was on offer.

Destructive deer at Kofuku-ji pagoda

We returned to Tokyo via Kyoto for one last bite at the apple before our flight. The Yanesen neighbourhood had so far evaded us, but we managed to squeeze in a sunny Saturday morning walk before we had to head to the airport. Our route started in Ueno Park which was already busy with families enjoying the weather. Almost immediately, we came across a small festival where local dance groups were performing on a stage to the now pervasive J-Pop. The couple below were our favourites, who performed their final song with help from a plushie character each. I think the song and plushies had something to do with Pokémon, though I’m only guessing at this point!

Our route wound through several traditional, low-rise areas and ended in Sendagi, a lovely neighbourhood of tiny shops and zig-zagging narrow residential streets, which was brought to life by the weekend footfall. This turned out to be one of our favourite parts of Tokyo we’d seen so far, and we explored the labyrinth of alleys for as long as our schedule would allow before it was time to take the train to the airport.

Our next destination will be Southeast Asia, which has been our target ever since leaving London. We’re particularly excited to return to Vietnam after our first visit nine years ago, during which we were blown away by the country’s incredible street food. We also had some unfinished business to attend to, since our first attempt to visit Hạ Long Bay was cancelled due a rather rude typhoon.