Discovering Japan


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Japan is perhaps the most unfamiliar place I’ve ever visited. After 4 weeks of acquaintance, I nearly always received music, a warmed seat, or an awkwardly long bidet cleanse before finding the “flush” button on the toilet. Busy pedestrian streets in Tokyo are completely silent, but step into a pachinko parlor (like gambling, except for prizes instead of money…therefore probably most comparable to Chuck E Cheese’s) and the volume coming from the video games and claw machines is almost unbearable.



Everything is cute in Japan. Even businessmen in full suits carry cell phones with dangly charms, most often with kittens or bunnies on the end. Fuzzy sweaters with animal ears are widely popular. We read that a growing number of girls try to emulate cats in their daily actions and dress.  A box full of newborn kittens even showed up at the climbing gym part way through our Halloween party/slideshow.  Descente, the Marmot distributor in Japan, asked if we would carry a stuffed Marmot around and take photos; apparently people visit the Marmot store just to see the stuffed animal (note: it’s not for sale).



Cute Marmot

These first impression oddities make Japan a fascinating country for foreigners. Simply visiting the grocery store is an intimidating undertaking. But I quickly learned how unthreatening this amazing country is. Unemployment is 4% and dropping, as nearly everyone is provided a job. As a result, you’ll see the same woman sterilizing a public staircase railing a few times each day, a man sweeping the footsteps from a pebbled path, or a group of three men operating one weed whacker on the highway (one to operate, one blocking debris with a plastic screen, and one to wave a yellow caution flag). The respect for safety and health is incredibly high, as is respect in general. If you can’t speak Japanese at a store or restaurant, a few bows will show your appreciation and consideration.



No one can even touch Japan in the culinary field. We were warned not to eat sushi in Kofu City where we stayed for most of the month because it was “too far from the ocean” (read, 1.5 hours). We did not follow this advice, and found the fish served inland quite delectable. However, we did find that even within Tokyo, the closer you get to the ocean, the more buttery and delicious the fish. Other highlights included ramen (the real stuff, which you must eat with chopsticks), udon noodles, yakitori, and my personal favorite (thanks Mary), Okonomiyaki (the Japanese pancake, which is nothing like a pancake). Many dishes are served with a barely cooked egg on top, which isn't concerning since salmonella is rare in Japan. Thanks to the importance of presentation, even unrecognizable foods invite you to try. Plus, things are so clean that I was never afraid of getting sick.




I had always heard that Japan was an incredibly expensive country to visit. I disagree. Conveyor belt sushi (albeit inland) cost $10 for 2 people. Milk at the grocery store was half the price as in Italy. 711 convenience stores are popular places to buy a quick meal, especially among climbers for a day at the crag, and boast prepared foods that put Whole Foods to shame. We ate incredible meals in Tokyo for under $30 for two people. A place to stay and a rental car is about average.  Gas is expensive. Tolls are very expensive.  But if you’re looking to visit Japan on a budget, it can be done.

I found Japan exponentially more comfortable, convenient, and interesting than Europe. Stores and restaurants are open around the clock, the people are more generous, friendly, and respectful than in any other culture I’ve encountered, and most people speak more English than they’ll admit. Best of all, everything is so clean that you don’t have to worry about getting sick, as in other parts of Asia. If you have the opportunity to visit Japan, do it. You don’t want to miss out on this seemingly intimidating country.











Cell phones