Our trip to Japan came about on a whim. We had no plans for the Thanksgiving week that year, saw some good deals on American Airlines and decided to book. About ten days before our trip, the Paris bombing happened. While we weren’t traveling to Europe, the very thought of being outside our home and vulnerable, so soon after such a major incident, was enough to give us pause. I enjoy traveling and am willing to put up with the risks that come with it. But what about our children, who are too young to make “informed decisions” about such issues. (To boot, they were three years younger then). Did we have the right to expose them to such risks while they were too young to fully understand the consequences? That is a question we grappled with then and every time since that we have traveled. And, perhaps, will continue to, as long as we all travel together. But that is a post for a different time.
After some thought, we decided to push forward with our trip. In the end, it easily became one of our most favorite trips. It was unlike any of the places we had visited and here are a few reflections on Japan.
- The efficiency of this country is evident in everyday life. We stepped out into the arrivals lounge with our luggage and went to catch the shuttle from Narita airport to our hotel. Although the bus was ready to depart, the staff held it while they got our booking done and in a matter of minutes, we were seated comfortably and on our way. There was even a toilet on the bus!
- The courtesy shown by the Japanese in the service industry is quite simply amazing. Credit cards were taken and given back using both hands and with a bow. Service was usually provided with a calm demeanor and a smile. Like I wrote once before, it felt like we were acknowledged as individuals and that we truly mattered.
- The trains were always on time! Every single time! We learnt to set our clocks by them!! And the train network is very efficient and extensive.
- The compartments in the trains in Tokyo were always so quiet, despite being filled to the rafters! Only in Tokyo!!
- The country is ultra-clean! Everywhere we went, from big cities to small rural roads, we found the country clean, very clean. Walk down the street leading from the entrance of Senso-ji to the main temple and it is so clean, despite being a busy marketplace selling multiple wares, including food.
- The fall foliage was stunning! Cherry blossoms in April are much talked about but the fall colors and the temple illuminations very simply matchless.
- The Japanese bidets are to die for! Normally, one is reluctant to use a cold toilet seat but we looked forward to visiting the toilets in Japan. Their heated seats were a welcome reprieve from the cold weather. And as expected, every toilet we visited was clean, even in a small bus station like Gotemba’s.
- Many restrooms had both Western and Eastern style toilets. One was likely to get to a stall quickly if one chose the Eastern option, as few people did. Toilets were equipped with soaps but no napkins. Most women carried their own hand towels and we followed suit rather quickly.
- Japan was the first country where we carried papers with our requests written out in English and Japanese. For example, fish is considered part of the vegetarian meal. So our paper specifically indicated that we did not eat fish or fish flakes. We showed this to the hostess at restaurants and it always brought a smile to their face. Before some regretfully turned us away.
- We enjoyed the multi-generational culture that seems so prevalent in Japan. At the shrines and temples, especially on the weekends, we saw many younger families dressed in traditional Japanese attire with grandparents in Western clothes. It was heartwarming to see the interplay between grandparents and grandchildren.
- The shrines and temples also showed us how much the Japanese revere their ancestors and how well protected their age-old traditions are. People visited them in hordes, November being a busy local tourist season.
- The gardens of the temples and shrines are designed so thoughtfully and in unity with the natural elements around them. There was a stillness to the landscape and yet so was alive with color. Surrounded by such beauty, how can one do anything but contemplate the deeper meaning of life.
- The chanting of the monks at Chion-in temple, the short music performance at the Eikando temple were powerful and still resonate in my ears. Very evocative!
- The sacredness of the Tatami mats, be it at the temples and shrines or in the Ryokan.
- A short distance from the Meiji shrine, at the Yoyogi park, we saw several groups of people street dancing. This came as a bit of shock to me, at first. Having seen the very traditional and streamlined Japanese lifestyle until then, it was oxymoronic, in a way, to find people of all ages, in a public setting, following the moves of a dance leader. Without hesitation or judgement. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, so we joined in. We also saw several teenagers dancing nearby in a fun competition style match. Their dance styles were varied and their skills awe inspiring. It was a treat to watch them.
- Walking down Harajuku was akin to a walk in fantasyland with all the youngsters and their fashion, the colors, make-up and accessories!
- The beauty of the country.
- The many desserts like the Dorayaki and the Hato sabure, the dove shaped shortbread cookies, among them, yum, yum!
- The kindness of strangers, some of whom stopped to help us as we lost our way and sought directions. A couple were even kind enough to walk us to our destination, since we could not understand the language.
- The Japanese are so well dressed, even on a Sunday outing. We knew this ahead of time and put some thought into our clothes. No sloppy dressing on this trip.
- Cab drivers pull up and open doors. One is comfortably seated in the cab before giving the destination information. No need to ask if they will take us, no hassles with the meter and pricing!
- Best to have the addresses in Japanese and show them to the cab driver. The archaic system used for postal addresses is confounding.
Our trip to Japan may have been booked at a moment’s notice but the country, its people and places will hold a place in our hearts forever.