In mid October I flew to Japan with my girlfriend to meet a few friends flying over from Colorado.  I’ve long been fascinated about Japan for a number a reasons – namely their ways of thinking, their history, their rapidly declining population, the food, and the beauty.  It’s fair to say Japan is quite a unique place.

A few quick interesting things about Japan:

  • Japan has the fastest population decline in the world (people aren’t having kids) (?)
  • Tokyo is the most populous city in the world, with over 38 million people.  It also has over 900 train stations in the city (all are pretty much on time)
  • There are cuddle cafes where men pay a fee to only cuddle with a woman.
  • Japan has the 3rd highest GDP in the world.
  • Trains regularly train 320km/hr, making transport around the country very quick and easy.
  • Having crooked teeth is seen as a positive imperfection, so many people make their teeth crooked to look better.
  • Tipping is considered rude.
  • Japan has some of the longest working hours in the world. Nearly one quarter of Japanese companies require employees to work more than 80 hours of overtime a month, according to a 2016 government survey. (?)
  • Japan has the longest live expectancy in the world.
  • There are nearly 70,000 Japanese people over 100 years old, 88% of them are women.

To start our trip, we flew from Bangkok to Tokyo, leaving Bangkok at 2am and arriving in Tokyo around 10:30am.  After taking the train into central Tokyo, we went to the hotel and were told we couldn’t checkin until 3pm.  One thing to note off the top is how expensive Tokyo is – an average hotel will run $200+/night, and an above average can easily run $400/night.

After dropping off our bags, we grabbed something to eat at Shinagawa station and then ate back at the lobby of the hotel.  3 other friends were meeting us in Tokyo to travel together, arriving a bit later.  The 3 others coming from Colorado arrived in the evening and we grabbed dinner before calling it an early night.

One of the cool, aerodynamic high-speed trains around Japan.

The next morning we caught a train to Kyoto for about 2 hours.  The train system in Japan, without a doubt, is one of the best in the world.  Some go upwards of 350km/hour, are clean and spacious, and are on time everywhere.  It is a remarkable achievement.  We arrived into Kyoto mid-day, took a shuttle to our AirBNB.  We then walked around the fish market, checked out a local brewery, and had some fresh sushi.  Kyoto was much larger than I expected, and reminded me of the streets of a city in America.  In the evening we explored some different bars and sampled a variety of Japanese beers.

The next day we took a train to the monkey park (Monkey Park Iwatayama) about 30 minutes away.  It was a short, fun hike, and got to walk around the hill top with lots of monkeys.  Afterwards we hiked back down and walked through the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrine, the infamous big red gates.  From there we walked to a couple other temples, and then caught the train back to central Kyoto.  We bought some food and drinks at a local grocery store, and headed back to the AirBNB to relax for the evening.

The following day was rainy, as expected, but we walked around early enough that we avoided the rain for most of the morning.  We went another nearby temple and pebble garden.  We then walked in the rain to a sake distillery and read about the history of sake and got some free samples – it was quite interesting.  In the evening we relaxed at the AirBNB with music and sake.

Overlooking Tokyo from Tokyo Tower

The following day we took the train back to Tokyo, arrived in late afternoon, checked into the accommodation, and relaxed.  The place had a rooftop patio, so we had sake on the rooftop and chatted about what to do next.   We walked around central Tokyo and explored, visited an owl cafe where you buy beer and pet owls (true story), and after ended up at American bar for some snacks.

The next day we visited Tokyo Tower for some great views overlooking Tokyo, and in the evening went to an infamous robot show.  The robot show is strange, but quite entertaining and they serve beer so overall it was quite enjoyable.  At around $80/ticket, it was expensive but worth it for the couple hours.

On our friends last day in Japan, we took the train to a massive outdoor market which had lots of food, souvenirs, and people.  There were a lot of Thai people, I’m guessing from a large tour group of something else but it seemed half of the people there were speaking Thai. We had lunch near there, bought a few souvenirs, and then took the train to Tokyo station.  We roamed around the massive park near the station and saw Imperial Palace.  It was quite a fun place to hang out.  From there we took the train to Akihabara to checkout some of the electronic stores.  We ended up in one of the countless claw machine stores playing on the machines for an hour (throughout the trip they were everywhere and we spent many hours in them).

Overlooking Sagami Bay from the hotel south of Odawara.

Early the next morning we walked around the park near the AirBNB (Shinjuku station), checked out of the accommodation, and grabbed breakfast.  The others heading back to the US had to make their way to the airport, while my girlfriend and I had a couple hours to knockout some work before getting the train to Hakone area.

In the afternoon, we took the train to Odawara station to stay in that area for a few days to relax, onsen, and explore the small towns around Mt. Fuji.  In the shuttle from the train station to the hotel, we may 2 other women from Colorado who had taken a bus from the Tokyo airport straight to the hotel and were relaxing for a week.

Taking a cable car over a sulfur mine near Hakone.

Over the next few days we did a loop around the area seeing Mt. Fuji (though quite cloudy), boating across Lake Ashi, taking the cable car from Gora, walking over the Mishima Sky Walk, and relaxing in the Japanese style resort overlooking the ocean.  Since tattoos aren’t allowed, my girlfriend had to hide her tattoos in order to use any public facility, but it worked out okay.  I was able to get a few hours of the sauna in and overall it was relaxing to be there.

I made a list of observations which make Japan somewhat unique:

  • Very few white people around – we rarely saw other foreigners walking around.
  • Toilets are very modern, often heated seats with auto-bum sprayers with varying pressures and temperatures.
  • Toilets are often in a separate room as the shower.
  • Everything is very organized and clean – all the way down to how stuff is placed on a plate, to positioned in a room, to laid out in a city.  Even with 38 million people, Tokyo isn’t super crowded and there is little to no trash.  Organization is clearly a key to their culture.
  • At the cashier, coins are automatically dispensed to the customer so the cashier doesn’t have to manually count coins.
  • When paying with a credit card, signing is not required (at least from my experience).
  • Vending machines are everywhere, for everything from drinks (hot and cold), to food, snacks, rice to toys.
  • People stop walking when they use their phone.
  • In trains you can’t talk on the phone loudly (there are signs showing this too).
  • Microwaves aren’t set on time but on temperature.
  • Trains are spacious, clean, have good wifi, serve drinks, have luggage space/locks.  Very well made and maintained.
  • 7/11 (a Japanese company) has high quality, healthy food.  Avocado, sushi, etc.
  • When you have trash, you are expected to carry it around with you.  Trash cans weren’t common to see.
  • The food quality of Japanese food in Japan seemed normal compared to Japanese food outside of Thailand.
  • Japan is expensive, $15-30/meal wasn’t uncommon, especially in tourist areas.  AirBnB was often $250/night for an average apartment in the city – accommodation is expensive (Tokyo is one of the most expensive places in the world – in 2013 it was the most expensive in the world).

Overall, it was a great trip.  I’ve long wanted to visit Japan and explore a bit of the culture.  I’d like to go back and explore the autumn and winter there, and perhaps do some skiing.  The culture is incredibly unique and society seems well thought out and rational, unique to few places in the world.  It will be interesting to see what becomes of Japan with the population and work environment issues.