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10 things I learned while visiting Japan

10 things I learned while visiting Japan

Visiting the Meiji Jinju Shinto shrine

Visiting the Meiji Jinju Shinto shrine

My husband and I just got back from an amazing trip to Japan. Tokyo and Okinawa to be specific. Japan wasn't originally as high on my list but with my cousin living there, I knew I wanted to go there before she moved. On top of that, everyone I spoke to about Tokyo had nothing bad to say about it so I knew I had to check it out.

A day in the life of Shinjuku

A day in the life of Shinjuku

While there, I was amazed at how foreign things appeared, yet how strikingly similar they were to life in an American big city, except with more of a high tech edge. Quite honestly, I wondered what it’d be like to live there in Tokyo. It seemed like it had so much to offer and a great quality of life.

I’ll be sharing with you about my trip to Japan throughout the summer. I wanted to start the series by sharing 10 random things I learned about Japan.

HERE’S 10 THINGS I LEARNED ABOUT JAPAN

FOOD

The food was delicious. You’ll want to try their noodle dishes ranging from ramen, to soba to udon. Their soups often have pork but it’s a light amount. Meat isn’t a major part of their diets. They don’t use a lot of cheese and dairy which I loved. I was scared of eating raw meat but found the sushi was pleasing to my stomach. Nothing happened. I stuck to the raw salmon though. The food isn't all about sushi and noodles. They like a lot of desserts, but they’re not as sweet as Americans are used to. They eat a lot of mochi which is a Japanese rice cake, typically infused with a red bean paste. Chopsticks are the utensil of choice and you’ll usually have to ask for a fork. And of course sake and a large variety of unsweetened teas are common.

Ramen from Ichiran Ramen in Shibuya

Ramen from Ichiran Ramen in Shibuya

WHERE TO VISIT

If you’re headed to Japan, definitely visit Tokyo. It’s amazing and you’ll want to reserve at least four days to explore it. Also check out Osaka, the second largest city in Japan. For a more traditional experience, check out Kyoto, the former imperial capital of Japan for a thousand years.  If you like hiking, head to Mount Fuji, a bus ride away from Tokyo. And if you adore the island life, schedule a flight to Okinawa while you’re there. It’s has beautiful beaches, humidity and a much more laid back atmosphere. Think Hawaii.

Visiting one of Okinawa’s beaches on Kourijima

Visiting one of Okinawa’s beaches on Kourijima

FLIGHT

The flight is a LONG one. Coming from Florida, we took a three hour flight to Montreal, a 12 hour flight to Tokyo, and then a three hour flight to Okinawa. Whew! Fortunately, they had  a diverse offering of movies on the long flight, so the time passed quickly. On the way back, I was so tired I slept the entire way. If you have any trace of motion sickness, save your neighbor by taking Dramamine. My husband does this for every flight and he’s never had issues.

LOW CRIME

Japan is ranked number nine Gon the Global Peace Index as being one of the most peaceful countries in the world. The United States is ranked number 121 for comparison. With the hundreds of people standing at every intersection, all packed together, I was amazed at how many people had whole wallets and cell phones hanging out of their back pockets. You’d never do that in New York City. People had nice cameras and cellphones walking freely through the streets without a care in the world. While the country is regarded as generally a safe place, crime does still happen so don't let your guard down entirely.

LACK OF ENGLISH

While English is prevalent on signs and menus, in our experience, a lot of Japanese were not fluent in English. Perhaps they could read and write it but many in Tokyo did not feel comfortable speaking it. Why should they? It’s not their native language and we were in their country. For my monolingual husband, this was shocking. This was my first time being in a country where people didn’t speak English or Spanish. (I got by in France by speaking Spanish when people didn’t speak English.) The Google Translate app definitely came in handy. We had to use a lot of hand movements and pay attention to pictures on signs, to try to figure out where we were going.  It’d crack me up when store employees would have a conversation with us in Japanese when we entered a store and I’d have no idea what they were saying.  Often we’d ask random Japanese elaborate questions, and receive one or two word answers, like “down and down,” which a subway worker told us as we tried to figure out how to exit the subway. At first, we thought he didn’t understand our question, but we finally trusted him and went down the escalator he pointed to, and lo and behold, there was another escalator to go down on, and voila, we found our exit.

SUBWAY

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What amazed me about the subway in Tokyo was how quiet and orderly everything was. People weren’t having loud phone conversations or playing loud music on the train. They just sat or stood there quietly and waited for their next stop. The signs are mostly in Japanese and can be confusing when trying to figure out which train line to take and in which direction. Our Google Maps was critical. Also the information desks and having change on hand to pay for the fares were helpful. When all else failed, we just looked for people we thought spoke English and usually they helped us find our way. A few Japanese helped us too but overall many had trouble answering our questions in English. It takes a little patience and a couple of tries to get used to it but overall the subways weren’t too hard to navigate and definitely much cheaper than any other way of getting around Tokyo.  To put things into perspective, we were staying near Shinjuku Station which I later learned is one of the largest subway stations in the world.

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ORDER

The Japanese definitely believe in order. At the subway, they have workers who make sure you enter and exit the trains at the appropriate time. They even have lines in the concrete for where people are supposed to stand while waiting for the train. When the train arrives, the workers make sure people are able to leave the train before people enter. Places open and close at a set time and not a minute later. We arrived to a museum two minutes after the last group was able to enter. Despite our pleading, the staff told us the museum was closed and we were simply too late. They didn’t care what our excuse was. At our hotel, we had to request an iron. I asked if we could keep it for the entire stay. They said no, we must call the front desk and request it daily, as well as call to return it when we were done. Forget about all of those special requests you get away with in America. Not happening.

TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES

You’re expected to take off your shoes when you stay in a Japanese home, often when you’re seated at restaurants, and even before going into dressing rooms to try-on clothes. They are serious about taking your shoes off and if you don’t like your feet touching the floor, carry socks.

HAVE CASH ON HAND

You’ll want to have cash whether you bring money and exchange it or take it out of the ATM. Both methods involve a small fee. A lot of the smaller, cheaper restaurants especially those catering to the sushi crowd only take cash. Plus, we found that sometimes our credit card didn’t work everywhere because they didn’t have the proper chip reader so having cash on hand is key.

DRESSING ROOMS

Shopping was a learning experience in itself in Tokyo. A lot of the stores have several floors. A lot of the women’s clothes were one size fit all. They love elastic waste bands in the pants. And in one store, you had to grab a number to use a dressing room and stay nearby, because the clerk would shout the numbers in Japanese. Fun right? I just paid attention to people’s numbers around me. Inside the dressing rooms, you were required to take off your shoes. The fun part, they had covers for your face so your makeup didn’t get on the clothes. How innovative. Apparently the majority of Japanese women wear some type of makeup so they deemed this necessary. A makeup wearing woman myself, I definitely found it helpful. Why don’t American stores offer that so we don’t mess up the clothes before we buy them?

If you’ve been to Japan, share with us some other random things about Japan in the comments below.

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