I may have an aversion to roller coasters and an irrational phobia of creepie crawlies but to say that I fear a culture shock is simply untrue. I was raised (for at least part of my childhood) in an Indian family on the east coast of Saudi Arabia. I went to an international school, where I would learn to pronounce names from all over the world even earlier than I could spell my own and a few years later with the same family by my side, I boarded a flight to London and never looked back. Now, I feel blessed to work in an occupation where every day, I see society around me for what it really is and not just the little bubble that I am part of.
Different cultures rarely surprise me; they are the very essence of who I am.
Yet, somehow, Japan did.
Only in Japan
This was a nation that put the spring back in my step. It blew me away with its high-tech wizardry and timeless traditions. It enthralled me with its neon jungles and embraced me with its courteous bows. It stunned me with its daily newfound treasures and age-old temples and it propelled me to rise at dawn and sleep past midnight so my senses would stretch to the seams of intrigue with the most unfamiliar and the most curiously entertaining Only in Japan moments that I never expected to find.
Hello Kitty Traffic Cones
Kawaii (a term encompassing all things cute) culture is prevalent everywhere you look in Japan and those of you who read about my visit to a Hello Kitty Café in Seoul will know that this was an aspect of the country that I was wholeheartedly ready to embrace.
Whilst it came as no surprise to find it in stuffed toys in department stores, I certainly was not expecting Hello Kitty to make her presence felt on traffic cones and construction sites in the gigantic capital of Tokyo.
Bathing Nude with Strangers in a Japanese Onsen
A couple of years ago, I spent my birthday in my birthday suit (almost) in Marrakech. It was an intensely embarrassing day in a hammam spa and that was when I was in a private room with just the therapists and Pumpkin.
How on earth then, would I cope 3 years later in Japan when I would learn that Japanese onsen etiquette would require me to part with Pumpkin (onsens are hot spring baths where men and women are segregated) and step into the bath totally – and I mean TOTALLY nude with complete strangers?!
These photos are actually from our private bathroom in our Ryokan room – for obvious aforementioned reasons, it would clearly be entirely inappropriate to be taking pictures inside the public onsens, travel blogger or not!
For the faint-hearted, there are private onsens but that is far from an authentic onsen experience and whilst a few years ago, there’s not a chance in hell I would have gone into a public one, I think some of Pumpkin’s quietly-confident, free-spirited sense of adventure has rubbed off on me so I have him to thank for my transient moment of insanity.
Plus, it’s not as if I was ever planning on seeing those other three Japanese women again…you know, the 60 something year old trio of friends who all sat with me in the onsen, chatting away through their nudity like it was the most ordinary chore in the world!
Giant High-End Fruit
Most of us all well versed with the importance of eating our five a day and with the fact that an apple a day keeps the likes of me away. But it was only in Japan where I learned about the concept and desire for giant high-end fruit, moulded seamlessly, foundation free, boasting no blemishes and charged with the most unfathomable of price tags.
These freakishly supersized pieces of fruit (that will leave you believing you are a Borrower) are highly sought after food items to gift to others or for those wanting to make a stand out impression.
With me quite unconvinced by Pumpkin’s mention of giant fruit, he went on a hunt in Tokyo to prove he wasn’t lying. After a few dabbles in and out of department stores and fruit parlours (think greengrocer goes to Hollywood), we eventually stumbled upon these celestial melons, individually wrapped, each one as flawlessly round as a plump full moon setting customers back a mere 70 USD!
Many of the apples were around half the length of my face. I tried eating one. I barely finished a third, when the fullness started to kick in. Believe me when I say, this photo does not even remotely reflect the true magnitude of the apple weighing down my wrist.
One afternoon, in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, we found ourselves inside a Maid Café, where drinks, snacks and informal food are served.
The waitresses inside typically dress in conventional French maid clothing, complete with wispy lace aprons and frocks, held together flatteringly with the sort of frilly bows that would have the suffragettes rocking in their graves.
After asking us what characters or animals we wanted drawn into our lattes, the cutesie and giggly maids could be seen playing board games with some of the locals dining alone and merely making conversation with others. They brought us our orders with nothing but life-loving smiles and frankly, I had no idea what on earth the whole experience was about but it was a surreal and strangely endearing way to while away a couple of hours.
Do they serve a perverse purpose? It seemed not, as most of the locals we saw just seemed to be enjoying chatting to the maids.
In any case, most cafes are underpinned by a strict code of conduct to protect the welfare of the maids, prohibiting people from asking them for their phone numbers or making physical contact with them though honestly, I can’t say I tend to do either when I go out to restaurants!
A Dog in a Kimono and Bow
And the maids aren’t the only ones sporting bows in their hair in Japan. I will let the photo do the talking here because I can’t find the words. This precious pooch was spotted during a tulip festival on our first day in Tokyo. We had only slept for around two hours after our night on the airport floor so at first, I wondered if was an exhaustion-induced hallucination but no, this well-dressed mutt was very much someone’s reality. I don’t even groom myself this smartly on nights out 😀
Queuing for Sushi at 7am
In which other country would you set an alarm for 5.30am to arrive at a malodorous fish market, queue for an hour at 7am to eat a breakfast solely comprising raw fish. And we were the lame ones. The hardcore sushi aficionados queued for nearly four hours for some of the most renowned sushi restaurants in at the Tsukiji Fish Market.
Despite the wait, the feast we were rewarded with was quite simply the freshest, most flavoursome and expertly prepared sushi I had eaten in my entire leaf and during my whole time in Japan.
What else would you expect when the fish has been caught not just hours but sometimes only minutes before being served? Sure, the sharp taste of wasabi felt a little strange on the palate at that hour of the morning but then again, when in Japan, breakfast is so much more than bacon, eggs or croissants.
Kit Kat Obsessions
Whilst foodies in London have long shunned their Mars and Twix habits for fair trade and artisan varieties of chocolate and for the salted caramels,almond nougatines and fusion flavours, over in Japan, they’re rather more taken by Kit Kat. The good old humble, finger chocolate that you hoped would appear in your school lunchbox, the one with the body of light, wafery biscuit that was always so easy to split and share, yes that Kit Kat has earned itself a cult following in Japan.
Plush Kit Kat boutiques could be seen in many of the Japanese cities we visited, serving not just the classics but all manner of previously unheard of flavours such as raspberry, Hojicha tea and the one that got away (cherry blossom and matcha flavour).
When we first arrived in Japan and saw restaurants and cafes displaying plastic food models in the windows, we assumed these must be the tacky, touristy spots to avoid. Then we found more and more plastic food models on every side street and every corner: plastic ramen, plastic tempura, plastic sushi, plastic dessert – entire plastic suppers unfolding in front of us behind the glass screens of eateries that separate the hungry rumblers from the post-prandial snoozers.
We found plastic food standing proudly in upscale eateries as well as concealed hidden basement jaunts and it soon became something of a compelling curiosity, browsing the models for their intricate accuracy & relying on them when ordering in cafes with no English menus. We may have even made some plastic food….but that’s another story for a rainy day.
Getting the Bullet Train and whizzing past Mount Fuji
When I think San Francisco, I think Golden Gate Bridge; when I think Egypt, I think Pyramids and when I think Japan, I think Mount Fuji. And in the same vein, when I think San Francisco, I think trams; when I think Egypt, I think camel rides and when I think Japan, I think Bullet Train.
Naturally, these stereotypes, whilst worthy of their reputations, barely scrape the surface of what their respective destinations have to offer but for me, no trip to Japan would have felt complete without seeing Mount Fuji and riding a bullet train.
Never once did I imagine fulfilling both in one journey though – that awe-inspiring feeling of whizzing past Mount Fuji in the blink of an eye (literally) and seeing its elusive snow capped peak, whilst grafting hopelessly to get the kind of photo that is simply impossible to attain when one is moving at a speed of 200 mph. (The photo above was taken on our trip to the pink flower fields at Shibazakura Festival.)
Since visiting Japan last year, I still haven’t told you about what to see and do in Tokyo, I haven’t waxed lyrical about my one night stay in Osaka and I haven’t yet spun the magical sugar that a place like Kyoto deserves. Yet somehow, here I am talking about toilets for the second time!(The first round of toilet talk was in my travel tips for Japan.)
Japan’s toilets will make your brain jiggle during moments when nature really only intended for other organs to take centre-stage. There are washes, powders, scents.
There are more buttons than my imagination could conjure up purposes for – the kind of toilets that make the UK seem like it has been plucked straight out of Tudor times, the kind of toilets that could never comprehend the hole-in-the-ground variety of lavatory I used so many times on visits to India.
And just when you thought the novelty was wearing off and a toilet would no longer surprise you this trip, you found one with a hand-washing sink right above it.
Quite how anyone can manage to make knee length white socks adorned with bright red hearts and green/purple hair look so damn cool is something that will always remain one of life’s great mysteries. But they do and they out-do, each teenager making your head turn just a little bit more than the last with their dynamic attire. If you think Shoreditch in London is hipster, you ain’t seen nothing yet…
Vending Machines, Vending Machines, Vending Machines
We Brits have clearly been missing a trick over the years, what with all our pubs and restaurants crowding up the streets. After all, who really needs a roof and a few bits of wooden furniture when you can live out your bottomless desires from a vending machine. In Japan, you might well find a liquor store within the confines of a little street-side contraption, where BYOB is more “buy your own booze” than “bring” it.
And as a non-drinker, I didn’t miss out either. How could I when there were milk vending machines, coffee vending machines with more choice than Starbucks and even machines where you could order your ramen at lunchtime.
I guess there won’t be too many waitressing jobs coming up anytime soon there then.
And then there was the seedy side, more reminiscent of some of the less appealing scenes I witnessed during my student holiday to Thailand many years ago. Kabukicho is well known for being one of the key red light districts in Tokyo and there were no shortage of love hotels paying homage to that.
But before you go imagining romantic cocoons of roses, chocolates and cosy log fires where you might bring a loved one on a special anniversary, think again. These love hotels offer short stay rooms that guests can book in brief time slots such as half an hour. I will leave the rest to your imagination, not that the pictures and advertising banners right outside the hotels really present much of a comprehension challenge.
Strictly speaking, they weren’t “Only in Japan” as we saw them just a few days afterwards during our visit to Seoul but Tokyo was certainly the first where I had ever witnessed them being touted in such a blatant manner.
Have you travelled to Japan? What have been your most bizarre moments there?