Three weeks in, and particularly now that we’re in mainland Japan, I’m really growing to love the place. We’ve spent the last week in Otaru and Tokyo, before moving onto our current location, in Nikko. Otaru is a sweet little coastal town in the west of Hokkaido, known for its canals and huge warehouse buildings that have been converted into cool restaurants and bars. We spent our time there ambling about, having nice food, and exploring parks and an aquarium for Otis, so that he could play.
We moved on to Tokyo, spending 5 days there. I’ve actually been to Tokyo twice before, both times for work, and both times having limited time to explore properly, but having done a little sight-seeing. That was about 15 years ago however, so this still felt like visiting for the first time.
We were based in Shinjuku, a good place to explore all the other areas of Tokyo easily. We spent a day wandering around the cobbled streets of Kagurazaka, visiting nearby shrines, the Imperial palace, and eating amazing food. Our next day was spent exploring Tsujiki market (a place I had visited before, but a must do for Otis and Ben to see), and on route we discovered a great Toy Museum with a huge play room for babies filled with the most amazing wooden toys, and very sweet little Japanese children to make friends with.
Finding things to do or places to play for Otis is an increasingly big focus each day. He’s just taking his first independent steps, he’s into everything (point and explain everything we pass is essential for keeping the peace), and he’s got so much energy to burn. It’s most definitely the toughest part of our travel so far, as until he can actually walk, he still needs our help, but he doesn’t really want it, so we have a frustrated little man on our hands! However, it’s great to see him develop, and interact with other children and it reassures us that we’re doing an ok job somewhere along the line.
Our third day in Tokyo was spent visiting Yanaka and Ueno. Yanaka still has a lot of the traditional housing from the Edo period, but it’s in stark contrast to much of the business that is developing there, which feels distinctly hipster and very modern. It’s a lovely place to wander, and Ueno nearby has a huge park filled with museums, Tokyo’s oldest zoo where we went to show Otis panda’s, and a huge lake filled with lilies.
Our final day was then just exploring nearby Shibuya, and getting some more admin based shopping done, new clothes for Otis, a few bits for us – and although I hate shopping in busy centres with a passion, there were still some back streets that were pretty cool, and the neon filled manic streets of this area are still worth seeing to get a different feel of the city.
As we travel further into Japan, we grow to love the place, but so far, it’s not so much about the scenery or the beautiful ornate shrines (although both are stunning). It’s more about the little quirks that make this country unique. I’ve tried to detail a few below, although I’m sure this list will grow as we travel around…
(1) The toilets here require about six manuals on the wall to understand how to use them. Some company somewhere that makes these comprehensive stickers is making some serious cash detailing how to use the heated toilet seat, the bidet function etc. etc. The irony is that alongside these new-fangled devices are the traditional toilets that are essentially a hole in the ground that still seem to be favoured in new developments.
(2) Elderly women and their quirky, eccentric styling (think clashing patterns and long gloves / leg warmers, topped off with a scarf tied round the neck and a bonnet hat). They rock the looks they choose. I somehow can’t imagine it working on anyone but these petite Japanese women.
(3) Ordering meals in restaurants via a vending machine outside. Common in busy Tokyo restaurants, this takes out the middle man and gets you straight to your food, quick. With hanger looming when you travel, this is simple brilliance.
(4) The constant chatter at checkouts in supermarkets. The whole supermarket process works differently here – you give your basket to the person at the checkout, they put it all through and put it back in a basket, which you then take off to a table to pack yourself. Whilst putting your items through, they talk constantly – obviously I have no idea of what they’re saying, but it’s a reassuring chatter.
(5) People directing pedestrians away from work being done, even though there are cones there – even on the smallest back streets, if there is a bit of scaffolding, or something being mended, there will be a person whose only job is to direct you past, and make sure everyone is safe. Probably unnecessary the vast amount of the time, but it says something about the attitude here.
(6) The random music playing from the loudspeakers on street corners. Everywhere we’ve been so far, town centres are wired up so that music is playing as you explore. When we were in Kushiro, there was a particular piece of music that played at 5pm (celebrating the end of the working day? Who knows). In Shibuya, it was random terrible pop music as you explore teen shops. In Ueno music was interspersed with announcements telling you that smoking was bad for you. As I said, random.
(7) Wheeling kids around in trollies when on day care trips. We’ve seen this several times, where a nursery is obviously taking a group of children out to see the town for the day, and they scoop them all up and wheel them along in little trollies. Super cute.
(8) Multiple foods on sticks. You can pretty much get anything here, sausages, octopus balls, entire fish, even an entire squid. Convenient, yummy, and our son loves it.
(9) School girls / teenage friends who dress absolutely identically. I’d always thought this was a big no-no. Your friend turns up in the same item, one of you changes. Here, it’s definitely a planned thing.
(10) The general order and perfection of public transport. Everything arrives on time, the trains are spotless, the seats look brand new, people queue to get on. Seriously civilised stuff.
(11) Even the food from normally rubbish train station kiosks is amazing – and supermarket sushi is ridiculously good
(12) The sheer number of tiny dogs. The idea of owners looking like pets applies here in proportion rather than features (to Otis’s delight)
They’re small reasons, but they all amount to a country that is unique in every way, with some of the friendliest people I’ve met while travelling, who unfailingly want to help you. We’ve had people run after us when we’ve left shops asking for things and haven’t been successful in finding the item, just because they’ve realised somewhere else might stock it. We’ve had people come up to us in the street with free items for Otis, and everyone waves to him and stops to speak to him, and in turn to speak to us. In restaurants, we’ve often ended up chatting to other families who are keen to hear about our journey, and applaud what we are doing in terms of opening up the world to our Son.
So far, it’s not quite delivered on the outdoorsiness of NZ and Australia (simply because we haven’t really been to those areas yet), but on people, and an interesting culture, it’s a brilliant place to be.