Traveling in Japan was a completely unique experience. Not that we didn’t expect it to be unique, but we simply didn’t quite know what to expect at all. Well, we did expect to like it based on really good reviews from quite a lot of other travelers that had already visited Japan, some of them multiple times.
In short, while Japan was a great experience, it’s not high on our list for a place we’d return to, at least any time soon. There are way more places we’d rather see for the first time (Australia and New Zealand, for example) or repeat (Berlin, to be exact) before we’d go back to Japan. That makes it sound like we had an awful time there, but it really was a great experience, with some pros and cons, which gave us greater insight into the kinds of places we’d likely enjoy more.
As a caveat, we like to spend time playing with Paavo, running, and eating, so those were high priorities in Japan, along with simply experiencing the culture, so that’s where our judgement of Japan stems from.
First, traveling in Japan in general:
- It’s quite easy, not that expensive (or are we just used to expensive prices in general?), and fairly enjoyable. The train system and public transportation system in general is quite complicated and overwhelming, at least from a newbie’s perspective, but it’s doable. Every train station we ever entered had at least one person, usually more, that was incredibly helpful in helping us figure out how to buy tickets and where to go to catch our train.
- Other people, be they locals or foreigners, were also quite helpful wherever we went. Most people knew some English, some knew a lot, so we easily got by with minimal to no Japanese.
- We didn’t buy a Japan rail pass since we were there for more than 21 days and not moving around a lot, but only every so often. We ended up just buying one way train tickets each time between bigger cities. Tokyo – Kyoto – Kobe – Tokyo
- I especially loved the 100 Yen shops, which is basically the Dollar Store. So many fun, random things, all for 100 Yen (about $.90).
- There are so many people with bicycles that there were lines at the store for bike parking, not car parking. It’s hard to imagine, coming from the States.
- There are so many people in general, especially in Tokyo. I had no idea Tokyo was so massive. It took us over 2 hours on trains to get from the airport to our first Airbnb in Tokyo, and 2 more hours just to get through the airport customs, baggage, and then finding our Airbnb after the train ride. Wow.
- Speaking of the vast amount of people in Tokyo, I was also amazed that the high speed trains, which were fairly expensive, ran every 10 minutes and were still full all day long. It amazed me that there were that many people moving around city to city, all day long. In the States I feel like we’d have 2 trains a day or something because the demand just isn’t there, or maybe there aren’t enough big cities to support high speed trains every 10 minutes. Maybe both.
- The culture – the people are so quiet, so patient. People didn’t jaywalk; everyone waited patiently at traffic lights. No one made a sound on trains. We felt like the loudest people on every train, in every building, and there were signs everywhere saying to be quiet, including lots of restrictive types of signs, like benches saying you can’t eat or drink on them, or lay down. Every Airbnb we stayed in asked that we not make much noise as to not disturb the neighbors (Um, we have a baby that cries, so that was hard to abide by). Even bicycles on the sidewalk didn’t ring their bell when they wanted to pass; they simply waited to be noticed behind us before passing. I was shocked.
- There were sooooo few fat people. I won’t say there were none, but none actually come to mind when I try and think of how many fat Japanese people I saw. They eat such tiny portions of food and exercise is a big part of their culture. Again, quite amazing and shocking, especially when we flew back to the States and at least 10 Americans on our flight needed a wheelchair off the plane, all of them quite large in stature.
- People seemed stressed and in a hurry in Tokyo. I’ve never seen so many people running around, who weren’t actually running. Like people in business suits running wherever they were going. Were they late? Just in a hurry? Just like to be efficient?
- Coffee in a can. In vending machines, in every store, and cheap. I tried it, didn’t love it, but to me it summarizes how efficient the Japanese seemed to be with their time, not wasting any time brewing coffee or even waiting in a Starbucks line, but popping 100 Yen into one of the many vending machines all over the streets and immediately having caffeine on the go.
Traveling with a Baby:
- We didn’t take a stroller, just a carrier, and it was a great decision, especially because it was so crowded everywhere on the sidewalks, in trains, in tiny stores and restaurants. Our baby jogger would have been massive and so hard to maneuver, much less fit in our studio Airbnbs.
- Baby stuff like diapers and wipes was fairly easy to come by. We found out where diapers were because we saw a Japanese woman with 2 young kids walking down the street, and were able to communicate, “Pampers” with her, and she immediately knew what we wanted. Once in the store, it was hard to find baby diapers among all the adult diapers (apparently they sell more adult diapers than baby diapers), but we finally found them.
- Public playgrounds were kind of hard to come by and kind of lame, relative to a lot of other places. Other than being a little scarce, the equipment was often old (who makes a concrete slide?), or just small, like two (big kid) swings and a concrete slide. Lots of soccer and baseball fields though, and lots of school playgrounds, so maybe that’s why the public ones weren’t so great?
- Most kids shared with Paavo – This was kind of amazing, actually. All but one kid shared their toys with Paavo, even seeming happy to share their toys, and not showing the least bit of concern that Paavo would take the toys. It was like they weren’t wired to protect their stuff like people were out to take it; believe me, the kids eventually wanted their stuff back, but most of them could care less that he played with their stuff, especially if they were playing with other toys. Just one boy was super mean about sharing, like threatening to hit Paavo with a plastic shovel!, but when he saw Paavo crying because he wouldn’t share, he apparently felt so bad that he immediately coughed up his dump truck and delighted in sharing after that.
- Overall, Japan just didn’t feel kid friendly, especially Tokyo. If I were to go to Japan again, I’d want kids that didn’t have to nap, could sleep in small spaces with us without screaming if we accidentally woke them up, could stay out past 7 and go to dinner with us, and explore a country on foot and not be totally exhausted, so maybe a kid that’s at least 10-12??? I could have the wrong impression, but having a baby certainly made it harder to enjoy Japan, at least the way we did it.
Traveling as a Vegan:
- Definitely hard to be a vegan, even a vegetarian, as meat and fish are so prevalent in the food.
- Happy Cow was helpful and there were pockets of Tokyo that had lots of vegan options
- Kyoto had a vegan bakery that rocked; we spent about $20/day there and pretty much ate half our day’s worth of food each day there.
- Kobe kinda sucked for vegan stuff.
- Food in the grocery store was tough, as hardly anything was in English.
- Google Translate only went so far, coming up with weird translations, like “Burnt hair”. Ehem, I hope that ingredient isn’t in ANY food!
- We ended up cooking in a lot, veggies and pasta, fruit, cereal, but cooking was hard, as kitchens in our Airbnbs often had just a one burner hot plate with one pot. Meal time took awhile.
- Thank goodness for the world domination of 7-11 convenience stores, as we ate more Pringles and Oreos than I’d like to admit, along with cheap coffee and Orangina (I have a soft spot for Orange soda)
- This is a big reason we’d likely not return to Japan for quite a while, as it was a big challenge that we really didn’t overcome.
Running in Japan:
- Running was great, mainly along the waterways, as there seemed to be a path along every river, in every city, varying in length, of course, but nearly always available, and always full of other users.
- Felt super safe and super normal to be running. Running and exercise in general are big in the culture, so we soaked it up.
- Air quality was great everywhere, even in Tokyo.
- With Tokyo being so big, you want to at least be sort of close to a park (we picked Yoyogi, but it seemed nice to run around the Imperial Palace) or a river for running. Otherwise you spend a lot of time and effort crossing busy streets, waiting at lights, and weaving in and out of busy sidewalks.
- A reason we would return to Japan, just not with a young kid and with a better plan for vegan food (or maybe they’ll just be more options by the time we return there years down the road)