Japan was a very easy country to travel in, as most people tried to help us tourists despite the language barriers.
We had a lovely stay with my brother and his family in Niseko. Eleven years of skiing there prompted them to build their own house 7 years ago. Since then, they have visited for part of my nephew’s Hong Kong school holidays at least twice a year in winter and once in summer. The design of their place is based on the traditional gassho-zukuri style house with a thatched roof found in the UNESCO World Heritage listed folk villages of Gokayama and Shirakawa-go which we visited later.
They showed us places in Hokkaido we wouldn’t have seen by ourselves without a car, such as a tofu factory which used the local fresh spring water from Mt Yotei, a whiskey distillery and a scenic walk to Cape Kamui. It was also an opportunity to meet some of their friends and try some of the delicious local produce such as big plump Hokkaido scallops, sea urchin roe, Hokkaido melons, corn and cherries. The fruit, veggies and seafood from the island are highly prized and sold at a premium throughout Japan because of its clean green reputation. We saw Hokkaido melons boxed as gifts around the country for prices like $A30 a melon.
The integrated public transport system was a marvel. One stored value transport card bought in Tokyo could be used and recharged for any metro system around the country. The subway and Japan Rail (JR) trains had signs in English and announcements of the next stop & interchanges were made in English as well as Japanese and Chinese.
The long distance JR bullet trains/Shinkansen ran on time to the minute. Arriving trains stopped on railway platforms to line up with the places designated for each numbered carriage. There were small air-conditioned rooms along the platform where you could sit and wait for the Shinkansen and kiosks along the platform selling refreshments and the famous ekibento or station lunch boxes. On the Shinkansen, someone pushing a trolley would trundle along to sell food and beverages several times during a trip. I suspect it could be a while before the Sydney public transport system works like that. If ever.
I was struck by the extent of Chinese influence on different aspects of Japanese life such as language, culture, traditional architecture, religion, cuisine, fine arts and crafts e.g. painting, ceramics, textiles, embroidery etc., some of which were much refined in Japan.
We were very impressed with the beautiful shrines, temples and castles which had magnificent features taking years of meticulous work performed without electricity or modern machinery. The villages of Gokayama and Shirakawa-go had sturdy thatch roofed wooden houses (with the roof pitch at 60 degrees) built without nails and able to withstand 2 metres of yearly snowfall. I’d like to spend more time in Kyoto as there were so many attractions and places we didn’t manage to visit. Some of the modern buildings around Tokyo had interesting quirky features, too.
I recommend the onsen. Soaking in the baths sourced from natural hot springs after a day of sightseeing in the hot sun was relaxing and reviving before heading out for dinner. It would feel even better in winter. I can see why the snow monkeys do it. Even though I went to the public onsen at our hotel in Takayama, rather than queue for their 3 private onsen, I managed to pick a time where I had the public outdoor and indoor baths virtually to myself. Our Takayama hotel (which blended Japanese and western hotel traditions) had a free foot bath outside that anyone could use. In towns with onsen, there were often free outdoor foot baths and hand baths with flowing hot spring water.
Takayama was a lovely small town where many of the well-signposted attractions were within easy walking distance. It had particular appeal for French visitors. I noticed at least 5 French restaurants and cafes and the post office signs welcoming visitors were in French as well as Japanese, Chinese and English.
We’ll certainly go back to Japan, although next time in spring or autumn rather than July/August. Tokyo and Kyoto sweltered at 35 degrees which made sightseeing and walking less appealing than it would have been in more temperate weather. Looking for air-conditioned premises and vending machines selling cold water took up a lot more time than I expected.
It’s easy to see why the department stores are so large and comprehensively stocked, with the steamy summers and chilly winters sending people indoors for several months of the year. You’d be amazed at the variety and abundance on display in the food paradise basements at department stores. The one at Takashimaya Times Square had a Fauchon bakery next to a mini Fauchon boutique, a Gramercy New York boutique, a Kinokuniya grocery shop, a wine and liquor shop, amongst its enticing fresh produce, ready to eat and ready to cook foods such as meat, poultry and fish.
Counters displayed all sorts of fruit jellies, bento lunch boxes, chocolates, sweets, rice crackers, seaweed, tea, coffee, sake, cheese, dairy products, bakery sections, specialty cakes, gelati, ice cream, hot foods, salads, etc. A lot of items were lavishly packed as gifts so excess packaging is an issue, even though the Japanese are very keen on sorting garbage for recycling.
The variety of Japanese cookery styles from izakaya, noodles (soba, ramen, somen etc) sushi, sashimi, tempura, shabu shabu, okonomiyaki to kaiseki was most enjoyable. In Takayama, the local specialties included Hida beef and hoba miso, a sweet miso grilled on a hoba leaf with vegetables such as chopped spring onion, sliced mushrooms by themselves or with thin slices of the beef very rich with marbled fat. It was a delightful surprise to have several delicious Italian meals in Japan.
Local people dealing with tourists and in service industries were very helpful. At times, the elaborate courtesy could be a bit much. For example, all the cleaners in our large Kyoto hotel stopped to bow and greet us as we walked past them in the long corridor to our room. This greeting protocol must take up a lot of time away from their cleaning work.
Many traffic lights whistled and chirped like very tuneful birds to let blind people know when to cross the road. Much more pleasant than our cacophonous lights. Japanese crossings also gave pedestrians more time to walk across than ours.
We met a few Australian and New Zealand men who married Japanese women and lived and worked in Japan for years. They did all sorts of things such as work on the local council, landscape gardening, lawn mowing and teaching English. On the flight home, the Australian woman next to me was crying because she didn’t want to leave after 5 years in Japan. Our short trip just whetted my appetite to go back.