When I think about the three weeks we spent in Japan, it’s hard to say I got a sense of what Japan is really like. That may in part be because the three islands we visited (Okinawa, Hokkaido and Honshu) are so vastly different, but more likely it’s because we just didn’t have enough time to really immerse ourselves in the culture when we were moving around ever 3 or 4 days. I could write about what we did, what we saw, and what we ate in Japan (most of which were wonderful), but in my opinion, that would make for a pretty boring blog post. I’ll spare you that agony!
Takin’ It Slow
One realization (or rather confirmation) that did come out of our Japan itinerary is our decided preference for slow (rather than fast) travel. While we were planning out our trip, we listened to a lot of travel podcasts and one episode in particular about slow vs. fast travel sparked a discussion between Mike and I about how we wanted shape our itinerary. Would we embrace fast travel and try to accomplish as much as possible during our year off? Or would we take it slow and use this opportunity to spend more time in places than we would normally be able to with a limited number of vacation days?
I’d say we landed somewhere in the middle.
Initially we’d planned to take it real slow and spend two months in each country. But as our destination wish list grew longer and longer, it was too hard to narrow it down to only six countries. Plus, some places (like Japan) were just too expensive to spend that much time in. In the end, we came up with an itinerary that included the experiences that were most important to each of us, while still allowing for some unplanned adventures and extended time in cheaper destinations so we could really immerse ourselves in countries like Vietnam.
I think Mike and I suspected we were slow travellers all along. Most of our past vacations were spent sleeping in and lackadaisically semi-planning out the day’s activities over a mid-morning cup of coffee – but we often chalked that up to the fact that we wanted our vacations to be a relaxing break from our hectic work life. The more we travel, however, the more obvious it’s become that waking up at the crack of dawn and packing each day with a checklist of sights and activities just isn’t our style. If we’re setting an alarm clock on this trip, it better be for a damn good reason!
Sometimes slow travel isn’t that sexy. I remember returning from our European vacation a while back and trying to explain to a coworker why I’d loved Berlin so much. When I’d finished he said “Hmmm, ya, I don’t think I’m ever going to Berlin!”. I felt bad that I couldn’t do it justice. I couldn’t provide a long list of sights we’d seen, or tours we did, or clubs we’d partied at. Instead we just wandered around neighbourhoods and stumbled upon picturesque beer gardens, al fresco cafes and community festivals. It was perfect.
Sure, maybe fast travel gives you better Instagram fodder, or more stories to tell upon your return, but there’s no way we could keep up the that pace for a whole year. It would be exhausting and not much fun – at least for us! So four months into our journey, we’re looking for a place we can settle down for a few weeks in Vietnam to rest up, work on some projects, and pretend to be locals. Having the time and freedom to do that feels truly luxurious.
All that said, we did have a great time in Japan and enjoyed some incredible experiences during our three weeks of (relatively) fast travel. Here are some of the highlights.
A lot of people who visit this island South of Japan say it feels like a completely different country than the rest of Japan. I’d have to agree. Two of Mike’s classmates were from Okinawa (aka the “Okie” girls) so he asked them what the most famous dishes were from the island that we should make sure to try while we were there. He expected them to respond with some type of exotic fish or seafood dish, but instead they said to try Taco Rice! It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: A really generic Tex-Mex taco filling served on top of white rice. The dish is an indication of America’s influence on the island and a pretty good representation of its inhabitants, at least in Naha, Okinawa’s biggest city. The Americans have had a strong military presence there since the end of WWII so there’s an odd mix of Korean tourists and beefy US army dudes walking the streets.
Most people have never heard of Okinawa, but this small island has a tragic history. During WWII, Okinawa lost one third of its population, over 150,000 people (mostly civilians). If you’ve seen the movie Hacksaw Ridge, it features the Battle of Okinawa – the last and one of the bloodiest of the war. We didn’t have an International Drivers License (a bit of an oversight on our part) so couldn’t rent a car to see the historical or natural sights on the island, but it was still worth a visit.
At least for me, hitting the slopes in Niseko was my #1 motivation for adding Japan to our itinerary and was the highlight of our time there. I’d heard about Hokkaido’s legendary “JapPow” and man, did it ever deliver! Conditions were unusually good for December and I’m pretty sure I had a non-stop grin on my face all day long as I weaved in and out of the knee-deep, feather-light snow. At the end of each run, I’d have powder sprayed up to my belly button to the point where Mike started affectionately referring to me as “Snowcrotch”. I took it as a compliment. We soothed our aching muscles at the onsen (Japanese hotspring) each night as I officially came to terms with my naked public bathing fears. They do provide what they call a “modesty towel” about the size of a legal sheet of paper to help hide your bits, but I think chugging a beer from the Sapporo vending machine in the onsen lobby might be a better strategy for nervous nudies.
We knew there was a volcano (Mt. Yotei) near Niseko, but with the non-stop blizzard the first two days we were there, we had no idea where it was. The forecast for the following day was calling for clear skies and I actually uttered the now hilarious statement, “I wonder if we’ll be able to see Yotei from the slopes?”. When the clouds parted, you really couldn’t miss her!
People stay for weeks in Niseko and never see the volcano so we were incredibly lucky to get both a powder day and a bluebird afternoon consecutively. Despite it being totally overrun with Aussies like every ski resort in Canada (or the world?!), it was hard to leave magical Niseko. But after a bowl of the region’s famous potato ramen, we hopped on the train back to Sapporo and eased our powder withdrawal with a few generous whiskey tastings at the Nikka distillery en route!
Mid-way though the two hour train journey from the Osaka airport, I started to wonder if visiting Kyoto was really worthwhile. It was. This picturesque city is pretty much one big outdoor museum with temples, castles and shrines around every corner. You don’t even really have to try to see historical sights because you just stumble on them as you’re walking around – perfect for us slow travellers! We stayed in an area of the city called Gion which is the historical entertainment district. I didn’t realize until we arrived that the entertainment was of the female variety! There were “girls bars” everywhere and tourists running around with their cameras trying to spot a geisha (not actually a Japanese prostitute, contrary to popular belief) rushing to her next appointment.
It’s insane to think that none of Kyoto’s historical charm would have been available to us if it had been completely flattened by an atomic bomb in WWII. The city was on the shortlist of possible targets, but many historians believe it was removed at the insistence of the US Secretary of War who had honeymooned in Kyoto and had a sentimental attachment to it. It’s also insane to think that something as trivial as a person’s honeymoon destination could determine the fate of an entire city and tens of thousands of lives.
Perhaps it was learning that tidibit of information that made me appreciate it more, or that I’m a fan of any place that has dedicated parking lots for cyclists (or maybe it was that we saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi in Imax while we were there?), but there was something special about Kyoto that I won’t forget.
One thing that became obvious as we travelled through Japan was that my preconceived ideas about what Japanese people are like was for the most part, completely incorrect. I started to wonder where these stereotypes had come from when I’d never read any books about Japan or done any kind of diligent research that would entitle me to even begin forming an opinion about what common traits this nation’s people might share.
Here are some things I’d heard about Japan before we visited:
- Japanese people are polite and quiet
- Japan’s marriage and fertility rates have been declining in recent years
- Japan has one of the highest suicide rates of developed countries
That first bullet on the list seems pretty accurate. From what I experienced, Japanese people are very polite and mild-mannered. But for some reason (because of conversations I’ve had with other people, or my brain’s weird inclination to jump to conclusions), I started to assume those character traits were the cause of bullet points two and three as well. If Japanese people aren’t getting married, it must be because they are too shy and quiet to interact with potential partners. And because they’re not getting married, they are lonely, depressed and suicidal.
What?! Where did that come from?
I’m embarrassed to even write that down because it sounds so ridiculous. In reality, Japan’s low marriage and high suicide rates can be attributed much more to economics than personality traits. Unemployment (and the stigma around unemployment) is a big cause of depression in Japan, and it also turns out that unemployed men (or even part-time workers) aren’t meeting the criteria that Japanese women are looking for in a life partner. That’s a total oversimplification of course, and there are many other reasons, but none of them have to do with Japanese people being too shy to date.
I wonder how long I would have continued to let those assumptions build in my mind if I hadn’t visited Japan and started to ask more questions about what was going on there? To me, that’s one of the greatest benefits of travel. When you get out of your living room (and your head!) and interact with real people in the places you’ve heard about, you get curious. You’re forced to compare the stereotypes you might not even realize you’re carrying, with the reality that’s there in front of you. Maybe I didn’t get a complete understanding of Japan during my time there, but I certainly know more now than I did before.