Japan with Vanora

Agent Name: Vanora Wanner
Date: September 2008
Trip Location: Japan

Ancient Japanese PalaceOverall Trip Impression: I cannot say enough about the people – friendly, polite, gentle, gracious, considerate and helpful even though English is not widely spoken. Even during rush hour, when the subways are filled with a sea of people, there is no chaos; no shoving or yelling. Only texting is allowed on the train so as not to disturb fellow passengers, so even the commute is a peaceful experience. They set the standard for kindness, respect and good manners. Truly inspiring.

It is common knowledge that Japan is synonymous with organization, efficiency and modern technology. Add cleanliness to that already impressive list. So impeccably clean it’s almost surreal. Not a single piece of trash on the ground, not even a candy wrapper, and some of the public washrooms are as clean, if not cleaner, than some of our homes. Of course I can only speak for the places I visited, but I think it would be safe to assume exceptions are rare. It is also the first place where I have seen cleaners

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scrubbing the station walls. Also impressive and astounding was the fact that the fish market was unbelievably clean and orderly, and did not smell one bit like fish. As I walked out of one of the many 711 stores, I was amazed and admittedly annoyed not to find a waste can when I learned that not only are the Japanese not in the habit of eating while walking, smoking while walking is also frowned upon, so ‘smoking stations’ are scattered throughout the city. My frustration turned to amazement when I learned the reason public trash bins are almost nowhere to be seen, is because they believe the right and best thing to do is to dispose of any garbage at home. Simple common sense can work wonders sometimes.

Japanese Rock Garden

Places visited: As with most tourists, the first place I usually look for is the city centre.
Turns out Tokyo has several downtowns, with some the size of mid-town Manhattan! Since my time there was limited, I made a point of seeing some of the must-see districts. I travelled everywhere by subway, which was quite easy, since the maps are also in English.

I made my way to Shinjuku, a major commercial, entertainment and shopping centre, which is amazing to see at night when all the neon signs light up the city. This is also home to the busiest train station in the world. As for the busiest pedestrian crossing in the world (another well-known scene often used in movies), it is located in Shibuya.

Pictures 007

I also spent some time wandering up and down the famous avenue of Harajuku (made famous by Gwen Stefani and her Harajuku Girls), which is known for its wild and outrageous teenage street fashions (worn by Gothic Lolitas, amongst others). I would just like to add that some of my travel companions opted to do a Mount Fuji tour, but after hearing my stories ended up wishing they had taken more time to explore Tokyo, as Mt Fuji, it seems, looks more like a hill if you’ve seen the Canadian Rockies, especially since there was no snow during that time. Still, given what a famous landmark it is, I would probably recommend making the trek, but only if you have the extra time. It would also be a chance to experience the bullet train.

I also went to Roppongi, a very modern and upscale neighborhood, which is where many of the Western expatriates reside. If you find yourself there, don’t miss seeing a spectacular 360 degree view of the city from the Toyko City View’ observation deck.

We travelled to Osaka, another modern city, but only for a day. I cannot say too much about this place, as much of our time was spent in a shopping mall!

Wakayama

If you would like to get away from the hustle and bustle of a major centre, Kyoto is a great little city, still somewhat modern, but quaint. Many travellers go there to experience ‘the real Japan” and you can almost picture the geishas wandering the streets, as you walk by the wooden houses and tiny lanes.

As much as I enjoyed the cities, our journey through the countryside was probably the highlight of the trip. So much so, that I would like to return as this experience has taught me that the rural areas have their own character and charm. Too bad we missed the foliage by mere weeks, but the landscape and scenery was stunning nevertheless. We travelled through the Wakayama prefecture and stayed in Ryokans (traditional guest inns) in rooms with rice paper walls and saw some of the wonderful indoor and outdoor hot springs the country is famous for.

Okuno-in cemetery

At Shirahama‘s beaches, the white sand is imported from Australia. The Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage Route Walk was peaceful and relaxing, and the views lovely. In Koyasan, we overnighted at a Buddhist monastery, which was an interesting experience, but would have been a little more enjoyable had the head monk been in a better mood! One of the most memorable moments for me was our walking tour thru the World-Heritage listed and hauntingly beautiful Okuno-in cemetery in the Koyasan area. I had no idea a cemetery could be so picturesque. Most of the castles, palaces, shrines, temples and gardens we visited, including the ones in the cities, were a beautiful sight to see.

Before I left for Japan, a friend said to me about the food: “You might not want to eat it but you’ll want to take a picture of it!” He was right. The sushi – as well as the presentation – was first class, and even though I am personally not a fan, I have no doubt it tasted every bit as good as it looked. Incidentally, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that food was not as expensive as expected, with many smaller restaurants offering dishes for $10 or less. And don’t forget to try the shrimp burger at McDonalds!

Best time to travel: The cities you can visit any time, but if you are travelling in the countryside I recommend October and November for the beautiful fall foliage.

Travel tip: English is not widely spoken so it is helpful to have a few useful sentences written down.