I feel like I had so much to add to the individual destination-based posts that didn’t fit into the format, so I’m closing out my Japan trip reports with a catch-all post.
Keep reading for specific thoughts about going abroad as Covid was starting to spread worldwide, as well as random thoughts about Japan and some random tips that I learned during our travels!
Travel in the Time of Covid
I found out that I would no longer be running the Tokyo Marathon on an otherwise uneventful Sunday morning. I had completed one of my last long training runs the morning before and had slept in for a bit to rest my weary legs. I was still in bed, scrolling on my phone when one of my friends sent me a message: “Are you still going to Japan?“
Why wouldn’t I? I opened up my email and saw nothing out of the ordinary, and stayed confused until Bryan called me into the other room (read: dragged me out of bed) and showed me the newest Runner’s World headline, saying that the Tokyo Marathon would be cancelled for non-elite runners.
That friend ended up cancelling their trip all together, and the rest of us did some serious contemplation about our own travel plans. Up until that point, I thought that the odds of the marathon getting called off were minimal. However, getting official word was a huge wake-up call, and made me seriously reconsider travelling to Asia at all.
Obviously, we decided to go ahead with our trip, and looking back, I have no regrets about going, even if it was a risky decision. To ease my mind, I kept on top of the news the entire time we were there in case, God forbid, we were called back to America early due to new travel restrictions. We also got travel insurance and health-specific travel insurance, as the possibility that we’d need to cancel hotel reservations, re-book plane tickets, and (again, God forbid) spend some time in a foreign hospital became even just a little more possible.
We also had the unique experience of witnessing the new era of Covid protocols in Japan before they were adopted in the States a couple of weeks later. Among other things, we were surrounded by people wearing masks, urged by shopkeepers to use hand sanitizer (which, in Japan, seemed to be straight up rubbing alcohol) before browsing their shops, and were disappointed by our plans getting cancelled and attractions being closed due to social distancing measures. It was even a bit easier to adopt these procedures while on vacation abroad, as they felt simply like “culture shock” – it was definitely easier for me to adopt mask-wearing in Japan, where everyone was doing it from the moment that our plane landed, than back home in Boston, where I’d never seen anyone wear a mask before!
One big pivot that I didn’t really touch on earlier was that our trip planning was less focused on traditional, big-ticket tourist attractions (like Tokyo Disneyland, museums, and even some arcades) to smaller, more local and intimate experiences. I mentioned our cooking class and bike tour in previous posts, but forgot to mention another “highlight”: a manga drawing class that we found on AirBnb (see the image above)!
In a weird twist of fate, we wouldn’t have even looked to AirBnB Experiences if other attractions had been open, but this class ended up being one of my favorite experiences we did. We not only learned how to draw our own one-page comics in a manga style, but learned professional techniques using actual equipment, like tracing with a lightbox, inking with professional pens, and pasting in shadows.
In all of these cases (the cooking class, bike tour, and manga class), we asked our hosts how Covid travel restrictions have affected their business, and all gave us disheartening updates: bookings were way, way down. And this was just in March, when the situation was just starting to escalate in the States!
That being said, I am hopeful that we will be able to travel again. When that does happen, I am definitely more open to trying out local experiences like these again!
With Covid-related culture shock out of the way, there were definitely other cultural aspects of the trip that I thought would be helpful for others that are planning a trip to Japan in the far future! Someday!
One of my favorite ways to prepare for a trip to a foreign country is to learn the language! Even if I don’t become fluent beforehand, I consider it a courtesy to at least be able to say simple phrases, like “Please,” “Thank you,” and “Where is the bathroom?” in the local language. Beyond that, I’ve found that it’s helpful to know how to pronounce things like place names and foods.
I have been casually studying Japanese (that is, listening to J-pop and reading fan translations) for many, many years before finally getting to visit. Though I am nowhere near fluent (on the contrary, when you learn a language primarily through love songs, your knowledge is not very helpful in day-to-day life), and I certainly didn’t need to know any Japanese in advance, I found that there were some phrases and knowledge that came especially in handy:
- Restaurant phrases! This is probably “travel 101”, but there were some phrases that were especially helpful when eating out. While we definitely could have gotten by using gestures and facial expressions, it was helpful to be able to say things like “yon-nin” (“four people”) as well as psuedo-English phrases in a Japanese accent like “eigo menyuu” (“English menu”, which they usually brought out anyway when they saw us, very obvious tourists, walk in), “toire” (“toilet”), and “kuredito kaado” (“credit card”). I also learned to say “gochisousama deshita” (broadly, “thank you for the meal”) near the end of our trip. Before that, we would say “arigatou gozaimasu” (“thank you”) instead, and I hope our servers understood us anyway!
- Shopping! It was actually super easy to shop because most cashiers had a big display that showed exactly how much to pay – and that’s all you really have to know, right? That being said, again, it seemed polite to know simple phrases, like “kore kudasai” (“this, please”), “kore wa ikura desu ka?” (“how much is this?”), and, again, “arigatou gozaimasu.” There was even a cashier who tried to get me to sign up for their rewards program, who I timidly answered, “gomen nasai, wakarimasen” (“sorry, I don’t understand”).
- Katakana! Going in, I thought that it would be more helpful to know hiragana, but because katakana is used for loan words, many from English, it was actually much more helpful to know how to read katakana. It definitely feels easier to get around when you can read where the “ramen” shops are, pick out the “hoteru” (“hotel”) sign among others on the street, or even, again, find the “toire” (“toilet”) in a restaurant. Though Hiragana did come in handy for reading restaurant signs and menus, it was otherwise not super helpful because I am not fluent in Japanese and didn’t know what I was reading anyway!
- Kanji! I would say it’s not necessary at all to learn kanji before coming to Japan, but being able to read certain things, or at least recognize recurring ones, can come in handy. “Big” and “small” came in handy for toilets specifically (more on Japanese toilets later!), as did “male” and “female” for public toilets and onsen. I didn’t know kanji for specific foods before coming in, but I quickly learned to identify some, like “okonomiyaki” and “don”, which made it easier to wander around and look for food.
I will concede that the language barrier did end up getting the best of us and definitely contributed to homesickness creeping up on us. I’ll concede that maybe other people have a higher tolerance for this, but we got very tired of not being able to read signs or communicate easily with others by the end of our trip. This is definitely not unique to Japan, though I do feel like not being able to read the language at all played a part. As much as I loved it there, for example, I do distinctly remember thinking “I need to go home” when we couldn’t figure out how much karaoke would cost from the sign posted out front. (“What is gold day?”)
(I have heard of people passing their phone back and forth with Google Translate, but this never crossed my mind while we were there – maybe it was squeamishness due to the virus!)
It was so incredibly easy to get around Japan! All signage and most announcements were in displayed in English. Most stations, as well as entrances and exits, were numbered, which was a godsend when you’re keeping track of how many stops are left until your destination, where to get off to be as close to your final destination as possible, or even if you’re not familiar with the language. (Google Maps even suggested that we ride in specific cars to be closer to specific exits! The MBTA could never!) We even grew fond of our “home” station’s jingle, though our favorite was the one near Tokyo Dome, which played a quick riff from “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” as we filed out.
We were worried about the trains being crowded, as they famously are, but our visit was “luckily” timed with many Japanese companies offering their employees the ability to work from home, so we didn’t really have to worry about overcrowded trains. Nevertheless, we still appreciated the markings at most stations that told us exactly where to stand while waiting for the next train so that we wouldn’t get in anyone’s way.
(We did have the pleasure of riding the subway around closing time on a Friday night and were not prepared for the amount of drunk business people – still in their office wear – stumbling around the stations and trains!)
Our IC cards (specifically Suicas because we got them in Tokyo) ended up being a godsend for navigating Tokyo’s subway system. While I had heard a lot about how the subways are so comprehensive, making it possible to go anywhere in Tokyo, this does come at the expense of ease of navigation and price. There was a steep learning curve to understanding where different providers’ platforms were, and we were surprised to have to tap out of one station into another and paying full fare for different lines, even if it just “feels” like one trip.
For buses, which we took in Kyoto and Nikko, we found it much easier to have our all-inclusive JR passes/Tobu Nikko passes that we could just flash at the driver upon entering (from the back!) and exiting (from the front!). Otherwise, we would have had to calculate the distance that we traveled and paid in exact change, which would have definitely held things up.
As I mentioned earlier, Google Maps was adequate for getting around on the subway. We learned about the disjointed subway lines early on, so once you learn the first time, for example, that the JR station is across the street from the Tokyo Metro station, even though they have the same name, the directions become easier to decipher. In Nikko, where there was only really one transportation provider, we actually just carried the time table pamphlet around – it felt very analog, but worked totally fine for our purposes.
I mentioned this before – but IC cards! Not only were they convenient for the (otherwise likely impossible) task of paying for public transportation, but there were many stores, especially convenience stores, and vending machines that took IC cards for payment as well! At times, it felt like more places took IC cards than credit cards.
We carried a lot of cash on us during the trip because we received mixed signals about whether places would accept credit cards or not. Our reality ended up being that places took them more often than we thought, but we did run into the random place that wouldn’t take cards, so it was always good to have some cash on hand. Most notably, we could only refill our IC cards with cash. Near the end of our trip, we ended up refilling out IC cards with our leftover change and using them to pay for random things we were going to get anyway like coffee from vending machines – a win-win situation!
The cost of food varied greatly (see: our doomed trip to Kaiseki 511 for a $200 Kobe beef tasting menu vs. $5 for takoyaki from a street vendor), but we found that it was generally easy to find something to eat for at a reasonable price. We usually grabbed our breakfasts (usually a can of coffee and an egg salad sandwich) at Lawson, or similar, for around $5, and we could generally get lunches and dinners for $20 or less each. Drinks were also much cheaper compared to home, so we didn’t feel bad about ordering a couple of highballs for $2 at happy hour!
I was initially worried about the cost of hotels, but they actually ended up being quite reasonable. We realized while we were in Tokyo that our hotels were actually newly built in preparation for the Olympics, which may have worked in our favor! In Tokyo and Osaka, we stayed in smaller hotels that seemed geared toward businessmen (though one did advertise a day by-the-hour rate! wink wink). Those rooms, though small, were very reasonable, around $50 a night each for a two-person room. Our most expensive hotel was Asaya in Nikko, which was about ~$150 a night, but it did include all-you-can-eat breakfast and dinner as well as hot springs, so I’d say extra the cost was well worth it.
Bidets! One of our hotel rooms had the toilet in its own little room, and if you didn’t close the door to the toilet room, every time you passed by, the toilet seat would open up, the bowl would light up, and a spray of water would start. Amazing! I’m still thinking about getting a bidet in my own toilet back home!
(Thankfully, I never had to use a squat toilet. We only ever saw them at shrines, so I was able to prepare accordingly by not drinking as much water so I could wait for the next Western toilet.)
(Also, I tried to find a royalty-free picture of a bidet to add here, but couldn’t find one! And I am kind of scared to dig further for pictures of Japanese toilets! I feel like that could go downhill very quickly! On my work laptop, even!)
Oddly enough, while I loved Japanese toilets, the sinks left a lot to be desired. My permanently-dry-from-eczema hands became even drier because (1) all sinks seemed to only ever have cold water, (2) with little to no soap, (3) so I ended up using lots of hand sanitizer anyway.
Finally, shoes! I knew that we would have to take our shoes off a lot, so I prepared accordingly by packing shoes that would be easy to slip on and off, but it is still an odd thing to do as a non-Japanese person. I’m already used to taking my shoes off in the house, but am not used to taking them off in restaurants or shrines! Won’t someone steal my shoes??? (They won’t! Wild!)
It also goes without saying, but as with any city, make sure your shoes are comfortable. I easily walked over 10,000 steps on any given day, and my mood was definitely correlated to how much my feet hurt at that time. We did end up killing a lot of time sitting around in restaurants and cafes just to work up the nerve to stand up again! (I was training for a marathon before going to Japan! What happened!)
Let’s just say that I’m counting down the days until the Tokyo Marathon starts up again and I can go back!
Despite all of my anxiety about dealing with the virus, we (thankfully) stayed healthy, and I got to go on a trip that I’ve been dreaming about since I was a child.
In a way, I am (kind of, admittedly, morbidly) thankful that a lot of my big-ticket bucket list items, like running the marathon, going to Tokyo Disneyland, and checking out museums and art installations, ended up getting closed or postponed – because now I have more reasons to go back!