We had our frustrations in Japan, sure, but overall, I am enamored with the country. I’d go as far as to name it in my top 10 favorite places visited, if not top five. Here are some of the quirky attributes that gave it such a high ranking in my mind.
1. The culture of cute. Sure, Japan is known for Hello Kitty and anime, but adorable animated creatures adorn every sign, train, advertisement and billboard.
2. The 98 flavors of Kit-Kats. Did you know that every region has its own flavor? Of Kit-Kats? (I know! That blew my mind, too!) They’re often only available in super-touristy areas like train stations, and we spent some time trying to find as many as we could. We managed to track down green tea, white tea, biscuit and strawberry cheesecake, but when I found out (after the fact) that pumpkin cheesecake Kit-Kats were available in Tokyo, I felt like I had failed. Some of the more interesting flavors available include wasabi, soy sauce, apple vinegar, Sapporo, sweet corn, watermelon and salt, red beak soup, pineapple, and milk and red bean.
3. The ridiculously nice, helpful and friendly people. I just have to drive this point home: It didn’t matter if they spoke not a word of English, not a single Japanese person I encountered was anything less than awesome when I stopped to ask for help (in English). Some went as far as to walk us to the destination we sought.
4. THE FOOD. Why did I live on the fringe of Japantown in San Francisco for the past two years and never go to a Japanese restaurant? WHY? From gyoza to ramen, sashimi to udon, I devoured every last dish we sampled in Japan.
5. The train system. Despite our snafus with the Shinkansen—which many of you tell me must have been a fluke—we were blown away by the quality, reliability and cleanliness of every train we took in the country.
6. The bakeries. I don’t know how the Japanese are so dang skinny, because everywhere we went, the aroma of freshly-baked pastries followed us, wafting up into our every pore and ensuring that, by God, we went into that pastry shop and emerged with a full-on bounty. (And there was one on every corner, without fail.) That’s subliminal advertising at its best.
6. The miniature. Everything is smaller in Japan. It made me realize just how excessive and wasteful we are in the United States. Plus, it fits well with their whole “cutesy” approach to everything.
7. Harajuku. Need I say more? I could have sat in this crazy little pocket of Tokyo for hours and just people-watched.
8. The order in the chaos. Despite the 13 million people in the Tokyo area, they don’t run you over, they don’t shove, they step out of your way, they keep order—even at Shibuya Crossing, the world’s busiest intersection. (Now, if only the residents of San Francisco’s Chinatown could follow suit.)
9. The buskers. We wandered over to Yoyogi Park and were in for a treat: a band of Japanese performers doing Grease!
10. Dogs in costumes. I have never seen such fashionable canines anywhere in the world. Small breeds were the dogs of choice in Japan, and each one had its own designer wear or elaborate costume.
11. The loos. I’ve seen Japanese toilets start to permeate bigger cities like San Francisco, but I still can’t figure out which button flushes. Often, I think I’m flushing, when a poof of air or a stream of water sprays my butt instead. And why you need a “flushing sound” that doesn’t actually do the job is beyond me!
12. They look after the disabled. There were raised tracks throughout every public transportation system to lead the blind. How cool (and thoughtful) is that?
13. Sweet potatoes in everything. There’s little I love more in my food than sweet potato (or pumpkin or butternut squash), but I was hesitant to sample it in ice cream form. The verdict? Two frozen thumbs up!
What a fabulous snapshot of the country! I’m adding sweet potato ice cream to my list of things to try while I’m there 🙂
It was delicious! I never expect sweet potatoes to be purple either–I’m used to them being orange!
I love Green tea Kit Kat! So I want to know how is the taste of Soy Sauce Kit Kat. As an Asian who cooks with soy sauce in almost every meal, I can’t fathom eating Soy Sauce Kit Kat. It’s just wrong in so many levels. 🙂
As for the toilet, I have to venture the guess that the flushing sound is for the shy Japanese to mask the sound of their package dropping into the toilet or when their pass gas. Even at the private stall moment, I think Japanese still doesn’t want to seem rude for passing gas so loud. Do you think my analogy make sense? 🙂
I think it makes perfect sense (and made me snort in laughter).
I didn’t ever find soy sauce, but the wasabi was shockingly tasty–much to my surprise! I haven’t tasted the others, as I’m saving them for a special occasion/rainy day (I mean, they were $10 a pop after all!).
Some of the names are just names, not really the flavor! The soy sauce tasted like maple, and wasabi wasn’t hot at all, and could have tasted just like the green tea. I had no idea there were so many kinds.
Wrapping! It may not be something I love, but I always chucked at the way the Japanese wrap and bag everything! If it was a pencil at the department store, they would neatly warp it as if it was a gift to royalty. If it was a a box or tissue, they’d ask if I wanted it wrapped. But the best was the one time I bought an icecream cone from a 7-11 and they asked me if I wanted it wrapped or in a bag!!! LOL
Which reminds me of the second thing I love. The convenience stores. The convenience stores there were like gourmet Dean and Delucas–the crazy amount of good food all packaged in obentos was mind boggling. I miss my Japanese 7-11s…
I only found out AFTER we left that the 7-11s in Tokyo also carried flavored Kit-Kats! I feel like that was a major resource I didn’t tap into. Oh well…next time!
Beautiful pictures! I liked how you focused on the little things. I hear nothing but good things on Japan and can’t wait to go!
I’ve never been my my aunt and uncle lived in Okinawa for 8 years (with their 4 kiddos) and ADORED it!! I’m hoping to visit in the next few years, and it’s always possible we could end up living there (yay military!)
That would NOT be a bad place to be stationed. Fidel is in the U.S. Navy and writes a really great blog about life in Japan (just in case you are ever sent there!): http://www.scenewithahart.com/
I loved this post, makes me miss our trip to Japan. Here’s what I would add:
The endless variety of vending machines! If you could buy it in a store, you could buy it from a vending machine.
All the department stores with their food basements, oh man we spent hours every day wandering through all the beautiful display cases of food. We also loved that when you arrived to the department stores when they opened or left as they were closing, every single employee bowed to the customers as they walked past.
The fashion forward population. It was as if the entire city of Tokyo walked right out of Vogue magazine. I think we saw women wearing jeans only about five times during our three week stay. It was all dresses, skirts, tights, boots, and heels.
Oh and we never had to explain how to use our digital SLR camera to anyone we asked to take our photo. They just knew how to navigate the technology!
How could I forget the VENDING MACHINES. Those bad boys were everywhere!Did you also notice, though, that you could NEVER find a garbage can? I’m not sure where the Japanese discard all their vending machine trash!
They have that ‘flushing sound’ button cos many Japanese ‘people gets embarrassed if people hear them urinating or taking a dump. There’s a term for it – paruresis.
You learn something knew every day! The funny thing is that I couldn’t find the actual flushing button, so I kept hitting the flushing sound over and over again. They must have wondered what I was doing in there!
So funny that you would write this today – this morning I took Lola out and happened to notice the KitKats in the minimarket window and thought about how I’ve heard Japan has all these flavors, and I’d like to try them! I don’t know how I feel about the savory ones though…
Oooh were they flavored? If so, you must let me know which kinds you tried! Report back promptly, Em =)
No, I’ve never even seen the flavored ones in person, we just have normal ones here, which is what makes it so funny that I would randomly think about these mythical flavored Kit Kats at all, much less on the day of your post.
Emily, I found some Melon flavored Kit Kits in Sapporo. I’ve been avidly collecting them. Send me your mailing address and I will send you a collection of various flavors so long as you promise to write about them, lol.
Fidel, I think you should have a Kit-Kat giveaway on your blog! Heck, maybe you could even get the company to sponsor it since you’re such a good spokesperson 😉
Are you sure that ice cream wasn’t taro? But I agree my fave was the green tea soft serve ice cream! mmmm….
It said sweet potato, but we did see a whole lot of taro, too!
I developed a minor obsessed with the green tea Kit Kats…and the green tea lattes!
Confession: I still haven’t actually tried any of the Kit-Kats yet! It’s like when you buy a really nice bottle of wine and you want to save it for the right occasion…only I’m not sure what occasion would call for $10 green tea Kit-Kats =)
Japan is low on my list yet you make it more appealing. 98 flavors of kit-kats? Wow, guess I’m not eating enough candy bars. (Hooked on dark chocolate kisses.) The rest of the food looks inviting. I like the smaller portions idea. Either you can ingest less or eat more of a variety. Like the sweet potatoes, which I just love, along with the squash. But really, in a candy bar or ice cream? Guess I’d try it too.
It was always low on the list for me, too, which is the really great thing about SAS–I went to (and loved) so many countries I wouldn’t have necessarily opted to visit on my own dime and time. Sweet potato ice cream (more like froyo) was *really* good!
Um, the little logo of a butt being sprayed is the funniest thing ever.
I love me some sweet potato flavoring as well.
In china I found blueberry flavored Lays. Weird.
They have some really strange flavored Lays around the world, too, I’ve noticed but blueberry takes the cake. I don’t even particularly like chips but I found some sweet onion and Caribbean flavored ones in South Africa, and they were divine.
Sold. Seriously, let’s go. Tomorrow.
I think you and I, together, let loose on Japan with Kit-Kats to eat and beer/sake/whiskey to drink…that could be either recipe for disaster or one kick ass time (or both).
Ok, the Kit Kat thing sent me over the edge. Those flavors are just beyond. This is such a great list!
You’re not THAT far being in Hawaii either…at least, you’re closer than the majority of people in the US =)
As usual, you are making me dream of destinations I never really considered! Actually, I have always been somewhat interested in Japan, but two things put me off: the cost, and the whaling situation. I know it might sound petty to some, but I disagree so strongly with the way the Japanese government is handling whaling and violating/manipulating international whaling laws that it would hamper my ability to enjoy a trip there. At the moment I’m also trying to avoid buying Japanese products… my one woman boycott!
Yeah, I don’t think it would have been high on my list had I not been forced to go (in a sense) on the voyage. And now it would definitely be one of the places high up on my list of places I’d like to revisit for longer.
Good for you in your animal rights boycotting efforts!
Toilets and food were definitely so high on my longgg list of things I loved about Japan. I was shocked at how much I loved traveling there, and I can’t wait to go back. For people who enjoy skiing, I would add SNOW to the list. The powder is unlike anywhere I have ever been. I’m still dreaming about it!
Oooh we were tempted by the prospect of skiing, but given that we just had five days total, we decided against it. My sister, however, went skiing for a day when she was there on Semester at Sea two years ago and had a blast.
I want to go again!
The streets are safe at night. Walked about 2km from Minato Mirai, Yokohama, to my hotel room at 3am: Something I would not do in my home city!
Combinis (convenience stores): They had almost anything I’d need, any time.
Strange signs: “Drug Hello” seems to be a chain of pharmacies.
Nihon-sama, I shall return in ’15, and I hope sooner as well!
I missed the Drug Hello! Now I need to go back. Obviously. =)
i love sweet potato everything (i had to search so hard to find them in norway!). and i love ice cream. i feel like it is a match made in heaven!
That’s funny, as I feel like everywhere I go now, sweet potato something-or-the-other is a popular side on the menu. Then again, I do remember the food in Scandinavia being quite limited in terms of options (at least nowhere near the number of items we have on a menu at any given restaurant in the US).
I only ate out once or twice in Norway so I can’t really speak about what they served in restaurants, but I had to go to a specific grocery store (which took me close to 2 months to find) just to get sweet potatoes. All my coworkers were perplexed by my love of them.
I love, love, love Japan, it has its downsides but it is a very amusing country that is a foodie and photographer’s dream!
The only real downside I saw was the cost. It would be really hard to do a luxury vacation there for even a week!
Agree for anywhere outside of Tokyo, but in Tokyo you can use hotel points to get good deals…
I love the pictures! And I had no idea that Japan had so many different varieties of Kit-Kats. I can’t wait to visit someday.
If you have a Japanese store near your house, it’s worth checking for them…I first learned about them last summer as one of my friends in Texas had found the sweet potato Kit-Kats in her city’s Japantown!
Love the pics! Ummm I miss green tea kit kats.
I have your mailing address, Andi. Prepare for a surprise.
Here’s a blog my friend wrote about the Rockabilies at Yoyogi:
You had me at multiple flavors of Kit Kats.
I love your post!
2 thoughts – 1 – I can’t believe I missed the flavored kit kats when there! I feel like a failure.
2 – I saw the same exact Grease dancers at Yoyogi park! Hilarious!
Philly’s gotta have a Japantown, right? I’m sure you can track some down there!
Hilarious about the Greasers–I just loved them (and how eager they were to pose for us).
I love the food and all the awesome stationary stores! Mos Burger is one of my favorite fast food restaurants in Japan I mean seriously we should get some rice burgers here so delicious. I love all the pretty and unique pens and pencils they have like the ones at the Muji stores I wish we had one here in California.
We stayed RIGHT next door to one, and I craved a burger like I was pregnant or something, and yet I still didn’t try Mos. Next time. (I’m a total burger fiend. I just ate so much ramen and fish and other Japanese food that I was never hungry for burgers when we passed a Mos!)
I want to go just for the Kit Kats now!
ive been in japan several times as a singer in a band. and as a band ive been in many places all over japan and i might say i love everything about japan. their cultur,e tradition, lifestyle , and the food. so amazing…
I hope I get to see more of Japan someday! We really only saw Tokyo, a brief glimpse of Kyoto, and the ports at Kobe and Yokohama, and I know there’s so much more to the country.
My mind is totally blown by this whole kit kat thing. I’m shocked and awed. And amazed. And a little hungry for a kit kat.
And that little tiny Kirin beer is so cute! I want to put a hat on it and put it in a baby basket!
I sometimes wish I had smaller dogs so I could dress them up, but the cats have made a mostly okay substitute.
And as for the flushing sounds, some of us have shy bladders and can’t go in silence (I am a crazy person, I know), so maybe it’s to help with that. Otherwise, I’ve got nothing.
If you had smaller dogs to dress up, they’d inevitably be a tomboy like ours. Ella seriously gets PISSED whenever we try to put *anything* on her and glues her butt to the floor and refuses to budge. Even when she comes back from the groomer with a bow in her hair, she acts that way! (Doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes do it just to get her pissy face. Mean, but it cracks me up.)
Our dogs are mostly okay with it – we’ve put holiday sweaters on them a few times and they wear bandanas every now and then but they don’t look as cute as little dogs do dress up.
What a thorough picture of Japanese culture! As a suggestion, I would add the kotatsu with the heater underneath and the ofuro which keeps the temperature stable, as hot as you like! Lovely in winter!
Oooh I didn’t experience that! Then again, it wasn’t all that cold when we were there (in the 50s the whole time).
oh man. LOVE japan. we only went to hokkaido – the northern part of japan to visit a friend who was teaching english. i loved everything. loved the food – it’s so interactive! from watching them make sushi to ramen to making the food yourself on a grill or oknomiyaki. and then the kit kats! they had such different and unique ones. hokkaido is all about dairy so the ice cream there wasn’t necessarily skinny but man the full cream tasted amazing. i could literally go on and on forever. oh – last thing that i loved was the onsens – hot spring spas. amazing.
Anyplace that is known for its ice cream is somewhere I need to visit.
Awesome post Kristin. I’ve never been to Japan but hopefully one day I will and visit some of these incredible places. And the food just looks so good!!
The food was one of the high points for sure. Just save up for a long time before you go, as I’ve never traveled anywhere so expensive before (Japan’s one big downfall)!
such a great post! it’s like you ripped out the pages of my journal from our time in tokyo… i think i wrote about every single thing you’ve put up minus the sweet potato thing. i didn’t notice sweet potato anything when we were there.
Probably because they’re purple there and you’re used to them being orange! =)
Any place as singular as Japan will obviously come with some frustrations. Nice job focusing on the positives here!
Visiting here from Misadventures with Andi. Inspiring post! Makes me want to go. I’m 40-something and love Harajuku. =/
Wow I’ve never really thought much about Japan but it looks amazing! I just stumbled onto this website for the first time a couple of weeks ago and I’m really enjoying it so nice work 🙂
I really enjoyed reading your article, you brought everything to life. I haven’t been to Japan but I am certainly thinking about it now. The number of kit kat flavours is pretty awesome, spoilt for choose, and I do like the photo of the girl on the sidewalk all dressed up. Thank you for sharing your experience and great photos.
A multitude of cool things – I think this could be the place to visit with my geeky teenagers
How they get skinny even with all that good food including heavenly breads? By standing in trains instead of sitting down, by walking so fast (we call it the Japanese walk – 15 minutes of normal walk = 5 minutes Japanese walk)! What to love about Japan? I could add: onsen (natural hot springs)
What I like about Japan is their fashion style, makeup stuff, clothes, shoes, and everything. I also love some of their songs. What I love the most is the Sakura hills. I haven’t been to Japan but my cousin said that its the place where you can see cherry blossoms. And I only saw this Sakura Hills on picture. Japan is totally one of the richest, innovative and cleanest place I ever known.
Wasabi Kit-Kats? Eesh, I think I’d pass!! I’d definitely say that the whole “cute” culture is high on my list of things I like about Japan. They have got that market cornered! Now if only I can score a ride on that Hello Kitty airplane, my life will be complete. Tokyo specifically is such an amazing city–check out our article on it at http://www.stowawaymag.com/2012/06/take-me-back-tokyo/.
Did you notice that all of the Japanese shampoos and sprays smell like melon or honeydew? They really like that scent! That’s how I can tell right away if something is Japanese. And if you go to Japan again, the Nikko resort is a good place to visit.
Yes to the toilets (thrones!?), cute culture and the raised tracks! I would add the novelty of Japanese tv (I didn’t see much, but in each hotel I couldn’t resist seeing how it could weird me out and make me laugh). I loved all the bizarre sweets and snacks – I could spend hours in convenience stores!
Loved the list… I still haven’t made it to Japan, but it was everything I’ve ever wanted to see there. If only those Japanese toilets could come to Taipei! (Apparently, the flushing sound is to cover up “unseemly noises” without wasting water).
And I thought I was the one who coined the term “culture of cute” referring to Taiwan… Of course, it’s mostly Japanese imports like anime and Hello Kitty, but cuteness is equally important here. It’s everywhere.
And I’m very interested in your comments on how friendly and courteous people are in Tokyo. I’d always heard people were more reserved, especially if you didn’t speak Japanese. Now I definitely need to go and check it out for myself!
that’s a nice post. about toilet with sound of flash. I heard Japanese people are shy or too cautious and don’t want to disturb or want others to hear the unappreciated sounds while doing their job in toilet. if you push the button it will produce flash sound or 21 or 11 seconds i guess. Reason of punctuality in time of flash sound is also studied by them :D.
This was one of the best blog posts I have read on Japan. Just for the Kit-Kat flavors and sweet potato ice cream alone it was worth the read. Thank you!
Yes, the “culture of cute”… 🙂 It’s everywhere. Cartoon characters of doggies, girls and boys and even objects with eyes and a mouth…
Countless adults reading thick comic books…
Plus: I was amazed how almost every machine/electrical equipment is able to “speak”. Recorded messages coming out of vending machines, street barriers and even a computer printer…
Japan is like another planet.
We are going in August and I am so excited! The kids will love the Kit Kat flavours…will try to collect those for sure:)
Culture of cute is an understatement. With everything having a mascot, it’s amazing how much cuteness there is in Japan.
Ha! The land of mascots. I like it. Can’t wait to go back!
Can’t wait to visit Japan! I’m sure I will absolutely love it. It seems there are so many interesting places to visit, and so many reasons to love it!
Love you blog for details, humor and unique design!