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!