Five Things I Learned About Japan

I travelled to Japan feeling a little cocky. Kei and I met there about 12 years ago and I lived there for an entire year so I should feel right at home right? Not exactly. Even with 12 months of Japanese living under my belt, I still managed to discover more than a few things that surprised me or pushed me out of my comfort zone – and of course I relished every minute of the challenge.

1. It really can be as crowded as you’ve heard.
12 years ago I lived in a Japanese “city” of 60,000 people – not exactly your bustling metropolis. Kei pretty much lived in the middle of a rice paddy. Sure, we visited Tokyo for weekend trips, but our everyday experience of Japan was far from the crowded trains and busy streets that are shown in the media as “normal” Japan.

Yokohama definitely opened our eyes to life in the city.

After a marathon flight followed by a 90 minute train ride, we finally arrived at Yokohama station. It was about 8pm on a Sunday night and the station looked something like this…

Did I mention that it was 8:00 on a Sunday night?

The Taxi rank looked like this…

… and our home for the week was nestled in this quiet little neighborhood (cough!).

2. It’s easy to find something you’ve never experienced before (and probably never will again)
On our third day in Japan we traveled to Hakone, a lovely little town in the mountains famous for its onsens (japanese bath houses). We spent the day at a huge family onsen complete with a 100 degree pool and fish that clean your feet. No – not a typo. I didn’t have my camera with me but managed to grab a shot of a poster in the hotel we stayed at. There is nothing quite so strange (and weirdly wonderful) as the experience of hundreds of tiny little fish nibbling the dead skin off your feet. I suppose you’ll have to take my word for it.

The same onsen boasted hot baths inspired by drinks. I thought my mother-in-law was kidding when she said there was a coffee pool and a red wine pool but I was proven wrong when we stepped outside to a pool of hot water that gave off a distinct coffee aroma. REAL coffee in the water. Weird but also very enjoyable. We then made our way up the hill to the red wine bath (real bottles of wine added four times a day), the green tea bath, the beer bath and, of course, the sake bath.

Again, no real photos but this poster should give you a good idea. What you won’t get from the photos is the wonderful smell of coffee and wine. I’m considering a red wine bath for our back yard – may be a waste of good wine, but what could be more decadent.

3. The food is just as amazing as I remember.
Oh the food, the wonderful food! No matter how much I try to recreate the experience of Japanese cuisine here in Portland, it will never quite reach the heights of the real thing. From traditional Japanese breakfasts laid out with rice, fish, pickles and the works, to home-delivered sushi that melted in my mouth, the food was definitely one of the highlights.

Check out Samuel with his super-sized children’s meal.

If Thomas had his way we would have eaten soba noodles for every single meal. Thankfully, he was easily distracted by promises of onigiri, japanese curry, ikura sushi and even something a little more adventurous.

I was also able to eat my first okonomiyaki in 12 years. Yes, we made the most of every available eating opportunity, even on the shinkansen

4. Life in Japan can be a little overstimulating.
It starts with the endless flow of people (everywhere!) and continues with the sounds and the constant visual assault. Although I felt as though I were getting used to it by the end of our trip, I found the incredible amount of visual and audible stimulation overwhelming at first. It isn’t sufficient for them to merely say something on a TV show, they have to emphasize it with Japanese writing across the screen (complete with exclamation points!). Walking into Yodobashi camera (one of Japan’s largest electronics chains) was an insane experience. Not only do they carry every single product on the planet (over about seven floors), but they reinforce every product and price with hanging signs and loud announcements.

But I can’t complain too much – they had a full Canon camera section where I was able to play with my dream camera – even if I couldn’t buy it thanks to the sad state of the US Dollar.

5. If you wait long enough and wish hard enough you WILL see Mt. Fuji.
It took a few hours of willing the fog to clear during our visit to my brother-in-law’s house, but Fuji-san finally peeked out from the clouds – just enough for me to capture a tiny sliver on camera. It counts. (Oh, and my brother-in-law may have one of the best views I have ever experienced from someone’s living room)

More stories and photos from Japan coming of course, but I just had to share these initial thoughts while they were still fresh in my mind.


  1. Interesting thoughts, despite being a ‘gaijin’, I have spent so much time in Japan now that I think and speak like them at times. Refreshing to be reminded of what I felt like when I first set foot there about 8-9 years ago.

  2. Can I just say wow!? Your experience looked amazing and your photos do too. I wish they had osens in the U.S. I can’t wait to see more of your photos from Japan. Consider me a new subscriber 😀

  3. Thanks for the wonderful virtual trip to Japan. My wife and I were there five years ago (she was born in Nagoya), and we loved every minute of it. We also went to Hakone, took the cable car ride up the mountain, but never saw Mount Fuji. When I later looked at a postcard of the same cable car, I was shocked to see how close Fuji was. We did catch a glimpse of it from the Shinkansen.

    Looking forward to more of your posts from Japan. (Have you been to Nikko, by the way? That was our favorite place. We’re hoping to go to Hiroshima and Osaka in two years.)

    Great photos!

  4. Congratulation! What a wonderful press! This exactly what i experienced when i’m in Japan few years ago. From Narita Airport-Tokyo-Chiba-Kanagawa- Enoshima Island, the train-ride, the crowd, the culture, the food, Pachinko…etc all perfectly great! Most of it still fresh in my mind even until today. Thanks to bring me back there for a while 🙂

  5. Fish nibbling at your dead foot skin?!?! Ewww. But fascinating, at the same time.

    Beautiful post. Love reading about new experiences, even if I must live vicariously through yours! 😉

  6. the picture of Mt. Fuji is just awesome. I like the food and the subculture of anime, manga and j-pop. i also like, although at some point weirded out, the extreme lengths to which they do cosplay. even their everyday clothing seems a little bit too cosplay-ish to me.
    i miss being there 😛

  7. I have always been a little afraid to travel to Japan for the very reasons you mentioned. That “constant visual assault” turns me off a little bit, yet it also makes Japan… well, Japan! I just don’t think it would be the same without the flashing neon lights or Hello Kitty fascination. The food looks amazing! Great post, congrats on being Freshly Pressed!

  8. Love the pics- the food looks so delicious!!! Especially love the shot with the “over stimulated” japan- I quite agree- that would give me nightmares…lol!

  9. Please please, post some more words and photos … I absolutely loved your post, the freshness of description and authenticity of images!!!
    I’m in love with Japan since I was a boy, but never even got close to land on the islands, even though I’m planning to do it soon.

  10. Great post, Nicole! Japan is an interesting country and as far as the distance shows, the culture is vastly different from that of the US.

    I’ve been to Japan and wish to go back again soon. The scenery and food are the reasons that keep drawing me back.

    Congratulations on being FP’d!


  11. You are do lucky to have been able to live in japan! Its my dream to be able to live over there 🙂

    Ive been to Japan twice, and everything youve mentioned in the post made me giggle as i remembered my own experiences of them. Unfortunatly i didnt get to visit Yokohama, but i stayed in Tokyo which is just asd busy from what i can gather. Both times i visited i stayed in two of the most busiest places in tokyo, Shibuya and Shinjuku. It was amazing, i thought no where could be more busy than London at Rush hour, but Tokyo sure gives it a run for its money.

    Your blog post really cheered me up today! Thank you for writing it and i will be looking forward to reasing more blog posts! 🙂

  12. I agree with every point made in this blog post! I also lived in Japan for a year and I can’t wait to go back. I love it over there.
    1) I think it’s funny that no matter what time it is during the day there will be at least 1 person running to catch their train
    2) for me, it was canned bread.. that was sold from a vending machine!
    3)i love love love japanese food- enough said.
    4) there is so much to look at you can go back to the same city on more than one occasion and catch things you didn’t see the first time!
    5) Mt. Fujii and I have a complicated relationship though- I climbed but the weather was far from optimal and the climb pretty much kicked our butts. but when you can see Mt. Fujii, it is beautiful and the one flash of a sunrise we did see was cool.

    I want to add a sixth that I’ve learned
    6) CONBINIs are the epitome of convenient- I have yet to see any convenience stores like the ones in Japan. i love them.

    thanks for the pictures!

  13. My work mate is in Japan now – she always raves about the dim sum restaurants. I was there sadly just for 8 hours once and couldn’t leave the airport, I remember a beer being quite expensive though!

  14. I lived in Japan for a year and half and I miss it so much. I’ve been back in the states for about four years. I loved this blog post and I am longing for a good onsen!

  15. Thanks so much for this post. My mother is from Japan and this post brought back memories of the first time I visited there when I was 14. I was not prepared for how crowed it was. I almost got separated from them on the train. At a station, people started for the door in a wave that I was caught up in. I had to cling to my uncle’s outstretched hand so I wouldn’t be swepted out of the train! Looking forward to your next post!

  16. Great pictures! I travelled to Japan with my parents when I was 2 years old . . .needless to say I don’t remember almost anything. But there are pictures of crowds of people and insane amounts of lights and billboards that really capture the feel of it, like yours do.

  17. Thank you so much for your take on Japan. I used to live in Wakayama and I didn’t get the big city feel (though I longed for it). Your pictures are awesome and I miss the adventure and feeling of everything being new! I think it is time to go back. ^__^

  18. Pingback: Five Things I Learned About Japan (via Lyrebird Images) « TABacco @ ChocoLATE

  19. I like your post! You are absolutely right, Japan can be a really surprising place. I lived there 3 years and while it became “familiar” there were always things that I took note of as being interesting or unusual.

    I wonder if a red wine bath might be in order? That onsen you describe sounds amazing. I’ve been to Hakone, but didn’t make it to that one. I did have their famous “onsen tamogo,” though.

  20. Pingback: Going to Japan, again, is one of my dream « Thewondermya's Blog

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  22. Yeah, I’ve pretty much had these 5 revelations myself as well. Glad I am not the only one. My wife is Japanese and gets overstimulated when she comes back too. It can be intense, though hard to leave at the same time.

  23. Natsukashii na! I grew up in Tokyo and can never get back often enough. Last year I took my son and his fiancee and we all had a fantastic time traveling by Shinkansen. We were mostly in Tokyo and Kyoto but also went to Kyushu–my first time there. It’s sad that so many westerners avoid Japan because of language barriers and expense. Yes, I speak good Japanese, but it’s possible for those who don’t at all to have a wonderful time. Japan is also not as expensive as people make it sound–just don’t eat in hotels and gaijin-oriented places, avoid taxis and take advantage of the Japan Rail Pass, which gives you full access to the Shinkansen and most train lines, as well as some subways. Most of all, remember that nothing bad will happen to you if you get lost. Japan is very safe and full of people who are happy to help foreign travelers.

  24. Top post. I’ve visited Japan twice now for work. First time I was based in Yokohama but travelled down to Kobe & Nagoya via the Shinkansen. Japan is a truly amazing place, but it is an absolute assault on the senses. What amazes me that the people are busy all of the time, yet when you talk to them they are so warm and open…despite being a Gaijin ! I am just returning from South Korea, and the Koreans are similar to the Japanese. I written some ramblings about it, so please check out my blog.


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  27. lovely pics! i especially liked the ones of the ‘quiet’ neighbourhood (love the houses all packed together like that), Mt Fuji (bravo for capturing it) and Samuel’s beautiful meal platter.
    the box of neatly partitioned goodies was pretty fascinating too. i admit i spent some time looking at it. so much to think about 🙂
    glad you shared these! looking forward to more.

  28. I just experienced (and blogged about) my first Halloween in Japan. Amazing, fun, surreal… too many adjectives. I’ve been here a year. Started off not liking it because of the population, the attitudes toward foreigners in some places and the difficulties in figuring out what to eat. But the more I explore, the more I begin to love it. Having a friend or significant other who is a local and knows the language also helps tremendously.
    There really is a lot to see, do and learn about. From seeing the fish auctions to a live soccer match to finding a hidden beach in the city, Japan has it all.

    Nice post! Great images.

  29. This makes me want to go to Japan even more. Thanks so much for posting. 🙂
    I definitely can’t wait to try the food and the bath houses when I get a chance to go.

  30. Thank you for giving me snippets of Japan — I loved the country and the culture and has always dreamed of going there. I love the pictures — and such cute kids! 🙂

    Your post just made me determined to make my Japan Adventure come true.

  31. I am from the Phillipines and I long wanted to go to Japan…I envy your adventures…for me, I consider Japan the greatest Asian country.

  32. Your experience in Japan make me know more about the actual life in Japan, these days I am studying Japanese, I hope one day I could be there to bring you guys some experience, maybe different things.Thank you.

  33. What a wonderful post! I can only dream of going there one day. My great grandmother and my mom lived in Japan for about a year. Mom hated it, but my grandmother loved it.

  34. an interesting article and photos! including the exclamation marks also!!
    Mount Fuji looked great! ..and the child eating healthy food.
    I can see how you can get overstimulated by colour. It is an exciting visual effect.
    Thank you for the display and the comment.

  35. Fantastic post! Waiting to hear more about Japan.
    Photos are great too.
    Definitely want to try out the dead-skin nibbling fish.

  36. Good morning.
    You have beautiful pictures here. They made me miss Tokyo a lot. I live in a middle-sized city in the States and even though it is a very friendly and quite exciting city, I seem to yearn for stimuli. I can’t help it. I guess everybody wants to get back to where he/she was born as one gets older, right?

  37. Wow that’s really awesome… I would like to learn Japanese, and travel there once I’ve become confident enough with the language and character writing style.

  38. For all that, Japan is a super place to visit. The people are friendly and there are some great gastronomic experiences in store. And try not getting lost in Kyoto station! (I must write a blog about that.)

  39. Hakone Kowaki-en deshoo? Great onsen that. When I was a kid, we used to get tadpoles to nibble our feet.

    Hard to take a bad shot of such a beautiful mountain as Fuji-san, but yours is one of the nicer ones…

  40. A very nice tour.. I very much wish to visit there some day. Even the countryside experience seems different and overwhelming, speaking as someone who has lived in the western united states their whole life.

  41. Loved your post! I live in Tokyo at the moment and have been looking for a family onsen like the one you described–can you tell me the name of the one that you went to?

    I look forward to reading more from you in the future!

    • Thanks so much for reading my blog and leaving a comment. Here is the information on the Onsen we visited. It’s more like a giant hot poll than a bath but my kids loved it.

      Hotel Kowakien Yunessun
      At Kowakien bus stop (20 mins, 560 yen from Yumoto Station).
      Hours: Yunessun: daily 9:00 to 19:00 (until 18:00 Nov to Feb)
      Mori no Yu: daily 9:00 to 21:00
      Admission: 3500 yen (Yunessun), 1800 yen (Mori no Yu), 4000 yen (combined)
      More water park than hot spring, this resort is split into two areas: “Yunessun” with themed pools and water attractions (bathing suits required), and “Mori No Yu” with traditional hot spring baths (no bathing suits).

  42. Very nice and exciting considering I dream about going to Japan someday. The tech country is really fast forward yet somewhat crowded. If you lived in metropolis city in the states, then you should be use to it and it isn’t that bad.

  43. Yes, in japan they have a few large brands selling electronic items, like Big Camer, Yodobashi. If you buy japanese brand, the price is really good, and also you can get 5%-10% points of item price, then you can use those points to buy other accessories, like memory card, or batteries. I think it’s really good idea.

  44. I traveled to Japan on a whim 8 years ago and had some of the most amazing experiences. Including eating live shrimp. One of my favorite trips ever. I wish I could go back.

  45. Pingback: 2010 A Look Back: The People I Love « The Ishidas

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