In which I share final thoughts on Japan, and we are warned of possible projectile vomiting, I think. 

Overall, we all loved Japan though it was harder than I had anticipated to travel there. Here’s some thoughts, in no particular order.
1. The language. Very, very few people speak English here. I don’t mean to sound like the typical Ugly American Tourist, only to comment that it can be hard to get around. Not only is it hard to communicate with people, but little of the signage outside of a train station is in English, so navigation is tough too. In Vietnam and Cambodia, most things were dual signed, even in Phnom Penh which isn’t set up for tourists as much as Siem Reap. And in Vietnam the script is roman script, so even if I don’t know what something says, I can match it up to the street on my google map or a restaurant name a lot easier. Trying to do that by matching Japanese characters is a lot harder. And weirdly, sometimes things would have one or two words in English on it but then would be otherwise in Japanese. Like a menu would say “Lunch Menu” at the top, but then all below was indecipherable to us. Using the google translate app gets you only so far. For us, this meant that one of our favorite things about traveling so far, which has been connecting with the people and learning about their lives, was much harder. If we were to come back for any longer period of time, I would try to pick up some conversational Japanese.

2. The food. Just incredible, and maybe the best three weeks of food I’ve ever had. Being semi-vegetarian also made things harder especially with the language – we were largely hemmed in by places that had English menus so we knew what we were ordering. Many restaurants are these tiny five to six seater places, and we loved that, sitting at a counter while chatting with the chef as we were able. We eat fish and so sushi was always the easy and relatively cheap option. We had ramen as well several places, and I’m 90% certain that it was pork bone broth every single time, but who knows. With broth, while traveling, I generally follow a don’t ask/don’t tell policy. There is so much more to Japanese food other than ramen and sushi, and we want to make some when we get home. The Onigiri, or seaweed wrapped rice balls, were delicious and would be perfect for kids’ lunches. We are going to miss the Japanese food so, so much. And the sake. 

3. Etiquette. Japan is a notoriously polite society, where people do things in a certain way and look down upon you if you do things the wrong way. We tried to be as respectful of this as possible, following etiquette as we could. However. I stopped caring quite so much when I noticed that people sneeze INTO THE OPEN AIR. Into a crowded subway car even. I’m convinced that this is how I caught a cold while I was there. After that, I stopped trying to be so precise about everything. I mean, I felt like this was one area which we did better than the Japanese, and I just figured that as a foreigner, we’re never going to get it all correct so it was better just to relax about it a bit.

4. Shopping. There are malls everywhere. They are huge and confusing, as most don’t have any walls between the separate stores. Everything in the malls is insanely expensive, like you’re shopping at Neiman Marcus but in every store. They are full of people. Who are these people? What are they buying all the time? Where do they put it? We never found out. If you do shop in Japan, bring your passport with you though as foreign travellers get their tax refunded to them. 

5. People. For the most part, people were warm and welcoming to us, even with the language barrier. The only time this didn’t happen was when we went into small restaurants that clearly only catered to locals, had no English around, and all conversation stopped when we walked in. One of these we walked into and asked for a menu. The chef looked at us like we had three heads and pointed to the wooden boards hanging all around the restaurant, written in Japanese, as if to say, “you morons, the menu is literally written on the walls.” We backed out slowly and didn’t go back in. 

6. Money. Japan has a reputation for being extremely expensive, and I have to say I didn’t find this to be the case. Overall, it was about as pricey as your average American city travel, and cheaper in some cases, partly thanks to the weak yen and strong dollar. I’ve easily spent more for the same housing and meals in NYC. Average Air Bnb was $60-120/night and an average meal for us was between $10-18 a person, including drinks. You can, of course, find much more expensive options and much cheaper options if you look. Even Disney tickets in Japan are considerably cheaper than the US, honestly. It’s not cheap cheap travel like in Southeast Asia, but it wasn’t like every meal cost us $100. 

7. Public Open  Spaces. There are none. Other than the manicured gardens requiring pay entry, there were no open parks with benches for people to sit and rest in, and we happened across zero playgrounds during our entire time there. We were walking so much every day that the kids got their exercise in, but it was odd. In general, Japan is a culture where things aren’t done in public. For example, other than ice cream, people do not eat in public. So when we’d get those onigiri from the 7-11 and try to find a place to sit and eat them, it was tough. Do the kids not play much there? I have to wonder. There are also almost no public trash cans. Take it with you, people. 

8. Restaurants with kids. This was tricky. First of all, you can smoke indoors at restaurants in Japan, so this made some places a bit tough to even go into. And kids aren’t really welcomed into bars at all, so even when we were just walking around and wanted to stop in for a drink while we found a place to eat on our phones, it just couldn’t happen. 

9. Prettiness. Everything is pretty. Even the manhole covers. So lovely. 

10. Vending machines. There are vending machines for everything purportedly, including underwear, but the only ones we saw were for drinks, liquor, and a vending machine for dashi stock. There’s also a lot of capsule toys and these are arranged in a long line where you can put in between $2-3 and get a little toy

And now, the street signs and others, Japan edition.

This crossing is for Don Draper and smooth criminals

Dancing elderly! Watch out!

Is this sign warning us to beware of drunk people throwing up?

Do not smoke cigarettes as large as your entire body here. I assume small ones are okay. Or cheroots. Who doesn’t like a little cheroot once in a while anyhow?

Aw, they even care about the robots here.

No selfie sticks, no littering, no smoking, don’t lean on stairs, and most importantly DON’T TOUCH THE GEISHA

In which we see an art-filled island, and are silently admonished by the Japanese for making our small child ride a bike over hills

From Hiroshima we made our way to Naoshima, or more precisely the port from which you get to Naoshima. 
We found our guesthouse, which was small but charming, and headed over to the island. Naoshima is an island off the coast of Eastern Japan which has become a big art site – there are several museums, galleries, and indoor and outdoor installations. The island is also famous for having a lot of cute cats, and we saw several preening about through the day. We had hoped to rent bicycles and pedal about from one site to another. Upon arrival, however, the bike rental dude wasn’t that friendly and seemed shocked that we would want to make a child ride a bike, nor did he give us any other options. For today, we took the overcrowded shuttlebus to the Honmura site and saw the installations there. 
The streets are narrow and the houses stand from the Edo period (1603-1868). Several of them have been gutted and transformed into installations. You can’t take pictures of the sites once inside, unfortunately. The first one we saw, and by far our favorite was a large room we walked into, pitch black. We were led in in small groups of ten or so people, and had to use our hands as guides around a wall before sitting down on a bench and staring into a seemingly black space. Slowly, as our eyes adjusted, the back wall came into view, a large rectangle of dim blue light, growing brighter. Eventually we could see it clearly, the guide asked us to walk towards it and touch the wall. We went to touch the wall…and our hand passed right through, eliciting gasps of surprise from everyone. The light was reflected from an angled wall, which fell away from us so the blue light was actually an empty space. We then walked around the space, our eyes adjusted so that we could see clearly, but the area still playing with our perception. It was a wholly encompassing artwork, and we all talked about it afterwards. On our way to the last site, we walked by a little cafe that seemed to have bikes that might fit the girl, and decided to check back again the next day. 

Communing with the giant sea bream of Uno

Art installation, not an example of Edo architecture

Our guesthouse host had told us of an onsen across the street, and so of course we went! This was my favorite one – they gave you these nice robe/shorts to wear (jinbei) and there was a steam room with a large bowl of salt you could give yourself a scrub with, and these very shallow rectangular pools you could lay down in one or two inches of hot water, a perfect combination of hot water and feeling cooled by the air. 
The following day we headed back to the island and made it to the cafe/bike place. Once again, they seemed very hesitant to rent to a child and warned us of the excessive hilliness of the island. I’m still not sure what to make of this – is it just that they don’t think kids are capable of riding hills, or that they didn’t think the girl was? We were able to find a bike that just barely fit her, and took off. There was one hill I would consider “big” that we had to go over, and even I had to walk the bike at the end of it, but other than that nothing we hadn’t all done before. We made it to the other side of the island in fifteen minutes and saw many of the outdoor art pieces for which the island is famous, especially the big pumpkin! 

Lunch was poorly planned on our part – I thought there would be more options in the museum area, but no. We snacked at the Chichu Art museum and then went inside. Again, no pictures were allowed inside. The museum is designed by Tadao Ando and is entirely built underground into the island, however in such a way that all artworks are seen in natural light only. The museum has a room of Monet’s water lilies, and honestly, I kind of thought, yawn, water lilies again? I mean, haven’t we all seen enough posters of water lilies in the dorm rooms of our college freshman roommates, especially those who later moved into sorority houses? But in this museum, it was a different experience. The floor of the room is made with matte marble mosaic tilework, ranging from white to gray, and you have to take off your shoes before entering the room and change into slippers. Because of this, the room isn’t crowded and there’s no one trying to take pictures and you can’t hear anyone even walking about, just shuffling along quietly, so the focus is on the art and you can appreciate the beauty of them, especially illuminated as they are with natural light only which reflects softly off the tiled mosaic floor. On the way into the museum, there’s a garden set up in the style which inspired Monet, and it was lovely to see the real life inspiration behind the work.

We rode back as the sun was beginning to set , dropped off the bikes, and enjoyed a beer before the ferry came to take us back to the mainland. 


Books and books and books


This is one of  my favorite parts of a trip, where you start looking through different travel guides and see how much delightful things there are to see and do around the world. It’s full of possibility and imagination and delight, and has none of the pesky realities of cost and actually getting there.

I’ve thus far just focused on the Japan books, since that will be the first part of the trip. Or…maybe not. As I’ve just learned, August is intolerably humid through most of Japan, with humidity up to 80% on many days. Unfortunately, we don’t really have the flexibility to go there in, say, April when it’s truly lovely given the school schedule.

August is also a heavy travel month in Japan given that it’s their summer vacation too and it’s also time of the Obon festival so we’ll have to make some more plans in advance since the Japanese are traveling also! One thought I had is to start with a week or so in Vancouver. We’ve never been and would love to go, August is pleasant in Vancouver, and flights there are surprisingly cheap and flights TO Tokyo are also fairly inexpensive! Another idea is to spend time in the mountains or Hokkaido first where it’s cooler and more nature-y.

Reading about Japan is so fun-whether it’s learning about the Studio Ghibli museum, tasty ramen, the outdoor hot springs (where many ban tattoos as they are considered tied to the Yakuza!), delicious sushi, the tons of fireworks festivals throughout August, the temples, yummy udon, Ninja training academies, all the crazy Harajuku outfits, Tokyo Disney and shabu-shabu. Did I mention the food?

It’s also really nice that all the prices are listed in Yen and I have no idea how much that is at this point. Sure, I could plug it through a converter but where’s the fun in that? Right now there’s so many zeros it all seems ridiculous! I’m going to live in that world for a bit. Besides, we’re not doing this as a shoestring trip-while I don’t want to be spendthrift, we do have the luxury of not needing to spend only $50 a day and I know we’ll be able to make up for it in Southeast Asia and India.

And it’s fun to be able to look at thing that I wouldn’t be able to look at without traveling with kids. By which I mean, I would normally be somewhat bashful about wanting to visit Tokyo Disney or a Sanrio store or the Ninja training but hey, if the KIDS are clamoring for it, who am I to stand in their way, right?

Anyone who’s been there have some must see sights, possibly off the beaten path?