Travel stories, tips and suggestions from Japan

Light the Torches! Two Things We Regret Eating!

Controversial issues are not typically things we deal with on our blog and that’s a shame. It’s a fact of life that people have differing opinions and some people are incredibly vocal in their beliefs. It’s natural to shy away from creating conflict. Part of this is due to a gene-deep need to fit into society to survive. The other part is because it’s damn uncomfortable, and sometimes painful, to be the brunt of an attack by people who disagree with something you’ve said or done and want to let you know, in no uncertain terms, that they think you’re an ass. Get those angry comments ready folks. We’re about to stir up some emotion. You may just think we’re a couple of asses by the end.

Controversial Food Around The World

Penis Shaped Dessert at Shilin NIght Market Taipei

A little more controversy: Penis-shaped waffles, cakes and popsicles at Shilin Night Market, Taipei

Cultural differences range from the subtle, almost indistinguishable to the stark, brutally contrasting. While travelling, these differences are highlighted time and time again. Sometimes it feels as though there’s a spotlight following us around as we travel from country to country, pinpointing those differences. Usually, it’s other people controlling the direction of the beam: “Did you know they have ping pong shows in Thailand?!” or “Careful when you order in Korea, they eat dog!”. These completely incomprehensible differences then become the fuel for an attack of the morals and ethics of another culture.

Don’t get us wrong, we judge too. Especially when we’re hungry, travel-weary or just plain fed up with navigating the minefield of frustrations that come while dealing with the behaviours of a culture so different from our own. In the end, we get over it and realize it’s all about perspective. We’ve even come to realize that our own steadfast (or at least we thought they were) beliefs in what is right and wrong across cultures occasionally move into a grey area reserved for those who step away from their own ethnocentrism and attempt to view a culture from within. This is especially true when we cross paths with controversial food around the world.

Having said all that, we have done a few things we swore we would never do. Two things we ate in particular that, even after mentally stepping inside the cultural-framework within which it is acceptable, we feel regret and dismay. Alright, we’ll be honest, we didn’t step inside anything mentally with the first one…we were just flat out drunk.

A Night Of All-You-Can Drink Yakiniku

japan yakiniku bbq

Two hours. That’s how long we had to indulge ourselves and reach epic levels of sloppy, delicious gluttony. And boy did we indulge.

Yakiniku, or BBQ meat, is one of our favourite styles of restaurant in Japan where you cook your own meat over a grill in the middle of your table and get in touch with your inner caveman (or woman). Conversation ensues with the smell of wonderfully marinated pork or perfectly tender steak, and oftentimes the sake is flowing. Our friend in Okinawa decided to take us to a local yakiniku that also happened to be all-we-could-eat, all-we-could-drink, for only $30. And when we say ALL you can drink, we mean spirits, wine, beer, cocktails, sake, you name it, you can order it. And we did.

Needless to say, two hours later our friend’s suggestion to go across the street to an izakaya (tapas-style) restaurant and continue drinking seemed like the best idea ever. What she didn’t tell us was that she planned to order some of their specialty dishes for us to try. Dishes we hadn’t planned on ordering while in Japan.

We followed her inside the narrow entrance, squeezing behind the occupied stools lining the bar and made our way upstairs. Taking off our shoes, we settled ourselves onto cushions on the floor around a table, a traditional Japanese setting, as the owner discussed the menu with our friend. She talked us into agreeing to eat raw chicken.

horse meat and raw chicken japan

Disclaimer: These photos were taken while under the influence

As the dish of small, light-coloured pieces of uncooked chicken made its way in front of us, we noticed the dark-red, unknown strips of meat set to the side. “That”, she said, “is basashi…raw horse”. Carolann made some inane comment about Black Beauty and Macrae stared, eyes glazed with, er, uncertainty.

The rest happened in a alcohol-fueled haze. The cell phone recording of the experience, a helpful guide to the events that transpired as chopsticks met horse meat and horse meat met mouths. We have different recollections of the taste, neither of us found it overly offensive but then, neither of us went for seconds.

While horse meat is considered a delicacy in at least 9 other countries, including Iceland and France, the taboo of eating it is far more wide-reaching, though this wasn’t always the case. Nowadays, horses are a hugely controversial food, often too closely linked with the concept of a pet to make them acceptable food items and it was this connection that had us avoiding any further consumption.

The raw chicken on the other hand, was a dish we happened to order more than once while in Japan.

That One Time in Korea

live octopus korea

They were going to eat it and it was still moving.

Standing in one of the cluttered, busy aisles of the Gwangjang market, the food stalls alight from the overhanging lamps, we watched as the plate of squirming pieces of tentacles was placed in front of the two waiting customers near us. We had stopped at a stall serving sannakji, raw octopus that is cut into small pieces, live. As we watched the bowls of sauce moved ceremoniously beside the plate and the two patrons preparing to dig in, we saw no sign of those tentacles slowing down.

Then it happened. The duo glanced over and noticed us staring, with our eyes wide and mouths gaping, and they smiled. They were either being very nice or very clever in choosing their meal-time entertainment, but they offered their plate to us and told us we could try. With that kind smile and polite offer, we gave a few weak shakes of our head. A second offer, the plate moved even closer and a new pair of chopsticks appeared. We looked at each other and knew we were both thinking the same thing “how rude is it for us to turn this down?”. We finally accepted. Both of us taking turns choosing a piece, taking way too long to think about it, and finally placing that squirming, sliding, tentacle in our mouths.

eating raw octopus in Korea

It’s a controversial practice. Something we both said we weren’t going to do. Unfortunately, that’s not all we did. We also went home and researched the topic of eating live octopus, specifically how an octopus feels when it is being chopped up. Try that kind of research about something controversial you’ve done. It’s a great way to make yourself feel even shittier than you did.

Digesting (excuse the pun) a bunch of research on cephalopod neuroanatomy, and believe it or not psychology, as well as discussions on animal cruelty and welfare, cultural sensitivity and food culture we were left with the bone-deep knowledge that we would not be trying sannakji again. We respect that it is a delicacy in the country, not just a crazy thing tourists do when they go to Korea, but to us it is also an inhumane way to treat a living creature and something we don’t wish to participate in again.

What We Learned

So, have at us! We think we were wrong too, but you know what? In the end, we can say we learned a few things:

1. It’s not as easy as right and wrong. Cultural traditions and ties are a strong force and when you are immersed in a culture, things can start to look a little different than you once thought.

2. We’re a bit stronger in our beliefs BECAUSE we tried these two things. We can say unequivocally that neither are things that we really need to be eating. Granted, if you’re a vegetarian you will say no animal needs to be eaten…so you’ve got us there.

3. We learned another lesson in “not judging others”. After all, we’ve done it too!

and

4. We’ve learned that we can do some unpredictable things when we drink too much in Japan!

 

 

11 Wacky Inventions Found In Japan

Oh Japan. We’ve already put together a video of some of our best moments in Japan and talked about why we love the country so much (we even talked about the one thing we didn’t like), but we haven’t yet touched on a subject that made us alternately thankful for the ingenuity, laugh out loud and shake our heads. Crazy.

Wacky. Brilliant. Advanced. WTF? Products and systems we saw across the country can be placed in some, or all, of these categories and if you’ve ever seen a Japanese infomercial, you know that there are endless numbers of products being showcased, often in a hilarious way.

Japan is known for it’s crazy inventions and products and during our 3 months there, we sure saw our fair share of them! While some of them were confusing to us, others were absolutely genius, even if limited in use. The list of these could go on for quite some time but we decided to share some of the more useful or clever (at least we think so) inventions and systems we saw during our time in Japan.

Whether they are infomercial-worthy or just plain interesting, we’ll leave that for you to decide!

Porcelain Thrones

We could wax poetic about the toilets in Japan, they are just that wonderful. Public or private, toilets in Japan are clean, stocked with toilet paper and incredibly high-tech. Rarely did we see a basic, lift-the-lid and do your business toilet. Nope, we’re talking sophisticated loos that make you sigh in comfort rather than cringe in disgust. Let us take you through one of the most impressive washrooms we found in Japan:

Entering the washroom, you notice there is no unpleasant smell and it’s pretty clean. Choosing a stall you push open the door and, after a brief moment, the toilet lid lifts in greeting. As you step into the space, a speaker beside the toilet starts with soft water-like sounds that serve to mask any sound you will make.

A disinfectant dispenser and wipes stand to the side for you to clean the seats or if you prefer, a disposable seat cover is available. You sit on the seat and notice it’s warming feature has automatically turned on. After you do your business, you can choose from a variety of different buttons – rinses, fans, little flush or big flush or, you can just stand up and the toilet automatically flushes on its own.  

You step up to the sink and notice the automatic dispenser for soap over the sink is beside the automatic faucet AND a hand dryer. All three in one sink. You hesitate. Perhaps you can find a reason to stay here for just a little longer…

Alright, so that was a description of the best washroom we encountered but truthfully, the others weren’t too far off with most of those features and usually a disinfecting station of some sort. Needless to say, after squatting over holes in the ground for toilets in China, southeast Asia and some parts of Taiwan, we REALLY appreciate the cleanliness and comfort of Japanese toilets.

What You Want, You Know They Dispense It

Japanese vending machine

Pop, beer, cookies, coffee, T-shirts, sandwiches, cigarettes, fruit, rice,  – you name it, there’s probably a vending machine that dispenses it! This is THE land of the vending machines with estimates of over 5 million of these metal boxes you’re sure to find one just about everywhere you look. Vending machines may not be wacky or crazy inventions in Japan, but some of the products they dispense are quite different and there are even some that shouldn’t be mentioned in polite company!

Facial recognition pop machine japan

Interestingly, there are even pop machines that use facial recognition technology to identify the demographics of the person approaching in order to make recommendations about which drink you may enjoy. We saw a few of these and thought they were a pretty fascinating version of a traditional pop machine.

Puddle-Be-Gone

people-400818_1280

 

It’s raining. This generally means you’ll be unfolding that umbrella and taking it with you as you go about your business for the day.  When you reach your destination however, the umbrella becomes an inconvenience. Soaking wet, there’s nothing to do but shake it off as much as possible, and bring it with you as it drips a trail behind you, or is there another option? In Japan, there almost always is.

Usually, in restaurants and larger establishments, you’ll find plastic bag dispensers to cover your umbrella until you are ready to head back out again. Sometimes, as is the case in larger malls, there are safes. Stands to place your umbrella which are then secured and locked in place until you are ready to come back and claim it again.

While it seems to us to be an excessive waste of plastic, we still think these bags are brilliant and a great solution to the wet mess that one usually associates with rainy days and carrying an umbrella.

The Never-Ending Pencil

Japanese gadgets endless pencil sharpener

While cell phones and computers are the more common form of dictation and communication, there are still people out there that use pencils (I know we were shocked as well). Most of us can remember the days when we’d pull out a notepad, sharpen that ol’ wooden pencil and jot down a list, or a note, or really anything at all.

Most of us will also remember when that pencil got too small to sharpen any further and the small stub had to be thrown out, oftentimes with a good portion of the lead still available – if only sharpening it was a possibility. Well folks, Japan has found a way to eliminate that pencil-waste!

Let us introduce Tsunago, the pencil sharpener that will help you create a never ending pencil. This little device has three slots. One is a typical sharpener for your regular sharpening needs, but the other two are where the Nakajima Jukyudo company (a Japanese company that solely produces sharpeners) really revolutionizes the pencil sharpener.

One slot creates a hole in the end of the pencil and the other creates a protrusion that allows two pencils to be connected together with an interlocking joint. Adding some wood glue makes the connection permanent and you’ve now got a longer pencil with which you can continue writing. Crazy or genius, you tell us!

Staple-less Stapler

Japanese inventions Kokuyo Stapler

Once you’ve got your never-ending pencil creating sharpener, you’re sure to want to upgrade more of your stationery. Not to worry, Japan’s got you covered. The staple-less stapler is not only economical, as you don’t need to keep buying staples, it is also eco-friendly for the same reason. Not only that, the holes created could be placed in a position that allows it to act as a hole-puncher as well.

Brilliant?! We think so. While we didn’t end up buying one of these, we did have a friend demonstrate exactly how effective it is – and believe us, those papers weren’t coming apart anytime soon!

Take a look at this commercial to see exactly how it works. Actually, watching a Japanese infomercial in itself is worth it.

Cycling In The Rain

japan bicycle umbrella holder

Alright, so it’s raining and you’re carrying your umbrella around with you. You know you’ll avoid any inconvenient puddles when you reach your destination because there’ll be a stand or a bag for you to place your umbrella. Only one problem: You’re not walking, you’re riding your bike. This isn’t an issue in Japan as there are umbrella holders for the handlebars of bicycles allowing you to ride in the rain and keep at least the upper part of your body fairly dry.

We were amazed when we first saw these contraptions and only got more intrigued as time passed and more and more of these appeared.

Tech Savvy Transit

Japan bus system

Every time we rode public transit we thought the various systems in place were innovative even if they weren’t so wacky. Even though transportation in Japan is expensive, it seems well thought out. When we boarded a bus, we’d receive a ticket with the stop number we got on. A screen at the front of the bus would display how much you were to pay for each subsequent stop.

So, if you got on at stop number 1, you’d keep an eye on number 1 on the screen. The amount displayed would increase as the bus travelled along the route and when you got off, you need only look to that screen to pay the required fee. It made shorter trips less costly then a one-time fee might have been but could get a bit pricey for longer trips.

Japan Subway System

We also loved the adjustment machines at train stations. Let’s say we hopped on thinking to go to one stop but along the way we realize we don’t really want to go there after all, we’ll get off sooner, or later, or transfer to another line and go somewhere completely different. Think you’re stuck with the ticket you paid for? Nope! Just head to an adjustment booth at the station you end up getting off at and the machine will either refund your money if you’ve overpaid or let you know how much extra you need to pay.

It was a great help when we weren’t too sure which station we needed to exit at – we’d pay the lowest fare and top up once we got to our destination.

Smart Park

Parking garage in Japan

For some strange reason, we were incredibly fascinated by parking in Japan. As there isn’t a lot of space for parking lots, and perhaps due to earthquakes (though we’re not too sure if that’s true), many parking garages are above ground. And true to fashion, Japan has created some high-tech, interesting designs for them.

We’re used to multi-level, drive-in garages that are basically just floors of parking lots for you to pick a spot and park yourself. In Japan, things are a bit more complex. The above photo is a common sight. Cars are raised above each level and “parked” in a vertical row. How they get them down without a huge amount of effort and re-parking, we’re just not sure but we’re almost positive there’s a simple and amazing way it’s done. We’ve even seen some make-shift home garage systems that look quite similar.

Japan automated parking tower

There are also automated parking towers, like the one above, that mechanically lifts the car up to one of the hundreds of “parking spots” and brings it back down for you when you return. The rotating wheel also ensures it is pointed in the right direction for you to leave. We’ve seen some footage inside one of these automated garages and it’s a pretty fascinating system!

Japanese parking meters and locks

If you’re parking in one of the rare parking spots on street-level, you’ll often find metered-lots with a style of locking or security device in the centre of the spot. The car is able to move over the hump while entering the spot but would be prevented from leaving due to the spikes on the reverse side. This means you have to pay for parking before you leave in order for the spikes to fold down and allow you to safely exit.

A Night In A Capsule

Capsule hotel in Japan

The above photo is of the capsule hotel we stayed in – just because we could – but it isn’t quite the typical capsule-style. We got this private room with bunk-bed capsules as we were a couple and capsule hotels generally don’t mix genders in the same room.

Mostly for businessmen on business trips, capsule hotels are for one night or short stays and typically there is a larger room with many pods (or capsules) open in the front, rather than the side as it was for us. We had wanted to experience a night in one of the many capsule hotels across the country, and while we didn’t exactly get the complete experience, we were happy to have seen a bit of what it is like!

Click for more information and prices for a great capsule hotel in Tokyo, Japan 

No Waiter Needed

Japan Conveyor belt sushi Kaiten

Especially convenient for those of us with limited Japanese, electronic ordering systems are amazing when dining out.

Many ramen, other noodle shops and various other restaurants (even Indian) have machines at the front where you order and pay for your meal in advance. We found it extremely helpful when there was no english menu as there are often photos of each dish on the machine. We also love paying in advance so we can eat our meal and leave at our own convenience. No waiting for the cheque. No waiting for change.

Ordering food in Japan machines

The other ordering system we truly miss is found at many chain conveyor belt sushi restaurants. Small touch screens where you can select what pieces of sushi (or other sides) you want, submit the order and wait as the plates are delivered to you by whatever manner that restaurant uses, be it conveyor belt or mini train! Definitely one of the best of the inventions in Japan, although that may be our stomachs talking!

Tiny Escalators

Garden State Plaza

Okay, we’ll be honest, this isn’t really so much of an invention of Japan and we don’t have an opinion on them either way. We just thought they were really funny. Japan has some TALL escalators, especially in their major subway stations, but we also found several very short, silly looking ones too.

 

What do you think of these? Brilliant, wacky, or nothing special? Have you found crazy inventions in places you’ve travelled? Comment below and let us know!

Sushi and Samurais: A Journey Through Japan

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions Japan? Kimonos? Sushi? Samurais? Yes, those are some stereotypical aspects of Japanese culture, and we did find them in our journey through Japan, sometimes in abundance, but what we also found was a country and culture of incredible depths reaching far beyond what people typically see.

For us, Japan wasn’t a country that slowly wormed it’s way into our hearts, like Taiwan. No, Japan wasn’t so subtle in its courtship.

Instead, it reached inside and grabbed hold of both our hearts from the moment we stepped foot on its soil.

What did we love so much? The landscape, the people, the culture, the language, the food, and the, well, everything! There was only one thing we didn’t like about Japan, and even that wasn’t something that hindered any part of our experience.

A Journey Through Japan – Beyond Expectations!

Sure, even before we went we both had a love for sushi and while that love now probably escalates well beyond a healthy level, it was only one of the many things we loved about Japan and Japanese culture before we travelled there together.

Since Macrae had already been to Japan, twice, he had shared a lot of his stories, including his favourite places in Japan, and the language. In fact, trying to learn Japanese was one of the first goals we made as a couple (3 years later and we’re still not fluent… one day!), so Japan already held a special place for us both.

Our trip to Japan lasted 3 months and while we didn’t get a chance to see everything, we sure saw a lot! From Okinawa to Fukuoka, Fukuoka to Osaka and Osaka to Tokyo, we explored, met incredible people and made some amazing memories.

Take a look at some of our favourite moments and places in Japan – a vibrant country where the traditional and modern contrast yet the culture holds strong, the people are always welcoming, and there’s always something exciting around the next corner. These are our visions of Japan.

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Have you been to Japan? Comment below and let us know what you thought of the country. If you haven’t been, what are your impressions?

 

A Layover in Tokyo

Macrae’s last visit to Japan included a layover in Tokyo (Narita Airport) on his way back to Canada. The same day he was leaving, he found out his best friend had passed away. Across the country, with a long flight back and hours before he boarded, he ventured out into Narita to clear his head. While walking he stumbled upon the nearby temple and to his surprise, the grounds were extensive and beautiful and he found peace while sitting in a secluded spot near a waterfall. Since then, it has been a special place to him and it was this experience that encouraged us both to visit Narita as a day trip.

Narita. Not Just A Usual Layover In Tokyo…

narita temple entrance - a nice temple to visit when having a layover in Tokyo

Narita is popular for its international airport commonly used by incoming passengers to Tokyo and is a busy layover destination. It is approximately 1 1/2 hours outside of Tokyo proper however, making a visit to Tokyo inconvenient during shorter layovers. Fortunately, Narita is only a train stop away from Narita Airport (terminal 2) and has some great things to do and see while you wait for your next flight.

As we found out, it’s not just a place to go during a layover – it also makes for a great day trip even if you’re already in the city. We decided to take the train from Tokyo to Narita to explore the area and had a great day visiting one of the most beautiful temple grounds we’ve seen and enjoying the charm of the surrounding town while immersing ourselves in a unique tourist setting that still has a traditional Japanese feel.

Whether you have a short amount of time, or a full day to sightsee, there are a few key things to see and do.

Sights in Narita

 

Narita-san Shinshoji Temple

great pagoda of peace- temple Narita, close enough to visit when having a layover in Tokyo

From the street, this 1000 year-old temple doesn’t look much different from other temples, but once you climb the stairs and pass through the main gate, you enter a gorgeous oasis of cultural significance and natural beauty. There are several temple buildings on the expensive grounds, some built in different eras and each retain the architectural style of their period.

You’ll want to designate some time to explore. The main entrance gives way to a vast property and much of the area is gardens, walkways, forests and parks and walking through can take hours depending on how much you want to see, and how fast you want to walk.

temple in Narita, close to visit and convenient when you have a layover in tokyo

We took our time once we reached the forested area, walking the paths, crossing bridges over streams and sitting in a quiet lushly-vegetated area near the waterfall. It was incredibly peaceful and serene and it was easy to forget we had just come from the hectic streets and transit system of Tokyo.

narita temple statue - a layover in Tokyo

The nature around the buildings add to the reverent feel and pretty much transported us to another time and place. It was obvious how a place like this could have such a calming effect as it had on Macrae several years ago and is undoubtedly a memorable place to visit.

Narita temple forest is a good stop when you have a layover in Tokyo

Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to see any of the Buddhist ceremonial prayers and rituals but there a several, performed daily, and are open to the public.

If you have a chance, whether you are already visiting the country or can only catch a quick glimpse while passing through, Narita-san Shinshoji temple is definitely worth visiting and is admission-free!

 

Omotesando street

narita streets and shops - a place to visit when having a layover in Tokyo

Simply taking a walk down the main street, Omotesando, is an experience in itself. The winding, hilly road leads from Narita station to the temple and is filled, on both sides of the street, with unique stores and shops and various restaurants and bars. You can take your time strolling, stepping into the souvenir shops and pastry stores or taking a break at a coffee shop or restaurant and enjoy classic Japan for whatever length of time you have available. If you have time, wander off the main road and you’ll find some interesting hidden gems away from the more popular tourist area.

 

Sega World & The Batting Cages

While not necessarily a way to take in Japanese culture, if you’re looking to kill some time, or have some younger ones with you, Sega World may be a great place to enjoy some arcade games and try and win some prices. open from 10am to midnight, you’ll have a chance to visit no matter what time you make your way to Narita. Not too far from the train station, or the temple, you’ll find both Sega World and some batting cages.

The Azura Batting Cages are located beside Sega World and, as baseball is Japan’s favourite sport, a popular place to spend some time. It’s a great place for all ages and is open from 9am to 9:45pm making it another place that’s readily available no matter what time your layover takes you to Narita.

 

Festivals

There are several festivals that are held throughout the year, including a monthly market, so be sure to see if there are any going on during your visit!

Food in Narita

the streets of narita, layover in tokyo

Unagi is apparently the specialty but you can find many sushi shops, ramen, and other traditional Japanese cuisine. There are also a few international restaurants, including a couple burger joints we passed along the way. We opted for a ramen shop as we were there later in the day and wanted to grab something quick on our way out but the number of restaurant options available is sure to satisfy any food craving and offer a taste of Japanese cuisine if a layover is all the time you have.

We stopped by a café that Macrae had stopped at during his previous visit and enjoyed some of their homemade gingerale and a gingerale/vodka cocktail. We also decided on a homemade tiramisu and both the drinks and the dessert were delicious and memorable.

tiramisu at 524 cafe is a great place to eat when having a layover in tokyo

 

5.2.4. Garage Cafe is a quaint little shop that is warm and inviting and a comfortable place to relax before (and after) a flight. They also offer free WiFi and outlets to charge your phone or computer batteries.

524 cafe is a place to go when having a long layover in Tokyo

If you are in the area before they close at 8, we’d recommend stopping by for a drink and dessert and if you make it there before 5pm, you can also grab some food (they serve hot dogs, sandwiches and the like).

Sleep Off Some of That Jetlag

 

Depending on how much time you have, you may have the need to rent a room for the night. There are several options right around the airport, including a pay-by-the-hour capsule hotel right in terminal 2. Nine Hours Narita Airport offers you the option of taking a nap, in the event you only want to sleep a few hours before your next flight.

There are pay-by-the-night hotels nearby as well but if the timing is right, and you are able, there are also some decent hotels off Omotesando street which will offer you the ability to really explore the Narita area, either the afternoon/evening before, or the morning/day after.

Whether you have a full day at your leisure or only several hours to kill during a layover in Tokyo, Narita is a great place to go to tap into Japanese culture and enjoy a day amongst the sights, smells and sounds of traditional Japan.

 

You Can Do It Too!

Getting to Narita depends completely on where you are. If you are coming from the airport, hop on the train and take it to the first stop after Terminal 2 (Narita Station), it should only cost about 260 Yen, or $2.60 USD.

If you are coming from Tokyo however, it gets a bit more tricky. It will depend on what line you are closest to, whether you are riding JR or main lines and whether you have a train pass. Ultimately, you’ll want to make your way to the Kesei Main Line and ride it to Keiseinarita Station (from Shibuya to Narita, it costs approximately 1300 Yen and about 1 hour, 30 min to 1 hour, 45 min).

If you’ve used the Tokyo transit system before, you know that there are different trains (limited express, express) that will take you to different stops and get you there faster than a local train that stops at every stop. This will also impact your time and route.

 

 

Have you been able to explore during a layover? Where was your favourite layover destination and how did you get around? Comment below and let us know!

 

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The One Thing We Don’t Like About Japan

Sitting in the small restaurant, listening to American oldies and waiting for our order we had no idea of the impending attack. Slowly, the haze permeated the room and drifted closer to us, burning our eyes and clogging our throats.

Looking around however, we saw no signs that anyone else was being affected. The laughter of a child rang out from the other end of the restaurant and conversation flowed uninterrupted.

We scanned the room again and noticed the culprit of our uneasy breathing. Every adult held a taco in one hand and in the other hand there rested a lit cigarette.

We made eye contact, both of us in obvious discomfort, and read the watery-eyed look on each other’s faces. Turning to the waitress we asked, ‘can you make our order take-out?’

The Only Thing We Don’t Like About Japan… Smoking!

cigarettes-83571_1280

Walking around, we are continually amazed by the number of smokers we see on the streets and especially prevalent in restaurants and bars. It didn’t take long for us to realize that the smoking culture in Japan is very different than in Canada and that, at least to us, there seems to be a larger visible population of smokers.

Perhaps it’s not a high prevalence of smoking, but more the relative numbers of smokers vs non smokers in Japan vs back home in Canada.

When we looked into the stats, it didn’t appear as though Japan has too significant of a difference in smoking rates than Canada (at least with respect to the numbers that were reported to the public) however when you compare relative population, it makes a whole world of difference.

Japan has almost 130 million people in an area of about 378,000 square-kilometres, whereas Canada has only 35.5 million in almost 10 million kilometres-squared.

That’s a HUGE difference! The estimated smoking rate in Japan is around 20% which translates to 26 million smokers in a small area.

Back home, we have only about 5.3 million smokers in a significantly larger amount of space. Maybe it’s just that the chances of running into a smoker are much higher in Japan where cities are crowded and smoking is accepted.

cigarette dispensing japan

Perhaps, it is also the high tolerance and, for us, uncommon level of accommodation for smokers. In fact, while we are now used to pretty much all establishments being non-smoking and very little acceptance of smokers back home, Japan seems much the opposite.

Finding hotels with no ‘non-smoking’ rooms is not unheard of, restaurants with ashtrays are the norm, and vending machines for packs of cigarettes dot the streets.

While there is absolutely no judgment on our part, either way, as nonsmokers we do find it uncomfortable and something that requires time to get used to. We both remember the days when smoking in bars and clubs was permitted in Ontario and separate smoking sections were fairly common.

We recall when we’d head home after a night out and the smell of smoke would linger on our clothes, our skin and our hair, but it’s been some time so perhaps the memory of just how prevalent smoking was, has faded.

Before we left, there was already a ban on smoking indoors in public establishments and strict guidelines for smoking near public buildings.

Since we left, Ontario has banned smoking even on restaurant and bar patios and tightened their restrictions on smoking in parks, playgrounds and sports fields.

The Smoking Culture in Japan

jt smoking sign

The discrepancy between the two cultures in smoking habits and acceptance is obvious and while smoking seems to be on the decline in Japan, this doesn’t seem to be due to any rigorous anti-smoking campaigns like those we see in North America.

Cigarette packs do not have the graphic images and warnings that around 50 other countries have adopted on their packaging, prices for cigarettes are relatively low and while more and more establishments are becoming ‘non-smoking’, tolerance inside restaurants and bars is pretty high.

Rather than ‘stop-smoking campaigns’, Japan Tobacco (JT) has issued smoking etiquette campaigns in the recent past, intended to promote the “harmonious coexistence between smokers and nonsmokers”.

Signs such as the one above and below were distributed, and in some places we even saw painted signs on the sidewalk suggesting you should not walk along the sidewalk while smoking.

While we like the promotion of smoking etiquette and the fact that polite smoking behaviour is encouraged, we were surprised that none of these ads commented on the negative health effects of smoking or attempted to deter smoking in general.

jt smoking etiquette sign

With the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, many Japanese officials believe that it is essential to bring smoking legislation and restrictions to a level that matches many Western standards. Whether this effort will actually result in changes remains to be seen.

We say it’s the one thing we don’t like in Japan but it truly isn’t something that has tainted our experience. We love the country so much, we’ve even wrote about, what we call, our passionate love-affair with Japan.

It has shocked us a little every time we’ve sat down for a meal and someone pulled out a cigarette, but for the most part the people we’ve met and spent time with have always been courteous and asked if we mind before lighting up.

Since Japan isn’t at the top of the list for smoking rates, we’re sure there’ll be other countries which will be a shock for us as well, but we’ll do the same thing there as we’ve done here: appreciate the cultural differences and expect to frequently find ourselves washing the smell of smoke out of our clothes and hair.

 

 

 

4 Years, 38 Countries, 1 Man and His Bike

Friends and Family Across the World

Since we started our full-time travels, we’ve met so many amazing people. On our first day in Beijing, we made an instant friend – yes we’re talking about you Emily – and since then we’ve acquired a travel family, the Wagoners, a Thai family through Airbnb, a Taiwanese-Serbian family through couchsurfing and made friends and connections, across the world.  While we are still in contact with many, some people we met were just fleeting interactions that left long-term impressions on us, like the loud, friendly American from Long Island we met at a Thai restaurant in Chiang Mai who told us his life story, or some of the Airbnb and couchsurfing hosts we stayed with, who took time to talk about their life and travels. It’s crazy how many connections you meet, how many lives touch yours and how small this world really becomes when you travel. We’ve consistently run into people from a variety of walks of life, doing all manner of things, and we’ve been continually in awe of how many incredible stories there are.

Recently, we met Taro in Fukuoka, Japan. He was helping host the Airbnb rental where we were staying and when we met up at the restaurant where he works to pick up the key, we took time to chat with him and hear one absolutely inspiring travel story.

Meet Taro:

taro

Now 31 years old, Taro has only recently returned from 4 years of travel… on a bicycle. If you’re not as astonished as we were, we’d be very surprised. He said that more than 90% of his travel from Japan to England, and back again, was via his bicycle, with only a few flights in between when absolutely necessary! Born and raised in Osaka, Japan, Taro was working as a store manager for several years at a popular CD, DVD and comic store. He had travelled to several countries prior, including Mexico, the US, Cuba, Vietnam and Taiwan, where his love of travel thrived and grew.

We felt a kinship with Taro. Here was someone who also loves to visit new countries and really get to know the culture and people. We could tell, just by listening to him share his stories, and his videos – which you can watch on Taro’s YouTube channel – how happy travel makes him and how much he looks forward to his next adventure.

taro cave

We wanted to share his travel story with you and decided to ask him a few questions about his decision to leave, and his journey back to Japan:

Q: Why did you decide to travel? How did you do it?

A: Just out of curiosity. I just wondered if I could do it by bike or not, so I saved money and left.

Q: What was the route you took, did you map the way you went?

A: The route I took:

Started from Hongkong-China-Kyrgyzstan-Kazakhstan-Uzbekistan-

Azerbaijan-Georgia-Turkey-Greece-Italy-France-Spain-Morocco-

Spain-Portugal-UK-Ireland-UK-Denmark-Sweden-Finland-

Poland-Czech-Slovakia-Hungary-Serbia-Bulgaria-Turkey-Georgia-

Armenia-Iran-Dubai-India(by air)-Nepal-Thailand(by air)-Myanmar-

Thailand-Laos-Thailand-Cambodia-Thailand-Malaysia-Singapore-

Taiwan(by air)-Okinawa-Japan (3weeks cycling to my home)

taro sunset bicycle

Q: Why on a bicycle?

A: I wanted to travel a path, not point to point. The slower the speed, the more we can see the things we don’t notice when moving at a high speed. The same can be said about our lives in general.

Q: What did you take with you?

A: Too much… 40kg of luggage plus a 20kg bike. The luggage included a tent, sleeping bag, mat, cooking stove, bike repair tools, GPS, clothes, spare bike parts, emergency food, etc.

Taro Bicycle travel

Q: What was the hardest part of your travels?

A: The hardest part was when I was in Kyrgyzstan.  Even with everything I brought, I didn’t have enough stuff to protect me from the freezing cold when I experienced terrible strong winds and hail at the top of the pass.

taro winter camping

Q: How long did you plan to travel? How long were you gone for?

A: I was planning to travel like that for 2-3 years, but for some reason (mostly laziness), I prolonged it. Sometimes I felt like stopping for a while at one place. I didn’t want go out, not even from the bed of my guesthouse. In total, I travelled for 4 years.

Q: What was your most memorable experience? 

A: In Nepal. I tried to climb up to the highest pass (altitude of 5416m) with my bike. I took a difficult route to get to the top, and gave up near 5100m. I’ll never forget the colour of the sky above 5000m altitude.

taro climbing the pass

Q: What is your favourite place that you travelled?

A: Nepal. Everything is perfect for me – the people, food, prices and landscape.

Q: Why did you go back home to Japan?

A: Simply, I spent all my money. I also felt like doing something new. Maybe i’ll go on a different style trip or for business. Right now, I’m working out the details.

taro campsite

Q: Where do you want to go next?

A: Bhutan, Mongolia, the Kamchatka peninsula and New Zealand.

Q: What did you learn through your travels?

A: My own strengths and weaknesses as well as to value and fear nature and humans.

taro amazing view

 

Q: What advice do you have for others who want to travel as you did?

A:

  • Just endure the first couple of weeks, you’ll get used to the circumstances.
  • Don’t try to do ridiculous things.
  • Prepare yourself for the hard times.
  • Also, humans are the most frightening aspects of travel, so don’t compromise when you choose the place to pitch a tent.

Q: What’s your best travel tip?

A: Do the same as the locals do.

 

Taro’s story is a unique one. It’s not everyday you run into someone who has travelled for four years, mainly via a bicycle and sleeping in a tent. Comment below and let us know if you would do something like this.

Don’t forget to check out Taro’s YouTube videos of his amazing journey: Taro’s YouTube channel

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Okinawa’s Dark Past

Okinawa is a Japanese paradise with its beautiful white sand beaches and crystal clear water. But with a heavy American military presence, its war-torn past isn’t easy to forget and the many monuments and memorials stand testament to the Okinawan peoples’ struggles throughout recent history.

Not only was Okinawa the only part of Japan to have had battles on land in World War II, the Okinawan people first suffered invasion by the Japanese themselves and have a history filled with oppression and conflict.

Prior to landing in Okinawa, we weren’t too aware of the history of hardships faced by the native Okinawans. We knew little about the cultural differences between them and the Japanese, or that they prefer to identify as Okinawan rather than Japanese. It seems, at least on the island, that there still exists the sense of oppression and division between these two groups of people.

It was when we were talking to native Okinawans that we learned more about their history. We were told that many atrocities were committed against them by the Japanese, first when they took over the island and again during WWII. They were also the primary casualties of enemy fire. It was during our time on the island that we decided to visit the Peace Memorial Park and the Peace Memorial Museum to learn more. What we learned left us shocked and saddened and we headed back to Naha at the end of the day with a heavy heart and a more well-rounded understanding of the battles fought on this side of the war.

This post is a little heavier than our usual travel stories but we feel this is an important part of history, especially for the people of Okinawa, and we wanted to share our experience at the Peace Memorial Park and Himeyuri Peace Museum.

The Peace Memorial Park & The Okinawa Peace Hall

Peace Memorial park Okinawa war memorial

About a 45 minute drive south from Okinawa’s largest city, Naha, will get you to the Mabuni Hill area of Itoman city. It is here, on the southern part of the island, where the final battle in Okinawa took place during World War II and it is here that you will find the Peace Memorial Park. Positioned on top of the cliffs overlooking the rugged southeastern coastline, visitors can not only learn about the scars that World War II left on this vacationer’s dreamland, but will also stop in their tracks to look out onto the oceans horizon in disbelief of the beauty of this location that was once a bloody battlefield.

We stopped first at the Okinawa Peace Hall, situated near the main entrance to this expansive park.

okinawa peace hall entrance peace memorial park

 

In front, stands the Bell of Peace, rung on memorial occasions when prayers of world peace are made. The inscription on the bell reads “Calm the souls of the war dead. Swear the permanent peace of the world. From the Hill of Mabuni in all directions, sounds everlastingly the Bell of Peace, in solemn prayers of all people’.

peace memorial hall and the boy bronze statue okinawa

To the other side, a bronze statue, ‘A Boy”, looks out onto the park and is a memorial to the many young boys and girls who were killed in that final battle, the Battle of Okinawa.

Okinawa peace hall statue

The Peace Hall was opened with the Okinawan vision of “no more war” and houses a giant, 12m high peace prayer statue, which was definitely impressive, and various artwork in tribute to the Okinawan people. The Hall was a quiet and reverent place, dim lit and calling attention to the artwork displayed before opening up to the peace prayer statue.

Okinawa peace hall paintings

The artwork around the statue was a series of 20 paintings by Keiyu Nishimura, entitled “War and Peace” painted on the theme of Okinawa and representing the dark past of Okinawa and the beautiful spirit and culture of the Okinawan people. We enjoyed reading the displays about each of the paintings and learning more about history by the descriptions of what each painting depicts.

butterfly garden peace memorial park

We then headed to the butterfly garden which houses Ogomadara, the largest butterflies in Japan. It was a small area but a peaceful place and Carolann was patient enough and had one land on her hand!

The Cornerstone of Peace

cornerstone of peace war memorial okinawa

 

On our way from the Peace Hall to the museum, we noticed a busy pathway leading away from the museum and decided to detour and take a look at where everyone was headed. The path opened up to, what we later found out was, the Cornerstone of Peace and the Peace Plaza.

cornerstone of peace okinawa peace memorial park

The sprawling tribute was built to those who lost their lives in the Battle of Okinawa, both enemy and allied forces. We had moments throughout the day that left us saddened and heavyhearted but this spot was a truly moving area for a different reason. Seeing the names of Okinawan, Japanese, American, UK, Korean, Taiwanese casualties of the war, all together, was powerful and the strong desire for peace was evident.

cornerstone of peace flame of peace okinawa

In the centre of the Peace Plaza stands the Flame of Peace composed of flames from three other places of significance to World War II and Japan – the first landing site of U.S. forces in Okinawa and the two sites of the atomic bombings, Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

cornerstone of peace peace memorial park okinawa

If the Cornerstone of Peace left us moved, the view over the cliffs, overlooking the coastline, left us speechless. The rough, rocky shoreline with the beautiful, clear blue water seemed to be a reflection of the emotions this place incited – raw, harsh, and sometimes jagged disbelief and sorrow mixed with the hopefulness of peace and the inspirational appreciation for all life, no matter the nationality, that was lost.

 

 

The Peace Memorial Museum

We headed to the Peace Memorial Museum. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take any photos – so we only managed to get a couple at the end of the museum which depicted the years after the war during the American occupation. Each chamber of the museum was a walkthrough of the war and the switching of government powers during the many years of hell that the Okinawans suffered.

Peace Memorial Museum okinawa

The locals were not only negatively affected by the Americans during the invasion (the US invasion was called “The Typhoon of Steel” and the 3 month assault saw over 6 million shells fired), and after they took power of the island, but were also killed, enslaved and left to starve by the Japanese army. The Japanese army took what little food and supplies they had, forced them out of safe-havens like caves and ancestral tombs into the ensuing battle or to malaria-infested mountains, and killed, or forced to kill themselves or each other. The testimonials of the survivors of the Battle of Okinawa are the most haunting of the exhibits and were incredibly difficult to read.

There were an estimated 240,000 casualties during the Battle of Okinawa. Of that, over half were Okinawans.

Himeyuri Monument and Peace Museum

Himeyuri Peace Musuem memorial okinawa

A few miles down the road, just southwest of the Peace Memorial Park, sits a cave. During the war, this cave, and the circuit of connecting smaller caves, were used as field hospitals. Here you’ll find a memorial and Peace museum dedicated to the 200+ teachers and students who were killed during the Battle of Okinawa. Himeyuri is the nickname for the 2 Okinawan schools for women.

These students, aged 15-19, and several teachers, were recruited as nurses to work in the caves, assisting the injured. The conditions were harsh and they were often sent outside the caves, into dangerous situations, to pass on messages, bring in food and water and bury the dead. Schoolboys were also used during the war effort, aged 14-19, for labour and, later, as soldiers and suicide bombers.

himeyuri monument okinawa

Three months after they were first deployed as field nurses and soldiers, a deactivation order was issued. They were forced out of the caves and other bunkers and left to fend for themselves. It was during this time that the majority of the casualities occurred. The monument and museum serves as a tribute to those young girls and boys who lost their lives. In one section, black and white pictures of the young students-turned-nurses line the walls. Their faces a stark reminder of just how great a toll war takes.

We are sure we’ll visit more war memorials as we travel through Japan but this memorial was a complete surprise to us. The struggles of the Okinawan people through the war was a new lesson, one we had not heard about before, and we are happy to have been able to honour their memory by visiting the memorials and sharing this post.

Have you ever heard about the troubles Okinawans faced during World War II? Comment below and let us know where! If not, why do you think this is something that is not so frequently mentioned when discussing casualties of World War II? 


You Can Do It Too:

If you are in Okinawa, we highly recommend making the trip to visit these war memorials. It will likely be a full day excursion if you’re starting in Naha – we left around noon and returned after 6pm – but there are places to purchase food and drink along the route. Here’s how to get there and what it will cost:

Getting to the Peace Memorial Park

From Naha Bus Terminal, take bus 89. It runs fairly regularly, several times an hour. Get off at the last stop, Itoman Bus Terminal. The total price is about 580 Yen per person and the trip takes about 45min-1 hour.

From Itoman Bus Terminal, take the 82 bus. This bus runs less frequently – once an hour to once every 2 hours. There is a CoCo convenience store down the road should you need to kill some time and grab a snack. (head away from the water, or turn left, if you are walking out of the terminal, and follow the road until you see the CoCo (pink sign) on your left.

It takes approximately 20 minutes from Itoman Bus Terminal to Heiwa-kinendo-iriguchi stop, the Peace Memorial Park. The cost is approximately 470 Yen per person.

The Okinawa Peace Hall

Admission to the Peace Hall costs 450 Yen each, children are free.

The Peace Memorial Museum

Admission to the Museum costs 300 yen ($3usd) for adults and 150 Yen for children. The museum is well planned and organized quite impressively. It was built to thoroughly explain the true hell that the people witnessed. While all of the exhibits are in Japanese, with a couple of paragraphs of English, there is a free audio guide with your purchase of admission. Simply ask when you purchase your ticket and get a English guided tour with 39 audio sections. They have also translated the testimonials of the survivors into English.

If travelling with children, some of the photos and displays may be a bit disturbing. There is a children’s section downstairs meant to educate the future generations and may be a bit easier to handle, depending on age.

Himeyuri Monument and Peace Museum

If you’d like to head to the Himeyuri Memorial after the Peace Memorial Park, get back on the 82 and head towards the Itoman Bus Terminal. Get off at Himeyuri-no-to stop. It takes about 10 minutes to get there from the Park and costs about 290 Yen each.

The Himeyuri Peace Museum costs 310 Yen each. 


 

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