Enter any restaurant in Japan and you will be greeted with loud shouts of “Irasshaimase!” from the entire staff, welcoming you in. The same tradition carries throughout shopping malls, convenience stores and every other public space, with employees dropping what they were doing in order to recognize your presence and offer their help (in fact, they often keep talking to you for so long you wonder what they could possibly be saying!) This is characteristic of how I felt throughout my entire trip to Japan; welcome, but a bit confused. We stuck out like a sore thumb with our foreign faces and big suitcases, but we were able to travel comfortably on our own and find our way through most cities with ease. I’m sure we missed many things along the way since we don’t speak Japanese, but there was more than enough to keep us entertained throughout our three week visit.
We started in Tokyo, land of neon lights and high tech gadgets, and then headed south to historic Kyoto. Between these two cities we stopped in Osaka, Kobe, Arima, Magome, Tsumago, Kawaguchiko Lake, Nikko, and finally ended our trip back in Tokyo. I’ll go into detail on each city in future posts, but for now I will say this was a great mixture of big cities and small towns, and I feel like we got a taste of what makes Japan so unique.
When we first arrived we had difficulty adjusting to the 14 hour time difference between New York and Japan; what felt like night was actually day, and we had trouble sleeping past 4am. To take advantage of our early morning rise, we decided to visit the famous Tsukiji fish market on our first day in town, where local merchants go to buy their fresh fish. The market frenzy hits its peak by 6 am, with fisherman driving around torpedo-like tunas and other large fish on barrel-shaped trucks, ready to be sold at the auction or in small stands throughout the market.
There are a few restaurants around the edges of the market where you can buy some of the freshest sushi in Japan, and we found one that had a large set meal consisting of sushi and miso soup. Normally sushi for breakfast would be too much for my western stomach to handle, but since it felt like dinnertime to me it was perfect. This was our first experience picking a restaurant and ordering food in Japan, and it was breeze. The beautiful thing about Japan is the ability for gaijins (foreigners) like us to order by pointing at pictures on the menu or at the plastic food displays outside of the restaurant. You can even order from vending machines at some restaurants, where you press the button with the picture of the food item you would like, and take the ticket to the waitress waiting inside. At first I thought these displays existed to help foreigners decipher the restaurant’s offerings, but I soon realized the locals use the same cues to decide where to eat (only they’re able to order exactly what they want, while we cross our fingers and hope we get what we intended!)
Before getting caught up in all that Tokyo has to offer, we left for Kyoto on the second day of our trip. Kyoto is a dessert-lover’s dream, and it was here that I realized how dedicated the Japanese are to their sweets. I say “sweets” instead of “dessert” since this is how they are commonly referred to in Japan. In Japan, sweets are more for a snack than an indulgent finish to a meal, and are usually served along with tea in the afternoon. True Japanese sweets are always intricately decorated and sold in elegantly wrapped, beautifully designed boxes.
You can find gourmet sweets on almost every corner of every city in Japan, and they also dominate most souvenir shops. I have never seen such an extensive offering in my life, and the most amazing part is that most shops offer free samples of the items they sell so you can try it before buying. You can also wash your purchases down with a drink from the vending machines found everywhere in Japan, which offer a variety of hot tea and coffee (served in a can.) My favorite brand was Suntory’s Boss, which has the funny slogan “Boss is the boss of them all since 1992.” (I wonder who the boss was before 1992.) All of the bakeries and vending machines make for a potentially calorie-heavy day of touring, so be sure to take the scenic walking-route through town as much as possible!
As we worked our way through the big cities we stopped in the spectacular food halls that can be found in the basement of most major department stores. The sweets area of the food hall usually takes up an entire floor, and has outlets for the finest Japanese and international pastry shops in the world. It was in a food hall that I discovered one of my favorite finds, Brownie du Japon by Atenor. The brownies have whole red beans mixed in dark chocolate or green tea brownies, and are surprisingly good.
After I thought I had seen it all, I was surprised again when we returned to Tokyo and found the food theme parks hidden around the city. The Japanese have created entire worlds around dessert items like ice cream, cream puffs and sweets in general (there’s even one for gyoza, Japanese dumplings, should you want some “real” food.) These parks appeal to kids and adults alike, and lead to a complete over indulgence of all things sweet. It’s probably a good thing we don’t have these in New York.
Throughout Japan we consistently received superior service and saw great attention to detail. Employees of shops attend to your every need – offering endless samples and recommendations – and take care to wrap your purchase perfectly, as if it was a present for their own family. Even the postcards we bought came wrapped in beautifully designed paper, sealed with the shop’s own custom-designed sticker. Japan is a model for service, and they don’t accept tips or gratuities of any kind. Prices include all service charges and taxes, and it seems to be the employee’s own pride or discipline that drives them to take such good care of customers. The same generosity applies outside of a shop as well, as we found whenever we asked directions and someone would walk us to our destination, not just point in the right direction. Amazing.
Now that my trip is over I feel completely relaxed and ready to be home. The reality of being in America definitely hit when I asked the woman at the airport which way to the gates and she told me to “read the sign.” Much worse than that, Andrew had his digital camera stolen out of his checked baggage, and American Airlines claims to have no responsibility for it. Go ahead American Airline employees, steal until your heart’s content because the airline isn’t responsible! Other than these few low points, it feels good to be amongst English speakers again and have the comforts of home. I have to admit I’m a little tired of red bean and green tea, and look forward to the variety of flavors that New York has to offer; although I’ll be laying off dessert for a while after this sweet journey.
P.S. I am still having trouble with spam, which delays all comments posted to the site. I must manually approve comments, so I apologize for the delay. I love reading them so thank you for continuing to comment.
Tsukiji Fish Market
Take the Habiya line to the Tsukiji subway stop. Walk past the Indian-style temple and turn left at the main road. Follow the men in rain boots to the market.