Unravelled: You Can Never Get Sick of Japan
Travelling to a new country comes with its share of excitement, apprehensions, and expectations. For Japan, an eclectic mix of modernity and tradition, there is a lot to know before taking a trip. In conversation with Seher Khan, Sameer Gauhri and Misha Ghose, travellers who have been to Japan, we discussed some idiosyncrasies of the place that make one of the best tourist destinations.
‘I entered Japan with wonder and left with wonder’
Seher– It was my first time visiting Japan and 6 days for Tokyo is very less. Every street is so different- the amount of lights Tokyo has is insane.
Japan is one place that is completely taboo-free and that is very liberating.
Misha– We visited end summer/ early monsoon but I want to go there during spring and see the sakura in bloom. If you do your research properly, you can find a vacation that works for you. I entered Japan with wonder and left with wonder. Already planning my next trip.
Sameer– Everything is so well designed, you feel like you are in the advanced future. They are like genius aliens, and it is an incredible experience just being there.
I recommend that you don’t live right in the middle of the city. We lived in Shinjuku but I would suggest look for something in the outer suburbs and experience the quieter side of things.
‘The best thing is to walk in Japan’
Misha– The JR pass is perfect when you want to travel from one city to another. The Shinkansen ride is a must. Always on time; precise; spotless and so fast. The bento boxes on the Shinkansen are just yum.
For within Tokyo, it makes sense to get hold of a PASMO or SUICA card. You just need to fill these up with money and they can be swiped on all trains and buses and even used at the 7-Elevens. Taxis should be avoided as they’re frightfully expensive, but all public transport is super convenient and comfortable.
Seher– You can uber everywhere as well but the best thing is to walk. When we went the weather was lovely, I remember we walked and walked.
Sameer– Their train systems are famously confusing- it’s like England where they have different underground trains but each line is owned by a different company. Hence there are different tickets and systems. But they have made it so easy – when you enter a station you just open your eyes and use your brain a little, you will be fine. The ticketing machines will give you specific selected options and it second guesses where you want to go and it is 99% right.
‘The Japanese take their food very seriously.’
Sameer– There is no such thing as a bad meal in Tokyo.
Tokyo has the highest number of Michelin star restaurants, so they take food very seriously. Even from a small sandwich guy to a Michelin star restaurant, the food is amazing. If you open a place to eat it has to go through a rigorous test. But, the best restaurants are the ones that are hidden and you will only know if a local takes you- there you can’t find these on Google maps. I tried getting to one on my own but it was so confusing. Finally, they took me up some stairs of one building, through the balcony to another building and a door opens in a basement and there it is.
Misha– There is no real favorite restaurant. Every place you stumble into has just the most amazing food. The ramen is a must. Ichiran was fantastic. All beef in Japan just melts in your mouth. The bluefin fatty tuna at the Tsukiji fish market will make you want to cry. The bento boxes are great. The set meals are also worth trying. Udon noodles, the izakaya (pub) food, sushi, sashimi, dim sums…the list is endless.
The amount of care they put into their products and their preparations, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a place where the food disappoints you.
Seher– There is this robot restaurant, this place in Shinjuku, that is a theme bar featuring a pop culture show. Its got robotic monsters, dancers, lasers, it’s amazing. It’s in a very small place, they have popcorn and beer and they have a very famous show. Shinjuku has a lot of good restaurants- the codfish in every restaurant is amazing. I also like the sweet egg roll and the sweet noodle.
‘Japan can be super weird.’
Seher– One thing I found weird is that smoking in every restaurant is allowed. In India, we have distinct smoking areas, but in Japan, you can sit eat and smoke- like children and everyone are sitting and people were just smoking- they never step out to smoke
Sameer– One weird thing is that nobody eats on the street- you won’t see people walking on the road and eating. They believe that if you walk on the road you will inadvertently spill something and then that looks dirty. They think way ahead so they don’t eat on the road in the first place.
Another weird thing is that nobody talks on the train. You can be in a packed train at peak hours where there isn’t an inch to move and nobody talks. On some trains, they even announce ‘please refrain from talking on your cell phone’. Its more for them as being respectful to you and its about the other person’s comfort. You can quietly chat but they refrain from it.
‘You can move around Tokyo without knowing a word of Japanese.’
Misha– It helps to have a guidebook that helps you with basic translations as almost no one speaks in English there. But everything is so well organized, all the signs are there in English, made almost idiot-proof, so you can find your way around with a little bit of effort. You will get lost many times, but more often than not it’ll be a pleasurable experience.
Google Maps is a must.
Sameer– Their country is designed and planned so well- you can move around Tokyo without knowing a word of Japanese.
‘The Japanese are different’
Sameer– You can’t really talk to the locals- they do speak more English than they let on but it’s a weird cultural where they think that by speaking in that English they will put you in an uncomfortable position because you might not be able to understand them. From our perspective it is fine but they have too much honor and its embarrassing.
Misha– They’re different. They respect personal space a lot more than we do here. You can be at a music festival surrounded by 100,000 people and yet no one will even brush against you. The local trains are always crowded, but no one pushes, shoves or even talks in the compartments. You can leave your wallet open in the middle of the road and no one will touch it. No one litters ever, and even smokers roam around with portable ashtrays and don’t ash on the floors.
They’ve thought out everything as far as everyday living conditions are concerned.
Seher– There are so many cultures and that is one place no many how many times you go, you can never get sick of it
‘By the end of the night, you usually leave having told them everything about yourself’
Misha– The Golden Gai at Shinjuku and Omoide Yokocho (literally “Memory Lane”), or as it is known among the Tokyo locals, “Piss Alley”; are these narrow lanes filled with bars on either side. Each bar is big enough to house a maximum of 6 people. The beers are amazing and the bartenders are friendly and by the end of the night, you usually leave having told them everything about yourself.
Sameer– This bar that I went to bases its drinks on films. You can order The Exorcist or The Godfather or even recent movies such as Harry Potter or The Terminator. The bartender will figure out what the drink is if he hasn’t seen the movie.
‘We had some top-class ramen.’
Sameer– I had to wait 45 minutes in a line and then they give you a form in which you tell them how to make your ramen. It’s like a visa form. Their spice bracket is out of 10 but their average is 2 on 10 spicy. Their spices are amazing because the final dish hits you but doesn’t ruin your stomach. You can ruin the food based on spice and its perfect.
‘Going to the bathroom is the most fun’
The bathroom is the best experience in Tokyo and going to the bathroom is so much fun. They say when you go to Tokyo, you have to press all the buttons in the loo. It has a self-cleaning mechanism, every toilet can be heated to your preference, there are two different kinds of jets- a rocket or a shower kind. There is no need to use toilet paper, it has a self-drying mechanism. It even talks to you and says things in Japanese- this is everywhere in Japan. And you can enter any restaurant and use their bathroom and get a glass of cold water, its nice.
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