Monday, 4 February 2013

Travelling in Japan

What an experience Japan has been.  I have learnt so much and experienced so much more than I thought I would.  And I would love to go again, maybe in a different season, I do believe there is a quilt show in Yokohama in the autumn, maybe I can do that and explore some different areas of Japan then, but in the meantime, I have bought LOTS of new fabrics and I will have to see if I can use some of it first before planning another trip.

I travelled with Arena Travel, a company that specialises in special interest tours. There were 19 of us, 3 men, one lady that does embroidery and the rest of us, all quilters.  We came from all over Britain, one lady came from Canada, most of us didn't know anyone else on the tour, but by the end, we have made friendships that will last for the rest of our lives. And contrary to popular believe amongst non-quilters, we do not just talk about quilting, in fact, quilting came up mainly only in the initial introductions and then again at the quilt show, but rarely on any other occasions.

Our tour kicked off at Heathrow, where despite all the heavy snow in the week before, we managed to take off just over an hour later than scheduled in a plane that was just over half full, so I had 2 empty seats next to me to spread out in. And our pilot was a WOMAN, first time I have flown with a female pilot, very pleasant experience.

On our way to our hotel, we were told that there is NO FREE Wi-Fi in hotels for tourists anywhere in Japan, but we were hopeful.  This however turned out to be mainly true.  None of us expected this, most of us had brought our ipads with, we stayed in really upmarket hotels and there was NO WiFi !!!!
In some of the hotels (not all) a LAN cable was provided for laptop users, but this was of no use to us, in other places there was WiFi reception in hotel lobby's but this did not work if there were more than 2 of you at a time trying to access internet.  We gave up pretty soon.  And then, in our last hotel back in Tokyo (The Tokyo Dome hotel) there was free WiFi, in the hotel lobby only, that did work 3 out of the 4 days we were there, what a sight we must have been, all huddled over our ipads sitting in small groups on benches in the hotel lobby .....

Another shock was to find out that Japan is a CASH ONLY society, of course it does say in guidebooks that Credit cards or Debit cards are only accepted in larger stores and hotels, but we all assumed that we would mainly be shopping in larger stores or gift shops (aimed at tourists and therefore set up to cater for tourist money?) and certainly that we will be able to purchase goods from the Quilt show with our cards.   NOT SO!!!!!  Even in large department stores, there was not always facilities to accept card payments, and if there was, their machines could not read our cards, so we had to resort to find the very few ATMs (we are talking Tokyo and Kyoto here, not any towns smaller, where there were no ATMS that could read our cards!) where our cards could be read and withdrew cash from here. Note to self for next time .....  take plenty of cash!

Yuka, our guide, was a mine of information and when she didn't know, would find out and come back to us the next day with an answer.  Japanese people are incredibly polite and respectful and we soon learnt that the best words to know was "arigato gozaimass" and "sumimasen". (thank you very much and excuse me).  Very few Japanese speak English, although they do learn it at school, they are shy to use it and don't get much chance once they have left school.

There are some rules to know about behaviour in Japan if you do not want to offend: If there is a line, then join the line, don't try and push in, outdoor shoes are not to be worn indoors, sneezing or coughing in public is a taboo unless you are wearing a mask, eating while walking around is frowned upon, touching food and then not taking it is a taboo, pointing or stabbing with chopsticks is very bad manners, jay walking is not allowed. Tipping is not expected and can insult.

Although the toilets in washrooms are amazing (more about this below) they rarely have hand driers or towels in the washroom.  For this reason, it is advisable to take a small facecloth or hand towel everywhere with you in order to dry your hands.
Toilets range from highly sophisticated to very basic traditional toilets, where you squat over a trough in the ground.  Most tourist attractions have both and they are usually clearly marked as 'traditional' or 'Western'.  If you have a baby or very small child with you, there are little seats in which to put the little ones in the cubicles while you can get on with your own business.  And the Western style toilets are wonderful, especially in winter, when the heated seats can make you stay rather longer than necessary.
They may have automatic seat covers, bidet functions, hot-air drying facility, automatic music playing to mask other unpleasant noises, what we would call 'all singing all dancing toilets'. They have provided our group with endless entertainment and jokes and we all want one at home now.

Traditional toilet

Baby/ toddler seat in cubicle

Modern 'Western' toilet panel with options

Another 'Western' toilet panel 

If you walk through a department store where they sell food, you will be amazed at the variety and choice (more than 60% of food is imported) and how beautifully it is all presented.  Walking through such a store might make you think that you are in Harrods, in fact, Harrods do have stalls in some of the larger department stores.  They do not eat much but like to enjoy what they do eat and presentation plays a big role.  I could easily spend most part of a day just walking around the food section before deciding what to buy.  Samples are offered everywhere and buying after tasting a sample is not compulsory. Of course, not all Japanese people buy their food from big department stores, but when walking around a small supermarket one day, we saw the same care and attention to detail and amongst all the 'foreign' food that I saw, I was amazed to see yoghurt made from Jersey cream!

Fish counter in department store

Bento boxes

Bakery section in department store

Western food is not widely available and where it is, it might be what Japanese people perceive to be Western food, although if you do come across an Italian restaurant, they probably will do pizzas and pasta dishes (watch out for the fruit pizza - pizza topped with custard, strawberries, kiwis, pineapples and then drizzled in chocolate sauce).  You are more likely to find this in the touristy areas of big cities than in the smaller towns.

Fruity pizza

Yuka took us to her favourite pancake restaurant one evening in Hiroshima.  It was like entering a scene from a movie. On either side of the street, there were shops set up, each divided from the next with a plastic screen, but this was not on a street, it was on the 6th floor inside a building!
All the shops had a large U-shaped grilling area with barstools around it, the chef then cooks inside the U shape, all of these shops did pancakes and there were about 20 of them. Our chef managed to russtle up our 12 pancakes with gusto and flair befitting a movie star, very entertaining for 30 minutes, but we were all rather worried about whether our pancakes would be edible after all the ingredients that went in and more just kept coming in.  John calmed his nerves first with hot sake then with cold sake whilst the rest of us resorted to beer, wine or just water. Finally we could try it and it was delicious, what an experience.  If you asked me know what went in, I can't remember half the ingredients but it started with onions, cabbage, noodles, fish paste or sauce, raw egg, spices, soy sauce, more sauce, more spice, more ingredients including green flakes, then finally our choice ingredient of pork, chicken, beef or seafood, some with oysters. I would never have chosen this off a menu, knowing what all the ingredients were, but sometimes it pays to just be a little bit openminded!

Enjoying our pancakes
My pancake with chicken filling, size of a dinner plate

 MacDonalds and Starbucks are everywhere and although not a bread and pastry nation traditionally, you can now buy sandwiches or pastries everywhere. Pastries are extremely light and sandwiches will be made with very light white bread and crusts removed.
Where there is an onsen at your hotel, or if you are planning to visit an onsen, there are strict rules to their usage.  You will need to clean and wash yourself in the shower before entering the onsen, or hot bath, these are public baths and shared, you will be naked, but can fold your small little towel up and place it on your head if you wish. In our hotel, there were 2 onsen,  one for females and the other for males, but at 2am the baths changed round, so if you went the previous night to one onsen, you will be going to the other one the following day.  Some onsen are for mixed couples or families.

All ready for the onsen - dressed in hotel robes for wearing around the hotel

Hotel rooms vary from traditional ryokan to modern hotels like anywhere else.  We stayed mainly in modern hotels, but the best hotel of the trip was the Kukuna Kaze No Terrace on Lake Kawaguchi, which is a ryokan or traditional hotel.  When we arrived at the hotel, our rooms looked like lounges, but when we returned after supper, our futons were made up, ready for sleeping on for the night.  The futon is then rolled up and stored away during the day before being unrolled again at night time.  If you are not sure about getting up in the morning from the futon, ask for a Western style room, which has Western style beds.

View of room from door, set up as lounge

Room ready for the night

Lovely large vanity area
Shower enclosure with vanity area

Modern hotel rooms are just like anywhere in the world, but bathrooms are extremely compact and small, my bathroom in one of the hotels measured only 5ft by 5ft, the bath was big enough to sit in with your knees pulled up, but lying down was not possible, it was very deep though, so you could sit emmersed with most of you under water. Double rooms will have 2 beds in, each the size of a large single / small double, and if you are a single occupant you will have a lot of space.  Beware though that some hotels have single rooms, with a large single bed in and no room to manoeuvre around the bed. I had to resort to keeping my case on the bed as there was nowhere to put it down when open.

Single room 

Bathroom less than 5ft square 

Double room in modern hotel 

Punctuality is very important to the Japanese, if you are in a tour group, your tour leader will expect you to turn up at given times, tours are run like clockwork and the whole days schedule could be thrown if you are a few minutes late.  Bullet trains are very punctual, you will have only 1 minute to get on the train, before the doors will shut and train will depart.  Late arrivals are frowned upon and when trains are late, there will be an announcement to say that it is late, even if only for 1 minute.

Bullet train or shinkansen as it is known

Inside the bullet train

When we have visited museums or hotels as a group, the staff always came out to wave us off afterwards, even at the bigger hotels in Tokyo.
Earthquakes do happen in Japan, in fact, there will be an earthquake somewhere in Japan felt somewhere at least once on average every day.  While at the Tokyo Dome hotel, an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale happened one night at 3.42am 74miles north east of Tokyo. Being on the 23rd floor, we probably felt it more than if we were on ground level, with the bathroom walls creaking and a feeling of being on a ferry with a high swell outside. No one mentioned it the next day, this was just a small quake.  The official advise is to make sure that en exit door is left open and then to stay under something sturdy and away from windows. What did I do? I stayed in bed and texted my husband to find out if everything was alright!

Japan is a lovely country and one which I have always wanted to visit, and am hoping to go back to in a few years time.  Japan needs tourists, not many are going at the moment, in fact, our tour was the first group to arrive this year for our tour guide and we saw hardly any other Westerners. If the Quilt Show was not on, I think we would not have seen any other Westerners at all.  Even at the Quilt show, there were very few Westerners.  If you were thinking of going, but has been put off by the earthquakes and tsunamis of recent years, please think again.  We saw no signs of the devastation caused and were treated like royalty, I for one, can't wait to go again, and my husband and son will be there in April.  I am already working on what souveniers I am asking them to bring back (LOL)


  1. Hi Japan quilt traveler, Your story was wonderful and very informative. I am planning a trip to the Tokyo Quilt Festival in January, 14. I am trying to select a tour group at this time. I did not see Arena, but will look into this. So far I have seen Country Heritage tour (New Hampshire, USA tour group) and Japan Journeys (United Kingdom tour group). How did you select your tour operator? And do you have any thoughts on the tour group I have mentioned. Thank you so much for your wonderful pictures and description of your tour.

  2. Hi Swim65, I am so glad you found my blog useful. You will love the Tokyo Quilt Festival. I decided to go with Arena as a friend recommended them to me, also, it was easier to go with a British group, where everyone had the same travel arrangements, rather than try and sort out different travel arrangements from the rest of the tour group. Had I travelled from the USA, I probably would have gone with Country Heritage. I have not yet travelled with CH, but some of my friends have and I believe they are very good, I do in fact follow all their tours and if the right tour comes up at the right time, I might well go with them. Japan Journeys is very good, but I decided to use Arena, as I was then travelling with an entire group of quilters (including a few quilter husbands) and our itinerary was designed around our textile interest, although we pretty much visited most places on offer through Japan Journeys, and Arena offered the Japan trip just at the right time for me. I would certainly recommend Arena for this trip, in fact a Canadian lady did join the rest of us British quilters on this trip.

  3. Hi Annelize,
    Your comment was super helpful.
    Thank you so much.