Things I Wish I Knew Before Visiting Japan

Coming from the United States, there were many small things that surprised me on my work trip to Japan! To help prepare you, here are some random things I wish I knew before heading to Japan:

Bathrooms:

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Japanese Style Toilet

• Most of the toilets here are bidets aka if you push the wrong button water will start shooting up your butt. Don’t get distracted by the buttons though, I always found a lever to actually flush it.
• Another feature that seems very common in Japan is heated toilet seats. While it sounds like a great idea (who likes a cold toilet seat?), it was a very strange sensation to get used to.
• There are no paper towels or hand dryers in the bathrooms to dry your hands after washing them.
• Occasionally you will come across a “Japanese style toilet”, I only had to use them once during my 2 week trip when visiting the Hachimanyama park in Utsunomiya.

Restaurants:
• The waiter doesn’t really check up on you like they do in the U.S. To get their attention people just yell “sumimasen” or they might have a call button at your table.
• Be prepared to take off your shoes when you enter a restaurant and leave them by the door.
• You’ll find that the portion sizes are much smaller than we’re used to in the U.S.
• Tea is served instead of water in most places.
• Most menus have pictures so you can order fairly easily, even without knowing the language.

Trains/Buses:

  • To use the trains you put your ticket through the machine (where it punches a hole in it) then pick it up after you walk through. On the way out you put it in the machine then instead of spitting it back out, it keeps it. If you are getting reimbursed for your train tickets be sure to take pictures of them before you leave the station!
  •  People wait in lines to board trains and buses. It’s not a free for all as it usually is in the States, the riders form an orderly line and the beginning of the lines are marked on many of the train platforms.

Visiting Shrines:

  • There will be a hand washing station outside of any shrines you visit. Use the cups provided to spoon water on your hands and to rinse your lips before entering the shrine.
  • You also will need to take your shoes off before entering the shrine, typically there are shoe cubbies around but if not look to see where others have put their shoes.

General:

  • In Japan they don’t seem to believe in air conditioning. Buy a fan or bring a wash cloth around with you if you are coming in the summer and be sure to pack extra lightweight clothes as yours will get sweaty really quickly!
  • In Japan they drive on the left side of the road which means they also walk on the left. If you are riding an escalator it is expected that you will stand on the left and pass on the right.

These are some things that took me by surprise when I visited Japan so I thought it might be helpful for others too! Do you have any tips to add to my list?

9 Things to do in Utsunomiya, Japan!

For my work trip to Japan we stayed about 75 miles north of Tokyo in Utsunomiya. Utsunomiya is the capital of the Tochigi prefecture and served as my home for two weeks. While Utsunomiya was a perfect home base for day trips to Tokyo and Nikko, here are the main things I found to do and see in Utsunomiya!

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Dinner with new friends in Utsunomiya

1. Hachimanyama Park– The large park located a 30 minute walk from the JR train station, includes a large play area, Utsunomiya Tower, a suspension bridge and more! I had no idea that it was more than just a park when I set out to find it, read about my adventure here.


2. Utsunomiya Futaarayama Shrine– The shrine just off the main road was founded about 1,600 years ago and the city of Utsunomiya was built around it. By the steps up to the main shrine area there are many smaller shrines. One funny thing pointed out to us was the shrine dedicated to liquor was larger than the shrine for medicine!

3. Lalasquare – This is the Mall near the train station with many stores including a giant toy store on the top floor. It was fun to go through the mall noting the differences from our malls back home. There are also quite a few restaurants on the ground floor.


4. Orion Dori – There are lots of little shops, restaurants and bars along this street to find souvenirs and night life. There was one store in the strip our Japanese friend called a mini Akihabara (the anime filled district from our Tokyo trip) for any anime souvenirs.


5. Eat Gyoza– Gyoza is a Japanese dumpling usually made with wonton wrappers and stuffed tith pork and cabbage. Utsunomiya is the gyoza capital of Japan with over 200 different gyoza themed restaurants.

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6. Attend a Festival! – Ok, this one is completely based on what time of year you visit but we happened to be in town for Miya Matsuri. The streets, lined with food carts, filled with traditional Japanese clothing watching and participating in a parade like celebration!


7. Hot Springs/Onsen in Bell Mall– Just a 10 minute bus ride away, we visited an onsen, or Japanese bath house, located in Bell Mall. This nude hot spring was quite the experience, read all about my Naked and Afraid experience!


8. Visit a cat café! – If you are a cat lover like me, there is a cat cafe in Orion Dori. You pay a small amount for the amount of time you stay and play with the cats, plus they have food and drinks available. The best part is that all the cats are up for adoption!

9. Castle Ruins Park – Now a small city park, this was once the site of Utsunomiya Castle before it burned down in the Boshin War. Some of the torrents and walls have been restored and are free to explore. When we went, the entire park was filled with Pokemon Go players!

While these 9 things in no way encompass all that Utsunomiya has to offer, they were my favorite aspects of the town. Let me know if you have any other recommendations!

Naked and Afraid in a Japanese Onsen

Some people are comfortable being naked; I am not one of those people. Locker room changes and communal showers became regulars in my collegiate athletic career, but while my teammates lounged au natural, I quietly changed in the bathroom stall and waited until the showers were all clear. With my aversion to nudity, visiting a nude hot spring never crossed my mind until my travel companions decided to visit a Japanese onsen. Japan is volcanically active, which lays the foundation for thousands of onsens throughout the country. As an important part of traditional Japanese culture, I knew I had to try it!

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Traveling with only male coworkers, I tentatively wandered alone into the women’s locker room. Juggling my towel to attempt to cover every bit of exposed skin, I stripped down then placed the last pieces of my comfort zone in a locker. Using two towels is the custom: a large towel to dry off before leaving and a small hand towel to “cover your privates”. Ummmmmm, girls have two major private areas!?!  After internal deliberation, my hand towel drifted downward. Unsure of where to go next, because all the signs were in Japanese, I scanned the room and found that these women, young and old, skinny and plump, had no insecurities. They let it all hang loose!

By the luck of the draw, I chose door number two and miraculously found the cleansing area.  Slinking into the room, there were many small washing stations each equipped with a showerhead and bottles of soap and shampoo. I took a tentative seat on an open stool (only one cheek of course) and started washing my light blonde hair and tall, pale body. After a full body rinse, I realized that everyone who was washing when I arrived was still going strong.  So naturally, I decided to sit there rewashing myself over and over and over again not wanting to be rude on accident. I stayed until I spotted a small, elderly woman get up who I could follow to the baths.

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After the stressful start, I headed straight to the first empty bath I saw. I bounced from bath to bath to feel the variations in temperatures and jets whenever one emptied, stemming from both a desire to try everything and to escape invaders of my personal bubble. Settling into a bath with jets, I was finally able to unwind. I reflected on how difficult I made this experience for myself, I built it all up in my head. Slowly my tension evaporated, well, until it all repeated getting out…

 

Going to a Japanese Festival in Utsunomiya, Japan

While in town for work we were lucky enough to be around for the Miya Matsuri festival in Utsunomiya, Japan. It occurs on the first Saturday and Sunday of August each year. The festival started in 1976 when Japan was going through some slow economic growth as a way to encourage people to get out of their houses and interact. Since we were exploring Tokyo on Saturday we went to the festival on Sunday evening. We headed out in the evening to get food from the street vendors for dinner. There were so many options ranging from fried chicken to squid and rice to my favorite, the simple but refreshing pineapple on a stick!


The parade was definitely different than the ones I’m used to in the US: instead of different large decorated floats carrying people that pass you one time, there were 2 main sections of parade that went in circles up and down the street taking breaks at various times. One section had dancers, at the beginning of the festival they were all dressed in kimonos dancing the same traditional moves to the music but towards the end of the night the music got livelier with each group dancing their own variations to the same music. There were even groups of little kid dancers!


The other segment of the parade was designated to people carrying a mikoshi, a portable Shinto shrine. The mikoshi is taken from the shrine during the festival to be carried around the worshiping neighborhood on peoples shoulders. At this festival the mikoshi carriers bounced up and down and swayed side to side while carrying them. It is said that it is to amuse the deity inside! On some of the mikoshi women or children stood on the carrying posts chanting and waving fans or items in celebration!


I was so glad that the Miya Matsuri festival was happening while we were there – visiting a festival in Japan was an unforgettable experience!

Tokyo, Japan in a Day

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While there are way too many things to do and see in Tokyo in just one day, here is how we made the most of our limited time!

After our 1 hour and 45 minute train ride from Utsunomiya we got off at the Tokyo Skytree station. We saw the Skytree from the outside while walking around then headed over to Tokyo Solamanchi, the mall at the base of the Skytree, to browse around. The Tokyo Skytree stands at 634m tall and is the tallest free-standing broadcasting station in the world. There were many specialty stores in the mall including a Pokemon Center megastore and a Hello Kitty Store themed store. Overall Solamachi houses over 300 shops and restaurants to explore.


Next we hopped on the subway to visit the Akihabara district. Akihabara is famous for its electronic, anime and manga shops. We wandered in and out of stores ranging from large department buildings to “yard sale style” stores where individuals sell their collectables renting out glass cases. As we explored the department store and started to go to upstairs to the next level our Japanese friend stopped us warning it was “for adults”. Among the shops there were also Anime themed restaurants such as the Gundam Café and various cosplay themed restaurants where the waitresses are dressed up.  If there is one place we wished we had more time to explore it would be here!


After Akihabara we headed to Tokyo Station to walk around the Imperial Palace Gardens. While they only allow visitors inside to roam the palace grounds freely 2 days of the year, the gardens are free to explore with views of the mote and guard towers. After some scenic views we had Katsu for Lunch in Tokyo Station.

Our next stop was a short one at the Honda Headquarters right outside subway station  You can see and sit in many of their vehicles (many of which are Japanese models not sold in the US). After sitting in the cars and on the motorcycles we sat down to watch a demonstration of Honda’s Asimo robot, the world’s most advanced humanoid robot! He is designed to eventually assist people in their daily lives. The presentation was pretty cool, it took you through the development process of Asimo as real life Asimo walks around, dances and shows off his capabilities.

 


The last area of Tokyo we were able to visit was Shinjuku. In Shinjuku we went straight to the Metropolitan building. The building has 2 towers that you can go up in to get incredible views of Tokyo. If you want a view of Tokyo from above but don’t want to pay at Tokyo Skytree or Tokyo Tower this is a free option with views of both towers from the top. There are many windows to give all different views of the city so be sure to check them all. On a clear day it is said you can see Mount Fuji, but we weren’t lucky enough.

Tokyo has so much more to offer than what we saw in just one day. I can’t wait to make it back to Tokyo for a completely different day full of adventures in the same city.

An Adventurous Dinner in Utsunomiya, Japan

A couple weeks ago, I had a chance to travel to Utsunomiya, Japan on a trip for work and had the chance to try a lot of new foods while I was there! One night we went to a yakitori (translated as grilled bird/chicken) restaurant with our new Japanese friends. We were seated in a back room that could accommodate all of us with a table low to the ground with circular pads for us to sit on the floor. The way the bar worked was we paid a set price for food and unlimited drinks for 2 hours.

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As a notoriously picky eater, I was a bit nervous for the meal. Many plates of food were brought out to us starting with a simple caesar salad, something I could easily handle. The foods to come were definitely more exotic. I asked my co-workers not to tell me what each dish was until after I took a bite, a good thing because I’m not sure I would have tried everything! The strangest dish for me was boiled chicken skin. Other dishes included tamagoyaki (a Japanese rolled omelette), potatoes covered in a small fish egg sauce, gizzard (very very chewy…) and various fresh fish.


My favorite drink I tried was called a Calpis Sour. At first we thought it was called Cow Piss, I definitely felt the need to clarify after all of the other interesting things I had already tasted that night! According to our friends Calpis is made with fermented milk and was first created almost 100 years ago. To me it had a hint of fruit loops taste. I also tried a plum wine with soda. While good, it definitely didn’t compare to the sweet Calpis drink!


Although we didn’t speak much Japanese and they didn’t speak much English the night was full of fun. We did a lot of miming to tell stories and learned a few more Japanese phrases by the end of the night!  Another source of entertainment ended up being me trying my best to use chop sticks – as a first timer I can say that it wasn’t exactly graceful!

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Visiting a Cat Cafe in Utsunomiya, Japan

As an avid cat lover and missing both my cats from home while traveling to Japan for work, I couldn’t be more excited when I learned that there was a cat café near our hotel in Utsunomiya. Just off of Orion Dori (a main shopping street), you can find Cat Café Nekomiya. It is on the second story and you can easily see it (and some cats!) from the outside. Going inside, you go up some stairs lined with cat photos until you reach the landing. Before heading inside you have to take off your shoes then get ready for some cat-tastic fun!

Inside there were big fat adult cats along with adorable energetic kittens. In the small café there were about 10-15 cats given free reign. How it works is you pay for the amount of time you are there. The first time option was 30 minutes, then 10 minute increments from there. You don’t have to decide how long you’ll stay when you get there you pay when you leave. We were there for an hour and that only cost us 500 yen (~$5)!

We started sitting at a table but didn’t stay there long. We ordered drinks then spent the entire time petting, chasing and playing with the cats! There are boxes of toys to play with, structures to climb and scratching posts to scratch. If you are hungry they also had cat themed meals and desserts. Although no one there spoke English, we were all able to easily communicate our love and excitement for the cats!