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!

Visiting Hachimanyama Park in Utsunomiya, Japan

On my recent work trip to Japan, I only ended up with one free day (without work) in Utsunomiya. I decided to venture out to try to find Hachimanyama Park since I had read about Utsunomiya Tower online. Leaving from my hotel close to the train station, it was supposed to be about a 30 minute walk but I decided to walk along the river for some scenic views along the way. The first thing I realized upon arrival was that this was not just a normal park. On the map at the entrance, I could see a go kart track, a suspended bridge, Utsunomiya Tower, and even a small zoo!

I ventured around without too much of a plan other than eventually reaching Utsunomiya Tower. The park in itself is beautiful with many different areas to hike around through. One area was called the cherry blossom viewing area which was still pretty even though the cherry blossoms weren’t in bloom in August. Another area near the tower is a small scenic pond with lots of fish inside!

Utsunomiya Tower is on the top of a hill and has a little store nearby to get food or a drink. I bought a drink to re-hydrate, having to mime my order since I don’t speak Japanese and took a seat on one of the many benches nearby. After my break I headed straight for the suspension bridge, one of the ends is right next to Utsunomiya tower. From the center of the bridge you can look out over Utsunomiya for views of the city from above. The other side of the bridge leads you to a giant children’s playground (and bathrooms if you need it!)

On my way out of the park I found the mini zoo. Unfortunately on the hot day most of the animals were sleeping in their shaded areas and hard to see but I did find the lemurs and a pony!

Leaving the Hachimanyama park on the south end, I wondered the streets and ran across the gate to what I later found out was Gamou Shrine. After walking through the gate and climbing all the steps I came across the purification stations, statues, strings of fortunes and the main buildings of the Shinto shrine. Back down the steps there is are stairs to a smaller wooded area which I found out to be the Mikurama Tomb, an ancient burial mound constructed in the early 6th century!

On my adventure to find a small park and see the Utsunomiya Tower,  I discovered that there was so much more to the park itself and stumbled upon other hidden gems in this city!