I've finally caught up on New Zealand travel posts and am determined not to fall behind in Japan, but of course summarizing what we did in particularly places doesn't capture half of what this trip is actually like. After 7 weeks in New Zealand, we flew directly from Auckland to Tokyo a week ago. Our last week in New Zealand was spent in Ahipara, a surf town on the north coast of the North Island. We spent our days at the beach, surfing, relaxing, and enjoying the outdoor bathtub, which was the highlight of the trip for Blythe.
Can you blame her? Have you seen a cooler bathtub?
The flight to Japan was mercifully uneventful and we had no interactions with fellow passengers of note, unlike our last long flight. The best part? BLYTHE ACTUALLY SLEPT FOR A FEW HOURS. I watched an entire movie (La La Land - I love Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling) and read my book and it was glorious. We had a special seat that Air New Zealand offers called the Skycouch, which is a normal seat with a footrest that folds up and forms a flat seat extending to the seat in front of you. This is advertised as a nice place for couples, which is hilarious - can you imagine spooning on an airplane, never mind that it wouldn't work if you are taller than 5' (see the image below)? That said, it was perfect for Blythe to have a "cozy nook" for the flight and it enabled her to play more easily (she refused to sleep there and slept on top of me instead -in the photo above, she is sleeping on my legs with her feet barely touching her cozy, flat bed). You are provided with a full-size pillow, blanket, and seat cover of sorts, which really does make for a comfortable set up.
Japan is our first destination where life really is different. New Zealand and Australia are easy - everyone speaks English and but for a few cultural nuances, its really not that different than America. While parts of Tokyo feel like New York City, it really is wildly different here, starting with the fact that we can't read the vast majority of the signs and information displayed throughout the city. People here may speak a few words of English, but most people do not or would rather not (I've read that Japanese take great pride in doing things well and thus don't use the English they have learned for fear of speaking incorrectly - I have no idea if this is true). We have had only positive experiences thus far trying to navigate eating out, getting around, and interacting with people even when not speaking the same language. Through hand gestures, a few Japanese words, and a smile, we have been able to figure things out. This includes Rob going out at night to purchase diapers and having to pantomime "diapers" (I am really, really disappointed that I didn't witness this). Here are my thoughts after 8 days in Tokyo:
- While I read that public breastfeeding is uncommon, Tokyo is otherwise filled with family-friendly features. The first bathroom we used at the airport has a safe place to put your baby in the bathroom stall, as well as a child-sized sink. Toilets all over have kid-friendly features (the child seat has been a recurring feature, and I've seen kid's seat inserts as well as smaller toilets). There are elaborate nursing and changing rooms. I'm wondering why bathrooms in the U.S. don't have these holders as a starting point (middle image below)? They can't be that expensive and they would be SO helpful. I'm remembering the countless times I held Blythe while I went to the bathroom and just kept apologizing to her for having to do so!
- As you've probably heard, this is a very clean city. For all of the people who live and work in Tokyo (this is the world's largest city by population with almost 38 million people - for the record, that is almost twice as many as live in NYC), you would never know it from the appearance of the streets, sidewalks, and buildings. It's also very safe, which is backed up by statistics but can be seen in every day life by the number of children out and about on their own, including riding the subway and walking around the city alone at a very young age. They also wear the cutest school uniforms.
- While there are massive main streets that remind you of other huge cities, you can turn off one and within 100 meters be on a narrow, winding back street with quaint shops that is quiet. You don't have to walk on the sidewalks (and they are quite narrow so often you can't) on these side streets and it feels totally safe to be a pedestrian here.
- I'm totally over all of the clothes I brought on this trip with a few exceptions. In Hawaii, we went to the beach every day so I just threw something on over my swimsuit. In New Zealand, people often don't wear shoes in public, so you can imagine that fashion isn't a huge priority for folks, either (yes, I'm making a generalization). In Tokyo, people are funky and business-y and fashionable - and often very dressed up. 95 percent of the women I see on the subway are wearing khaki trench coats... and none of them are wearing bright colored Patagonia jackets and grubby Vans! For some reason, I feel like my clothes stand out much more so here than they did in Sydney, perhaps because Sydney is such a beachy, warm weather city and people are pretty casual? In any event, I feel out of place in my travel clothes. It's quite a bit chillier here than our previous destinations, so we each had to buy another pair of pants, which was an experience (for me). The top size on each pile was a 23 (!) and 28 was the largest size any store carried that we visited so I felt fortunate to find anything that worked! Jean shopping is painful enough without being reminded that everyone else is smaller than you.
- My jean purchasing experience aside, I expected to feel like a giant here, but I don't (and neither does Rob). Everyone is much taller than I expected.
- I've noticed that people wear tights when they run here (under their shorts) even when it is hot outside. I felt conspicuous running on the Meguro River in shorts, even though they are Patagonia Baggies and by no stretch of the imagination are they short or revealing. I felt like I was breaking some sort of Tokyo running rule. Running here makes me want to re-read Murakami's What I Talk About when I Talk about Running.
- The food is as good as I thought it would be and less expensive. We've had some amazing meals courtesy of recommendations from friends and our airbnb host, plus just asking when we are in neighborhoods where we don't have a place in mind. Without being able to read most signs, it can be hard to tell whether a storefront is a restaurant or a home or shop, so it really helps to just ask rather than wander around trying to figure it out ourselves. We did have one dinner in a restaurant with no English menu and where the waitress spoke very little English that wasn't what we were expecting and cost twice as much; I suppose these things are bound to happen! The grocery stores are fascinating to explore and full of all sorts of items I can’t identify and some odd versions of things I can (see the white strawberries pictured below). I'm sure you've heard about the expensive "perfect" items they sell here. Below I've included a photo of a $54 watermelon and a $500 crab. We obviously snapped both up.
- We've seen a disproportionate number of shops specifically featuring cat-related items. I knew cats were big here but it never ceases to amuse me. You all know I love Forest, but still...
- We inadvertently timed our visit with the cherry blossoms (sakura in Japanese) here in Tokyo. It's spectacular and I'm so glad we are getting to see the city in bloom. Walking under the blossoms is a thing here and on the weekends there were tons of people out and about soaking up the arrival of spring. There are no open container laws in Japan and vendors sell drinks along the Meguro River and in parks with lots of blossoms. You can also buy beer in vending machines, which we both really enjoy seeing (and doing).
- The subway is extensive and easy to figure out. We've ridden at rush hour a few times and it's crowded, but no worse than I've seen on a Monday at 9 AM in NYC. What isn't easy to navigate on the subway is a stroller and I've noticed that most parents use carriers (even for children Blythe's size) and forego strollers. There are a lot of stairs and not so many ramps.
- Through a friend who used to live here and an acquaintance who still does, we hired two babysitters, both of whom worked out really well. We went out to dinner one night after putting Blythe down and another day we had a sitter from 9 AM until 4 PM who Blythe seemed to actually enjoy. We came home at 4 PM to find her NAPPING (B, not the sitter). Again, I cannot recommend enough getting some adult time in while traveling and it is possible anywhere in the world if you are willing to reach out to connections and ask for help!
- Blythe is big in Japan. She gets a lot of attention, even when she is misbehaving (or rather, acting like a 2-year-old). I'm going to keep track of the unsolicited gifts she receives while we are here, which so far include free stickers, juice, food, postcards, origami, and a sushi keychain purchased by the woman who sat next to us at conveyer belt sushi and adored B, even though Blythe stood up in the middle of lunch and proclaimed "I need to POOP." Thankfully, she seems to have stopped saying "No this woman" or "No this man" to any stranger who approaches her (which she did throughout New Zealand) and takes the attention in stride. She does stand out with all of her blonde hair!
- I feel self-conscious here about the social norms I'm breaking without intending to do so. I'm trying to be very careful about where I wear shoes, how I greet people, and how I pay for things, but I know there are customs to which I'm not adhering. For example, when you pay for something here, you don't hand money to the cashier, you place it in a tray on the counter. Anything you purchase will be packaged with care for you (a nice bag, closed with tape, and covered with yet another bag if it is raining) and if you purchase something at an upscale store, they will bring the bag with your purchase around the corner or even escort you to the exit before handing you your bag (this happened to me with the jeans). You don't wear shoes in fitting rooms, even at casual places like Uniqlo or the Gap. There is usually a place just inside to leave your shoes and then you step onto a carpet/mat. People typically don't eat or drink on the move. This is apparently changing with the youngest generation, but you really don't see people walking while eating or drinking (even coffee) and in certain places there are signs telling you that it is prohibited.
- The toilets! This probably warrants a separate post, but toilets are elaborate here and do all sorts of fun things - seat warmers, wash functions for both the front and back (I don't know how to politely write that), play music to drown out any other noises, seats that rise as you open the bathroom door so you don't have to touch them, and probably a host of things I don't know about because I can't read most of the buttons! You can imagine that this means Blythe wants to visit each and every bathroom we see because you never know what you will find! The odd thing is that you'll find a lovely bathroom at a random public place (today it was the Meiji Shrine) that will have all sorts of bells and whistles... but then there wasn't soap at the sink. What?!
- This is probably just an ability to get good information, but we have found very few playgrounds here. Many parks don't have playgrounds and some that do are pretty sparse. There are certainly are some cool ones, but the best we've found (Niko Niko Park) actually charged admission, which seems wrong on some level (it was a very small fee, but it was just the principle).
- They have something called Kidsbeer here, which is really just a soda drink that was rebranded in a genius way. We had to give it a try, and Blythe liked doing "cheers" with her drink. I'm sure there are all sorts of arguments for why this is bad, promotes drinking, etc., but it was fun to try!
- In Japan, dealing with trash is complicated. I’m fascinated by the trash situation here: there isn’t enough land in Japan to bury trash in landfills as we do in the United States and thus much trash is burned. However, the amount of packaging used here is astounding. Not only are things you purchase elaborately packaged as I noted above, but if you purchase packaged foods, it will likely have several layers of packaging and then be individually wrapped inside. We joke about it, but it seems so wasteful. This is a funny NY Times article about dealing with trash in Japan if you are interested. Oh, and there are very few trash cans. You are supposed to take it home with you, I assume to ensure it is properly sorted?
- We rode our first shinkasen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Nagano. We actually missed our scheduled train even though we arrived an hour early and were sitting mere meters from where it departed (we goofed on the departure time). The railway was so accommodating and friendly and just changed our ticket. You don’t feel like you are going particularly fast while on the train, but the maximum speed for these trains is 200 mph! They stop at each station for about 50 seconds and, as you would expect in Japan, depart on time, arrive promptly, and are really clean.
We are now staying near Nagano in the Japan Alps and are enjoying quieter days and exploring at a slower pace. Stay tuned for more and don't forget to enter to win a copy of Bread Toast Crumbs!