Giant vs. dwarf. Old vs. new. Poor vs. wealthy. Summer 2010 in Japan followed summer 2009 in China and I had preconceived comparisons and expectations about these two Asian countries.
I arrived in Osaka jet lagged from a sleepless flight, but at least I wasn’t quarantined upon arrival as I was in China. We toured the busy city and ancient Osaka castle. China overwhelms you with ancient history. Blink in Japan and the view switches from modern to ancient and back again.
After touring Osaka, we took an ultra high-tech bullet train to Kyoto. We stayed at a ryokan – a traditional Japanese hotel with a private living/tea room and straw mat floors. At first you think someone pulled a prank and cut the legs off the tables and chairs. Next you hunt for the beds – oh yeah – make them yourself from folded futon mats hidden in closets.
Covering swim trunks with Yukatas (Japanese bathrobes) six of us headed for the hotel baths to meet Japanese girls. Our mission was abruptly aborted…the baths aren’t co-ed and swimsuits aren’t allowed.
Having seen the Terra Cotta Warrior army in Xi’an China last year, I was tempted to skip Sanjusangen-do shrine with only 1,001 carved wooden statues – after all – nothing could compare to 6,000 warriors. Not true – they’re fascinating too.
I figured our chances to squeeze in more experiences would increase with just 28 tour participants compared to 46 for China. I was mistaken. Months earlier, I selected optional excursions to Nikko and Nara – nature attractions with mountain climbing and wild deer. Low enrollment cancelled both. Debate over free time activities ensued with our tour guide acting as mediator. Although disappointed, I checked my attitude and in turn discovered karaoke and life as a shogun – a traditional Japanese warrior. Research your destinations before departure, print out alternative attractions in case your original plans change, and quiz your tour guides. They’ll steer you clear from unsafe or overly-expensive places.
While China welcomes American dollars, they weren’t accepted by any Japanese merchants. Changing money and finding ATM machines in Japan was impossible in smaller towns like Kyoto and Hakone and even presented challenges in Osaka and Tokyo.
The Kyoto to Hakone bus ride was long and I was tempted not to get off the bus at a rest area to view Mt. Fuji as we’d visit it the next day. Our tour guide urged everyone to seize the opportunity to view and photograph the mountain in case the weather changed. Glad I listened; clouds hid the mountain the remainder of our trip.
Our Hakone seaside ryokan overlooked a sumo wrestler arena. It was also in a tsunami zone. Reminder – don’t post photos with tsunami warning signs until you get home – it freaks parents out.
Kamakura has a Great Buddha statue you can walk in and interesting cultural souvenir shops. The enormous swords fascinated me. Be forewarned – if the Shogun wanna-be in you craves a giant sword you should consider how you’ll get it home. Your parents may complain when you arrive home with a warped, ripped suitcase! Customs isn’t amused either.
Tokyo’s neon lit glass buildings overshadow ancient temples and shrines. Take a Sumada River boat ride; visit Asakusa for mind-blowing entertainment, and people-watch in Harajuku. Explore the subway but have taxi fare in case you get lost. Hungry? Try chankonabe – a delicious traditional stew served to sumo wrestlers. Avoid the wasabi-coated Kit Kat bars.
Bottom line – China and Japan are both awesome – maximize your experiences by being prepared and flexible. Immerse yourself in local culture and leave preconceived expectations at home.
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