All good things…

I have always measured travel not in distance but in time. How long it will take to get there, how long we will stay in a place – these are more meaningful measures to me than kilometres or miles. While I was in Japan for less than a month it has taken me three times that long to sift through my memories and wrap up this series of posts.

I’ve been keeping a list of things I wanted to write about that stood out in my experience of Japan for one reason or another. Quirky, silly things that I loved or found odd enough to be worthy of mention.

One was my massive crush on Japanese cars. I’ve always had a penchant for small cars, driving a Nissan Micra for years, but I’ve never seen anything like these models before. Little breadboxes on wheels, apparently these ‘kei’ cars have their fans.

This make was my favourite:

The technology that the Japanese truly master is the toilet. Reluctant at first to even try to navigate all of the instructions, curiosity got the better of me. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say I have tested the waters and am a convert. I want a Toto!

The Japanese love their brands, from convenience stores to coffee. There is a Lawson Station or 7-Eleven on every corner, usually opposite a Starbucks, Mister Donut, Wendy’s or KFC. Suntory has the corner on the lucrative vending machine market. Plus, clothes shops like Patagonia and the ever-present Disney. It’s a small world after all.

This childlike obsession seems to be a strong influence for women. I was shocked by the fact that feminism in Japan seem to be decades behind the west. The nasal, baby-like voices you constantly hear from women on commercials and recorded announcements. Their often self-effacing behaviour in public. The fact that men still make up the majority of executives in the business world.

I loved how Japan was so full of surprises while simultaneously remaining so true to stereotypes. We saw the famous groups of men in suits getting drunk on a Friday night. The extreme fashion on the streets.

Things I liked less: the overpackaging of everything. Sometimes even a single piece of fruit would be shrink-wrapped for sale. No garbage cans on the street – you just had to carry your rubbish with you. The fact that there was no way to dry your hands in public toilets (although some women seemed to carry a small towel for this purpose).

On our last night in Tokyo, we followed a friend’s directions to their favourite sushi place. It was complicated — the first location had closed, then reopened nearby. It wasn’t on Google maps and the address was nearly impossible to locate. We almost gave up a couple of times until we finally found it, tucked into a corner. Like most restaurants in Japan, it had a plastic model of the food just outside, hardly a sign of high quality for a European. What a surprise! We sat at the counter and watched the two sushi chefs slicing the fish, chopping and rolling their creations. It was all freshly made and truly amazing. We ordered a selection, ate it, then ordered again and again. Then rolled ourselves back to the hotel.

All good things must come to an end, and so it was for this trip.

Perhaps the other time-based measure of travel is how long your memories linger afterwards (I’m tempted to add: along with the extra weight but this is untrue; it was only after I got home and went through the holiday season that I saw the effects on the scale). I have the feeling that Japan will stay with me for a long time. For now, my only destination is Switzerland. We will be moving at the end of May. Not where we initially thought. But not too far either. Fingers crossed it will all fall into place by the end of the week.

Where will you go next?


Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu chain of islands that stretches southwest of Japan to Taiwan. It is famous for a few things, notably the Battle of Okinawa and the continued presence of American military on the island. It is also one of the places in the world with the most centenarians.

One of the reasons may be the volcanic baths known as ‘onsens’. I had wanted to try one of these since we’d arrived in Japan and finally got the chance at the Ryukyu Onsen Ryujin-no-yu. It was as a unique experience as you might imagine, but unfortunately you’ll have to settle for my memory of it: no cameras are (understandably) allowed inside. Interestingly, you also cannot enter an onsen in Japan if you have a tattoo, apparently for their association with the Yakuza.

The baths are separated into male and female sections, and in order to enter you must first undress and deposit all of your things in a locker, entering the bath area with only a small privacy towel. The experience of being stark naked amongst strangers, even of the same sex, and not speaking a word of the language, was a little weird. But I followed my usual strategy of mirroring others. At first I couldn’t find the main showering area and was about to just use the outdoor shower before a woman, who may have been a centenarian herself, began shouting and gesticulating wildly to show me where it was. There was a dedicated space with a long row of sinks with buckets, shower handles and low wooden stools at which to sit while performing ablutions. Soaps and shampoo were provided. Then you used your little towel to dry off before heading into the baths. Many people put their towels on their heads while in the baths. The water was hot and steamy, salty but not unpleasantly so. There were several different pools, some looking out to sea, and best of all, the ‘flower pot’ baths shown here in the official hotel photo.

This onsen was part of a hotel and if I had it to do again, I might consider staying there. Our plan, however, was to live like locals for a week (or at least like privileged ones).

After landing in the prefecture’s capital Naha, we rented a car. Not only did that mean left-side driving, a switch for us, but also navigating some very narrow streets. I use the royal ‘we’ here but what I really mean is that I was the passenger. Driving is challenging enough for me without having to flip my brain around.

The highways are all well maintained and clearly signed. But, like everywhere in Japan, once we got off the main roads, finding things was a challenge. The car’s built-in GPS wasn’t very helpful, so we once again we relied on Google maps. On a number of occasions, technology told us we had reached our destination. Our eyes told us otherwise.

Arriving at our rental in the Yaese district near Minatogawa fishing port, on the southeast tip of the island, the GPS told us to drive down this ‘street’. An elderly man came out of his house and stood there watching us, shaking his head, so we turned around. Despite the owner’s detailed directions, we ended up parking the car and walking around to confirm the address by comparing it to the photo.

Our sweet rental cottage

We removed our shoes and enjoyed the simple beauty of the traditional living space with its tatami mats, low tables and futons for sleeping. Everything appeared to be handcrafted from wood.

The cottage was located in a residential area, which while not the most beautiful of neighbourhoods, was just a short walk to the sea. We soon realized just how close we were to sea level.

One of the oddest things were the loudspeaker announcements we heard each day at 7:00 a.m. and again in the evening around 6 pm. At first I thought I was dreaming, or that it was just a passing carnival. But after a few days, I googled it and discovered that the local PA system is indeed a ‘thing’ in Okinawa and other remote rural regions in Japan. It is called ‘housou’. The childlike female voice and the Disney music somehow typify my experience of Japanese culture.

Over next few days, we explored the beaches and the peace memorial park, then ventured further afield. We drove to the Forest of Horohoro and walked down steps through vine-covered trees to the beach. It was warm enough that braver souls might have gone swimming, but I settled for just getting my toes into the East China Sea.

One day we drove to Naha and walked through the bustling centre and Makishi public market. It is a busy urban area filled with shops and bright lights, yet like most cities in tropical places everything feels a little ramshackle.

Along the way we stopped for lunch at a most memorable restaurant. After waiting in the queue, you select your food from a little machine that looks like an old-fashioned juke box, then pay for it in advance. Then you area seated, almost like a normal restaurant. Unfortunately the menu items were only in Japanese, and our strategy of guestimating the choices backfired when we discovered we had only ordered toppings without the basic noodle dish which was their specialty. Fortunately, the wait staff were tolerant of our tourist ways and kindly helped us add the missing main course.

Okinawan signature soba noodles served with pork
Orion, the local beer, is light and crisp.

The furthest north we drove was to Onna, where we took in the stunning views of Cape Manzamo with its famous rock.

I was surprised to learn that Okinawa main island, or Okinawa Honto, is not as far south as you can go in Japan. The southernmost border, as I discovered reading the excellent novel, The Finder by Will Ferguson, is called Hateruma. We only ventured as far as the main island but if I ever find myself in that part of the world again, I would love to explore all of these amazing islands.

Cape Manzano


Confession time: I am that tourist. The one who goes to a famous place and comes away without seeing its most famous sites.

“What did you think of the cathedral?” It was early in my time in France, and we had just returned from a trip to Rouen.

“What cathedral?” I asked. Given the head shaking that went on after this display of ignorance, I knew I’d missed something major.

Later I looked it up and learned that Notre-Dame in Rouen is famed for being the tallest cathedral in France, for its three towers, each in different styles, and for having been captured in a series of 30 paintings by Monet.

I have no idea how we missed it. Likely we were too busy arguing over where to eat lunch, or looking for a working toilet.

But there was no way we were going to leave Japan without visiting the A-bomb Dome and Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima. My husband, who is far better versed in current events and recent history than I, was keen to visit the site that commemorates the destruction of a single act of nuclear warfare. And I must admit to a certain curiosity: what would the city so famous for that tragedy be like today?

The museum was everything you might imagine it to be. An imposing space with curated stories of so many lives lost and touched by the bomb, impressively documented with photographs, clothing, remnants of everyday life. It was dark, both literally and figuratively. And as someone with an overactive imagination, not to mention a fear of enclosed spaces, I was uncomfortable. The suffering of fellow humans, no matter how historically significant, makes me want to flee.

Outside, I watched a group of schoolchildren visiting the site. I wondered how it was for them, as young Japanese, whether they felt touched by the events of the past. Or if, as for children around the world, the tragedies of previous generations are too long ago and far away to seem relevant.

This monument in Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park is dedicated to the students whose lives were lost in the bombing.

As for Hiroshima today, it is a modern city much like others in Japan. But it has a bit of a vibe, and a popular street-food culture. Which we enjoyed sampling for lunch. Like okonomiyaki, a delicious pancake of cabbage, noodles and oysters prepared and eaten directly off the grill.

For our two nights in Hiroshima before flying out to Okinawa, we stayed in a grand old lady of a hotel next to the main station. It was somewhat impersonal, as big hotels often are, but a welcome break after our previous nights in traditional Japanese accommodation. There was a breakfast buffet at the main restaurant, called ‘Dish Parade’, and the star of the place was this cute little cat robot. The robot acted as a busboy, moving slowly up and down the aisles with blinking eyes and friendly music as people put their empty trays on it. Until it became so overloaded it went into sleep mode and someone came to clear the dishes and reboot it.

I loved watching this funny little robot, and the way people interacted with it. To me it somehow captured all the contradictions of Japan, from intensely modern to heart-warmingly human.

What kind of tourist are you?


The next leg of our trip offered some of what were, for me, the most memorable moments of our time in Japan – some of which were unexpected.

We took the bullet train from Kyoto to Okayama, where we stopped for lunch at a little Italian place by the station. Full disclosure: at that point, as much as I love fish, I was ready to sell my soul for anything but. I don’t remember what we ate exactly, but it was delightfully fish-free!

Our plan was to get a bus from the train station to Uno Port, where we would catch the ferry to Naoshima. The complexity came in finding where to get the right bus. A first attempt failed, at which point I got a little stroppy and insisted my Google app knew better than my husband’s. It then led us down a ramp to an underground bicycle parking garage. Stefan immediately saw my mistake and high-tailed it, chuckling demonically at my navigating skills, while a very nice man in a uniform helped me lug my heavy suitcase back up the bicycle ramp.

On the bus…

We finally got on a bus going the right way and managed to determine that it would indeed take us to the ferry port, a fact that was confirmed by the announcements in both Japanese and English. Still, every now and then Stefan got up to check we hadn’t missed our stop with the driver, a fact which did not go unnoticed by the locals. As we approached the ferry port, it made me smile when several Japanese passengers got up to tell us it was time to get off.

The short ferry ride took us to Naoshima’s Miyanoura port. The little island on the Seto Inland Sea is known for its iconic pumpkin which some clever marketing people have used to brand everything. A quick shout-out to fellow blogger and journalist Colin Bisset, who made the brilliant suggestion we include the art island on our tour.

On our first evening, whether due to local custom or the fact that it was near the end of the season, very few restaurants were open for dinner. It was raining as we ventured out to a place described on Google maps as an izakaya (pub-style restaurant). This appealed as we had spent the weeks before our trip watching – and loving — Midnight Diner.

Pushing open the door, we entered a run-down looking place with a few dilapidated stools around the bar. Behind it was a lone man, cigarette dangling from his lips as he worked over the grill. I hesitated, wondering if we were quite ready for something this, well, local. But we took the leap. He brought us beer and a simple menu. A few minutes later, a man entered the bar, looking at us in surprise as he chatted to the chef/owner. Then three older women came in, followed by a young guy. Everyone seemed to know each other and they all seemed rather curious about us. Then the man, apparently the official emissary of the other customers, asked us a few questions: where were we from, etc. After a little hemming and hawing, he asked us if we would mind changing seats and sitting on the other side of the bar; it seemed that we were sitting on their ‘regular’ stools. It broke the ice. We found ourselves sitting next to the young guy, who spoke enough English that we were able to have a conversation. In the meantime, while we were waiting for our food, several tourists entered and were turned away. It seemed that the policy of the place was to take just a few guests and no more. Just as well, given that the old guy was on his own and took the time to prepare everything from scratch on a small cutting board.

When the food came, it was delicious. Well worth the wait, cigarette smoke aside, and insanely cheap. Overall, a unique experience and what felt like a slice of local life.

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped by this sculpture beautifully lit up for night.

The next day saw us checking out the island’s main art museum, Benesse House. It was a fascinating place both for the architecture and the pieces displayed — modern and monumental.

Before we took the ferry out that afternoon, we stopped for some edible art. Oddly enough, the little patisserie was a one-woman-show of its own, run by a pastry chef who had trained in…Lyon. And yes, the chocolate cake tasted just as good as it looked!

Next stop: Hiroshima


I’ve been revisiting some of my most memorable moments from our trip to Japan. Of all the shrines and temples, perhaps the one that most captured my imagination was Otagi-Nembutsuji and the nearby bamboo forests.

Like most places in this land of contrasts, getting there is half the fun – that is, if you like solving puzzles! Travelling in Japan made me realize just how heavily we have to come to rely on technology to get around. Whether due to the the complexity of the geography, the dense urban nature of the country or perhaps the language, Google maps was not to be relied upon. In many instances it got you to the approximate location, but something almost always got lost in translation. We got very good at wandering around until one of us figured it out. And in many cases, kind local people came to our rescue. Between their bits of English and Stefan’s limited Japanese, we were never stuck for long. To visit the Otagi-Nembutsuji temple, we took the train to Saga-Arashayima station, then tried to get there by bus but failed. In the end we gave up and took a taxi. Thankfully cabs in Japan are cheap and readily available.

This Buddhist temple has a fascinating history dating back to 766 but has been ruined by natural disasters and rebuilt multiple times. For me the attraction was the moss-covered statuary adorning the hillsides.

The hundreds of comical characters are so expressive, and the way they have become part of nature is a call to meditation itself.

We walked down to the village and took a short hike through the Arashiyama bamboo forest. Peace and serenity lurk among those rows of trees perhaps more than in any religious site.

After our walk we found a little café for lunch. In another amusing cultural contrast, the very traditional place had a poster of Saturday Night Fever with a little shrine to Olivia Newton John behind the bar.

To each his own religion, n’est-ce pas?