The story of our Japan travel blog started back three years ago when we decided to take an impromptu trip to Japan. Like many of you, we heard stories of Japan which further fueled our desire to see this incredible country for ourselves. I don't quite know when the Japan story truly started. It might have been during my childhood when I watched Sailor Moon and day-dreamed of becoming a heroine. Or it might have been during my teenage years when I read about the Japanese tea ceremony and ancient traditions. Perhaps the story planted its roots when I tried my very first sushi, or when my beloved husband decorated our house with pictures of Japan. We would eat lunch and watch a picture of Mount Fuji. We would make up stories of how Fuji must really look like... and then, one day, we made it. We took that plane and 18 hours later, we arrived in Tokyo for our trip to Japan. And what happened next, changed the course of our entire life and entire career.
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Arriving in Tokyo
We travelled quite a bit prior to our first trip to Japan. We knew how to prepare for a long haul and the items we needed to order in advance. For example, during our Japan itinerary, we knew we needed to order a data sim card. We ordered a sim card prior to our arrival. There are many companies which do that nowadays. Order your data sim card to your hotel because, as we later learned, you really need the internet to be able to navigate around Tokyo. To make travelling easy, make sure you can a Suica Card from any subway station. Simply go to one of the IC machines, click the button which says "English" and follow the instructions to get your IC card. You need a small deposit for the card, but when you leave the country, you can return the card and get your deposit back. You can do so at any metro station, even when you get off at the airport.
But our arrival in Tokyo has also a personal story. The story of the couple who became bewitched by Japan. It was love at first sight. I can't even begin to explain what we felt the moment we got to Japan. It was like an experience which cannot be put into words. You know how they say that when you find your true love, you just know it deep down? It's the same with Japan. It's a unique experience which you will feel right to the core. It's like an electric infatuation which sooner than you think, will translate to obsession.
It all started with what others might call a banal subway journey. From Haneda towards the Tokyo Main Station. If I wouldn't know better, I'd say that the doors to the monorail train, represent the gateway to another dimension. Believe you me, the world as you know it will be left behind; and you, my friend, will pass the portal to the most thrilling experience of your lifetime.
This was no ordinary ride as if we somehow entered Murakami’s 1Q84. Through the veil of tiredness, we were partaking in one of the most vivid, lucid dreams we’ve ever experienced. The speedy train took us above and beyond several multilayered roads and expressways. The carriage was almost entirely empty, except for a couple of Japanese people, dressed in suits, marvelling at their phones. Salarymen going home from a long day at the office, I thought to myself. We looked through the window, just to see a sea of skyscrapers, multicoloured streets and establishments. We were part of the city, we could see our future unfolding right in front of our eyes, as Tokyo seemed the perfect metaphor for a great sci-fi movie.
The journey continued out of the subway and through the Tokyo station, a multistory shopping mall which also served the purpose of a train station. The bright lights, sexy adverts and the sheer amount of eateries dotted all throughout this impressive building gave me the reassurance we needed, that we were not dreaming, but experiencing the most phenomenal journey of our lives.
It was close to 11 pm by the time we managed to find the exit out of the Tokyo Station. It was cold and dark, yet we’ve never in our lives felt more serene about a new cityscape. We were now standing in front of those gigantic skyscrapers we were eagerly admiring earlier from the moving monorail. We looked up and marvelled at these buildings, the perfect futuristic architecture which made us feel small, made us feel human. What struck us most about Tokyo, was this perfect silence all around us, despite the central location. It wasn’t the eerie type of quiet, as there were cars and people on the streets, but we were surrounded by a deep silence. And so, we quietly began our walk towards the hotel.
This was no dream, we were not two lost characters in one of Murakami’s books. This was the beginning of the most memorable adventure in the greatest city on Earth. This was our journey of self-discovery, through which we became the travellers defined by “everything after Tokyo”.
The Unexpected Flu
Here we were, in Tokyo, Japan: the world's greatest city. We knew close to nothing about Japan, except for a few videos on YouTube. You see, back a few years ago there were almost no Japan travel blogs. We were one of the first ones to write about it in such detail. Nowadays, we have hundreds of Japan blog posts here on You Could Travel. And it took us many months of visiting and living in Japan, to accumulate all the information.
During the first trip, we were relatively unprepared. But we were very much excited about all that popular Japanese food, so we went straight to the Tsukiji Market. It was also that morning when we realised that not many Japanese speak English. Nevertheless, we went around the market first thing in the morning, pointing at all sort of food items our eyes desired. From rolled omelettes with roe, through bowls of rice topped with sashimi, to grilled squid with sticky soy sauce. Of course, nowadays we travel vegan, so food in Japan has a different meaning.
From Tsukiji Market, we went to Asakusa, to the famed Senso-Ji. It was the most exciting experience, to finally see a Buddhist Temple in Japan. We learned about omikuji and wooden ema plaques, spiritual beliefs and enchanting rituals. To fully immerse myself in the Japanese traditions I've read so much about, I drew my own omikuji. Coincidentally, it was about the time when my legs started feeling weak and my body quivered. From the vibrant colours of Tokyo, I was left seeing a haze of hues and shades of orange. My temperature was rising and I was feeling suddenly defeated. If Harry Potter's dementors were real, I was being under one's spell with no magical powers to fight back. We ditched our plans and decided to head back to the hotel but not before stopping at the pharmacy to get some medicine.
Tomod's: that's the first shop name that comes to mind when I think of Tokyo. That was the drug store we first went to. The staff spoke no English, but we were determined to translate our issues. A manager was called and he took a magical booklet from the drawer: a list of symptoms which were in both English and Japanese. Ingenious! We were pointing at all the symptoms in English, he would see them in Japanese right away. We got our medicine but not before being told how to take it, in Japanese.
With help from Google Translate, we figured out how to take the medicine. We borrowed a thermometer from the hotel's reception (because pretty much all Japanese hotels have one) and realised I had 39°C fever and going up. I took my pills and, 10 minutes later, I fell asleep in our hotel room, only to wake up the next morning, about 16 hours later. It was also the night during which I experienced dreaming as delirium. Morning came and my fever was showing signs of defeat. Or so I'd like to believe, as I wasn't going to allow the flu to stand in the way of my first Japan experience. I dressed up well, bought a thermometer of my own, topped up on medicine and caffeine, got a face mask and embarked on a courageous journey around Tokyo. Despite the fact that it was December, with crisp mornings and freezing days, I was melting away in my own bubble of psychedelic illness. But who cares, when you are finally in the country of your dreams. And so, we began our first 7 days in Tokyo.
As already mentioned, we knew close to nothing about how to behave in Japan. Everything unusual we saw around us, we googled. "Why do Japanese people wear face masks"? That was a good one, as I immediately learned I need a mask of my own given I was walking around ill. "Why do Japanese people wear suits", "Why is Japan so quiet", "Why are there no bins in Japan"... and the list can continue forever. Our Japan experience reminded us of how it's like to learn everything as a child: from scratch. Forget any manners you ever learned and look around you, imitate, integrate, conform. If we were to define Japan in one single word, it would probably be: respect.
For those of you who may wonder, Japan doesn't have any bins because people are expected to carry their own rubbish with them, back home. So be mindful of that when you travel around Japan. Bring a day bag with you. In Japan, eating or drinking on the street is considered dirty, so you may only do so in designated areas. People respect the queuing system and one another. People are mindful to not invade personal space. When you pay in a shop, put your cash in the tray provided and not in the seller's hands. Respect the signs everywhere and if in doubt, either ask or sit back a little and observe what locals do in that situation.
We didn't know it at the time, but because of our myriad questions about Japanese manners and customs, we started laying the foundation of our Japan travel blog. What if we were to collect all these questions, all this information about Japan and write it all down for other first time travellers? Little we knew that such innocent thought, led to the creation of You Could Travel, a website with now over 160k monthly readers.
Food in Japan
Food in Japan comes in all shapes, sizes and colours. But there is one thing you won't find in Japan: bad food. People from all corners of this world celebrate emotions through food. People come together to cook, eat and share stories but Japan is the only place in the world where the art of creating good food, simply runs through people's veins. Like many others, we initially thought sushi is the representative food in Japan. But that's as far from reality as it gets. The true soul food of Japan is the mighty ramen: a kombu based broth with noodles and vegetable topping. There's a ramen bar at every corner and there is something truly authentic about sitting down in what it looks like someone's kitchen, slurping noddles from a hot broth. Suddenly, you become an expert in using chopsticks, a skill you never even thought you possess.
But travelling in pursuit of food takes an entirely different meaning when you are in Japan. With more restaurants per capita than every other place on Earth, it's seen to see why eating in Japan can be classed as a sport. Ironically, the Japanese are the skinniest (healthy) nation I've ever seen. And we were on a mission to discover their secret. The secret unravelled itself after our first 7 days in Japan. The food portions are small yet surprisingly satisfying and more than enough to keep your hunger at bay... at least for the next 2-3 hours. The trick to eating in Japan is to enjoy small portions and often. Your body can easily process the food and allow you to eat as much as it is needed, rather than follow the overly large 3 meals a day Western diet. Furthermore, in Japan, vegetables are king and not meat or seafood, unlike all dishes in the Western world. A nifty trick to eating a lot yet keeping skinny and healthy.
We tried more restaurants in Tokyo than we could possibly remember. We never had bad service or bad food. We loved freshly prepared sushi, the incredible kaiseki during our weekend in Nikko, the delicious Kyoto food we still dream about and the milk ramen we had during our visit to the Himeji castle.
Don't even think about visiting Japan and not trying the street food in Tokyo or not enjoying a Tokyo pub crawl where you ought to try some of the most interesting retro beverages or the world-renowned sakes.
Accommodation in Japan
Throughout the years we went back to Japan on numerous occasions. We wanted to discover where to stay in Tokyo, where to stay in Kyoto and where to stay in Osaka. Furthermore, we wanted to discover how it's like to be in a business hotel versus a luxury accommodation. We stayed in ryokans on top of the mountain and indulged in the sweetest Japanese onsen experience. Every time we'd visit Japan, we would discover a new side of the country. Japan for soft adventure lovers, Japan for foodies, Japan for luxury seekers and Japan as the ultimate wellness destination. Like a shape-shifter, this country moulds to your requirements and desire. In fact, in the parallel universes of Japan, quite everything is possible: decadent Akihabara for those who seek adult entertainment in Japan, kawaii sweetness in Harajuku for those who still believe in fairy tales, beguiling Shinjuku with its deceiving innocent establishments.
From love hotels, through capsule hotels to luxury ryokans, Japan has alluring options for every curious mind. And since curiosity is the main drive behind each traveller's action, it's the esoteric, most bewildering attractions, which make Japan the most puzzling destinations of them all.
Our engagement in Japan
It was an ordinary day in September when we were eating lunch in front of our Mount Fuji poster. "Will we ever get there, do you reckon?" I ask with yearning eyes. "Well, if we ever do, we shall get married on top of that mountain", my now husband replied in such a ludic manner.
On the 19th of December 2015, we took a day trip from Kyoto to the nearby Mount Hiei. A rather off the beaten path attraction, we took a chance to hike in nature, and get to see incredible views of Lake Biwa from atop. We didn't say much, we hugged, being content with our hiking achievements. Although winter in Japan, the weather was pleasant, and Mount Hiei smelled of fresh moss and late Autumn evenings. As much as we loved the vibe of Tokyo, it was there, on top of the mountain where we were both in our most natural element. And I couldn't have picked a better place for a proposal. Unlike many planned proposals, ours was spontaneous. An impulsive act of love as a result of two wonderful years of deep feelings, friendship and understanding. And since we were in the best country in the world, we decided to hunt for engagement rings upon our return to Tokyo.
Our search for engagement rings in Tokyo was brief, more so than we imagined. We, of course, tried shopping in Ginza but to no avail. Rumour has it, there is this place close to Shinjuku, a jewellery quarter where you can hunt for the best diamond and precious metal deals. And so, we embarked on a new adventure, this time in pursuit of a new challenge: finding a well-priced diamond ring in Tokyo. I don't know if karma exists, or if it's the continuous positive mental attitude of the curious mind, but either way, the universe has a way of working things out. And during our search for a ring, in a completely foreign country where people don't speak English, we found a way to achieve our goal.
A narrow street lined with jewellery shops, leading to another street of diamond sellers. We found ourselves in a maze of interconnected paths, a complex arrangement of shops which displayed nothing but a source of confusion. Yet fate or opportune coincidences do happen, because out of the ocean of possibilities, we found the one pebble of hope: the perfect shop, with an English speaking manager who carefully guided us through the process of making one of the most important purchases to date. One day later, G. kneeled and proposed to me yet again, this time in the midst of Tokyo's agitation. And I, promptly, said yes.
Our Japan Travel Blog
Steve Jobs once said "You cannot connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect the dots looking backwards". And looking back we still get those exhilarating chills that our life itinerary, somehow, led to the creation of our very own Japan travel blog. Even when life makes sense, it's almost impossible to not fall for the most basic sceptical question: what if? What if I never picked up those books about Japan when I was young? What if I never watched those Japanese series? What if we never put up those posters of Japan in our house? What if we never visited Japan back then? Our life would have been completely different. We would have never created the foundation of our travelling careers and perhaps our Japan travel blog would have never existed.
On the last day of our first Japan trip, we sat there in the Haneda airport lounge, waiting for our plane back to the UK. From our elevated dopamine-induced trip, we were back in the present, where life was ordinary and Japan was the only extraordinary travel destination which made sense. It was the first and only time we ever cried before leaving a place. Upon return, the fresh and crisp air of rain welcomed us back home. Bristol was as grey and green as ever, a contrast of colours which defines the irony of England. With heavy hearts, we settled back into our normal routine. It was March 2016 and we still didn't quite get over our Japan trip. We would spend hours talking about adventures and looking at our pictures: the window through that different dimension which never quite became a distant memory. But inevitably, the intensity of some of our memories started to fade away. Like any addict, we needed a way to cling to those feelings, and so I did what anyone in my peculiar position would do: I started writing everything down. I wanted to tell the world our story, the story of how Japan is the most enigmatic, yet seductive travelling destination of them all. And against all odds, the world heard me and people started responding. The beginning of April 2016 was the month when our Japan travel blog was finally born.
What happened after is a story for another time. After myriad visits to Japan, we still trying to find a way to permanently move there. Beyond our wildest imaginations, You Could Travel became a main source of income, as well as a full-time job for both of us. That portal to another dimension which unravelled itself on the Haneda platform back in 2015, was, in fact, a new door to a new path of irresistible opportunities. And that first step we took into a mysterious new world, which enthralled our senses forever, was the step we took into a new realm of endless travelling possibilities. And so, our true story began.