Part 3 of 3
Travel is about unlearning the things you think you know. One month back from our family bike tour in Japan, what sticks with me is what I didn’t expect … what I didn’t know.
If you glance at a map, Japan looks like a single island. In person, it’s a land filled with bridges and islands — five main islands, over 14 thousand islands total! Moving from Kobe around to Tokyo, we were traveling over or under beautiful bridges multiple times a day.
Definitely a place of the sea, seafood was a mainstay, even at breakfast. My favorite became Takoyaki, a little bitty puff of pastry with octopus in it, dressed with a drizzle of sauce and bonito (fish) flakes. A far cry from the vanilla protein shakes I have at home! They also had large swaths of agriculture, and after riding through orchards we ended up at a tangerine store, selling all manner of tangerine products, in the middle of a bike trail. A tangerine soda hit the spot mid-ride one day.
7-Elevens in the U.S. are, to me, road-trip packaged junk food stops. In Japan they are home to the best sushi I’ve had in my life. Trays of beautiful mackerel, tuna-stuffed rice, and packets of fish eggs can be had for under $5, complete with chopsticks, wasabi, soy sauce and ginger. We were informed any sushi in Japan must be prepared by a certified sushi chef, and it showed. The lack of fast-casual restaurants on our routes made 7-Eleven or the similar Lawson or Family Mart a favorite lunch stop. Ever gone to a swanky cafe for tea sandwiches? They have better ones in Japan, at 7-Eleven.
Speaking of tea, if you need a beverage, you can find it in a vending machine. Where? In a field. Next to a mechanic shop. In a residential driveway next to a remote lake. At a trail lined with Buddhas? Yes indeed.
For a country that is known for technological achievements, I rarely saw anyone on their phone. In fact, signs and announcements pointed out it was rude to disturb others with your phone conversations. The entire country, seemingly, was polite, kind, calm, organized and diligent.
An airplane gate agent dutifully scrolled through a rule book and decided that we actually didn’t owe any extra fees for our ridiculously giant bike cases. It was part of a campaign, she said. We didn’t quite understand but were happy she proactively looked it up after we were initially told to pay $600. No stress and no complaining to a manager was needed. She just smiled and said, “sorry for the delay.”
The airport had signs thanking us for visiting. Shops thanked us for coming. One port gave us each tea towels with their town logo, just for stopping by.
The safety was amazing. A nice bike will be swiped in under 10 minutes in Santa Monica, but hundreds of us left fancy bikes unlocked for hours as we wandered temples and waterfalls. I didn’t see anyone use a bike lock, ever.
The infrastructure was pristine, from the shiny bullet train to spiffy suspension bridges to tree-top-high tsunami walls topped with bike paths. In a metro area three times the size of Los Angeles, the Tokyo international airport car traffic was so light, people rode their bikes right to the terminal. The airport was gorgeous, with an entire life-size wooden bridge, quaint shopping area, and observation deck inside. Conversely, when we arrived at LAX the aesthetic reminded me of a prison.
Landing in a foreign country, stressed after hearing all the news of travel meltdowns and COVID quarantine horrors, we were greeted by … cartoons. The U.S. favors bright warning signs filled with screaming exclamation points. In Japan, you are reminded not to stick your fingers in the elevator doors with a cute little cartoon face saying “Owie!”
The land of tech, of seriousness and rule followers also was the land of perky cartoons, fluffy town mascots and comics known as manga. I was compelled to buy some Nintendo Kirby Post-It notes for adults that say, for reasons unbeknownst to me, “Pink, puffy, powerful, in a happy mood.”
My daughter bought a lucky cat figurine that now waves its paw 24-7 in her bedroom. Not the highbrow tourist treasures I anticipated, but, in the end, wholeheartedly Japanese.
Like all good trips, two weeks in Japan taught us to unlearn what we thought we knew.
Maria Gutzeit is a chemical engineer, business owner, water agency official, and mom living in Santa Clarita.