I spent half of September in Japan with my family. My oldest son, Hayden, and his wife, Taylor, have already been living there for a year and a half. Hayden is stationed at the Yakota Air Force base, which is an hour and a half train ride from Tokyo. He is about halfway through his service there and is hoping to get stationed in Germany next.
The best part of the trip was having the entire family together: my wife, my 4 kids, Taylor, and my daughter Kayla’s long-time boyfriend, Will. When I sold my first business in 2001, the kids ranged from 4 to 10 years old and we spent three and a half months in Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia together. For 105 days in a 19-foot motorhome we were literally never apart. That will forever be one of our favorite memories. Although Dexter, who was 4 at the time, is still mad that we didn’t wait until he was older so he could remember more.
This trip to Japan felt similar since we were all traveling together again, but now my kids range from 21 to 27 years old. Wow do things change in 17 years! The kids tell us where to go, how to get there, this is the restaurant we need to go to, here is where we found parking, this way to Metro, this place is rated the best for curry or ramen, etc. It was also very nice to have Hayden and Taylor be familiar with Japan because being in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language can be a little overwhelming at times.
So how does a group of 8 tall Americans get around in a country made for people who are generally smaller than us, both in physical size and family size? We ended up renting not one, but two large vans to see the Yakota Air Force base, Kyoto, Tottori (a little beach town on the west coast of the Sea of Japan), Hiroshima, Osaka, and Shirako (a little beach town on the east coast of the Pacific). We traveled over 1,400 miles, which included some very expensive toll roads. Our vans (rented from the Air Force base) cost $1,360, including the cost for the tolls. If we had to pay for the tolls separately, they would have cost about the same amount as we rented the vans for. The Japanese drive on the left side of the road and the streets were tiny, but it was easy to get used to, especially since the traffic was so organized.
It wasn’t just the roads that were tiny. Everything seemed shrunken in size, almost like Alice in Wonderland. We ate at one restaurant that gave us water cups the size of shot glasses. Every time we took our single sip of water, which drained the whole cup, the waitress would come back and take all our used glasses away and replace them with new ones. We wondered how big of a dishwasher they must have for all those mini glasses! Many of the restaurants were just not built for serving a lot of people. We walked into a tiny local curry restaurant with exactly 8 seats, just enough for our group. The owner took one look at our large group and her eyes widened. She signaled for us to wait, and we swear she went to go check her fridge and see if she had enough food for us! (She did, and that curry was delicious.)
Everyone we met was very humble and polite, and it was an extremely clean country with some different expectations for social behavior. Hayden and Taylor informed us that it is rude to walk and eat or drink at the same time. As Americans, we didn’t realize how often we actually do this! We have such an on-the-go mentality, it was hard to not buy a matcha green tea and then walk with it to see all the beautiful temples.
For not being an eat-on-the-go society, they sure have a lot of vending machines in Japan! There are vending machines with coffee, sodas, water, green tea, and sometimes beer or cigarettes. The vending machines are everywhere! There are multiple vending machines on every block and some even sitting in people’s driveways. Here is some interesting trivia: There are 5.5 million vending machines in Japan. Japan has a population of 126 million so that is one vending machine per 23 people. In the U.S. there are 4.5 million vending machines, so with a population of 350 million that is one machine per 78 people. What I find even more amazing is that Will looked up those stats on his phone in about 60 seconds. Things really have changed in the last 20 years!
I don’t think of myself as “old,” but I sure pulled the age card when it came to the sleeping arrangements in Japan. The kids had to sleep on the ground in most places we visited. There was usually one bed and then 6 pairs of sleeping pads or mini mattresses, blankets, and pillows laid out on the floor. It wouldn’t have been so bad if the pillows were normal pillows, but oftentimes our pillows were filled with uncooked rice! We even stayed in the “Beehive,” one of the famous “capsule” hotels, which is where every person has their own pod to sleep in (like in a beehive!). It was interesting in theory, but not really that comfortable in practice. The Japanese also tend to use public baths instead of private showers. These are called ansen and the kids enjoyed checking them out.
There was no end to our fascination with the Japanese-to-English translations. We saw a nice hotel called the “Blue Lozenge” (do you arrive or leave sick?) and numerous very expensive, neon signs for businesses that clearly had not asked anyone else if the translation or spelling was correct before shelling out cash for them. A crepe shop had a well-lit sign above their door that read “Crape Shop.” Hmm yum. Now that you know it takes little to make my family laugh and smile, you won’t be surprised to hear that this little jewel of a sign we saw at a rest stop really made us giggle:
Traveling with the family is always fun and packed with jokes, but our time in Hiroshima was very emotional. I won’t get into all the details here, but I am glad we went. It’s a beautiful city and being there brought some of the history home for me. We live in a terrific time no matter how much you love or hate Trump, Bernie, or my awesome Dodgers or Cowboys. It is a fantastic time to be alive. We have come a long way from the horrors that the world went through in WWII and we have a lot to be grateful for. Thank you to all who have served and given the ultimate sacrifice so it is even possible for us to enjoy a trip to Japan in peace.