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Impressions of Japan, 5 days in Tokyo and Kyoto

Spent a very quick 5 days exploring Tokyo and Kyoto Japan in  January 2023.

Even though the visit was short, it left a lasting impression.

When Yvonne and I are traveling, I am often rather disapproving of things. I am constantly grumbling that “The world is full of bad design” specifically designs that do not function properly.

Hotels are a prime example of poorly thought out and shoddily implemented design.

We have stayed in hotel rooms where:

  • Things just don’t fit,  
  • Toilet roll dispensers are located in either awkward locations or completely out of reach
  • Showers disperse water everywhere it is not needed, like on toilet roll dispensers
  • Doors that interfere with each other
  • Hidden power outlets – who wants to move the bed to charge the computer?
  • No power outlets
  • Mystery light switches or ones that are completely missing
  • Paper thin walls or even better yet paper-thin ceilings,  
  • Pain in the ass permanent clothes hangers or no hangers at all
  • Appliances that light up the room, defeating the purpose of black out shades
  • Complicated shower controls
  • No mirrors, or too many in all the wrong places
  • Phones near the toilet “Hey there, calling because I was just thinking of you”
  • Lack of bathroom counter space
  • No bed side tables
  • No kettle, no storage space, nor any working space.

That is just the hotel room, never mind venturing out into the streets. I thought this was the same everywhere on the globe to varying degrees.

That is until I visited Japan

Tokyo in particular, is a crowded place and every square inch of space is valuable.

Our hotel rooms in both Tokyo and Kyoto were relatively small, however; they were extremely well laid out and well designed.

We had the luxury of-

  • Heated bathroom mirrors that did not fog up when showering   
  • Strategically placed hooks, hangers, and mini shelves
  • Complementary umbrellas
  • An extremely efficient use of space
  • Very well placed, well designed furniture
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The smartest has to be the complementary coffee pouches which when opened up reveal a very clever design. I would describe them as individual, origami, hanging ear, drip filter, coffee gizmos.

Pull out the cardboard wings open up the top, set it over your cup, add water ta da. Your very own drip coffee!

These are just details that made me go wow! Not only has someone put a lot of thought into this, but the design was also implemented with good results.  

Then there are the ‘Japanese super toilets’ – a marvel of advanced Japanese engineering.

They come complete with a control panel, sometimes two, plus heated seats with a timer to apply warmth exactly when needed, seat covers that automatically actuate. They also have both posterior and front wash sprays, with options for soapy water, there are controls to adjust both water temperature and pressure, and self-cleaning systems.

Once you step outside of the hotel with your pampered posterior there are other welcome surprises.

Taxis have doors that open and close by themselves automagically.

It’s pedestrian friendly

You can walk the streets without worrying about being run over or mauled by traffic noise.

Tokyo is built for humans not exclusively for automobiles. People here walk, cycle, or use public transportation. Amazing considering Tokyo is the world’s largest city with over 37 million inhabitants.

The Japanese have focused on building rail infrastructure rather than roads and catering to cars. Rather ironic in one of the top automobile producing countries.

The Japanese public transportation is well designed, efficient and well executed.

Train performance metrics are said to be measured in seconds.

The trains and busses are easy to use, even if you do not understand Japanese.

The Japanese people

What I also found interesting about Japan is how respectful the people are.

  • Traffic actually stops for pedestrians
  • People are generally helpful if you are looking lost
  • They bow to show respect, the conductor on the Shinkansen train would bow before entering and exiting a car
  • The place is very clean
  • No garbage
  • No graffiti
  • No vandalism
  • No one being disrespectful and mouthing off to strangers

My understanding is Japanese Shinto promotes respect for the environment, respect for others, the community, for the young and the old. The results are extremely obvious.

There is always a darker side in this dualistic world

A friend, an expat from New Zealand, who has lived in Japan for decades, says that many Japanese are over stressed. She mentioned sometimes when a train line is down for maintenance – it is a euphemism for when someone has decided to off themselves, ending it all by chucking themselves on the rail line in front of a moving train.

Japanese use the term “jinshin jiko”, or “human accident,” to describe these suicides – this term is displayed on the status monitors but also refers to non-fatal human train interactions.

In 2022 it is said there were over 500 train related suicides.

Maybe not as honorable as seppuku. Possibly a downside of extreme social obligation, or maybe due to broken hearts or broken bank accounts (for love or money)
After that conversation I understood the reason for the physical barriers on the train platforms.

The Shinkansen Bullet Train

Riding the high-speed Shinkansen train was on the bucket list.

We decided to hop the train for a return trip from Tokyo to Kyoto and we were not disappointed with the experience .

This is one fast train. We got up to 287 km/h (179 mph in spots) according to my not exactly accurate phone GPS app. The 587 km trip took 2 ½ hours including a few stops along the way.

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If you didn’t look out the window you would not know you were travelling so fast. Smooth and quiet is the ride.

Once you do look out, the Japanese scenery blazes by, cityscapes, industrial facilities, manufacturing complexes bearing familiar names, glimpses of the ocean, lakes, crops of well-manicured tea, green houses, small towns, countryside.

It was a beautiful day when we travelled to Kyoto, Mt Fuji was in all her glory as we did a “fly by”.

The train is very quiet and comfortable, the seats are comfy and roomy, no problems regarding luggage space either. The only times it gets a bit noisy is when you pass by other trains going the opposite direction or when entering a tunnel. These trains push a lot of air.


Japan has got the most Michelin rated restaurants in the world and the most top-rated three star restaurants than any other country.

Japanese take their food seriously!

They have sushi that melts in your mouth!

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There are also more 7-11 convince stores than I have seen anywhere. Literally one on every corner it seems. Rather than serving up irradiated burritos with no expiry dates or stuff you would only eat if completely inebriated and would later regret, Japanese 7 -11s actually sell decent food.

They sell fresh, healthy, real food. You can also buy some really tasty junk food if so inclined. 

There are also vending machines everywhere.

Snacks like chips and chocolate along with soft drinks, juice, energy drinks, tea and coffee both hot and cold. Some sell ice cream, rice, disposable cameras, or instant noodles.

Then there are the special machines that offer caviar, fresh sashimi or even wagyu steak for you to take home and prepare.

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Japan is a super safe place to be, maybe with the exception of the occasional earthquake or tsunami.

We have seen people placing personal belongings to mark their place in a queue while they go for coffee.

We witnessed young children walking unattended in Kyoto. This seems odd when you are accustomed to the hovering, helicopter style parenting in the West.

Why is Japan so different?

I guess it all boils down to the Japanese culture of collective responsibility, a sense of community and respect? Maybe?

We found the Japanese to be very welcoming and respectful. Whatever they were really thinking they did not reveal.  

Our experience was that people were eager to talk and to help make sure we got to where we needed to be. We were treated with respect in every establishment we entered.

We made sure we were respectful and well behaved in return. Despite that I am sure we broke at least 100 Japanese cultural protocols every day before breakfast.

Some of the sites in Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of Kyoto’s most famous and heavily visited.

The shrine is dedicated Inari the Shinto god of rice and cultivation. The main draw of the shrine is the 10,000 vermilion torii gates that wind their way around Mount Inari, all donated to the shrine by different businesses – rice was money back in the days and merchants view Inari as a patron of commerce.

Make a wish

Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion) is a Zen temple in northern part of Kyoto. The top floors of the temple are decked out in gold leaf which reflects wonderfully in the pond that fronts it. The gardens are very Zen by design.

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On the way out of the temple are vending machines to purchase written fortunes “Omikuji”. Alternately, for a bargain 100 yen you can shake a rope, ring the bell and have all your dreams come true. How can you refuse a deal like that?

We saw omikuji tied to the branches of trees in various temple grounds. Many temples have boxes of them, from which you pick after making a small offering – just pray you get a good one! Reminds me of fortune cookies.

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Kyoto’s kitchen

We walked through the Nishiki food market, often called Kyoto’s kitchen. It has been around for a while, since around 1615 and probably even before.

The narrow cobble stone alleys are covered to keep the rain at bay.

There is fresh seafood, vegetables, fruit, dry goods, even a shop selling hand-crafted knives since 1560.

The place is packed with locals as well as tourists. There are shrines and temples tucked away in unexpected hiding spots. 

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A great place for walking and grazing as you go.

Samples, skewers, and specialties:

  • Goma dango (sesame dumplings)
  • Tako tamago (A small baby octopus with a quail’s egg)
  • Mochi sticky rice cake sweet
  • Goma dango (sesame dumplings)
  • Satsuma age (fish cakes)
  • Senbei (rice crackers)

Another great place to eat

Pontocho is a very cool narrow pedestrian street that runs parallel to the Kamogawa River. The alley is packed with restaurants serving all kinds of tasty food. Had some amazing sushi here!

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Japanese fashion can be interesting. The younger women tended to show lots of leg, and we were there in January Brrrr.

Japan’s traditional garb, kimono for both men and women, can be rented in Kyoto. We saw many tourists really getting into it – taking lots of photos whilst exhibiting really good posture.

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Back in Tokyo

We stayed near the Nippori Station in Arakawa, a part of Metro Tokyo, the day before flying onward to Kuala Lumpur.

We chose this part of Tokyo because it was easy to take the Skyliner express train service to the Narita Airport.

Another reason is because it is within walking distance to the Yanaka neighborhood of Taito City in Tokyo. The Yanaka neighborhood has a charming old town atmosphere. This area of Tokyo was spared by bombing during World War Two and hence maintains more of the traditional Japanese spirit/architecture.

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We wandered down the side streets and stumbled upon many temples, where there is always a Buddha to greet you.

Manicured gardens tucked away in corners.

Old hand pump water wells.

Manicured trees that look like sculptured poodles.

Slabs of stone with ancient inscriptions.

Old wooden buildings with intricate clay roof tiles.

Again, there were very few cars! We were in the mist of the world’s largest city and we are not hassled by cars or their noise.  We could walk around in peace – very chill, very civilized.

Out for a walk

We also strolled through the large Yanaka Cemetery where 7000 people are buried. The cemetery is the resting place of some Japan’s of most famous, including artists, Sumu wrestlers and Japan’s last shogun.

Unfortunately, we were here before the cherry blossoms, however; it was quiet and serene, the residents here do not make much noise.

While walking down a picturesque pathway through the cemetery, a Japanese man beamed with pride as I acknowledged his beautiful Shibu Inu dog. Some things just transcend language.

As you look over the cemetery towards central Tokyo you can see both the historical and modern parts of the city simultaneously.


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Tokyo Skytree

On the whole I was really impressed and enamored by Japan and the people who call it home. I would like to explore the country in more detail some other day.


Japan Photo Gallery


About the author: Michael was born under a wanderin’ star. He is an Engineer who became an explorer, a photography bug, and hack traveller writer with the propensity to be snarky. “Retired” in 2012 at the age of 44, he and his wife Yvonne travel and house sit around the globe on a full time basis. Michael’s goal is to share the process of escaping the rat race, exploring the globe, and some of the experiences along the way.

2 comments… add one
  • Great write-up! Japan is one of our favourite countries, and one we want to return to as often as we can. Keep up the good work!

    • Michael Bauche

      Thanks for the feedback Howard. Anzen’na ryokō

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