Road Trip Japan 2019 - Part 2
This is a translation of my original article written in French 🇫🇷 Road Trip Japon 2019 - Partie 2.
And here is the continuation of our road trip where our objective was to drive in Japan from north to south. I recommend that you read Part 1 first for those who haven't read it already.
Fukushima prefecture (福島県)
We arrived at the beginning of the afternoon at our destination: the caves of Abukuma (あぶくま洞). These caves are beautiful, even though the photos look weird due to a color issue (all photos are green and I tried to correct that for the photo below).
I will use this opportunity to tell you about katakanas. In Japanese, there are five different alphabets:
Rōmajiis, which is how they call our western alphabet, mainly used for brand names.
Arabic numerals used for most numbers, which are different from Japanese kanji numerals sometimes used for simple numbers.
Kanjis represent whole words and are complicated to master. There are tens of thousands of them. An adult knows between 4000 and 5000 kanjis.
Hiraganas represent syllables and are in much smaller numbers, around fifty. They are used to write certain Japanese words as well as linking words.
Katakanas also represent syllables and work like hiraganas but are exclusively used for writing words borrowed from foreign languages. Each katakana has its equivalent in hiragana and vice versa.
Katakanas are especially interesting for Westerners to learn, as Japanese uses a lot of English words which were later incorporated into Japanese by being distorted, and the original English word can often be understood.
For example here, in the photo above we see a sign on the right with the writing クリスマスツリー. If we translate each of the katakanas it gives: ku-ri-su-ma-su-tsu-ri (the ー means that the final “i” is long). This is actually the word “christmas tree” modified to add “u” where there are two consecutive consonants, because it is difficult for Japanese people to pronounce. This is not the simplest example, but I will cite some simpler ones in the following.
After the visit, we slept in a hotel in Kōriyama (郡山市), where pretty little origami decorated the bed.
Let's admire the pragmatism of this bathroom where the sink tap is also used to fill the tub.
Out of curiosity, I looked at the books in the chest of drawers and I came across this book: “Theoretical Modern History IV - The Real History of Japan”. Intrigued, I read a few passages and discovered that these are conspiratorial theories about the role of the United States in World War II.
By inquiring a little more, I discovered that it is in fact a book written by the president of the hotel chain “APA Hotels” and that all the hotel rooms of this chain have a copy. The point of view developed goes so far as to deny the war crimes perpetrated by the Japanese army in China. This is one of the rare negative sides in the culture of Japan, which fortunately is not shared by all the population. The emperor himself admitted to these war crimes and apologized.
On the way to the mountains
The next day, we visited a distillery that makes sake:
Then we were back on the road, and the snow also was back. At a service area, the exit was mandatory and government employees checked that cars have snow tires. Those who did not were forced to leave the expressway. Fortunately, we had snow tires on the rental car, as recommended by the rental company. We could therefore continue on the road.
We finally arrived in Nagano (phew!) where we stayed with the locals. The house did not have central heating but had a large bathroom with a shower and a large bathtub. In Japan, people use the shower first to wash, then relax in the bathtub. Although the room was not heated during the night, we were not cold because the blankets were electrically heated.
This house was run by a Chinese couple who had settled in Japan. The attempts at a discussion at breakfast before our departure between my wife, who spoke little Japanese, and them, who also spoke it quite poorly, was rather complicated.
The next day, all the snow had melted and we took this opportunity to visit the city zoo. The zoo was actually quite large so we were pleasantly surprised. I think you have understood it now, we were “off season”, so there were only about ten visitors in the zoo, exclusively locals.
Then we descended into the valley.
The “love hotel”
On our journey we decided to spend a night in a “love hotel”. This is a hotel that can be rented per hour, typical of Japan, usually for couples who want a naughty little time during the day. But in this case we could also spend the night there and the price was very competitive compared to a “regular” hotel. So we arrived at the hotel and entered through the dedicated garage entrance. The ground floor looked like a motel with cars and bedroom doors in front of each car, with a festive decor on a romantic theme. We drove around to find the reception but there was no way to find it, the place was deserted and there were only the room doors.
We ended up calling the hotel's phone number (luckily my wife speaks Japanese) and the receptionist told us that she would come and pick us up. We then saw her coming out of one of the “bedroom” doors. She told us to follow her and we understood that this whole ground floor was in fact only a fake and that all the doors opened onto the same corridor, which led to a staircase, allowing us to go upstairs, where the real hotel was.
The bedroom itself was luxurious in an exuberant style, with massage chair, karaoke, slot machine, and a heart-shaped Jacuzzi tub with a waterproof TV screen. The room being paid per hour, it contains all the comfort to make couples want to spend even more time there before going to checkout. In our case, it was "free" luxury since the room had been paid for for the night.
Because of the nature of the hotel room, there was also a vending machine with naughty adult items inside, as well as catalogs for not very hot clothes that you can buy there.
Another peculiarity is that you have to ask to exit because the door is locked by an electronic mechanism, so we had to call the reception to leave, and return to the reception to ask to reopen the room for us to return after our purchases. To ensure the anonymity of customers, the receptionist had her face hidden by a curtain, quite surprising!
The Meiji Mura Museum (博物館明治村)
The next day, we went to visit an open-air museum in which hundreds of constructions from different eras have been dismantled and then reassembled on site. In particular, this prevents old buildings in flood-prone or seismic areas from being destroyed, because the reconstruction area is more secure.
The south of Honshu
We then resumed our journey towards the south. The climate was milder here and we visited a temple where the cherry trees were in bloom (finally!). We came to Japan in April for this purpose, in addition to enjoying a season less busy with tourists. So far we'd only seen snow, but the further south we went, the warmer the weather was.
Small wooden panels with prayers had been hung by people who came to the temple. Many origami cranes have been hung to thank the gods for granting a wish made after making 1,000 origami cranes.
Kyushu Island (九州)
Our trip ended up taking us to Kyushu Island, the large island forming the southern part of Japan. Here, it was much warmer (around 20 °C / 70 °F) and we visited a beautiful park.
We left the park and we passed by this strange gas station. In Japan, you are almost always served by one or more gas station attendants who clean the windshields and mirrors and often pass small rags to passengers to clean the passenger compartment. That’s Japanese service!
The names of the fuels are English words transformed into Japanese, written with the famous katakanas. We can thus understand the words on the signs. On a red background it is written レギュラー which is made up of the syllables re-gyu-ra (the ー indicates that the last syllable is long, and “ra” and “la” are pronounced the same), which is a deformation of the word “regular”, which is unleaded gasoline with a regular octane rating (equivalent to regular in the US). On a green background we can read ハイオク, which reads ha-io-ku, which is a deformation of “high octane”.
In the evening, we stayed at a hotel whose particularity was to have the bathtub on the balcony:
On the way to Kagoshima
On the way to Kagoshima, we stopped in a town to eat. We stumbled upon an orchestra playing in the street. We assumed that they were students from a school. You can see this poster next to it, where children had drawn the prime minister announcing the Reiwa era (see part 1 of our adventure).
We set off again on the road to visit a museum of trains which happened to be a museum of disappointment because of its ridiculous size. But we didn’t give up on the idea of finding something interesting to see and we stopped at a temple that had a beautiful garden.
Arrival in Kagoshima (鹿児島市)
We finally arrived in Kagoshima, the final stage of our trip. The climate was quite different there as you can see by the many palm trees. We even used the air conditioning in the car for the first time.
This is one of the best trips we have taken in our life. We have no regrets and enjoyed Japan even more than the first time we came. It's an exotic trip to take, and Japanese civilization has a lot to teach us in my opinion.
A few tips
I will end with a few tips if you want to visit Japan:
Take a lot of cash at ATMs, because you will need it all the time. It does not present any risk to have a large amount of cash with you because thefts are very rare. ATMs at FamilyMart are compatible with Visa/Mastercard.
Stores like Lawson or FamilyMart are great for shopping for a budget breakfast or dinner. They are open 24 hours a day.
Never tip, it is not customary in Japan and is even insulting to people.
Do not blow your nose in public, however you are allowed to sniff as much as you want.
The Japanese, especially in the countryside, do not speak a word of English but will be very enthusiastic to make you guess with gestures what they want you to understand.
For the same reason, learn by heart the few courtesies in basic Japanese, they will be delighted to hear you speak their language a little!
Take a dictionary with you with common phrases and questions, or otherwise use translation software with the pronunciation displayed to communicate.
And specifically if you want to rent a car:
Have your license translated into Japanese several months before you leave. We used this website.
Apart from translating the license, car rental does not present any difficulty. We used the company “Toyota Rent a Car” which is one of the widely used car rental services in Japan.
Choose a small car if you plan to venture through the streets of Tokyo.
Take cash before taking the expressway to pay the toll at the exit.
You drive on the left in Japan, but it is easy to get used to, especially with an automatic transmission (on all cars in Japan, like in the US).