I recently went on a 10-day trip to Japan with one of my best friends. She had never been before while I had not only visited several times (twice already this year, prior to this trip) but had lived there for a few years in the late 80s. So compared to her, I was the expert – somewhat a loose term given that I had lived in Japan all of 30 years ago. But I did know enough of the language to get by, was familiar with the customs and courtesies, and knew some of the cities we were going to.
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Travelling with anyone can be a testing time, even if it’s someone you know well. My friend Vivienne is the opposite of me in many ways. While I am quiet and reticent, she is chirpy and outgoing, prone to speaking to strangers who spark her interest. I watched bemusedly as some Japanese people looked startled when she went up to them to ask for directions in English, since she could have been mistaken for Japanese herself. I try and speak my rudimentary Japanese to every salesperson and ticket seller I meet while she simply assumes that everybody must understand some English.
We only had 10 days in Japan, covering three cities: Kyoto, Nara and Tokyo. It was my job to decide on the basic itinerary and book hotels. For the rest of the programme, we left it fairly loose and decided as we went along.
It started off as a good idea, except that we forgot that since it was nearing winter, the sun sets at about 4.30pm. Sightseeing therefore needed to be done in the daylight hours (although we did find out that some sights are lighted up for night viewing). Still, it was autumn and part of the point of visiting Japan at that time of year is to see the changing colours of the leaves. Obviously, those would be hard to see at night.
This is where getting out of bed, having breakfast and then making our way to the first tourist stop proved a challenge if we wanted to see enough sights before sundown. We usually aimed to be out for 10am but 11am became more realistic. On some days, we managed a proper lunch at lunchtime, on other days we grabbed a quick bite before trudging on to the next stop. Dinner, however, was always a proper sit-down affair, at both formal and casual places.
Of course, visiting Japan was not just about sightseeing and taking in the culture, it was also about shopping. There were some shops we knew we wanted to visit (Uniqlo Mega Store in Ginza, and Tokyu Hands among them) but those could wait until we got to Tokyo. What I had not reckoned on were the various souvenir shops we would encounter at every tourist spot we visited.
The thing about Japan is that most of their souvenirs are not tacky, generally well made and in pretty good taste, especially if you went beyond the usual keychains and T-shirts. We found lovely handkerchiefs in Nara that were made by traditional weavers, beautiful fans in all materials and prices in Kyoto, jackets made of old kimono fabric, and delicate pottery and chopsticks. There were cute purses and hairclips and even socks and umbrellas that caught our fancy. By the time we arrived in Tokyo, our luggage was already looking quite full.
I also planned for us to have a taste of different types of accommodations everywhere we went. We started off with a nice boutique hotel in the centre of Kyoto that had nice large rooms and all mod cons (including a large handheld mirror for near-sighted guests to put on their makeup); a ryokan in Nara, actually the home of the owner, who made us a delicious kaiseki breakfast and introduced us to the wonders of those large stickers (heat packs) you attach to your clothes to keep you warm; a business hotel in Kyoto that was too cramped for two women with lots of stuff; finally, an Airbnb apartment in Tokyo which was spacious and well-located for all the trendiest parts of the city.
We survived those 10 days with our friendship intact, and this is what Vivienne had to say: “We had travelled together before, so we knew that major skirmishes were not going to occur. It has been a source of constant amazement to us (and our other friends) that our diametrically opposite personalities permit for rather harmonious interactions. When you hear about two long-time friends being thrown together for 10 days and nights you may think, “What’s the big deal?”. Alas, I know of two sisters who travelled with their respective husbands as a foursome, and after returning from a tour of several European cities, vowed never ever to journey anywhere together again! Luckily, that did not happen to Marina and me. My responses and retorts below may have you wondering “how come?” though.”
I think we also learnt a few lessons about ourselves and how to travel harmoniously with our best friends. Here are some of mine, and Vivienne’s:
Marina: If one of you knows your destination country better than the other, there is already a power imbalance. It is very tempting to want to show off your knowledge about the country by insisting on doing and seeing everything you think should be done and seen. The key is to listen and be adaptable. If your friend isn’t interested, don’t insist. After all culture, especially in Japan, can be observed often by just sitting at a café and watching people.
Vivienne: There was a power imbalance? I didn’t feel it at all. I happily accorded the ‘more experienced person’ status to Marina and let her guide me through the rather confusing web that constitutes the Japanese public transport system while I happily gazed at the beautiful architecture found in some of the subway stations and marvelled at the narrowness of some of the escalators which, I thought to myself, are very strong deterrents to becoming obese in Japan. A good tip to remember when in Tokyo: Download the subway app as well as Google’s Japanese-English translation one.
Balance your priorities
Marina: You both have to decide how much culture and history and how much modern things you want and find a balance between the two. You can get temple’d out pretty easily in Japan so missing out on a few isn’t a big deal.
Vivienne: I thought I could never get enough of gorgeous temples with their multi-layered roofs, but I quickly realised that the older and more authentic ones existed oustide Tokyo (like those that had delighted us in Kyoto and Nara), just as the varieties of green tea were thicker and more frothy the further one moved away from modernity. So when we arrived in Tokyo, I persuaded Marina to stick to more urbane pursuits.
As only girlfriends would
Marina: One of the best things about travelling with a girlfriend is that you can do silly things that your husband and kids will adamantly refuse to do, like have lunch in one of those cute cartoon character-themed cafes. We walked into a Pompompurin Café by chance on Takeshita Street, Harajuku mainly because we were hungry and it turned out to be quite a uniquely Japanese experience.
Vivienne: Oh we did lots of things that would have had our husbands either admonishing us or rolling their eyes with disdain (mine is susceptible to just leaving me to my ‘silly pursuits’ and walking back to our hotel/lodgings)! Like, which husband would wait patiently whilst we looked at every type of Japanese fan – from rice paper ones to those that opened with a loud ‘snap’ sound (good for dramatic effect and not just if one were a geisha), to unusual ones with ants, dragons or goldfish hand-painted on their wooden spines. Name me a travelling partner who would’ve tolerated our fascination with brushes! We touched and ogled at squirrel hair ones for makeup, harder ones for cleaning suede shoes and … ok, I have to admit that I do not know till this day what the strange-looking ones that Marina bought were for. We spent over an hour in that traditional-looking, well-stocked store.
Kawaii desu ne!
Marina: And that’s how I found out that Viv is secretly Japanese, with a secret passion for Hello Kitty. No eye-rolling is allowed if you want to keep this friendship. Just take the photo and move on.
Vivienne: Have you ever seen Hello Kitty wearing a kimono in a sakura (cherry blossom) print? So much cuter that Pompompurin, and almost as stylish, but definitely more iconic than my other favourite: Miss Piggy of Sesame Street. Where IS that photo you took of me with the kimono-clad Ms. Kitty anyway?
But first, shopping
Marina: If the road to a temple is strewn with souvenir shops, or just shops, resign yourself to the fact that it may be several hours before you get any culture beyond the commercial kind. And don’t ask why you’re buying yourself cute bits of nonsense while you’re at it.
Vivienne: Hey, we bought shopping totes that folded to become two-inch squares, snacks for munching on during those interminable train rides, and taiyaki (fish-shaped pastry) filled with azuki (sweet red bean paste) on that ancient temple street! Sure, the sun was falling too quickly for our liking, but you must admit that that fact became less significant once we had succumbed to the lure of the last store which sold gorgeous fabrics and soft cloths for every purpose – kitchen/face towels, handkerchiefs, etc.
A common love for food
Marina: It helps a lot if you both have similar eating habits. We both love Japanese food and were happy to try anything, even waffles with cartoon faces on them. We both developed a taste for Japanese matcha in every form, not just liquid. And neither of us minded any type of restaurant, fancy or casual, because we knew that Japanese food is good almost everywhere you go.
Vivienne: Maybe it’s not so much the “similar eating habits” – perhaps it’s more that we both like eating good food and walking in cold weather really whips up appetites! We’re also open to trying out new things, from wasabi-coated peanuts to okonomiyaki (a form of savoury pancake which was a fave of Marina’s but new to me) and izakaya (small tapas-like dishes). And she’s right, the Japanese know how to make the most innocuous bowl of noodles into a slurp-worthy dish!
Be flexible with time
Marina: As the guide, you do have to put a sensible perspective on your programme each day. No, it’s not possible to go to different parts of Tokyo to see different things, and shop, and eat all in one day. Public transport in the city is very efficient but it can still be tiring, especially when you always have to deal with crowds. And you always underestimate the amount of time you spend at any one place. We gave ourselves an hour to explore the Uniqlo Mega Store and wound up spending two.
Vivienne: Yes, I’m glad I had a time-efficient guide. I tend to lose track of everything when confronted with hair accessories of every shape and colour (I think they exist in multitude in order to delight, entrance and be purchased by kimono wearers), the most delicate and unusally-shaped cups for drinking sake and tea from, and all things kawaii (cute). Different things drew and held onto our individual attention; just because she had been there before didn’t mean that Marina herself could resist the lure of furoshiki bag shops, or was immune to the draw of kawaii notebooks, coin purses and other knick-knacks made from jewel-hued kimono fabric, either!
How to make friends (or enemies!)
Marina: So you’re not prone to talking to strangers but your friend is? Just suck it up. In Japan at least, it’s pretty safe and you might make a new friend or two. And if she does get into a long, involved conversation with a stranger, you can always walk off and look at some other stuff. Or pretend you don’t speak the language. Japanese people are generally sweet and helpful so there’s no harm in striking up a conversation with them. (Mind you, this is the same friend who went up to a Mafia-looking guy in Italy and hit him because he cut us in the taxi queue…it’s a wonder we lived to tell the tale!)
Vivienne: “Must you talk to everybody?” was an oft-heard lament early on in our relationship. At least now, several taxi drivers, hundreds of doormen and numerous unusually/well-dressed/well-coiffed people later, she doesn’t say that anymore. Good. ‘Cause that’s my thing, and I don’t know why I do it. However, there is really no need to bring up the Roman queue-cutter here – it’s not terribly relevant. Especially if she doesn’t also mention the length of time we had spent waiting in that queue, the fact that our friends (and a restaurant booking) were waiting anxiously for us, or that the two men in suits were nauseatingly arrogant.
A waiting game
Marina: It also helps if you pretty much dress in the same style. Too different styles would mean that one of you wants to shop in shops that the other doesn’t want to. Luckily both of us are pretty basic in our tastes which means that Uniqlo is ideal. I’m much more decisive about my purchases than Viv which means I spend more time waiting than she does but as long as I can sit and watch people, I’m OK.
Vivienne: I don’t remember the waiting to be so unevenly weighted. All I recall is enjoying every experience and trying to absorb all the sights and sounds – they included gaping like a guppy when the ‘tame’ deer tugged away and chewed on our map; sipping steamy, frothy green tea through slitted eyes; gawking at the completely nail-free wooden underpinnings of hilltop temples … it was all new, sparkly and captivating for me. Granted, I did take a lot more pictures than Marina did, with both an actual camera and my handphone. Thus, perhaps some extra waiting time was expended by Marina when I needed perfect angles of almost everything I saw. One should never say, “C’mon, take the picture already!” to an Instagrammer!
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These boots are made for walking
Marina: You both have to be good walkers. If one of you is the sort who wears heels everywhere and hates walking except from one floor of a store to another, and the other only wears sneakers and thinks taxis are a waste of money, you’re in big trouble. Luckily we’re both the sneakers and flat boots type, and as long as we can have regular stops for coffee, we can walk anywhere all day. There’s nothing worse than to have a whiner along.
Vivienne: We love walking! Age and experience have educated us on the perils of not wearing comfortable shoes whilst sight-seeing. The sight of tourists who insist on looking glamourous and teeter-tottering on hillslopes and uneven/rocky paths in their stilettoes never ceases to amaze me! Even in our (stylish) flatties, we still ended up with tired ankles and squashed toes some days. Oh yes, never ever underestimate the importance of capuccino, waffles, matcha ice-cream or dorayaki stops throughout a 10am-10pm touring day!
Marina: Nothing quite tears friendships apart like money. We knew from the beginning that we would share everything so this was not a problem. I tend to not keep count while Viv is meticulous about our ‘5-sen book accounts’ and we always settled bills promptly. Japanese restaurants are quite good about giving separate bills to customers, especially if you eat different things. They’re a bit stickier about simply dividing the bill in half but we managed with no fuss.
Vivienne: Blame my parents who taught me from a very young age to “never a borrower nor a lender be”. That also included not being ‘under obligation’ to others as “the bill may come later”. On the flip side, nobody likes being taken advantage of. None of this is applicable to the travel partner under discussion here of course; Marina is beyond generous. But, splitting things down the middle, and if there’s still a small discrepancy, the ower could balance it out by buying a meal or proffering a gift. This ensures a ‘zero resentment’ environment – when fairness and consideration prevail, respect grows (that’s from me, not my parents).
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Marina: Ultimately, I think the trick to travelling together and maintaining your friendship is to travel with only one or two people you know very well and deciding to be very patient throughout. Nothing would spoil a trip more than tension in the group, especially if it’s allowed to fester. You’re travelling for the experience of the destination as well as being together in a different country. If you come through with your friendship intact, chances are you’ll probably be friends for life. Or at least, always have great memories to recall.
Vivienne: I hope it has become obvious to you readers that I loved everything that we saw, did, ate and encountered in Japan! It may one day even overtake Italy as my favourite destination – probably when I have visited more of its enchanting cities, encountered all its varied topographical features, and absorbed more facets of its unique culture. I left the kabuki theatres, sumo wrestling competitions and kimono rental shops all beckoning seductively. Sayonara Japan, till the next time. If Marina remains the good sport and walking champion that she is today, she may well be my travel partner of choice yet again!