My family was fortunate to get to spend our sons’ spring break holiday in Tokyo, Japan. For our vacation, we only had one goal – to absorb all the sights, sounds, tastes and traditions of daily life in Tokyo. And, I’m happy to say we did just that.
We rented an apartment in residential neighborhood. We took public transportation all over the city. We visited a combination of mainstream and off-the-beaten path cultural sites. We sampled tons of local culinary specialties. We did everything possible to immerse ourselves in life as a family in Tokyo.
It was an amazing adventure that impacted all of our lives. And, we’re still holding on to our memories, our souvenirs, and our experiences – as tight as we can.
My sons have been taking Dorayaki (pancakes filled with sweet red beans) for snack time at school. For dessert, they’ve been enjoying the green tea and strawberry-flavored Kit Kats. For breakfast, I’ve been enjoying a daily cup of tea or coffee brewed using one of my beloved Blendy Sticks and black sesame paste smeared on toast. And, I just opened the assorted box of mochi I picked up at the Narita Airport right before we boarded our plane.
While our food supplies will run out soon, our memories will last forever.
But, it’s not just our memories of the big, popular things we did that we hold dear. It’s also the little things from our daily life there that we miss, too. And, I can’t seem to shake from my mind – even after one week back in Chicago, back in our daily routine, and back to reality.
Here are the top 8 things I miss about the daily life we lived and experienced together as a family in Tokyo:
1. Heated toilet seats. I’d heard stories about the high-tech toilets in Japan – and I was not disappointed one bit. Even a small bathroom in a remote train station had toilets that offered you a toasty place to rest your derriere. But, that’s not all.
You also could choose to have water sprayed up to cleanse you – in (ahem) two different places. And, often the toilet would automatically play the gentle sounds of running water to discretely mask any sounds you made while on your throne.
There were so many available options and buttons, I sometimes found it hard to figure out how to simply flush it!
2. Bottled green tea. Each day, my family would stop into a Family Mart, Lawson’s or 7-Eleven to grab a beverage and/or a snack. My drink of choice was always a chilled bottle of green tea.
I took pleasure in the sheer amount of chilled tea options available for purchase – and the lack of soda choices. Gone were the requests from my sons to buy Coke or Sprite. Instead, they wanted to try one of the many teas. And, while I settled on a green tea each time, their favorite ended up being milk tea – with or without tapioca pearls.
3. O-nigiri rice triangles. My older son became obsessed with o-nigiri – a popular snack of rice filled with seafood, meat or vegetables, wrapped in seaweed and molded into the shape of a triangle – which we often bought during our convenience store visits.
Not knowing any Japanese, we always tried to guess what was in each one with the moment of truth coming with the first bite. After trying many, many on-nigiri, my son decided that the tuna or salmon-filled ones were his favorite selections.
My younger son steered away from anything wrapped in cold seaweed. Lucky for him, we discovered two kinds of o-nigiri without seaweed – one was plain, seasoned rice and the other one was dotted with black sesame seeds and plum (or so we think).
Strangely enough, my sons never requested chips or candy at the convenience store – just o-nigiri.
4. Grocery store sushi. After a big day of exploring, my family often chose to eat dinner back at our rented apartment. Whenever we did, we’d stop at the grocery store near our apartment to load up on that evening’s dinner selections.
For my husband and I, we often opted for sushi – ready and waiting for us in the refrigerated section of the store. Originally, we started with nigiri and then later moved on to sashimi. Each selection was delicious. But, we couldn’t get over one thing – the price.
A small tray of delicious tuna or salmon sashimi never cost us more than $5. Typically, we’d buy three trays for us to share – resulting in a $15 sashimi dinner for the two of us.
We couldn’t begin to imagine the cost of that same amount of sashimi in our local grocery store in Chicago. And, of course, we also had to wonder if it would be as good.
5. Frequent trains. Tokyo has a huge, amazing train system. Once we figured out how each of the lines worked together, we were in travel heaven.
We knew we could get anywhere in the city with just a quick swipe of our Suica card at the turnstile. And, we loved that we never had to wait more than a few minutes for the next train.
It seemed like a train was either waiting for us at the top (or bottom) of the station’s stairway, or that we’d only have to wait a handful of minutes for the next one. It made it easy to keep our two sons from tiring out from waiting too long between stations – even when we had to transfer a few times to get to our chosen destination.
While we were in Tokyo, we learned that rush hour reigns supreme. The man who welcomed us to our rented apartment had laughingly told us that Tokyo’s rush hour lasts from 7 – 11 am and then 4 – 11 pm. Initially, we thought he was kidding, but soon found out he was most certainly not.
There were a few times we gladly let a crowded train pass us by so we could try to get seats on another. And, we knew it would only be another minute or so before we could tell if our gamble had paid off.
6. Clean streets. In major cities, I often find myself spending a lot of time keeping an eye on the ground as I walk its streets with my family. Why? It’s done in hopes of pushing one of my sons out of the way before they step in dog poop, trash or worse. Much to my surprise, I was able to keep my eyes up in Tokyo.
We were all in awe of how clean the streets were in Tokyo – even though there never seemed to be any garbage cans on the street. It seemed like local residents took real pride in their city and worked hard to keep it clean – even if it meant taking their garbage home with them.
We slowly found ourselves picking up dropped pieces of rice from our sons’ o-nigiri to throw away later, and stressing about seeing a small piece of plastic from a wrapper start to blow away in the wind.
It was simply refreshing to be able to walk the streets without fear of stepping in something – and we were glad to help keep it that way.
7. Yellow lines to guide your path (and manage the Tokyo pedestrian flow). As we made our way through Tokyo, we began to notice yellow lines wherever we went. No matter if we were walking down a sidewalk or through a train station, the lines guided our way. As we later learned, they helped to denote where you should walk, helping to manage the flow of pedestrians in the crowded city.
On sidewalks, in train stations or pretty much anywhere you went, you walked on the left side, leaving the right side for people in the other direction to walk past you without bumping into them or blocking their path.
As a mom of two young boys, I loved that it helped guide their way and keep them out of the flow of pedestrian traffic. In just a few short days, they would correct me or my husband if we happened to stray to the other side of the yellow line. And, they made a point of never crossing it – even if we were walking on a quiet stretch of sidewalk in the outskirts of the city.
8. A friendly welcome upon entering stores, restaurants and even airport security checkpoints. In Japan, visitors to stores and restaurants are greeted with “irasshaimase,” which means “welcome, please come in.” We heard it all the time, and it quickly became one of the first words we learned.
As tourists in a new city, it was refreshing to be warmly welcomed wherever we went and to have the salespeople or staff thank us for our business. I appreciated this bit of tradition, and found myself nodding and thanking them right back.
In one final show of “irasshaimase,” the airport security workers at Narita airport welcomed us as we went through the security line and then laid out a pair of slippers for me to wear while my shoes were sent through the x-ray machine. It was a nice way for them to show their concern for our wellbeing – down to my feet!
Have you been to Tokyo? What are some of the little (or big) things you miss about life in the Japanese capitol? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
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