50 Things We’ve Learned in 50 Days

Posted by on Nov 3, 2011 in Travel Volunteer Journey, Wakayama | 5 Comments
50 Things We’ve Learned in 50 Days

Today was unfortunately a bit of a wash out in Wakayama prefecture. The seasonal gloom made pictures pretty hard and created a strangely flat feeling to mark what has been an amazing 50 days so far. So rather than try to scrape butter over too much bread with what happened today, we thought we’d bring you some of our cultural learnings from the first half of our trip including, of course, some from today’s schedule.

  1. Japan is not a small country: if it were in Europe it’d be one of the biggest countries on the continent, bigger than Germany, even.
  2. You can make and eat virtually anything out of konnyaku.
  3. Japanese people will wave you off until you have literally disappeared out of sight. One of our guides stood with his arm in the air for seven full minutes as our boat slowly pulled away from the harbour. It was a remarkable feat of endurance as much as anything.
  4. Akita dogs are disappointingly thin on the ground in Akita.
  5. Thankfully the same cannot be said for Sapporo beer in Sapporo.
  6. Natto exists, and it is evil.
  7. Japanese chestnuts are obscenely large.
  8. There are a comical number of prefectures that claim to produce the best rice, sake, beef and/or miso.
  9. The radiation levels in rural Fukushima are less than those in rural England.
  10. If all the world’s religions cohabited as well as Shintoism and Buddhism, several million lives would have been saved from the insanity of religious war. A good deal fewer people would have been tortured, too.
  11. There’s a rail pass that saves travellers considerable amounts of time and money, but you have to apply for it before coming to Japan. *sigh*
  12. Rice and tofu may be fairly bland on their own, but combined to make inarizushi, they become very special indeed.
  13. Namahage is perhaps the world’s most chronically underused parenting tool.
  14. Golf is the preserve of the rich, with green fees high enough to make you sob. That hasn’t stopped it becoming wildly popular.
  15. Japan quite possibly has the most staggering range of autumnal colour anywhere in the world.
  16. There are several hundred English words in day-to-day Japanese, but there is only one Japanese word commonly used in English: tsunami.
  17. In one corner of Japan, you’ll find a perfect replica of Britain.
  18. Soba noodles are best served cold (says Jamie).
  19. Soba noodles are best served hot (says Katy).
  20. Actually, it seems virtually everything in Japan can be served cold: tempura, yakitori, anything, really.
  21. We used to think that Swiss trains were efficient. Then we came to Japan and saw a whole new world of time-keeping.
  22. In Kishi, Wakayama, there’s a station where the boss is a cat. Literally a purring, pampered cat called Tama.
  23. Around 60% of babies in Japan have tufts of hair that stick directly up from their tiny craniums. We have dubbed them “coconut babies”. They are our favourites.
  24. Crab excrement is entirely edible, and (whisper it) kinda tasty.
  25. Puppy, rabbit and cat cafes exist. The idea being that you take your pet along and treat them to some upper class pet food, perhaps for their birthday or your first date together.
  26. Along a similar theme, in Tokyo, rather than have the time-consuming hassle of owning a dog, you can rent one by the hour to walk during your lunch hour.
  27. The first ever general anaesthetic was developed and administered by Hanaoka Seishu, a surgeon in Wakayama. Unfortunately the rest of the world didn’t find out about it for decades as Japan’s ludicrous policy of sakoku (self-imposed isolation) was in place. By the time news of the pioneering technique came out, the rest of the world had created their own.
  28. Many things can feel a little expensive, until you pass through a portal and end up in the brilliant alternative universe of the 100 yen store. There you’ll find a genuinely baffling array of, well, everything and it’s all available on the cheap.
  29. Japan’s population is dropping voluntarily, which many people regard as disastrous. But, when you look at the world’s ills and a global population soaring past 7 billion, it may prove to be a strangely prescient way of living.
  30. When visiting shrines and temples, if you are confronted by a strong smell that reminds you of your old chemistry class at school: do not worry. There hasn’t been a chemical spilt; it’s raw alcohol sloshing around in the stomach of the well-oiled tour group tourist standing next to you.
  31. The modern ninja is disappointing conspicuous.
  32. Sumo ride the metro in Tokyo, which is one of the most surreal sights a gaijin can see.
  33. A high number of natives will be very complimentary if, as a foreigner, you demonstrate competence with chopsticks.
  34. Japanese people are androids – this explains the amount they work without sleeping, and why we often find it hard to keep up.
  35. The British toilet is to the Japanese toilet as a pointy stick is to a light-saber.
  36. A tragically low percentage of original wooden structures remain from Japan’s old days. It’s perhaps unsurprising given the unfortunate history of natural disasters and one very long fire-bombing campaign. However, the many reconstructions that stand in their place are often seamless. We think the tourist board should stop telling people they’re copies – foreigners would never know otherwise.
  37. If you are ever stuck for a seat on a train, seek out a gaijin. It’s virtually guaranteed that no one will be sitting next to him. Why? We do not know.
  38. For us, kaiseki dining is a bit like playing Battleships: most things plop harmlessly the mouth; sometimes there’s a blast of tasty satisfaction; and sometimes it feels like a punch in the face.
  39. At 79, you’d expect your grandmother to take it easy. Hell, she’d deserve to. But in Mie prefecture, you might find her free-diving for abalone as one of the legendary Ama divers.
  40. Taiko drumming is even harder than it looks.
  41. Raw chicken is perfectly edible and delicious.
  42. Raw horse is perfectly edible but quite average.
  43. If you ever think you’re a good person, go and visit the people who have volunteered since the tsunami struck in March – you’ll soon feel very inferior.
  44. Eating 36 bowls of noodles is not, as Jamie thought, a mighty achievement. No, in the heroic sport of wanko soba, it’s a rubbish effort.
  45. Fashion is a serious and often ludicrous business in Tokyo.
  46. You can never bow enough. Not ever.
  47. It’s always worth checking to see if a door slides first, rather than fruitlessly pushing and pulling at it.
  48. To go from the front door of a ryokan to the bathroom requires the following sequence of footwear: remove shoes, put on slippers, walk to room and take off slippers, locate toilet and put on new bathroom slippers. Relax.
  49. There are plenty of more expensive and luxurious options, but good yakitori with a cold Japanese beer is one of life’s great culinary pleasures.
  50. We would need to repeat this trip about five or six times to truly cover everything Japan has to offer. But for the time being, there’s plenty to be getting on with.

Our time in Wakayama prefecture was made possible by:

Our heroic trio of volunteer guides: Hitomi Aoyagi, Seigo Tsuda and Tina Tone Tadayo who gave up two days of their time to guide us around the prefecture, explaining more information than we could possibly use on Mount Koya and the surrounding valleys. Into the bargain Mr Tsuda kindly bought us lunch at his daughter’s beautiful restaurant - he actually paid for it too!

All the monks at the Ekoin temple, especially Nobu, who we’d like to apologise to on behalf of England for some disreputable behaviour he witnessed while studying in Manchester. Life in Koya-san couldn’t be more different, thankfully, and the temple gives guests a chance to briefly stay with the monks, living their life, vegetarian meals, early morning ceremonies and all.

The Hotel Granvia in Wakayama City, for giving an unexpected heroes welcome at their upmarket business hotel, and for simply being so dreadfully convenient. Only a stone’s throw from the train station, they’ll help us get good extra half hour in bed – yeah!



1. 日本は決して小さい国ではない。もし日本がヨーロッパの中にあったなら最も大きい国の一つになるのだ。そう、ドイツよりも大きいのである。

2. こんにゃくはどんな“料理”にも変身できる!

3. 日本人はお見送りする時、本当に見えなくなるまで手を振ってくれる。一度港から船に乗ってその場所を発った事があったのだが、その人はなんと7分間もずっと手を振り続けてくれた。これには本当に感動した。

4. 秋田県で秋田犬を見る事はなかった・・・

5. でもサッポロビールは札幌中どこでも飲めた!

6. 日本には納豆という悪魔がいる・・・

7. 日本の栗はとっても大きい。

8. 驚くほど多くの県が“うちのお米、お酒、お肉、味噌は日本一”だと言っている。

9. 福島県の田舎の放射能のレベルはイギリスの田舎の数値よりずっと低い。

10. もし世界の全ての宗教が神道や仏教のように共存的であったなら、狂気に満ちた宗教戦争で数百万人の尊い命が奪われる事はなかっただろう。

11. JR Rail Passは日本国内を旅行する人にとって必需品だ。が・・・日本に入国する前に購入しなければならないのでお気をつけあれ!

12. お米と豆腐はそれぞれもおいしいのだが、“おいなりさん”になるとなんと素晴らしい味!

13. なまはげは古くから使われている“しつけ”手段だ。

14. 日本ではゴルフはお金持ちのスポーツらしい。なぜならこんなにも髙いプレー代を払わなければならないからだ!にもかかわらず、日本で最もポピュラーなスポーツのひとつなのだ。

15. 日本は世界の中で最も紅葉が美しい場所と言っても過言ではない。

16. 日本人はざっと数百の英単語を日常的に使っているが、世界で通用する日本語は“TSUNAMI”だけだ。

17. 日本のとある場所では、完璧なまでに複製されたイギリスを見つける事ができる。

18. 蕎麦は冷たいに限る!(ジェイミー談)

19. 蕎麦は温かいに限る!(ケイティ談)

20. 日本では天ぷら、焼き鳥など、多くのものが冷たくてもおいしくいただける。

21. 私達はスイスの電車が最も正確だと思っていたけれど、日本に来て“電車が正確”とはどういう事を言うのかを思い知らされた。

22. 和歌山県貴志の駅では駅長が猫だ。そう、文字通り“たま”という猫が駅長なのだ。

23. 日本の赤ちゃんの60%は頭に“ぼんぼん”をつけている。私達は密かに彼らを“ココナッツ・ベイビー”と呼んでいる!とってもかわいい♪

24. カニみそは食べられるもので、なんと(見た目に反して)・・・・おいしい!

25. ドッグ・カフェ、ウサギ・カフェ、そしてネコ・カフェなど、ペット同伴で行けるカフェがあるのだ!基本的にペットと一緒にカフェに行き、ペットは高級な餌を楽しむというコンセプトらしい・・・

26. 同じようなコンセプトで、東京にはペットを飼うのではなく、ペットを借りて散歩を楽しむというサービスまである。

27. 世界初の麻酔薬は和歌山県の外科医、花岡青洲によって開発・登録されている。しかしながら、当時日本は鎖国のさ中だったため、世界に知られる事はなかった。この偉業が世界に知れ渡った時にはすでに他国でも同じような実績が残されていた。

28. 日本では多くのものがやっぱり少し高いような気がするが、100円ショップという素晴らしいお店がある!そこでは本当に全てのものが100円で手に入るのだ。

29. 日本の人口はかなりのスピードで減少していっていると言われている。が世界に目を向けると人口は70億人を越えている。

30. お寺や神社を訪れると、学校の科学の時間を思い出させるような匂いに遭遇する事があるかもしれない。だが心配は無用。それらは薬品の匂いではなく、あなたのとなりに立っている二日酔いの観光客グループから漂って来るもののはずだ。

31. 最近の忍者はかっこいい!

32. 東京の地下鉄で力士を見た。“日本にいるんだなぁ”と実感した。

33. かなり多くの日本人が、外国人が正しくお箸を使う事に感動してくれる。

34. 日本人は人造人間なんではないか・・・と真剣に思うほど寝る間を惜しんで仕事をしている。

35. 日本のトイレは、イギリスのそれとは違って、スーパー・ハイテクトイレだ!

36. 驚くほど多くの木造建築が“再建”されたものだ。それは多くの天災と第二次世界大戦の影響によるものらしいが、それらは完璧な形で再建されているので、私達が気付く事はほとんどない。あえて“再建”だと言う必要があるのだろうか?

37. もし込んでいる電車で“空いている席”を探したければ、“外国人”を探せばよい。彼らの隣は間違えなく空いている。なぜ?理由は分からない。

38. 私達にとって懐石は戦艦ゲームをやっているようなものだ。ほとんどのお料理は本当においしく感動的なのだが、時には今まで口にした事のないようなものや、顔面を殴られたかのような衝撃的なものに出会う事もある。

39. 79歳、あなたのおばあちゃんがそのぐらいの年齢ならのんびり過ごして欲しいと思っているし、そうさせてあげるべきだ。が・・・三重県ではその年齢で現役海女さんとして活躍している!

40. 和太鼓は見るよりずっと難しい。

41. 生の鶏肉は食べられて、しかもとってもおいしい!

42. 生の馬肉は食べられるが、味はまぁまぁだ。

43. もしあなたが自分の事をとっても“いい人”だと思っているなら、被災地でボランティアを続けている人たちに会ってみて欲しい。すぐに自分がいかに低レベルなことを言っているのかと痛感するはずだ。

44. ジェイミーは36杯もの蕎麦を食べた事は記録的だと思っていたのだけれど、それは“わんこそば”の世界では鼻で笑われるレベルらしい・・・

45. ファッションは東京ではとっても重要なものの一つだ。

46. どんなにおじぎをしても十分という事はない。そう絶対に・・・

47. ドアは押したり引いたりする前に、引き戸ではないかをチェックする事をお勧めする。

48. 旅館でお風呂に行くには・・・まず靴を脱いで、スリッパをはいて、部屋に入ってスリッパを脱いで、またお風呂用のスリッパをはいて・・・ふぅ。

49. 日本には味もお値段も超一流のものがたくさんあるが、おいしい焼鳥と冷えたビールに勝るものはないかもしれない。

50. 私達はこの旅行をあと少なくとも5-6回繰り返さなければ、日本の全てを経験することはできないだろう。そのくらい多くの魅力を持った日本。私達が伝えている事はその一部かもしれないが、でもそれらの素晴らしさを皆さんにも是非味わってほしい。






  1. Farmer
    November 5, 2011

    I just found this blog and am enjoying it very much! Your posts are quite fun to read and put together well, despite what must be a whirlwind schedule.

    I was sorry to see that Koyasan was your only scheduled stop in Wakayama. The Kumano Ancient Road is a large network of ancient pilgrimage route trails which is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage site. Even a short walk on it can give you a glimpse into a rural Japan that you can’t find anywhere else. Maybe convince your guides for another trip down? ;)

  2. Kavey
    November 6, 2011

    23 and 24 my favourites!

  3. Ryoko Okamoto
    November 7, 2011

    These things are very interesting for me,as one of Japanese locals!

  4. Adamu
    November 12, 2011

    Great list, as a resident here it reminded me of how it felt to experience life in Japan for the first time.

  5. Lisa
    November 21, 2011

    Enjoyed the post. It reminded me of when I first came to live in Japan.

    Re #16, I can think of quite a few other Japanese words that have been imported into English and are used in day-to-day conversation. Typhoon. Karaoke. Origami. Tycoon. Obi. Kimono. Bento. Honcho. Rickshaw. Sudoku. And then there’s all the food and martial arts related ones.