May 10 - June 24, 2010
We went to Japan because it was sort of free. What good luck because we enjoyed it so much. We got a good deal on an Air New Zealand roundtrip London-NZ and could stop over in either or both of Hong Kong and Tokyo. On the way out we elected to not stop (although we got stuck in HK for 6 hours anyway) and on the way back elected to stop in Tokyo. We knew that we could get a free 90-day visa so scheduled our stay for just short of 90 days. After a bit more than six weeks exploring Tokyo, we set off to see other parts of Japan.
We had originally talked about visiting Hokkaido, the biggest of the main islands we didn't yet know, but in the end considerations of climate -- it was northern spring and so still cold that far north -- and interests -- the main things to do involve hiking and other strenuous activities and we didn't think we were in shape for any of that with Gerry still recovering from various leg problems. In the end, we settled on a return to Kyoto and the center of the country, and a tour of the smallest of the main islands, Shikoku.
Since we had each been to Japan at least twice before, the culture was not entirely strange to us. There was something however, that had changed completely since our first visits. Japanese are much more open to foreigners than they used to be. Don't misunderstand us, it's not that hoteliers and tourist officials weren't welcoming, it's just that people on the street would avoid meeting your gaze, would avoid you if you had a map open in case you asked them a question, and would scurry away if you looked at them. All that has changed. Many people now greet and smile at you on the street, just because you are a foreigner and they are happy to see you in their country. People will offer help if they see you looking a bit lost. Many of them, especially the younger ones speak some English having studied it in school. All-in-all a very positive development.