When you see a glass, do you see it half empty or half full?
Do you live for today or dwell on the past?
Do you thrive on positive contact or wallow about what people may have meant?
Whether you are predisposed to your personality traits by birth, or you believe that you are who you are by virtue of nurture and how you interacted with those around you as you grew up, there are indeed other factors that determine your outlook on life.
One of the main factors that determine your attitude towards others is in fact your country of birth, or to put it in more specific terms, your culture. A country that is a prime example of this is Japan.
Japan is a country known for many things – sushi, sumo, anime and technology – but running through the core of the country is an admirable balance of respect and regime, with the structure of these coming together to make a country who is revered for its values. So imagine a society that puts elders first, instils in children a sense that if you behave correctly towards others, this will be repaid in reciprocal respect kindness – sound idyllic?
Whilst there is no suggestion that living in Japan adds up to a perfect existence, or that people from other countries and cultures are distinctly lacking in similar moral values, the overall ‘vibe’ of the country does ooze an enviable feeling of satisfaction. Indeed, the rate of serious crimes such as murder is statistically one of the lowest in the world, suggesting that respecting your fellow humans runs deep into the Japanese psyche.
One of the reasons for this may be that there are subtle reminders about how to behave towards each other wherever you go. Public parking areas not only make allowances for the disabled and parents with young children, but also the elderly and pregnant ladies. The tradition of taking your shoes off as you enter a home is not just an age-old tradition, but a way of life that signifies how you should treat the belongings of another. And one that is hard to get used to, is that in Japan there is no tipping – a job should be done correctly without any added incentive and a clear price makes financial exchanges seamlessly cordial.
This all adds up to a place where if you put down your phone and walk away from it in error, return and it is likely to still be there, or put your bag on a chair that’s meant for sitting on, and it is likely to be frowned upon.
In other words, Japan is a country that values values.
After arriving in Milan at around 10am and battling with every single car rental company in Italy to no avail, we decided to jump on the train to Verona via Milan’s Central Station. As we purchased our tickets from the self-service machines, a slightly concerning message flashed across the screen, warning us to be careful and to watch out for pickpockets.. We had just arrived from one of the safest cities in the world. How bad could it be that it would warrant such a warning?
When we finally arrived at what was meant to be our hotel, we were taken aback by the fact that everything from the room keys to the cards were hotel-esque, except for the actual building itself. More like a renovated house than a hotel, it was clean and comfortable.
After a small rest to recover from our disappointing arrival into Italy, we decided to head to the Arena, situated just 15 minutes away from our “hotel.” Full to the brim with shops, cafes, and restaurants, I was able to snag a beautiful Pandora charm for my sister.
Verona was wonderful; the churches, ancient buildings, intricate architecture, and vast amount of Italian marble dominated the large stations.
With our love for amusement parks, we headed to Granada Land the following day for a bit of fun! The park was celebrating its 40th anniversary, which they advertised with large signs scattered throughout the park. Wow, I thought. This place is almost as old as the UAE!
We could easily see why this theme park was ranked fifth of the best amusement parks in the world! If you like plenty of rides and a fun day out, you should definitely check out Granada Land!
Parco Natura Viva
After checking out and leaving our luggage at the train station, we headed to Parco Natura Viva; a huge Safari Park and Zoo. We decided to grab a rental that had Four Wheel Drive to explore the park. It was so refreshing to be able to drive through the grounds and see the animals free to roam without cages or restraints!
The animals were clearly used to humans driving around; as one very bold giraffe peeked into our window! Even though the safari park was not as big as we had anticipated, the zoo was so huge that we, unfortunately, didn’t have time to explore it all.
Visiting Parco Natura Viva was a really great experience and we would highly recommend it; just give yourself enough time to explore it all in depth!
Not everything had gone as planned thus far. However, I was determined not to let the next part fail. Forget everything else. We were about to embark on the ultimate adventure, which we had been dreaming of for years; hiking Mont Blanc.
We headed back after our mini-safari adventure to Verona, where we jumped on a bus to Turin. Arriving quite late in Turin, our host met us at the station and drove us to our hotel. A small, yet stunning room was waiting for us; well styled and gorgeously modern, I loved it!
We rose early with a spring in our step. This was the day we had both been waiting for. After gathering our things, we headed to the station to meet our guide, Elisabetta. We agreed to leave our luggage at another guide’s house whilst we went for the hike.
Boots, bags, sleeping bags, and food for the trip were all packed and ready. It was time to head for the mountains. The trip there was incredible in itself. The greenery was such a striking contrast compared to how it is back home and there was so much of it! Waterfalls, houses in the mountains, old castles; was this place real?
After driving for two hours, it was time to jump out and start walking. The cold air hit our faces immediately and I had no other choice but to wear every single item I had brought; hence the mix-matched outfit! That didn’t matter. I didn’t care. I was finally doing it.
When we initially booked the hike, the website; Trekking Alps asked us whether we wanted to opt for the easy, medium, or hard hike. We were coming to see it all and live out our dream; so we went with HARD. What were we thinking? The hike was tiring and cold, simply unbearable.
The breathtaking views and intense adrenaline rush were what pushed us forward the whole time. Just knowing that we were hiking the “white mountain” kept our spirits high! It may have been deadly cold; however, we had been sweating underneath our layered clothes, which caused an icy chill to shoot through us when we stopped for some lunch.
Powering through, we continued on for another two hours. We were done. Completely exhausted. Or so we thought. Elisabetta turned and looked at us, imparting some not-so-great news. “We need another three hours to reach our hut. It’s not heated or equipped.” Followed by, “Come on guys, we can do this!” To which the only response that was appropriate was, “No, no we can’t.”
Elisabetta told us of a hotel we could stay at back down the way we came, to which we quickly agreed! After giving them a call, we were all booked in. Yes! I had seen the views, felt the burn, now I was ready to warm up and feel the soft sheets of a large bed! “How long will it take to get to the hotel?” I asked.
“Around three hours,” Elisabetta said calmly.
We wanted to cry. Surely, she could not be serious! After thinking we couldn’t take another step, we made it to the hotel. We knew along the way that the river was the half way point, back when we thought we couldn’t take another step, yet look at us! We laughed and felt proud on our way back down, with the occasional, “Go on without me, I can’t go any further!”
Feeling the burn from our muscles, we started to think that our gym membership was a waste of time. This was a completely different type of workout and to be honest, even though we were unprepared, we were surprised by how much we achieved!
After a grueling four hours, we made it back to the car. We did it! The moment I got into the car, I fell fast asleep, awaking to the view of a beautiful wooden house. The owner of the house, a very proud man, greeted us and showed us around. The bed was the most inviting thing I had seen all day; but not before one of the best hot showers of my life! That night, we slept like babies!
The next day, we awoke feeling well rested and proud of our previous day’s adventure! Our host had prepared breakfast for us, but not just any breakfast: homemade Italian breakfast. Honey, eggs, marmalade, cheese, bread; all locally sourced, mainly from the farm! It was incredible!
After packing up our stuff, we went and had a little walk around, where we bought some souvenirs before heading back to Turin. Looking back on the hike, I feel so immensely proud of what we achieved. I suppose you never really know how strong you are until it’s your only option.
After having everything planned and our week in Italy laid out, we arrived in Milan excited and anxious to get our incredible trip underway.
We had planned to hire a car and do a mini tour of Italy hitting up spots such as Florence, Lake Como and Venice. We have booked it online through Carrentals.com . After passing customs we headed to the car hire desk to collect our wheels for the week.
The lady behind the desk checked our details and asked us for our credit card to pay the balance remaining on the hire. This is where the trouble began.
Credit card? We don’t have a credit card! We explained that we only had a debit card or cash, but apparently, neither would be accepted.
Even though their website clearly stated that the use of a debit card would be accepted with a 1,700 euro hold on the card which would be released upon returning the vehicle. After pointing this out, she still refused.
We remembered that my brother had a credit card, but again, unless it was here with us, it wasn’t allowed. Great.
We approached every other car hire company at the arrivals terminal, each and everyone turning us away when they learnt we didn’t have a credit card. Tears started to fill my eyes through complete despair and frustration. I couldn’t believe there was only ONE way you could rent a car. There are no other options!
Everything was booked. The hotels. The tours. Our whole trip was about to get flushed away over a piece of plastic.
We had a 3 hour tour booked in Milan for 3pm which had to be cancelled. Where would we leave our luggage while we were on the tour? We had done zero research on these things as we didn’t expect not to have a car.
Our hotel was booked for that night in Verona, two hours away from Milan. In hindsight we could have left our luggage at the train station, but at the time it didn’t cross our mind.
We headed straight to Verona and started researching public transport options. We only had a week and we had an itinerary full of activities.
That evening, feeling totally down and out about the car hire mess we grabbed some pizza at the Arena. Our waiter approached us and asked if we spoke Arabic to which we obviously replied, yes. After chatting for a little while I turned to my husband and proposed the idea that we could ask the waiter whether he knew anywhere or anyone we could rent a car from.
The waiter told us that he had a friend who may be able to help us out and he would get back to us later that night. Surprisingly, he did indeed get back to us and told us his friend could rent out his car for the week.
Amazing! Finally, we can get on with our trip! We arranged to meet his friend at the restaurant the following night.
As promised, his friend did indeed have a car he could let us hire but after my husband expected it, he quickly realized the tires were not safe enough to go long distances.
Our mystery man said he would get them fixed by tomorrow 12pm and that was that.
The following day we packed up our belongings and checked out of the hotel. We had plans to head to Venice that day which was only an hour 20min from Verona. This is when problem number 2 popped up. The guy was unreachable. We sent him messages. Tried to contact the waiter. Nothing. It is like they just vanished off the face of the earth.
Public transportation would have taken 4 hours to get to Venice and we really didn’t want to waste half a day so again, it had to be cancelled. Venice stinks and I suffer from motion sickness, I told myself.
Feeling defeated yet again, we called our hotel in Verona and asked if we could extend for another night. After all this bad luck we should have really expected the following response. “Sorry, we are fully booked”
After some searching, we found another hotel to take us in.
Following Venice we had plans to head to Tuscany, that too, had to be cancelled.
Up till now, absolutely nothing had gone right on this trip. We had seen nothing we had planned to see. It was just one obstacle after another. We had one more trip paid for. A hike up Mont Blanc. This has to work out. It just had to!
We took the bus from Verona to Turin and after spending the night we met up with our guide and left our luggage at their house. The hike would involve sleeping out in the mountains for the night and she reassured us that our belonging would be safe.
The hike was incredible! Finally something good had happened! After hiking for 5 hours we still had 2 hours to reach the lake, then another hour to arrive at our accommodations for the night. We were exhausted. The cold was intolerable and made every movement slow.
Our guide then turned and informed us that the hut we would be staying in was not at all equipped with heating or even bathrooms! No chance. The cold was too much. My only savor would have been a nice warm and cozy hut where I could have a warm shower and sleep. Our bodies couldn’t deal with sub-zero temperatures, we are from Dubai, 50 degrees we can handle, not minus 10!
We skipped the sleepover and headed back down the mountain. After trekking for a further 4 hours back down, we stayed in a wooden house in the mountainsides. It was absolutely stunning. Modern with hints of vintage chic! Finally!
Easily the best two days in Italy!
The bus took us back to Milan and after leaving our luggage at the airport we went and explored Milan for the day, it was amazing. After all that had happened, at least we managed to have a couple of good days without being rejected, ditched and/or abandoned!
All trip details coming up in my next blog. Stay tuned.
We arrived at the airport around 1:00am which meant waiting till 5.30am when the metro lines opened to head to our hotel! Nothing strikes boredom into the heart of any traveler than the idea of waiting around in an airport, however, we were pleasantly surprised with how we could fill our time. We started with a mini tour of the airport followed by a tasty croissant at one of the cafes which happened to be open at that time; Cafe Cardinal.
We then came across quite a novel idea where you purchase a small wooden tag from a vending machine (obviously), write a personalized note onto it and hang it next to thousands of others on their Wishes Wall. Another great and strangely exciting discovery occurred inside the restrooms at the airport. They were seriously high tech with a range of buttons positioned on the wall which would clean the toilet for you!
Tokyo Subway: The mayhem begins
When it came to transportation, our luck was about to run out when we ventured inside the subway for the first time. Unlike the toilets in the airport, the only thing we were impressed with here was the locals ability to actually read the evil metro map! If it wasn’t bad enough that we had to try and figure out where on earth we were going, it was all written in Japanese. Obviously. A smaller map in English gave us a little clue, but not much. I passed on much of the navigating responsibility to my husband, then at least I couldn’t be blamed if we got completely lost! However, near the end of our trip we had almost mastered the metro map!
Accommodation: Everything in small in Japan
We finally arrived at the Yokohama Sakuragicho Washington Hotel and were extremely happy with our hotel choice! Set in an awesome location just 2 minutes from the train station, there was a great array of restaurants, attractions and cafe’s just a short walk away. Not only was the location perfect, but the view from our room was stunning, overlooking the large Ferris wheel in the bay.
Even though the rooms were really small (like most things in Japan) we had everything we needed and wanted! Checking out of a hotel is normally a standard procedure passing your key to the front desk, but not here. Machines are available for you to simply insert your room card, pay any remaining fees and away you go!
After robots checking us out of our hotel we took a different approach to our accommodation in Tokyo, staying in a wonderful place through Airbnb. Our host was just great and the room was rather spacious, which is always a plus!
Theme parks ban the Selfie Stick?!
Japan boasts an abundance of attractions to suit everyone’s taste and even though we had only a short time here, we managed to fit quite a bit in! Just like Dubai, there were many theme parks, zoo’s and malls like the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse which we thoroughly enjoyed, Akihabara where we picked up some amazing cosmetics and even Tokyo Train station, yes, you read that right. This station is no ordinary train station, but is home to an unbelievable underground shopping mall with every retail outlet you could imagine!
Disney Land was a simply magical place (obviously!) which brought back so many childhood memories as you pass by Disney princesses and enjoy all the bright colors and fun activities. But as you can imagine it was super crowded and we had to queue for hours to get on a single ride!
Lines weren’t as bad at other theme parks such as Yokohama Cosmo World which had a ton of great rides but also had the most baffling rule I have ever encountered. Signs covered the park completely banning selfie sticks. I know everyone has a different view on the Selfie Stick Trend but that was just amusing!
Visiting the Amazon in JAPAN?
Roller coaster rides can give you the screams and excitement but nothing can compare to the feeling of returning to your childhood like a trip to the zoo! We can’t rate the Yokohama Zoo; Zoorasia high enough. Each area throughout the park was themed, so you would take a journey through different areas across the globe from the Amazon to the Dessert all in one place, seeing the different species which walk the lands.
In comparison, Ueno Zoo was nothing to write home about. It was considerably smaller than Zoorasia and nowhere near as nice, however, our trip wasn’t for nothing, we wanted to visit the panda’s, an animal you can’t see at Zoorasia!
Hot chocolate with a group of cats!
Japan is known for the weird and wonderful and if you are cat lovers like we are, then a trip here would not be complete without a visit to the Cat Cafe. Enjoy a drink while being surrounded by purring felines! It can be quite torturous as they have a rule that you can’t go around picking up the cats, you have to wait for them to come to you, which is fair!
I mentioned in my previous blog post about some of the struggles we had finding food, however it wasn’t all doom and gloom towards the end of our time in Japan. While exploring ChinaTown and browsing at the souvenirs we came across Strawberry Cheesecake KitKat. Yes. Strawberry. Cheesecake. KitKat. To be honest, if you don’t at least get yourself a different flavored KitKat in Japan your trip pretty much doesn’t count!
Combining culture with couture
The big tourist attractions are all well and good, but we wanted a little culture on our visit too. Sankeien Gardens is a photographers paradise, with open ponds, tree’s in full bloom and historic Japanese buildings to explore made for a wonderful contrast and a beautiful experience. Japan has an intriguing way of combining history, beauty and shopping, so at least when you are browsing the different shops you can also feel as though you are getting a bit of culture too.
Sensō-ji Temple was another location which we loved so much we returned for round two! Not only do you get to admire the stunning ancient Buddhist temple, but the surround area is home to an array of shops, which kept me happy on more than one occasion! Asakusa was a similar area which combined plenty of shops as well as the Buddhist temple; Sanju.
Yes, malls seem to dominate Japan, however, you can get your culture-fix without being tempted to splurge on ANOTHER pair of stilettos. When we came out, we knew that Japan was famous for its innovative technologies and advanced forward thinking, so it was great to see it in action at the Mitsubishi Minatomirai Industrial Museum which is perfect for the geek which lives within us all as we browsed through all the latest gadgets and technologies.
If you don’t fancy getting your geek on at the Museum, then you can let your inner art critic out at the Hakone Open Air Museum which has some amazing art pieces. We were lucky enough to be blessed with gorgeous weather that day which made for even more incredible views!
Lake Ashi stole my heart
Coming from Dubai, I have seen the big theme parks, the flashy shopping malls, I wanted something more. Up until this point, I had seen a fair amount in Japan considering the short duration of the trip however, nothing stood out more than my trip to Lake Ashi in Hakone. Out of the hustle and bustle, my lungs were filled with fresh air as it’s cool grasp swept gently across my face with majestic mountains dominating the surrounds. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to access the mountain due to the surrounding volcanoes being rather active! However, ever single time I look at my photographs taken here, I have the overwhelming feeling to take a long deep breath.
My time in Japan will never be forgotten. It was crazy at times but I think that’s just what makes Japan so unique. Maybe next time we could stay a little longer and return back to the beauty of Lake Ashi for one more breath.
Before departing on our trip to Japan where Maysm was attending a conference in Yokohama, we had very few expectations of the country we would be visiting. All we expected was to witness first hand the Japanese’s love for technology, their innovative inventions and their overly polite nature. Our only real concern was regarding food. Being Muslims, we were curious as to how we would find the food options available to us, but we thought, it’s only for ten days, if we have to give up meat and go vegetarian, it’s not the end of the world! We soon came to realize that it wouldn’t be that easy. We happen to dislike seafood and with sushi bars dominating the streets of Japan and their need to include some sort of seafood in every vegetarian dish, we were hitting some unexpected obstacles. An even bigger problem revealed itself when we couldn’t even grab a bowl of chips because they would have been fried in pork fat.
The language barrier only exasperated the issue. There was so much variation on the words alcohol and pork that even if we were told a dish was free from both, it probably wasn’t. This problem persisted until we discovered an app that would make things a whole lot easier; HalalNavi. The app contained a whole bunch of restaurants and would show which dishes were free from pork products and also present alternative options.
The app managed to magic up other wonders like directing us to a Turkish Halal restaurant which turned out to be a Circassian restaurant! With such a small minority of Circassians in the world, we couldn’t believe we found one in Tokyo of all places!
Even though we only stayed for ten days, we couldn’t get over how polite everyone was. At first we were slightly dubious about how genuine their kindness was until we took the Metro one evening to get back to our hotel in Yokohama. A rather intoxicated Japanese gentleman was sat next to my husband and proceeded to what I can only imagine was to use my husband as a human pillow. Gently pushing the sleepy intoxicated man off, he suddenly regains consciousness. Oh no! I thought, please don’t turn into a fight! On the contrary; the man couldn’t be more apologetic for his actions. Wow. Now these are genuinely nice people!
Over our ten days in Japan we only encountered two other women wearing Hijabs. With less than 1% of Japanese residents being Muslim, this was not a common sight. As we walked down the street we would get the feeling we were being stared at, only to turn around and for that person to look away quickly. On that note, at no point did we ever feel isolated or threatened by these stares. They were looks of pure curiosity, nothing more.
After accidentally stumbling across a festival in Tokyo we were confronted with a lot of curious locals. They would point at our Hijabs and mutter a question in Japanese. I can only imagine they were asking us a question or maybe paying us a compliment. A word we got rather used to was Kawaii, meaning cute in Japanese.
Even though we had a few obstacles with finding suitable restaurants; We loved our time in Japan and even though there is only a small population of practicing Muslims, we were greeted with only curious and polite looks from the locals (a few requested to have photos with us!) and a ton of great memories from our short trip to this fast paced land.