Conversations on the Road- An Interview with Troy Mathews

Fukuchiyama Castle, near Kyoto, was originally built in 1572 by the Yokoyama clan, but has been now rebuilt after its destruction in 1872 after attempts to modernize Japan failed.

Fukuchiyama Castle, near Kyoto, was originally built in 1572 by the Yokoyama clan, but has been now rebuilt after its destruction in 1872 after attempts to modernize Japan failed.

Earlier this year, fellow traveler and good friend Troy Mathews journeyed with his family to Japan. It wasn't his first time, or even his second. Troy has nourished a deep love for Japan and its culture for years and so another trip to the island nation seemed fitting. It also seemed fitting to us to talk to Troy upon his return about what he loves about Japan, primordially speaking. We feel the need to wander to, and be fully engulfed in other cultures in our veins, and it's always our favorite conversation(s) to share that visceral feeling with like souls. Troy is such a soul and he was as fun to chat with about it as anyone I've ever met. Here's our talk:

TwC: Your recent trip to Japan looked amazing. But you've been there before. What took you there the first time and how long were you there?

Troy: Yes, I have been to Japan before. I first went 13 years ago to visit a friend of mine who just moved there. Plus at this time I was beginning a deep fascination for Japanese culture. I stayed for 10 days, which I thought was plenty of time to see things, [but] I was mistaken. But those 10 days opened up senses I didn’t realize I had. I also learned quickly that walking up and down mountains is totally different than walking on flat land and over hills in Oklahoma.

TwC: Culturally speaking, you said you had developed a fascination for Japanese culture. Japan has, in addition to its own, long culture, a real absorption of other cultures. Did you find Japan’s famous “outward looking” cultural incorporations distracting? Endearing? What were your impressions versus expectations?

Troy: I will have to say endearing. From the moment I stepped on the streets of Kyoto I knew I was never going to be the same person that left Oklahoma. I was expecting to see old buildings, drink green tea, hike around and maybe learn a little of the Japanese language. Honestly I didn’t have much expectations I was just wanting to travel and see my friend anything else would just be a bonus.

Sapporo at night…

Sapporo at night…

Now my impression was something I wasn’t expecting. First thing was the politeness of the people. How, to me, people would go out of their way to walk me to the train station and then wait to make sure I got on. The funny thing I noticed was few people walked around smiling but if I tried to converse with them there would always be a smile, even from the business man hurrying off to work.

I learned that people are people, we smile the same, laugh the same.

Impression [part 2}- The cleanness of the country. I didn’t see many, hardly any, trash cans for public use and yet no garbage anywhere. People would pack their trash in their bags, backpack, purse and take it home to dispose of it.

TwC: So I noticed the same basic thing around Europe in terms of cleanliness. The US, to my shame, and UK seem to be a far dirtier/trashier country than virtually any other place I've traveled, including relatively poor countries. Why do you think that is?

Troy: I don't really know but what I have seen in Japan is they do not want to put a burden on someone else. Meaning, if I leave this paper on the table someone else will have to throw it away. What I have grown up with here in the US is "It's Ok they'll take care of it". People here can be nice to you and help you anytime but what I have experienced elsewhere is a true and honest caring about me. I have said before that people in Japan have walked me blocks in the opposite direction than they were going only to make sure I understood what corner to turn at to catch a bus. I feel that people in the US are not as connected to each other compared to other countries".

Well I could go on and on about this but I will be slamming the good ol USA. I just wish more people would travel outside of the US and see that the world is not a 3rd world country and we are the center of the universe. As you stated there are a lot of countries who are cleaner and the people happier than most here.

TwC: I always leave a place with a certain amount of regret. Not the neurotic kind, but the "I didn't do X or Y." And so I vow to return and it becomes a nice way to plan these places I've been back into another schedule. So it's never a "one and done" for me and it sounds like you're very much the same. What is your "regret" about leaving Japan on this trip that you'll definitely do next time?

Troy: True, it is never a one and done for me either. I love the big cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Sapporo and I have been to these 3 cities numerous times and other than the train stations do we go to the same places. I can’t say I have regrets about this trip because we explored and went to many different places this time. The only thing I didn't do long enough was spending more time at the ocean. It sounds funny being on an island and not seeing the ocean. One would assume you would see the ocean daily but not so. I love hiking the mountains but I find my energy gets recharged when I can be near the ocean and smell the sea air. Out of the 3 weeks I was there I only spent 3 days at the ocean but I got to see the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan. Aside from the hidden side streets that hold all the treasures of a different time, which are never on my agenda, I feel good about this trip. I'm already making plans for a return trip later this year to more remote areas in the Kyoto prefecture with more time by the ocean.

I have to say that my wife makes all plans I give input on what I want to see and do. Then she shows me the itinerary and we make changes if needed. I am a fly by my seat of the pants kind of guy and she maps everything out.

TwC: If I want to go to Japan for the first time, what and where are my must-see’s/do’s?

Troy: Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo. 

Kyoto for the beauty and history. There is so much to see and do, I recommend going in the spring for the cherry blossoms (Sakura). I highly recommend walking everywhere. Public transportation is readily available but there are so many back and side streets you would miss on a bus. Plus just walking on paths with a 1000 year history! I’m starting to geek out thinking about walking the streets.

If you are a foodie then Osaka is your next stop. Look for the longest line and get in it. Japanese people don’t mind waiting in line for good food, so it’s guaranteed if there’s a line the food is good. Then head over to Osaka tower, the shopping district is fun to see all the variety of stores. But go to the tower and get a birds eye view of Osaka. I am not pin pointing many places in particular because I am a wanderer. If I see something along the way I write it down for future plans.

Tokyo, what can’t be done there? It is amazingly huge and none stop. But first go to Tokyo Skytree and see this amazing city from above! With a population of 16 million and the metropolis population of 35 million, yes that is people. It goes on to the horizon. I have not traveled this city enough to say I like this area better than another. But just putting my feet on the pavement and exploring and maybe stumbling onto something many locals don’t know about.

No matter where I am I try to avoid the places that the foreigners go.

I recommend going to both Osaka and Tokyo in spring or fall. Summer is nice, don’t get me wrong, but you will sweat like you have never sweat before. So take extra towels and clothes, and shave Chelsea.

I highly recommend also going to Hiroshima, Kamakura and one of my favorite cities Sapporo. You have to see Sapporo in the winter time to experience its true beauty.

Japan to me is beautiful and to limit oneself to seeing only the places I have mentioned only shortchanges the rest of the country. But for starters Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo will be a great experience.

No bad views here, outside Kyoto, where geology and architecture weave a harmonious pattern…

No bad views here, outside Kyoto, where geology and architecture weave a harmonious pattern…

TwC: Has getting to know Japan prompted an urge to travel somewhere besides Japan? Sure, we all want to see the whole world, but has Japan triggered a destination-specific desire?

Troy: Most definitely! I am currently researching travels to South Korea and Vietnam. These will be in the next few years as they will be coordinated with future trips to Japan. It is cheaper to fly from Japan to these locations than from the US. I do want to travel to Mongolia and sleep under the stars there but as of now it is not in my near future plans.

TwC: So if I'm planning a trip to Japan, what cultural differences can I expect? One thing I have grown accustomed to but took some time for example, was service levels at pubs and restaurants. In the states I can expect a high level of interaction, I don't want for anything but nowhere else has that level of service. Of course, nowhere else expects tips like the states. What's going to throw me?

Troy: I will tell you that the customer service in Japan is unlike anything I have ever experienced, it is amazing! Japan has a customer service that is on a whole different level than the States, something we should take notes on. And when it comes to tipping you do not tip anyone for anything at anytime.

And Japan caters to the traveler very well. When you travel you can have your bags sent to your next destination or your final destination leaving you the freedom of traveling by backpack or a handbag.

Also the promptness of the trains and buses will amaze you! If your train ticket says 3:02 your train will be there at 3:02 so do not catch the 3:03 train because that is not your train. And how orderly everyone waits in line to get on the trains is unlike anything I have seen here. Nobody rushes on when the doors open, you stand to the side and wait for everyone to exit the train then you enter. And all this is done with out people talking. And the trains and buses are very quiet, virtually no talking. And if you should leave your i-phone on a train it is almost a guarantee you will find in the lost and found or they will be able to tell you where to go and retrieve it. We learned this firsthand. One thing I like is the prices you see in stores for items is the price you pay. The taxes are already figured in I really like this. But I will say without a doubt you will be amazed at the customer service.

TwC: Your final thoughts and advice on Japan that we haven't discussed yet...

Troy: The one thing I can't stress enough to people starting out traveling is respect the country you are visiting. This is not your home country and the customs and ways of doing things are not the same as you were raised with. (This could be a whole other topic of conversation.)

As for traveling Japan, it can be done without spending a fortune. And do not fear the language difference. I have had many fun conversations with great people using minimal vocabulary. Body language and hand gestures are a universal language. Plus big smiles and good belly laughs are contagious regardless of what nationality you are.

How true, Troy. Troy and his family are already planning their next adventure and we can't wait to hear about it!