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World traveller and colour expert Lauren Battistini chronicles the most colourful people, places and experiences she encounters off the beaten path in her global travels in her podcast Coloring My Way Across The Globe.

In this episode, I was Lauren's guest and we discussed Japan travel and culture, life in concentric circles and how I met my Japanese wife (and also meeting Princess Diana) along the journey. 

The following blog post is an edited transcript of the interview which has been shortened for brevity. For the full, original interview, please refer to the source podcast - which you can listen to directly via the player below.

(TIP: Feel free to listen the episode while you look at the photos below or browse my site)

Listen to the podcast episode in full using the player below:

Coloring My Way Across The Globe Podcast - Episode 5: Japan Travel and Culture with Rob Dyer of The Real Japan

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Japanese culture love story podcast Rob Dyer The Real Japan

Japanese Culture, Penpals and a Love Story
Podcast Interview with Rob Dyer by Lauren Battistini

Listen to the podcast episode in full using the player below:

Coloring My Way Across The Globe Podcast - Episode 5: Japan Travel and Culture with Rob Dyer of The Real Japan

Let's make life easier for you

Lauren Battistini: I have a most distinguished guest: Rob Dyer is the owner and founder of an award-winning travel and lifestyle resource called The Real Japan. Rob  has been exploring Japan since the year 2000, and his tagline on his website is ‘Let's Make Life Easier for You’. Rob, welcome to the show. It's a pleasure to have you.

Me: Hi Lauren. It's lovely to be here. I started blogging years ago. Actually, I started a music review blog back in 1999. So I was used to writing online, but that was always just a hobby. But in 2015, I started blogging about travel in Japan. 

It started out as a hobby actually, but a couple of years later, when I got to the grand old age of 50, I decided that it was time to sort of spend some more time on focusing on what I really wanted out of life. 

I always had in my mind that I kind of 'retire' at 50 and that's what I was always working towards. And I figured the thing that I really wanted to spend time pursuing was my passion for travel and in particular travel in Japan because my wife is Japanese. I turned my blog into my full-time gig a couple of years later.

The Shamisen mural by ARYZ Shinagawa Tokyo Lauren Battistini

Colours of Japan - The Shamisen mural by ARYZ in Shinagawa Tokyo  |  Photo: Lauren Battistini

Lauren: I first discovered you when my son and I were planning a trip to Japan, which we went to last May. I searched for Japan travel experts, and your website popped up. But, prior to launching The Real Japan, what did you do professionally?

Me: The bulk of my working professional career has been in  sales and marketing in the private sector mostly. One of the jobs I was offered was working in stock control department, literally underground actually. It was at Garrard, which was the Crown Jewellers in England. So in a store, keeping track of the stock in that store. 


Meeting Princess Diana and the Sultan of Brunei

Long story short, I was offered a job and I took it. Then I aspired to be a salesman. This was serving the rich and the famous - this was the Crown Jeweller's store.  I managed to work my way up and I ended up their youngest ever salesman in their entire 350 year history. So I met people like Princess Diana, the Sultan of Brunei, kings and queens and all these rich and famous people.

Then I worked in intellectual property licensing for about 14 years. And I was dealing there with authors and publishers and organisations who needed to use copyright materials. So involved lots of negotiating and contracts. And I really enjoyed that work.

My last kind of ‘regular job’ was heading up business development for a small and medium enterprise. They brought together C-suite executives from large corporations and their suppliers who helped the corporations  solve their major business issues. We organised private dinners and boutique networking events in five star venues in London and Europe.

That was really enjoyable as well. I was there for about 10 years, but again, I got to the age of 50 and I thought, I need to now think about what I want to do going forward. 

Japanese geisha The Real Japan

Geisha are an iconic image of the colour of travelling across Japan

Lauren: I'm a professional colour consultant and now merging over into the world of art and podcasting, so I wanna begin a discussion on the colours of Japan. When I was there with my son, we just saw so much, and it was fascinating to me the way that colour was utilised, both on billboards, as well as in some of the architectural spaces. What times of year are best for people to go and see the most colour in Japan? 

Me: This is a popular question, and I have a blog post all about it called The Best Time To Visit Japan – All You Need To Know. Most people know Japan for its sakura season in the spring, the cherry blossom. But the problem with that time of year is you have to share those views with literally millions of local and international tourists. And then you have to pay the inflated hotel prices and things like that. So there's pros and cons to going in these kinds of peak periods. 


The best 'bang for your buck' season to visit Japan

Generally, for most people, I actually recommend autumn or fall as the country is transformed top to bottom by the leaves changing colour, and this lasts an awful lot longer than the cherry blossom season. Cherry blossoms are literally a handful of days in each area. So it's fleeting - over a couple of weeks. In the autumn, you've got a much better chance of capturing the best views. And it's more widespread because 72% of Japan is covered in forested mountains.

So you're never that far from nature when you're in Japan. It’s a  really good ‘bang for your buck’ season in terms of colour. In the summer floral fans head to the northern island of Hokkaido because they have some really dramatic flower and lavender blossom displays around the Furano region. And then, if you wanted to do the complete opposite, head to Japan's extreme south, down to the Yaeyama Islands, which are kind of way beyond even Okinawa. Down there you'll see stunning clear blue seas contrasted with sort of the vivid reds and purples you get of bougainvillea, which naturally grows there.

bougainvillea on Taketomi Yaeyama Islands Okinawa Rob Dyer The Real Japan

Vivid displays of bougainvillea on Taketomi Island, part of the Yaeyama Island chain in Okinawa Prefecture

Lauren: I noticed the way that women dress impeccably well, very beautifully, very femininely, but their colour palette is very neutral. Contrast that to all of the vibrant colours I saw in almost every city we visited. What is your opinion on that?

Me:  Yeah, that's a good point actually, I think it's about how Japanese society operates. The Japanese have a maxim which kind of translates as "The nail that stands out must be hammered down", which sounds awful, but it's quite true. I think this applies across much of daily life in Japan, actually. I believe this is indicative of a general desire to conform and not to upset the equilibrium.


Life in Japan is like living in a series of concentric circles

I think life in Japan is like living in a series of concentric circles. First of all, you have the family unit, then there's being a good neighbour, then being part of the local community, the town or the region. Japan actually has a very strong sense of regional identity driven by its people. When you look at the workplace, everything is team-orientated. Factory workers famously start their day with these exercise and singing routines, which are all designed to emphasise the group collective.

Going back to basics, I think this helps the Japanese cope with their natural disasters, because everyone automatically, you know, instinctively pulls together for the greater good. I think that's kind of typical of Japanese society, actually. 

Osaka architecture walk unique things to do Osaka The Real Japan Rob Dyer

The intersection of different structures is what helps makes Osaka's architecture stand out from other cities

I'm interested in what you said about Japanese architecture, because I'm a big architecture fan. I've written a few times about architecture in Japan, and I think there are some cultural similarities there as well, because a lot of outsiders view the Japanese race and society as a kind of homogenous, conforming mass.

That's partly because of the way they're portrayed in the media. Whereas architecture in Japan is wildly varied and bold and often ugly to some eyes. That also seems at odds with the kind of individual who has to conform. So when it's, when it's people, I think there's conformity, when it's in the commercial world it's almost like there's a free for all.


Things visitors to Japan should understand and respect

Lauren: The way I interpreted it, with my limited knowledge, I figured the reason that they dress with more neutral colours and a little conservatively had to do with respect, conservatism, and just a quiet strength. Speaking of culture, what one or two things should non-Japanese visitors really understand and respect when visiting Japan? 

Me: I think this does go back to that maxim about the 'nail that stands out must be hammered down'. When I travel in Japan, and this is true wherever I go, but most particularly in Japan, I always try to blend in and be noticed as little as possible. This is what most Japanese people do as they go about their daily lives. For example, you won't generally hear people talking on the telephone when they're on public transport. You won't see people walking down the street and eating like you would in the West. 

Most Japanese won't speak much English. So I always recommend learning a few survival phrases at the very least. Take a dictionary if you're a bit old school like me (!)  or use something like Google translate to at least make a modest effort. What effort you make will be much appreciated no matter how awkward your pronunciation might be.

do not use phones on trains in japan Rob Dyer The Real Japan

Signs on trains remind travellers not to talk on their phones and to place them in silent mode


And if you speak little or no Japanese then you might actually be surprised at how accommodating random strangers will be in trying to help you. I've heard lots of stories of this and experienced this myself. Locals literally going out of their way to show and help people, not just point them in the right direction.

If anyone wants any more tips on this, I do have a post called Top 7 Etiquette Tips For Travel in Japan.

Listen to the podcast episode in full using the player below:

Coloring My Way Across The Globe Podcast - Episode 5: Japan Travel and Culture with Rob Dyer of The Real Japan

Penpals, Depeche Mode and meeting my future wife

Lauren: A lot of my listeners love a good love story. You mentioned in the beginning of the interview that your wife is Japanese. Inquiring minds need to know how you met and just tell us a bit of your love story if you don't mind!

Me: Actually, I do have a good romantic story to tell! Back in the 1990s my wife and I were (and still are) fans of the English band called Depeche Mode. And we were both members of the Depeche Mode fan club. They used to publish a printed club magazine, including a pen pal section. So I just found anyone who was living in Japan and started writing to them. I was writing to about six pen pals at the same time. They gradually stopped writing and only one of them continued - and that was who became my future wife.


Getting married at a Shinto Shrine

We got married in the UK and then we got married on the exact same day, one year later in Japan, at Ikuta Shrine in Kobe, which is one of Japan's three oldest Shinto shrines. That was a traditional Shinto ceremony. My mum and sister came over for the wedding, which was great. The way the Shinto ceremony works is that only the groom speaks the vows and the bride simply agrees to them.

But those vows are kind of in ancient Japanese. I don't know what the correct term is, but it is like old, old Japanese and it's nothing like the modern language. So I had to learn it by heart phonetically. They give you this scroll with the old kanji Japanese characters, and I showed it to my wife and her family and they couldn't read most of it.

Rob Dyer shinto wedding Ikuta Shrine Kobe The Real Japan

My wife and I getting married during a shinto ceremony at Ikuta Shrine in Kobe

So I had to learn all that phonetically. I messed up just one bit. So that was a pretty unforgettable, kind of immersive cultural experience. Whenever I'm in Kobe, I always go back to revisit that shrine often around new year time.

Lauren: I love that the two of you already had these common interests and it just made it a natural extension. When we were travelling we happened upon a wedding ceremony. We did not take pictures. We just walked pass very quietly, we gave a moment of silence and reverence, but it was a beautiful experience and we were there with a bird's eye view, but nonetheless, it was lovely. 

Me: It's surprising how often you see wedding ceremonies taking place. The Japanese invoke religion when they want it at times in their lives. Generally they're not that religious, but at major points in their lives, particularly with births, deaths, and marriage, then they'll kind of use religion to sort of make the most of that and make it a special memory.


How I can help you experience exceptional travel in Japan

Lauren: Let’s talk about the products and services you offer. The service I used was your Travel Planning Calls - I booked two calls. You asked me several questions, you gave me ideas and suggestions and helped create a travel itinerary for me. Please tell our audience the types of products and services you offer, because you offer everything from eBooks, to Google Maps as well as consulting. 

Me: The products are travel resources helping people plan their trips and for when they're travelling in Japan. I've have eBooks that focus on my most popular blog post: How to Travel in Japan Without When You Don’t Speak Japanese. That's my most popular eBook and that's gone through a couple of editions. I then produced  an audiobook version of that. There's also another book (Planning A Trip To Japan) which focuses on all the different aspects of planning, because that's what most people use my site for. 

Travel & Planning eBooks & Audiobook bundle The Real Japan Rob Dyer

I do hope to publish more books this year, and I've got outlines for three more, including a complete rewrite and expanded version of my How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese eBook.

My most popular service is my Travel Planning Calls where you can ask me anything about trip planning. Those are ideal for anyone who's struggling with the overwhelm of all the trip planning. There's just so many things in Japan, especially when it's a first time trip, it's virtually impossible to easily filter it down into a coherent but also comfortable trip. 

I spend a lot of time helping people narrow down big wish lists into something that's more practical. We jump on a Zoom call, you'll be sent a questionnaire in advance. From that I get to understand what your travel preferences, style and budget is, that kind of thing - so we can make the most out of the call. People get a copy of the video call recording, so they can focus on the call itself, on just having a conversation. They don’t have to worry about taking notes.

I follow the call by sending them travel planning notes from the call with specific individual feedback, advice and recommendations, and that will include links to online resources and experiences that people can book for themselves. The calls are a quick way to fast track any aspect of Japan trip planning.

[Since this interview I have also introduced a Travel Planning Support email service and Concierge - a premium full-service option. A side-by-side comparison of my service can be found on this page.]

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Hiroshima 'in your hand' - Google map city guides

And as you touched on, I recently launched a new series of Google maps city guides. These are detailed city guides that include pretty much everything you would need to plan a stay in a city. The first one is a Hiroshima city guide, and I refer to it as ‘Hiroshima in your hand’, because it’s designed to save you not only time and money, but it includes pretty much everything you'd need to pre-plan the trip, book your accommodation, even reserve restaurants through an English-language platform, things like that. 

All the maps I'm releasing will include unlimited, free lifetime updates. So you'll always have the latest version available. All the content in the map is grouped into categories. There's tabs you can click on to look at accommodation, restaurants, transportation, the most popular attractions - all those kinds of things. In the case of Hiroshima, there's 10 historic atomic bomb sites. You could book food experiences. So if you want to do sushi-making, or craft classes, something like that, those are all possible to book through the app. 

VIDEO: Discover The Real Hiroshima! City Guide Google Map Walkthrough

I also include my one, two, and three-day itineraries. So if people want detailed plans for each day and want to use that as their guide, they can. It also comes with a 14-page PDF Hiroshima city guide, which is written by a local resident and tour guide called Joy Walsh. Each map comes with an accompanying walkthrough video showing you how to use it. A lot of hours goes into creating each map so they speed up the process of doing all the research groundwork by doing it for you.

Lauren: You answer specific questions and you create your eBooks, travel guides and so many products and services. There's something for everybody. And you're quite generous with the amount of free knowledge that you give out on your website and blog posts. It's quite generous of you to do this for your audience. And again, people can work with you as specifically as they need to or as generically as they need to. 

Me: So I want to serve as many people's needs as I can, but my passion lies in the sorts of things that you're interested in as well, such as getting off the beaten path. So I'm always helping people, doing a little bit of initial hand holding just to give them a bit of encouragement, particularly if Japan is a country that they have not visited before


Travel engaging all the senses

Lauren: Speaking of off-the-beaten-path, one of the things I want to do with my mission with my podcast is to chronicle the most colourful people, places, and experiences I encounter off the beaten path. And you are certainly one of those people who I've encountered in this journey. I want to close with a question for you. It's what I ask all my guests: what does it mean to you to live a colourful life?

Me: That's a good question, quite a tricky one. My wife and I both, and this was independently before we hooked up, we both love to travel, we always have done. For me, the thing about travelling is it engages all the senses, which is what makes it so enriching. I think travelling is colourful living because after Japan, Greece is my favourite country and we visit it as often as we can. 

hiking in Naxos Greece Rob Dyer

Hiking in Naxos - possibly my favourite island in Greece

Helping people have better lives through travel

Being able to visit different countries and striving - because you kind of sometimes have to force yourself to have new experiences when travelling - to me that just kind of builds up like a rich library of memories which are going to be unique to me. My travels and the things that I love about travelling are always going to be unique to me and to any individual. This is why I love sharing those experiences or that passion with others. Helping other people have better lives, if you like, through travel. 

There's just no greater reward than hearing stories like yours of people I've helped experience a kind of deeper, richer travel in Japan. And so this is the focus for what I do professionally, but also what I love to do personally as well. 

Lauren Battistini Coloring My Way Across The Globe podcast

About the Author

World traveller and colour expert Lauren Battistini chronicles the most colorful people, places and experiences she encounters off the beaten path in her global travels in her podcast Coloring My Way Across The Globe.  

Rob Dyer The Real Japan

About the Author

A writer and publisher from England, Rob has been exploring Japan’s islands since 2000. He specialises in travelling off the beaten track, whether on remote atolls or in the hidden streets of major cities. He’s the founder of TheRealJapan.com.

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Resources

Listen to the podcast episode in full using the player below:

Coloring My Way Across The Globe Podcast - Episode 5: Japan Travel and Culture with Rob Dyer of The Real Japan

Japanese culture love story podcast Rob Dyer The Real Japan

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Book Your Japan Rail Pass
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