Monday, November 21, 2011

Try-Umph Travels: Japan

I had high expectations for Japan. I’d traveled to Osaka in 1999 and remembered its impact on me. I was amazed by what I’d considered a futuristic city. I couldn’t believe the children walking around with tiny cell phones when at home the only thing I had resembling such was a large, fairly stationary car phone. I couldn’t believe the vending machines that contained ice cream that I could—and often did—consume whenever I wanted. I couldn’t wait to experience 2011 Japan, and it did not at all disappoint.
My friend and colleague (now affectionately referred to as ‘frolleague’) is from Japan and she graciously agreed to take a few of us around her hometown. Of course the first thing on our agenda was food. We headed to lunch and enjoyed all the Kobe beef we could handle. Afterwards, we went to a 100 yen store. The best way I can describe it is a far more impressive version of America’s dollar store. There were so many interesting and fun items on the shelves. We all admitted to being overwhelmed.
That afternoon we visited the international school that my ‘frolleague’ attended. My favorite part was the conversation we had with her tea teacher. She was so welcoming as she showed us around the beautiful classroom space she uses to teach traditional tea ceremony practices. The day continued with a home visit where we met my friend’s mother, grandmother, and great-aunt. I was honored to sit down in her personal space and experience a splice of her home life.
What’s a trip to Japan without sushi and karaoke? We headed to a fast-food restaurant and experienced conveyor belt sushi. Plates of food and desserts slid around the tables. Whatever we found appetizing we simply grabbed. After conveyor belt sushi we headed to a karaoke bar. Even typing this puts a smile on my face. My friends and I laughed more than we sang—and we did some singing! It was a great time and I am sure that the mere memory will bring me joy many years from now.

The last time I was in Japan I regret not visiting Tokyo so Tokyo was most definitely on the agenda. After being personally escorted by my friend’s mother, four of us took the bullet train from Kobe to Tokyo. We arrived at the Tokyo train station and was met with option overload. Tokyo’s subway system has more than 250 stations! It took us some time to locate the train that would take us to the station nearest our hostel, but eventually we found our way.
We checked into our hostel which required all guests to remove their shoes at the entrance. This took some getting used to, but our accommodations were so adorable that we didn’t mind. Not only was our hostel great, the neighborhood was lovely. We were extremely pleased. We were located in Asakusa, an area that is deemed to have a more traditional Japanese flair than most in Tokyo. We were just around the corner from shops, restaurants, and historical sites. It was a perfect blend of modern and traditional culture.
We were prepared for how expensive Tokyo would be, but we were not prepared for how difficult it would be to get our hands on yen. Each ATM we visited rejected our cards for not being national cards. We had to make our dinner decision based on which restaurant would accept our credit cards. Of course, this became a source of laughter for us (probably because it doesn’t take much for us to laugh).
Noticing that we hadn’t watched any sports in over three months, we visited a sports bar so that we could get a football fix. While there we met several Americans. One couple was just visiting, but four of our new friends had relocated to Tokyo over ten years ago. It was great listening to them talk about their love for their home.
We spent our last evening visiting one of Tokyo’s most famous entertainment districts, Shibuya. Think Times Square in New York City minus the noise, litter, and unruly crowds. There were massive groups of people, but everyone is so orderly in Japan. Even if there are no cars approaching, no one crossed the street until the light instructed pedestrians to cross. Big, bright lights advertised everything from popular brands to boy bands. I could feel the energy of the city as we walked down the street. I loved it.

On our last morning we decided to visit the Imperial Palace and I was thoroughly impressed with the use of city space to create an oasis. As we approached, I was amazed at the level of peace I felt in such a cosmopolitan area. In the midst of large skyscrapers and government buildings there was lush grass and gorgeous fountains. It was beautiful and breathtaking.
We caught the train to Yokohama and as we reached the port where our ship was docked, I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave Japan. Even having the gift of experiencing such different facets of sections of Japan, from the 100 yen store, to the international school, to the Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, to the bustling Shibuya district, and the glorious Imperial Palace, I knew there was still so much more. I hope that wasn’t the last I’ve seen of Japan. I want more. Next stop, Costa Rica!

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