Reflections on Japan

Finally, just over a month after I got back, I’m ready to write my last post on the trip.  I’d meant to do this last week, but after forcing myself to write the last four posts all in one sitting, I was all blogged out.

Contrary to my normal style, my Japan posts consisted of many more photos than words.  That wasn’t out of laziness or boredom, it was a reflection on the trip itself. This post will likely contain more English words than I spoke during my nearly 2 weeks there.  Aside from some storekeepers in touristy areas and some of the younger generation, the number of Japanese who spoke English was fairly small.  Add in the fact that I’m naturally reserved around strangers (and the Japanese are naturally reserved in general), and it’s no surprise that there wasn’t a lot of small talk going on.

But the lack of spoken words didn’t diminish my experiences and observations. Here are just a few of the things I want to be sure to remember when I’m elderly and senile and looking back on the good ol’ days:

1. Japan is CLEAN.  Amazingly clean.  I’m used to NYC – often dirty, even in the richest areas, and full of rude, ignorant people.  Tokyo is larger and more crowded, yet I never saw the slightest bit of trash on the ground, not even a cigarette butt, despite the fact that a great many people smoke.  Even the subway platforms were spotless.

2. The Japanese are also almost-flawlessly polite.  I never heard a raised voice the entire time I was there, no matter how crowded or miserable the surroundings were.

3. It’s weird to be the only white person.  I knew there wouldn’t be a lot of us, but I also thought there would be a sizable enough ex-pat population so I wouldn’t stand out like a sore thumb.  No such luck. I can’t tell you how many times I discreetly glanced around the subway car/city block/museum/store and confirmed that, yes, I was indeed the only non-Asian person in the visible area. I was stared at nearly everywhere I went, especially when I was purchasing food in the local convenience store.  But, true to the polite nature of the Japanese, they weren’t malicious stares, and no one ever said anything….that I could understand, anyway 😉 The only slightly unpleasant experience was when a group of seven-or-eight year old boys decided it would be a great idea to come over and swarm around me to satisfy their curiosity   But, having a ten year old brother myself, I know boys will be boys and there was no harm done.

4.  Traveling is about going outside of your comfort zone.  When I travel in the US, my meals usually consist of Subway and/or McDonalds, because they’re cheap and not extraordinarily unhealthy.  But in Japan I made a concerted effort to try new things….within reason, of course, because I’m allergic to seafood and didn’t want to spend my vacation miserably sick.  I think I did fairly well.

5.  History is beautiful. There’s just something about walking through a temple that was built 1000 years ago.  It’s especially striking when you can walk 1/2 a mile in any direction and be in the center of a bustling metropolis.

6.  Adjusting back to the US was almost as hard as adjusting to Japan.  I had a layover in LA on the way back.  I can’t tell you how many times I had to remind myself to walk on the right side of the hallway (not the left) and to say “excuse me” and bite back the “sumimasen” that automatically bubbled up if I bumped into someone. It was weird.

7. If I ever moved to Japan, I would become more fashionable by default. If you picked out ten random girls, one might be wearing jeans and one might be wearing flats.  And they wouldn’t be the same girl.  Next to all of these impeccably dressed ladies, I felt like a slob in my dark jeans and black sneakers.

8. It’s ALWAYS best to blend in as much as possible, but sometimes you have to bend the rules a little.  I’d been wondering whether to post this story or let it fade away in my memory, but just because I’m not proud of it doesn’t mean I should ignore it. You see, I bought a ticket from Tokyo to Narita airport for 1200 yen on the day of my departure.  I misunderstood the fare signs and thought I had purchased a ticket for the super-express train (since I had paid only 1000 yen to get from Narita to Tokyo on the 1st day, I assumed the extra 200 yen charge was for the 10 minute faster trip).  When the ticket collector came by, I learned that the ticket for the express train was really 2400 yen, and the 1200 yen ticket was just an increase in price for the same train I’d taken on the way there.  Here’s the problem- I didn’t have 1200 extra yen, I was down to my last 800. The conductor told me to talk to the people at the airport station to settle up.  I fully intended to get some yen out of an ATM and pay the difference (1200 yen is about $14), but when I got there, there were no ATMs or anything similar in sight.  And the gates to go through to the airport didn’t have any barriers.  So after about 10 minutes of deliberation, I just walked through.  My flight was going to leave in a couple of hours and I had no idea how long check-in and security would take.  Missing the flight was not an option.  So I skipped out on half the fare.  Am I proud of it? No way. I felt sick to my stomach.  But I did what I thought I had to do to get home and, in the grand scheme of things, it was an honest mistake and not such a heinous crime.  Next time I’ll triple check the fare charts to make sure I completely understand what I’m getting into. And keep more extra cash. Live and learn.

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Day 12- Tokyo and Departure

My flight left at 3:55pm local time, so I had the morning to do some last minute exploring/souvenir shopping (you know, the obligatory souvenirs for my grandparents and friend’s mom which I really didn’t want to buy but didn’t have much of a choice since she always brings me stuff…).

 

The main stop of the day, planned since Day 1, was the Starbucks overlooking Shibuya crossing.  There’s just something about people watching from above that is sooo interesting. I followed this up with a quick walk around Shibuya and Yoyogi Park and a quick lunch at Meiji before picking my luggage up at the hostel and heading to the airport for the long, long journey home.

The sun made picture-taking difficult

The sun made picture-taking difficult

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Food of the Day:

Matcha latte

Matcha latte

Deep fried tofu and soba. Doesn't get any better :)

Deep fried tofu and soba. Doesn’t get any better 🙂

Day 11- Tokyo

My last full day in Tokyo, and I made sure to make the most of it. In the morning I headed to the free observatory towers of the Metropolitan Government Buildings:

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Then it was back to the artificial island/shopping oasis of Daiba:

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Then over to the fashionable, up-and-coming district of Roppongi

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This reminded me of Beauty and the Beast

This reminded me of Beauty and the Beast

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Next was Ginza, which is the equivalent of 5th Avenue Shopping in NYC

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Finally, it was back to Akihabara (aka Electric Town)

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Food of the Day (another day of out of control snacking):

Matcha Latte

Matcha Latte

Very strong oolong tea

Very strong oolong tea

Oku-flavored yakisoba - fried noodles with 3 very over-easy eggs on top.  Yummy.

Oku-flavored yakisoba – fried noodles with 3 very over-easy eggs on top. Yummy.

Mini-Belgian waffle - these were also very popular

Mini-Belgian waffle – these were also very popular

Warubi Mochi and Green Tea ice cream... again :)

Warubi Mochi and Green Tea ice cream… again 🙂

Dango Tray

Dango Tray

Day 10- Tokyo

I have to apologize ahead of time for these last few posts.  I’d gone to most of where I wanted to go in Tokyo already, so I spent these days mainly going back to places I really liked.  Hence, fewer new things to post photos of.  Day 10 saw me back at Senso-ji Shrine:

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Then Ueno

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And finally, Ikebukuro

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Food of the Day (I’ll be the first to admit that the snacking got a little out of control…but it was all so delicious and fairly cheap :))

Amazake - sweet sake. It tasted just like it was supposed to - sweet, strong wine.  Not my thing

Amazake – sweet sake. It tasted just like it was supposed to – sweet, strong wine. Not my thing

Curry, soba, and rice.  Funny story, I was practicing eating the rice with chopsticks (and doing just fine), but the woman who ran the shop came over twice to mime using the spoon.  It's like, I know you're just trying to be helpful, and I know I'm a foreigner, but I don't need help to eat my food!

Curry, soba, and rice. Funny story: I was practicing eating the rice with chopsticks (and doing just fine), but the woman who ran the shop came over twice to mime using the spoon. It’s like, I know you’re just trying to be nice and helpful, and I know I’m a foreigner, but I don’t need help to eat my food! I got this 🙂

Bikkle.  Another yogurt based drink.  Another disappointment.

Bikkle. Another yogurt based drink. Another disappointment.

Dotour milk-tea.  The consolation prize for the Bikkle. Much better.

Dotour milk-tea. The consolation prize for the Bikkle. Much better.

Misc rice-based sweet.

Misc rice-based sweet.

I couldn't resist something called "The Pungency."  Especially when the ad campaign featured Cinderella.  It turned out to just be milk tea.

I couldn’t resist something called “The Pungency.” Especially when the ad campaign featured Cinderella. It turned out to just be milk tea.

Japanese Plum Monjya

Japanese Plum Monjya

Kibidango - yet another rice-based sweet

Kibidango – yet another rice-based sweet

Green tea monjya

Green tea monjya

Day 9 – Back in Tokyo

After a very long, uncomfortable overnight bus ride back to Tokyo (I’ve decided to swear off overnight bus trips from now on.  They’re just not worth it), I arrived back in Shinjuku and took in the gorgeous architecture again before heading over to the Edo Tokyo Museum.

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Next to the Edo Tokyo Museum was the National Sumo Arena.  I didn’t go in, but I did see some sumo wrestlers in “full dress” through the fence, though I didn’t get any photos and kind of wish I could un-see them….

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I headed back down to Meiji shrine and Harajuku for more sight-seeing and lunch.

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Remember those tiny digital pocket pets we had to sneak into school so they wouldn’t die of starvation while we were away? Yep, there’s an entire department store dedicated to them….

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Dressing up is all the rage

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Unfortunately this was one of the few days with less than spectacular weather.  I had planned on heading to Akihabara after dinner, but the rain kept me inside 😦

 

Food of the Day:

Lipton Milk Tea

Lipton Milk Tea

When I saw this, I thought it was a corn-flavored drink and was intrigued.  Because no way would it be actual corn.  That would be too weird.  How wrong I was.  It was like cracking open a can of great giant corn from your local supermarket.  Good thing I was hungry when I got it :)

When I saw this, I thought it was a corn-flavored drink and was intrigued. Because no way would it be actual corn. That would be too weird. How wrong I was. It was like cracking open a can of great giant corn from your local supermarket. Good thing I was hungry when I got it 🙂

Soba in curry.

Soba in curry.

Cold kusamochi-type dessert

Cold kusamochi-type dessert

 

Strawberry latte.  A little too sweet

Strawberry latte. A little too sweet

Day 8 – Kyoto

This was my last day in Kyoto and involved a lot of the same old haunts (what can I say, I fell in love with East Gion, Gion, and the river area).  Really, the only new place I went was the Sanjyusangendo Temple.  It’s a very long hall with 33 columns (the name means 33).  Inside there is one large Buddha and 1,000 smaller golden Buddha’s on either side.  Unfortunately no photos are allowed on the inside, but it’s a very peaceful, beautiful place.

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Food of the Day (It was a day of snacking):

More coffee-like than anything else I had

More coffee-like than anything else I had

I <3 bubbletea.

I love bubbletea

I couldn't resist the Maiko Cappuccino

I couldn’t resist the Maiko Cappuccino

Yatsuhashi...again.  I actually tried the strawberry flavored this time, but didn't get a pic

Yatsuhashi…again. I actually tried the strawberry flavored this time, but didn’t get a pic

Kusamochi...again

Kusamochi…again

Torikara

Torikara

 

Day 7 – Kyoto

This was more of a laid back day than many of my others.  After a week of go-go-go, my body needed a break.  I still did a ton of walking, but tried to take it easy.  We’re also getting to the point in my trip where I start paying repeat visits to places, which means fewer pictures.

First up was Nijo Castle

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Then came the Imperial Palace gardens.  I was underwhelmed, but that probably had something to do with the fact that you couldn’t go inside the compound, you could just look at the large outer walls:

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The last new thing on the day was the Philosopher’s Walk.  It was incredibly peaceful, as the name would imply.

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Food of the Day:

Cocoteen cocoa- not bad, but grainy, like Swissmix

Cocoteen cocoa- not bad, but grainy, like Swissmix

La Matcha Latte.  Devine.

La Matcha Latte. Devine.

Kusamochi: warm rice cake filled with red bean paste.  Addicting

Kusamochi: warm rice cake filled with red bean paste. Addicting

Mitarashi. Grilled rice balls with sweet soy sauce. Amazing

Mitarashi. Grilled rice balls with sweet soy sauce. Amazing

Tempura Udon.  Not bad, but thick udon noodles are hard to eat with plastic chopsticks, so this was one of my more...challenging meals

Tempura Udon. Not bad, but thick udon noodles are hard to eat with plastic chopsticks, so this was one of my more…challenging meals