Thursday, March 5, 2015

We Went to Japan!

Hi friends,

What you may or may not know is that we went to Japan in February. It came about when we realized that for the next six months, we didn't have a lot of travel time left. It's pretty much straight-school until our contracts finish up in August. So we seized the day and bought tickets for Japan.

Frankly, we didn't know much about Japan. We didn't have super-specific things we HAD to do while we were there (which maybe we'll regret later) but we just figured, let's show up in Tokyo and wander around. And that we did. 

The flight from Seoul to Tokyo is a little over two hours. This isn't lost on me: We live two hours away from Japan. Whoa. We flew into Narita airport and as we were going through customs, I saw some large guys and some big hair. I motioned to Jeremy, "Look at those guys. They look like they are in a band." The more we snuck glances the more we realized: Oh, yeah. That's the band KISS. It was a dead give away when an American guy said, "Mr.Simmons, can I take your picture?"

But being that we aren't huge fans and we didn't want to be that guy. Instead, I creeped on an innocent guy just trying to stand and mind his own business. Yeah, I'm that girl.

The fun/terrifying part about travelling in a new country is navigation; trying to find your way, trying to find the bus station, trying to find your hotel, trying to find anything at all. Especially when that new country speaks a different language.

Gratefully, we didn't have much trouble. We stayed at an Air BnB and our host was quite helpful in getting us there. We got a bus at the airport, drove two hours to the Tama Plaza station, got a taxi and explained where we wanted to go with hand gestures and a map, and somehow--magically--found our way.

The place we stayed was almost church-like and so different that any of the neighboring houses and apartments. It had pretty stained-glass windows and at least ten bedrooms. The gal who runs it--a New Zealander who settled in Japan eight years ago--rents out rooms to Japanese and travelers alike. It was a good gig.

Our first day in Tokyo, we were told to walk to the station and take the train north toward the city center. Easy enough (we thought...). Finding the train station was our first adventure and then, getting to the train station and realizing, Oh, we don't how to use these automated ticket things. That was fun. We stood awkwardly in the way as busy commuters tried to get past us. We looked around for a friendly pair of eyes. We asked, "Do you speak English?" to which we've learned everyone will say "No" even if they are practically fluent. But if you say, "A little?" they'll agree. 

We bought tickets to Shibuya because it was a station name we recognized. Public transportation is a thing in other parts of the world. People use it. All the time. To go every where. I know America's a big place, but I really wish we'd find a way to make better use of public transit. So handy. So much better for the environment.

Another way to get around are taxis. And I just think they are darling. They looked kind of classic in their shape and design. The rear-view mirrors are up front and they come in yellow, orange, green, red, I think we saw a purple one, too! However, this option is super pricey because as soon as you sit down, you're already paying about $7 and you haven't even moved!

Upon getting to Shibuya, we came above ground to look around. We wandered the shopping streets and Jeremy found these slick glasses. The city is just as modern as any other. Lots of familiar stores and restaurants. 

We looked around this area for awhile and then headed to Tokyo station which is kind of city center where I heard there were some English information booths. YAY ENGLISH! It's a super-pretty building.

Gratefully, the information people were awesome and helped us plan out our trip and loaded us up with maps. Yay! We knew that this stop would get us to the Imperial Palace, so we walk about three blocks from here to find it.

The inner grounds and palace are not actually open to the public, but you can see the East Gardens and some older remnants of towers and buildings from the past. I can't give you a full, detailed history or anything, but it was a pretty place and we found grass. Which was so exciting that we laid in it for awhile. It was a beautiful day.

From the palace, we found a free shuttle bus and took a little tour of the area around Tokyo station. We had scouted out a few restaurants that looked good and went in search of Mexican food. That's right, friends: we are in Japan and eating Mexican food. Why? Because we don't live in America in the land flowing with chips and salsa. This is exotic in Asia.

FYI: We found restaurants to be a bit pricey in Japan. For example, that "chips and bean dip" that we ordered on the orange plate cost $5. Yeah.  That's like a dollar for each chip.

On day two, we heard it might rain, so we headed to the Tokyo National Museum. It was on the north side of the city and took a good 40 minutes to get there by train. But this one stop had several different museums, a zoo, and a nice park. We thought it would be more historical, but it was a lot of art work and that was pretty cool, too. Especially when you consider how most of the artwork was dated long before the existence of the little, baby United States. Crazy!

From here we took a train to Asukusa, a more traditional part of the city. We wandered into a neat little, shopping street that had lots of fans and tea pots and painted dolls and kimonos.

Then, we found this shrine we'd heard about. And as we visited during the Asian New Year celebrations, a lot of families were out visiting the temple and praying.

That night for dinner, we found some Japanese food: miso-baked rice balls, tuna rolls, and chicken yakitori. It was yummy.

From here, we took a train to the Akihibara district, nick-named "Electric City" for it's bright lights, anime and manga comic book stores, and massive, electronics stores. It's a gamers paradise. Thus, we felt a little out-of-place, but we found some yummy mochi and called it a night.

Oh yeah, we made a late night burger stop because we were famished from all that walking!

The third day we we a bit east of the city to Shinjuku district where we went 60 floors up in an elevator (my ears popped on the way up) to get a good look at the city. Unfortunately, it was pretty hazy that day. And while we hoped to get a decent view of Mt. Fuji, it was too dreary. 
But from here, we headed to the Harajuku district to see the Meiji shrine. It's like the Central Park of Tokyo: a large, heavily wooded area standing in stark contrast to the sky scrapers on either side. It was probably my favorite part of the trip: quiet, pretty, and peaceful.

Before entering the shrine, we were directed to cleanse our hands and mouth before entering. 

This is a place were people could write their prayers and wishes from the coming year, a popular tradition--we heard--during the Asian New Year.

Upon watching for a long time, we finally gathered the process at the shrine (which I don't have in pictures, but just trust me):
-people pick up a wooden box with sticks in it, shake it, and take one out
-this is their fortune for the coming year
-they take the stick to a counter where they pay maybe a dollar for a small token related to that fortune
-then, they take the token to the temple, toss it in front of the Buddha and say a prayer

 From here we walked just across the way to Takeshita street, a place we'd heard was popular with "the youths." It was, indeed, an interesting place. Very sub-culture. A lot of grunge music, dark make-up, and black clothing. There were many stores that boasted the F-word, just for the shock factor, I suppose.

This is where I saw some really interestingly dressed Japanese young people that I didn't try to get a picture of, but trust me when I saw we saw a lot of people dressed like this:

From here, we stumbled upon an Indian restaurant and nothing on heaven or earth could stop me from going in. Yum!

We walked around Harajuku for awhile longer, which slowly morphed away from the punky stores to the more ritzy styles of Coach and Prada. 

On our train back toward home, we stopped again at Shibuya where Jeremy wanted to snap some pictures of this crazy intersection famous for its sheer volume of pedestrians every five minutes. It's kind of fun to watch.

So fun, in fact, that Jeremy wanted to run out into the middle and get a picture. He's the one below in the blue jeans and green shirt laying in the middle the cross-walk. That guy.

It was a short three day adventure in Tokyo. It was interesting to travel from one Asian country to another not knowing exactly how they would be similar or different.

We didn't know what to expect in Japan. Before we left, one of Jeremy's co-teachers who is particularly well-travelled told him,
"I think you will like Japan better than Korea" which--at the time--felt like such a strange thing to say, being that Korea has been our home for the past 18 months.

But, to be honest, after only three days in Japan, we kind of understood what she meant.

And that's not to say that we don't like Korea or that we wish we lived in Japan. But Japan quickly felt more quickly familiar to us in a way that is difficult to explain.

In Korea, I can spot a foreigner a mile away. I have never confused a Korean person for a foreigner.

In Japan, I was regularly stealing second glances at people that I thought were foreigners at first, but turned out to be Japanese. I kept seeing people that reminded me of a neighbour or a friend in the States. It was weird.

And the reason I think this kept happening is because Japanese people (at least in Tokyo) seem to look very diverse. The first thing we noticed in Japan is that people look so different but from each other. Maybe the more-Western ideals of individualism have sunk into the culture. But there was a lot of funky, non-traditional clothing styles. Chunky jewellery. Hair dyed in bright blues and purples. There was grey hair (something we rarely see in Korea, even among the older population)! I even saw some tattoos! Which isn't to say that none of these styles exist in Korea, we just see a lot less of them.

Our observations in Japan are not meant to be prescriptive. We know virtually nothing about the deep, history that makes these two countries what they are. And we are comparing our limited understanding of Korea with three days in one city in Japan. These are just a few interesting things we noticed.

We enjoyed our brief stay and appreciated Japan for what we were able to see. But we were certainly happy to get "home" to a place where we can at least ask for directions and order food in the local language. Whew!

What a blessing.