After traveling on my own for a year, I was excited to meet up with my family in Japan. We haven’t seen each other since our month-long romp through Bosnia/Croatia/Italy at the end of last summer (http://whereintheworldissandy.com/2016/10/09/family-reunion-in-bosnia-herzegovina-and-croatia/). This time we would be spending six weeks seeing Japan and then South Korea for a first-ever family trip back to the Motherland and country of my birth.
I was looking forward to seeing Japan, a country that friends and fellow travelers consistently rave about, but candidly as the daughter of a Korean woman who remembers the devastation of Japanese occupation, I was cautious with my enthusiasm at least with mom around. My sister Sylvia a lifelong anime fan and artist has always been openly admiring of Japan, much to mom’s chagrin. My hope was that despite the long, complicated and devastating history between Korea and Japan, that we would all enjoy our time together and as soon as I saw their adorable faces at the airport, I knew that we would.
Tokyo is a perfect metropolitan puzzle, buildings of every size and shape that seem to perfectly together, like Tetris pieces. Everything is exceptionally clean with a sometimes annoying lack of public trash cans (because you carry it home or to the office where it can be disposed of privately). And despite the dense population, it all feels speedy and silently orderly. I’ve never seen such a big city full of so many people, cars and other forms of transport, lights, and distractions making such minimal noise.
I’ve heard that not many Japanese people speak English and that proved to be quite true, but their reputation for politeness is also spot on. My first day in Tokyo, I wandered around lost trying to find my Airbnb in the Kyobashi neighborhood and it’s easy to be lost in these small streets without names. A lovely young woman saw me walking around in circles, staring desperately into my phone at Google Maps and approached me and we did a variety of body and hand gestures trying to communicate. I showed her the directions from my Airbnb host, which included like 10 screen shots of corners of buildings directing me to the apartment none of which include street names because as I already mentioned, there are no street names. This woman proceeded to walk a few circles with me for the next 10 minutes and I was so grateful and astounded by her patience and kindness so when we found the building, I was happy she initiated a hug because I was thrilled to give her a grateful squeeze.
We explored Tokyo using its amazingly efficient public transportation system, using mostly their subways and trains to get around the city. A tip for those who are going to travel around Japan, go ahead and buy the JR Rail Pass. It’s expensive, but worth it. Not only does this pass allow you to travel buy the famous Japanese bullet trains from city to city, but the JR lines also run all over the Tokyo province as well and the pass is good for those trains and you can use that pass as much as you’d like for the period that your pass is valid.
Food Glorious Food
Like Godzilla, we destroyed everything in our paths. Well, everything that’s edible, including the sushi, savory ramens, crispy tonkatsu (deep fried pork cutlet), yakitori (skewers), mochi (sweet rice cakes) at every turn and so many things. Japanese cuisine is delicious and always beautifully presented even when you’re eating at the most casual izakaya. In fact, our first night in Tokyo, we wandered to a local izakaya and were given enthusiastic welcomes in Japanese and the menu which was all in Japanese (as are most menus in Japan) and pointed to pictures of food that looked relatively familiar or just yummy. The tiny cafe was filled so the waiter made an impromptu table for us with a few plastic crates and a piece of wood that they put together on the small street outside the restaurant. The three of us squatted, graciously ate the delicious meal and laughed as the only cook who is apparently also the logistics person left the grill, jumped on a bike and returned in about five minutes with stools for the next group of patrons to sit on the street next to us.
Akhibara Anime Heaven
Sylvia got to live her greatest fantasies in this neighborhood that’s known for being the center of the anime universe. There are enormous digital and traditional billboards with bright, sexy but adorable anime girls, game rooms, toy stores and fans lined up we don’t know what, but it was definitely something to do with anime. As you wander the streets, there are young woman dressed in cute skipper or maid costumes with bright bows in their hair and they invite you to come and have dessert in a maid cafe. So we did and I described it as a happiness nightmare where everything is over-the-top cute. We were given cat ears to wear and the cafe is decorated like a little girl’s tea party. When mom was initially asked to “meow-meow” when ordering her food and drink, she didn’t seem too keen, but we were all meow-meowing by the end. But don’t let all of this cuteness fool you, it comes at a cost, literally every part of it includes some kind of charge including taking photos inside the cafe.
Domo Arigato Mr. Robot Restaurant
There’s really no way to accurately describe this surreal experience in way that does it justice. It’s part musical, part dance performance with everything from unicorns, robots, dragons, lasers, and rainbows all colliding together for an unforgettable hour and a half. Yes, it’s very touristy and I think every foreign tourist in Tokyo was in the restaurant, but it’s also such a uniquely Japanese cultural experience.
Taking It Down A Level in Izu
We took the speed train to the Izu Peninsula to a small town just outside of Ito and stayed in a traditional Japanese house with sliding wood doors, sleeping on tatami mats, all nestled in a quiet street where the only sound are passing trains. It’s a totally sleepy town on the black rock/sand beach and like much of Japan, surrounded by mountains. We loved Izu, it’s scenic and quiet and we were able to slow down from the dizzying pace of Tokyo life. We saw some lovely temples, amazing volcanic cliffs and turquoise water, and mom and Sylvia rode ski lifts for the first time. Our favorite part of the Izu experience was visiting an onsen, a Japanese bath house that’s set in the mountains with an outdoor bath where you can sit in the steamy bath set outdoors overlooking the side of the mountain and you feel like Venus rising, all powerful, beautiful and nude. Mom, Sylvia and I spent a lot of quality time together this past month, including much of it with our clothes off visiting these awesome baths. When in Japan…
Kyoto the Florence of Japan
Everyone loves Kyoto and it’s because it’s gorgeous and timeless. In many ways, I felt like Kyoto was the Florence of Japan, not as much happening in the craziness of Tokyo, but there’s wonderful cultural liveliness and the history feels more tangible there. Part of that is because there are temples literally everywhere in the city and we stayed in Gion, the part of the city known for temples and a rare geisha sighting. There are a ton of kimono rental shops as many people, especially the young adults want to experience this city in traditional clothes. And as much as I love the ways these kimonos look, I have to say that with 90+ degree weather and 300% humidity, I didn’t envy these pretty ladies in their clothes and struggling up these steep streets in their wooden sandals.
We were lucky enough to meet my new friend Ben from the US who is living in Kyoto so we got a personal tour of this amazing city. Ben’s incredibly knowledgeable and excited about Japan so it was fun to see the city with him and he took us to some awesome places, including Kinkakuji Temple (the Golden Temple), Ryoanji Temple the home of Japan’s most famous rock garden and a drizzly walk down Philosopher’s Path.
My favorite part of Kyoto was the bamboo forest in the northern part of Kyoto. I loved Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and one of the most memorable scenes from that movie took place in this bamboo forest. It’s otherworldly and you’re slowly meandering through green serenity.
Oh Yeah Osaka
We ended our fabulous journey through Japan in Osaka, the country’s second largest city. It had many of the amenities of Tokyo but felt far less dense and immense. The city’s most famous for food and we definitely know why as we had some of our favorite meals in Osaka. I also got to see my friend Shun whom I met in Australia and we quickly became lifelong buddies. He lives in Kobe not far from Osaka and met us at the Osaka Castle stop and brought us to an insanely delicious ramen place. After stuffing our faces with salty savory ramen, we explored the incredible Osaka Castle. It was like 200 degrees that day, but we loved every minute of it and loved seeing it with my favorite Japanese friend.
In the end, we all left having a greater appreciation of Japan, the modern and ancient aspects, the food, the polite and kind people and ease with which you are able to travel the beautiful country even if none of us spoke Japanese (well Sylvia remembers some from years of anime and mom recalled a bit from childhood). And it was so wonderful to get to connect with friends during this trip to Japan, generously giving their time and hosting us in their respective cities. To them and to the quiet and polite people of Japan “domo arigato goziamasu”.