Ever since a grade five cultural unit on Japan, I’ve wanted to visit the country. Sumo wrestlers, sushi, haikus – the country seemed so far and exotic. There were also elements of Japanese culture that were a part of my childhood: Pocky, Hello Kitty, Twinstar, Melody and Zojirushi. Lastly, my grandparents also lived in Japan in the 80s and they always had Japanese products at home. In fact, I used to think that my grandma was secretly Japanese.
I started this leg of my trip by flying into Tokyo. On my train into the city, I sat next to a Japanese grandmother with purple hair; I immediately realized that the country will be different from any other I’ve been to.
Tokyo is a large, sprawling metropolis but despite having a population larger than Seoul, the city felt much less crowded and hectic. Why? That is because the Japanese have to be the most patient people on earth. They quietly queue and walk in a neatly-formed single file. If there is an extremely slow person holding up the line, they will still slowly walk behind the person. On the subway, they wait until everyone is off before getting onto the train.
I really enjoyed my time in Tokyo, but I cannot pinpoint what exactly I liked about the city. It certainly is not the most dynamic city, the architecture is not magnificent by any means and they don’t have the most amazing museums. However, I think overall they have lots of good elements that make the city great.
The cleanliness of the city is unbelievable, and the Tokyoites have to be applauded for their collective efforts in keeping the city clean. I did not see a single Japanese person eating and drinking while walking down the street. ( I have to admit that I did on a few occasions and felt like I was violating some social taboo). Smokers smoked in the designated areas. One odd thing about the city is the lack of garbage cans. On one occasion, I carried a bag of garbage on my arm for 4 hours while I desperately searched for a bin which, I found out later, are by the vending machines.
My favourite part of Tokyo was Shibuya.
In my opinion, it was the most fun part of the city; aspiring musicians could be found busking, businessmen were out drinking, blond-haired Japanese girls were preening, and I even saw a protest occurring.
The most hectic part of the city has to be Tsukiji fish market. I did not arrive early enough to catch the morning auction. But I did see the preparation, slicing and dicing of the fish. The fish looked oddly both disgusting and appetizing at the same time!
I visited the Asakusa area with my cousin’s friend Sayoko, a kind Japanese lady who took me to an izakaya. I had a great time discussing the differences between Japanese, Canadian and Korean culture.
After a few days in Tokyo, I headed to Kawaguchi to see Mt. Fuji, the notoriously shy mountain. On my first day there, it rained and it was hidden. On the second day the sky was a beautiful blue and Mt. Fuji was visible and glorious.
My next destination was Hiroshima: my favourite city in Japan. Unfortunately, I only had 1.5 days there. I visited the Peace Museum which is devoted to telling the history of the Hiroshima atomic bomb and committed to the abolition of all nuclear weapons. The museum was a very emotional experience and after 2.5 hours in the museum, I felt physically ill and had to leave. It’s amazing how many continue to live and endure despite seeing ther family and loved ones die so mercilessly. There are a few stories that are still firmly etched in my mind:
– A man and his uncle were inside their house while their aunt was outside when the bomb hit. When they went outside, all that was left standing was the skeleton of the aunt. The uncle ran to the aunt and said “I’m sorry” but when he went to grab her head, the bones collapsed to the ground
– A mother was badly burned in the blast but concerned about the well-being of her daughter she searched the town for a week before giving up. The daughter ended up being okay but the mother died from her injuries. She only lived for that week because of her love for her daughter.
These stories still haunt me.
After the museum, I cycled around the city. The city has wide boulevards and lots of green space.
In the late afternoon, I visited the island of Miyajima which is famous for its floating torii. When I arrived, the tide was low so it did not appear to floating but instead was surrounded my mud and seaweed.
In the evening, however, the water rised and I watched it for a few hours (from just before dusk until night).
Kyoto was my next destination. The city is indeed beautiful but I sometimes felt I lacked the sophistication to distinguish between the different temples. What makes one better than the other? I do know that my favourites were Choin-in and Nanzen-ji. At the former, a buddhist monk was chanting: a transcendental experience for me. At the latter, the temple was quite different than the others I had seen because it had an old bridge around the area.
I went karaoking with some hostel-mates. It was surprisingly fun once you got past the embarassment and shyness. The selection was amazing with songs from such bands like Sonic Youth, Weezer, Peter, Bjorn and John, and even Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. We were up until about 5 am and saw the sunrise. It was scary how fast the sun rises in Japan. In a 20 minute span, it went from dark as night to light as day.
Tired from 2 hours of sleep, two of my karaoke-mates and I still daytripped to Nara. I actually preferred Nara to Kyoto. The city lacked the garish neon lights found in other Japanese cities giving it a more intimate feel. The wooden building of Todai-ji was stunning.
My favourite observed moment in Japan occurred in a deer park of Nara. A little girl, about 2 years old, was holding some deer food. The deers tried to grab the food and the girl got freaked out. She kept turning to get away but there was a deer at every corner. It was like a bad horror film. I think the poor girl is traumatized for life.
My last destination was Osaka. I had been warned by a few people that there is nothing to do in Osaka so I only spent one day there. However, I loved it there and wish I had more time! It’s a bit crazy by Japanese standards, perhaps what Japan would be like if it was run by Koreans. I had no weird incidents in other parts of Japan but in Osaka, I was followed by two creepy men, one of which kept making sleeping gestures with his hand. I have no idea if he was asking me where I was sleeping or if I would sleep with him. I walked through the Dotombori and Ebisu areas which is full of crazy bright lights.
I found a cool record store blaring some France Gall over their speakers. Very cool.
I proudly proclaim Japan to be the land of geeks. Every generation seems to love electronics, video games, manga, anime and other things that are considered geeky in North America culture. Sega arcades, elecronic stores, hobby shops, fantastic toy stores are easily found. The oddest Japanese addiction has to be Pachinko, some game which I still don’t understand. Pachinko rooms are ubiquitous and the noises emanating from the machines are unbelieveable. It’s a combination of of pinball sound effects, cartoon noises, arcade game music all being sucked up by a loud vacuum cleaner. Businessmen, old ladies, young men are all addicted to the game.
Japan is a great country to visit. It’s not nearly as expensive as people think and in fact, I think it’s cheaper than Western Europe. You can easily find a nutritious meal for under $4 (a rarity in Canada), you get good bang for your buck in the hostels since they are so darn clean. Admission can add up but walking along the streets, visiting the cool stores and most gardens are free.