Japan. A country that’s made such a profound impact on the rest of the world, from technology and cars, food, and cultural phenomena such as geishas, sumo wrestling, karate and samurais, anime and gaming, and so many other cherished obsessions around the world. For me, it’s always been a place of wonder and fascination.
Since I now live in Hawaii, this was a natural choice for my first Asian vacation, although I feel like a traitor since I’m 1/4 Korean. But hey, a large majority of tourists and Asian residents here in Hawaii are Japanese, so there are a plethora of affordable nonstop flights. Plus, I figured Japan is Westernized enough that it’s a good cherry popper for visiting Asia.
Even still, Japan was a lot to get used to and take in. It’s overwhelming and outrageous for us Americans in so many ways, but it was thrilling and incredible at the same time. The American influence in Japan is heavy and can be felt everywhere you go. The one thing that I definitely did not expect and and struggled with the most was the language barrier, which made things difficult at times. Since so much is written in English alongside Japanese, you assume people know English but they’re extremely shy about speaking it. As Americans, we tend to go out there and expect everything is catered to us and made easy. Japan was Americanized just enough for the naïve to survive, but foreign enough to really push you out of your comfort zone and make things interesting.
My first impression of Japan was that everything I’d heard about it being immaculately clean was absolutely true. Even train stations and public restrooms were in much better condition than anywhere else I’ve been by far. I was really impressed. Another thing that proved itself to be true was that it was incredibly safe. I never once felt like I was in any danger. During my trip, I learned that this cleanliness and safety is due to the Japanese spending a considerable amount of time teaching children about CHARACTER in school. They learn the importance of integrity even before math and reading. So when they find a wad of cash or a wallet, they turn it in every time. And, as I witnessed, if they drop something on the ground, they are scolded to pick it up immediately. They do NOT litter because it’s considered extremely disrespectful (as it should be). This is a huge pet peeve of mine in the States and other countries where litter, spit, gum, and even urine line every street, so it was another thing that I loved seeing. They are definitely so ahead of Americans in ways like these.
Tokyo is a city that you can truly explore on your own if you’re willing to do a bit of research and figure out the huge subway system that is extremely efficient and punctual. We took the trains everywhere and it involved a lot of walking, stairs, and crowds; but it was the best way to really see Japanese people firsthand and get the real Tokyo experience. However, it’s best to avoid rush hour, as it gets unbelievably crowded, like you may have seen on an infamous video where people are stuffed in a subway car like sardines. Once you get the hang of the different lines and stops, you’ll be a pro. It’s definitely one of the best public transportation system I’ve used. Also if you ever travel here, keep in mind that the main airport, Narita, is about 2 hours away by car or train. The best option is the Narita Express train, which will cost a little more at 4000 Yen or $32 roundtrip, but it gets you to central Tokyo in under an hour.
On our first full day, we headed to the Disney area right outside of Tokyo since we wanted to visit Disney Sea, which has themes revolving around different seas or bodies of water. It’s the only one in the world, so we had to experience it. It was my first time at a Disney park, so I got myself some Minnie ears and had fun.
The next day, we ventured about an hour away via the subway to Kamakura, where I got to see a huge Buddha and then a gorgeous temple honoring my favorite deity, Guanyin, at the Hase Dera temple. This was one of the most beautiful and sacred places I got to see on this trip. After this, we visited the insanely busy Shibuya Crossing. When you see Tokyo on TV and in movies and there’s mobs of people crossing streets, this is what they’re showing you. It’s even more hectic in person. Finally, we headed to the Roppongi area, where I got to witness a gorgeous sunset on the rooftop of the 55 story Mori building. I could see the entire city including a great view of the Tokyo Tower, and in the reddish orange horizon, I could even see Mount Fuji! It was breathtaking and I could not believe my eyes. Simply unforgettable. I cannot recommend this “Tokyo City View” attraction enough.
Another highlight for me was visiting Senso-Ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo built it 645. It also consisted of a chaotic marketplace, pagodas, and beautiful gardens all before the magnificent shrine. There was an overwhelming amount of tourists, but that’s all a part of the experience. This is an absolute must in Japan. Also, we visited the anime district Akihabara, known as “electric town” to witness the notorious flashing lights, big screens, and people dressed up as cartoon characters everywhere. What an experience. Anime is a huge deal here and visiting this area will surely blow your mind. Not too far from here, we headed to see the Emperor of Tokyo’s home, Imperial Palace. It’s tucked away so you can’t see much of it, but there’s a very iconic bridge leading to it where hundreds of people are trying to get a picture at any given time. The fall foliage was just starting to come in so I really enjoyed seeing the colors among the bustling downtown cityscape. We also made a quick stop in the Ginza district just to check out this well-known upscale and high-end shopping area, which reminded me of Fifth Avenue. Speaking of which… Much of Tokyo will remind you of an Asian version of New York City – besides the occasional old world remnants, like a random pagoda amongst skyscrapers. Many areas, especially Shibuya and Shinjuku, were extremely similar to Times Square, though somehow even more chaotic and over the top.
One thing I was determined to do on this trip was to make it down to the Harajuku station. I have been obsessed with the Japanese street fashion this area is famous for since Gwen Stefani introduced it to the American mainstream over a decade ago. It’s basically a shopping mecca where young adults and teens frequent, often dressing in the outlandish outfits that Tokyo is known around the world for. I was SO thrilled that I got to see some girls dressed in “Lolita” and “kawaii” styles walking around the main strip, which is lined with girly and pastel colored boutiques. I am swooning just at the memory of it.
Another bustling area of bright lights and action was Shinjuku. Here you’ll find more shopping, theme restaurants, and also some seedy establishments, such as tiny bars where “salary men” go after work to “chat” with pretty women. Our whole reason for being here was to see the craziest production I’ll ever witness in my lifetime at the notorious “Robot Restaurant”. Here, scantily clad Japanese girls will giggle, sing, dance, and fight clowns, robots, monsters, and even a giant shark, all among laser lights, glowsticks, fog, and explosions. It’s basically a live anime, or for some, a real-life nightmare. Total and complete ridiculousness and a guaranteed good time. I cannot imagine visiting Tokyo and NOT seeing this!
On our last day, I had several hours before our 7PM flight, so I took the train to an area called Komagome to visit a gorgeous park, Rikugien, which is actually a garden of poetry. Autumn colors made this a gorgeous hike, and you can even climb an easy trail to a great view of the park from the top of a hill. I know landscape gardens are such a big deal in Japanese culture, so I did not want to leave Tokyo without visiting one. Next, I headed back to the Harajuku station, since this was my favorite area by far, to shop and check out the sights again. I also visited the last attraction I was determined to see, the Meiji Jingu shrine. This consisted of a long walk in the forest to a very lovely and historic shrine.
Overall, I had a great and eye opening trip, as expected. Tokyo is the most populous city in the world with almost 38 million people, all of whom seem to be in a big hurry. While those who work in the service industry are extremely professional, gracious, and polite; in general most of the population would come off as rude to many Americans. They hardly ever smile or show any emotion, they don’t cover their mouths when they sneeze or cough (which explains why so many wear masks), and they’ll walk right into you without an apology. So I can definitely understand the culture shock people experience here. While they’ve seen great Western influence without a doubt, this is a culture that is on the opposite end of the spectrum for many societal norms. It is simply fascinating to observe. I found it quite interesting that they have some things figured out way more than other countries, like technology and education. Yet, in some aspects, such as the treatment of women, they are still stuck in the past. Either way, values like respect, tradition, honor, modesty, and humility are deeply ingrained into citizens from an early age. It’s a paradox in many ways, but one that has something to offer everyone… from lovers of art and fashion, history buffs, foodies, anime fans, robot enthusiasts, you name it. I thoroughly enjoyed the extremeness of it all. Safe to say, you can add Tokyo to the growing list of cities I admire. The only thing I regret is not having enough time to visit other fabulous areas in Japan besides the big city, since there is still much more to be seen beyond the chaos of Tokyo. But I’m not worried about that too much, since this is one place I’m certain I’ll be returning.
(Visited and written in November 2014)