Japan

January 29 — February 3, 2014

Mt. Fuji as we landed in Yokohama

*Note: this was originally published via email February 4, 2014*

Yokohama

After weeks of trying, and often failing, to fight sea sickness on the Pacific Ocean, seeing Japan was a sight of joy (“Japan! We’re in Japan!”), relief (“Japan! No more pasta [our only food on our ship]!”), and anxiety (“Japan! How much is a yen!”).

For most students, including myself, this was our first time in Japan. For some, this was the first time they’ve been outside the United States. We were all excited and, as an indication of our anxiety, we had no idea how to pack; Many students tried stuffing everything they had into large travel bags, while some only brought their normal school bags. Some didn’t even bother bringing anything (those were the real travelers). In terms of travel, some ambitious and wealthy students planned to travel across the entire country. Some wanted to stay in Tokyo for the week, either to party all week or to feel safe close to the ship. Some were visiting friends and family and had the advantage of personal guides. But from the experts to the newbies, we were all sharing the same thought as we entered the Yokohama port and were greeted by a large and cheery Japanese drumming party — we’re in Japan! You know, that one place way across the world where English is a second language and 98% of the population is Japanese. For the first time, this 6’1’’ white American was a minority.

I was ready to go, backpack packed and itinerary memorized, but I was still nervous for our first port. This was the first real test for us SASers to see how well we would do traveling in a foreign country, and the horror stories we’ve heard from our professor about past SASers who did not travel well and the dangers they encountered made us even more nervous. But I had emails from my sister, a SAS alumna, guiding me on the best ways to travel in Japan, and the “Oh my God I’m circumnavigating the entire globe” adrenaline was still keeping me up at night with excitement to actually reach land. The only thing left to do was to actually do the traveling.

Before we could go to Tokyo, we first had to magically turn our American dollars into Japanese Yen. We were instructed to go to a post office where we could find an ATM, but once we got there we found no English in the entire building. For the first of many times, we struggled to convey to our new Japanese friends where we wanted to go or what we needed to do. But we eventually transferred our money thanks to the infinite patience of the Japanese workers and their willingness to make sure we understood how to work the ATM.

That’s the first thing we noticed about the Japanese — they are very helpful towards any strangers in their country, and they will always make sure you know where you’re going and, even if they can’t tell you, they’ll show you how to get there. We encountered so much help from strangers in Japan that we began to think more about how Americans treat Asian tourists and how unaccommodating we are in our own country. I remember one night when we were in a Seven-Eleven (the Japanese equivalent of CVS) trying to find a certain train station and the worker actually came around the counter and took us out of the store and walked us two blocks to the train station. You won’t find anything like that in America.

Our next challenge was a bit more complex — navigate through our first Japanese train station. Like most places in Japan, the train is a fascinating example of organized chaos. The busiest subway station in Chicago is nothing compared to a tame day in a Japanese Rail (JR) station, yet it’s the most efficient public transportation system I’ve ever seen. The JR would become one of our closest friends, as it took us around the different cities and even to and from different places across the country. Our group created many mottos to keep us motivated in Japan, and the first one was simple yet effective — “When in doubt, JR.”

Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo

Tokyo

Tokyo is divided up into several different districts, each one so large and distinct they could each be a major American city. The district we spent the most time in was the Shibuya district, which is Tokyo’s Times Square. When you get off the JR station you walk straight into the famous Shibuya Crossing, where crowds of people are crossing the street in every direction possible at the same time. At rush hour, it is the busiest intersection in the world. Our group had to cross this intersection many times in our exploration of Tokyo, and, like the shameless tourists that we were, we filmed ourselves crossing the intersection, dodging people left and right and laughing and looking like innocent annoying dorks.

In Shibuya we found the famous Tower Records music mega-store, which is seven floors of J-pop and One Direction. I heard so much One Direction in Japan that I was compelled to buy their Japanese CD, which marked my first CD in my plan to buy a CD in each country. But to save my music credibility with my hipster friends, I also bought a My Bloody Valentine B-side album, but of course One Direction will always be the music that reminds me of Japan.

We also encountered toilets with heated seats that played music and sprayed water up your butt, vending machines, love hotels, vending machines, conveyer belt sushi restaurants, vending machines, free smoking spaces (as opposed to paid smoking spaces), vending machines, five-story arcades, vending machines, cat cafes, vending machines, Jonah Hill denying SASers autographs, and much more. Oh, and in every city in Japan you encounter hundreds of vending machines full of funky carbonated drinks (and sometimes food).

The other district we spent a lot of time in was the Shinjuku district, or, as we called it, the “Pretty Lights District”. This is where we encountered the most lights and activity of Tokyo at night. This is where another one of our group’s sayings was created: “when in doubt, follow the pretty lights.” Part of how our travel group worked was that we would map out certain places that we wanted to go but we always took the long way to get there. At night, we simply followed where all the bright lights were and navigated through the neon skyscrapers and several-story shops while trying our best not to be over-stimulated. When in doubt, follow the pretty lights.

This is also the area of Tokyo where my group helped cross an item off my bucket list — karaoke in Tokyo. In the wee hours of the morning, after a night of drinking, we rented a private karaoke room in the heart of downtown Shinjuku and partook in an intense hour and a half of Tokyo karaoke. In Tokyo you rent out a private room that includes a flat screen TV, furniture, drink menus, a TV/karaoke remote the size of a watermelon, and a surround sound system that takes up half the room. You begin by ordering all your drinks first and then set up your set list as the drinks keep on coming, and when your list is set you press the large “karaoke” button on the remote and let the songs take over. Our set list included all the karaoke staples including Journey, R. Kelley, Beyoncé and Billy Joel (one of our friends was able to sing “We Didn’t Start The Fire” from start to finish without looking at the monitor), and I mastered my falsetto for N*Sync’s “Bye Bye Bye”. But of course everything sounds much better after a couple rounds of sake.

I was amazed by how quickly we adjusted to Tokyo after only a day of exploration. Tokyo is really just like any major city like New York or London — it might be a little overwhelming at first, but there are plenty of maps and guides that’ll direct you to where you want to go. And, if you’re patient and polite, you’ll find your way. However, we did encounter occasional language barriers that were specific to the Japanese language (we had fun trying to find our hotel off of Ushigoneyyanagicho Street).

Our travels started off on a high note because Japan will be the safest country we’ll travel in. It was strange to be in a country that was safer and cleaner than America and, because Japanese people are the friendliest people in the world, we were never lost for too long. In future countries, traveling will take much more effort and caution (the yen is also the easiest money to convert from the American dollar — just move the decimal over two places), but for now we were enjoying getting lost and feeling safe in the world’s largest metropolis. I felt proud that we had survived a day in Tokyo without any help from professors, and traveling in a foreign country became much less scary.

Day one was all about exploring, but in our second day in Tokyo we wanted to see some specific sights now that we knew the city better. Our first stop was the Park Hyatt Hotel in the Shinjuku district where one of my favorite movies Lost In Translation was filmed. We were nervous that we wouldn’t be allowed to take pictures of the hotel, but the front desk lady actually directed us to all the different parts of the hotel that were used in the film. She told us that the hotel sees plenty of moviegoers that come to the hotel just to see the familiar scenes and that it was fine for us to take pictures, so we took our time to check out the different part of the hotel. My friends made fun of me for being so excited to see a hotel bar, but they understood my love for the movie and were happy to join in and take photos of the hotel.

Our other major stop was in the expensive Ginza shopping district where we found the famous Sukiyabashi Jiro Sushi Restaurant, the subject of a recent sushi documentary Jiro Dreams Of Sushi, which follows the life of the restaurant’s owner and head chef Jiro, who is considered by many Japanese food experts the best sushi chef in all of Japan. A security guard was stationed in front of the restaurant to keep tourists away (you need to make a reservation six months in advanced), so we were not allowed to take photos. But it was still a great sight to see — we even saw Jiro through the kitchen window talking on the phone!

Another district we explored was the Harajuku district, which is an area full of girls (and guys) dressed up in their favorite anime costumes and walking through the many shopping alleyways selling cheap trinkets and strange food. It was also in this district where I encountered my favorite clothing store while studying abroad so far. The shop was called Chicago and it’s a high class thrift shop — imagine if you take out all the clothes out of any Goodwill that college students take out to fulfill their hipster desires and put them all in a single basement blasting great music. I was in heaven, and I was very close to buying a hot yellow dragon jacket to match Ryan Gosling’s outfit from Drive.

The last major highlight of our Tokyo adventure was waking up at four in the morning (which gave us a solid two hours of sleep after a full night of following the pretty lights) and taking the long subway ride across town to the Tsukiji Market, a famous fish market where you can find the freshest fish in all of Japan. In every direction you see fish of all shapes and sizes (some that I didn’t even know existed) being prepared and sold, and you’re constantly getting lost in the narrow alleyways full of buckets and tanks of fish. If anyone is traveling to Japan, I consider this massive and lively market an essential stop.

Our time in Tokyo was a great mix of exploration, sightseeing and nightlife, and part of me did not want to leave. I had fallen in love again with a culture that I had grown up with from all the video games and television that I watched, and the thought of leaving a familiar town for another unknown place and starting over didn’t seem like a welcoming idea. But we had to stick to our itinerary and we couldn’t stay in Tokyo forever, so it was time to jump on the famous bullet train and head towards Kyoto.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Kyoto

Kyoto

Kyoto was my favorite city in Japan, because it captured Japan’s history and of what modern technology can do to preserve and, at the same time, evolve its culture. This city is famous for its many traditional temples, but the city is advanced in its technology and design much like the rest of Japan. At night it was a lot quieter and wasn’t as tourist friendly, but a smaller city in Japan is still a massive place — we only had time to explore one section of the city over the two days and one night we were there.

The thing to do in Kyoto is to temple hop, and there are dozens of temples and shrines in the city, each one you could spend an entire day at. We managed to cross four temples off our list, the first one being the Yasaka Shrine, which we accidentally encountered at night while looking for a place to drink. This shrine was lit up at night and was on the way to our hotel, so we decided to stop in and kill some time. The shrine was decorated in hanging paper lanterns that lit up the dozens of mini prayer stations throughout the temple, each one forming a giant circle surrounding a massive decorated well that full of pieces of paper of payers written upon them. We were silent as soon as we entered this temple, and for the next thirty minutes our group separated and each of us explored the temple in silence.

It was at this shrine that I came to understand a little bit more about Japanese culture and how it approaches religion. The concept of western individualism versus eastern collectivism is easy to understand, but the flipped side is that religion is very collective in the west while it is intensely individual in the east. In our encounters with shrines and temples, we were never asked of our religion or turned away because of where we came from — all temples and shrines were welcoming of all people. In the west, it is not common to go into a church on your own, and when you do it’s for an hour with a preacher giving a sermon. In the east, there is no preacher to come between you and prayer — the temples allow for all people to come as they are and pray in the way that they wish. Our group was able to come in late and night and pray in the way that we wanted to, whether in out loud prayer or in contemplated silence, and it was a reminder of how different religions are seen throughout the world.

The other three temples we went to were a little bit more touristy, but they were no less impressive. We first went to the Fushimiinari-Taisha Shrine, which was along a mountainside and was covered in bright red toriis that guided you to the top of the mountain, and it would have taken us a couple of hours to climb to very top (we only had the stamina for one hour of climbing). Then we went to the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, a series of temples revolving around the largest temple in Kyoto. This was the most popular temple for tourists, and we encountered many SAS people in between the narrow roads full of tourist shops and restaurants where we also tried green tea ice cream and green kit kat bars. Our last temple was the Sanjusangendo Temple, which housed a thousand Senju Kannon statues behind thirty guardian deities of Kannon and in the center was a large golden statue of Buddha. It was the most impressive temple we saw in terms of beauty and design, but we weren’t allowed to bring cameras into the temple.

One major event in Kyoto that wasn’t temple-related was my first experience in a Japanese bathhouse. The bathhouse we went to was as big as a three-car garage and inside were two separated sides, one for each sex. Within each side are four different pools full of water of different temperatures, and we discovered that you start with the medium pool and work your way up to the hottest pool and then switching to the coldest pool until you came back to the medium pool. It took a lot of confidence for a group of American college students to venture into a bathhouse and have a, uh, cultural experience. But it was a lot of fun and actually relaxing, and at the very least we can say that we went to a Japanese bathhouse in Japan.

Todaiji Temple, which holds one of the largest Buddha statues in the world

Nara

The first thing you see when you exit the Nara train station is a tall plastic figure of a cartoon Buddha that looks like Elmer Fudd, with deer antlers attached to its head and a “Welcome To Nara” sign printed above him. This Buddha deer is an accurate symbol of Nara, a quirky little city where its economy revolves around its famous deer park and one of the world’s largest Buddha statues. If Tokyo is New York City, then Nara is any Midwestern city. As an Indiana boy, I felt right at home.

In Nara we stayed at a traditional guesthouse, which is what you think of sliding doors, no shoes, sleeping on the ground, etc. There is a map of all the home places of those whom have stayed, and I am proud to say that I am the first person from Indiana (and the fourth from the Midwest) to stay in that guesthouse in its twenty-year history.

We came to Nara late at night when everything was closed, so the next morning we woke up early and made our way to the Todaiji Temple, but not without walking through the Nara deer park. The Nara deer are a special breed of deer that have grown docile, and they come and go as they please without intrusion from the city. The locals have the highest respect for the deer, and on every street corner there are deer cookie stands that you could buy to feed the deer. You could even bow to the deer and, if you fed them, they would bow back.

The deer were a lot of fun to play with (though one of them bit me when I couldn’t get him his cookie in time), but the real impressive sight in Nara was the Todaiji Temple, which is the world’s largest wooden structure that houses one of the world’s largest Buddha statues, which looked nothing like Elmer Fudd. It was another humbling experience seeing something so large and magnificent, and I kept thinking to myself, as Buddha was looming over me, that there is no way that humans could have created something so beautiful and so lasting without using modern technology.

Nara was a nice change of pace from the large city life of Tokyo and Kyoto, but now it was time to go back into a big city, but this one had a very different vibe from Tokyo.

An Osaka street artist turned me into an anime character.

Osaka

If Tokyo is New York City, then Osaka is Los Angeles. The fashion is a little less suit-and-tie and a little more hipster, the people are less friendly, the shops and restaurants are more expensive and the streets are dirtier, though the dirtiest street in Osaka is cleaner than any street in New York.

This was another city where we spent nearly our entire night following our group motto of following the pretty lights. Most of our time was spent on the famous Hozenji Koisan Dori shopping mall, which was over two kilometers of both high-end and cheap shop, restaurants, bars and arcades. My highlight of Osaka was late at night in the Hozenji Koisan Dori where we encountered a street artist that, for only ten yen, did anime portraits. This by far is my prized possession from Japan — I sure make quite the handsome anime character!

In Osaka there was nothing specific that we wanted to see, and we were only there for one night, so this was just a free night to explore another big Japanese city. We missed the accessibility of Tokyo, but Osaka was still easy to get around, and, though we received more smirks from the locals, we never felt threatened or scared to walk around and explore.

A map of the Tokyo rail system.

Kobe

When in Kobe, you gotta have Kobe beef. That was priority number one as we got into the city in the morning and had a couple of hours to kill before we needed to come back to our ship. Our mission was to find a steak house that served Kobe beef, which we eventually found at a steak restaurant called Steak Land right by the main train station. The food was prepared in front of us and the Kobe beef was fantastic and surprisingly cheap. The last item on our Japan bucket list item was crossed off — we were now ready to come back home to the MV Explorer.

Around this time, SASers began flooding the Kobe station that took us to the port where the MV was stationed, and we were all relieved to make it back on the ship without getting dock time. We were all talking about what an incredible time we had, but we were all so exhausted and ready to get back to our rooms and sleep.

Coming back to the MV, all of us started to share stories of each of our experiences, and we all realized that all of us encountered a few things together; Japanese people are the nicest people in the world, we felt safer in Japan than we did in the US, and the Kyoto temples were most people’s highlights. It was almost redundant to ask people how Japan was because everyone had an incredible time, even those who just spent their time in the nightclubs.

I felt so proud of myself for surviving our first country. We all stuck together and were able to keep a balance of exploration and activities in line, and we were able to have lots of fun in between the profound moments of culture shock. If nothing else, Japan was the confidence booster that a lot of us needed to be able to travel to countries such as China and Vietnam, which are less travel friendly. Thanks to Japan, our journey to circumnavigate the globe had officially begun, and it started on a high note.