WHEN IN ROME
Documenting my travels across the globe
Japan, I love you. I spent almost three weeks in this beautiful country and as I finish writing these next few blog posts in the airport on the way home, I am sad to say goodbye. I kept notes while I traveled the country, but waited until now to compile my thoughts. Enjoy the next series of posts on my time in Japan.
Before landing in Tokyo, I mentally prepared myself for the inevitable feeling of being overwhelmed. It’s a common feeling when arriving in a foreign country, one that I’ve experienced many times over the years. But something funny happened. I didn’t feel overwhelmed. Despite this being my first time in Japan (let alone Asia, if you don’t count Dubai) and being completely alone, I felt giddy with excitement. Although, my heart definitely raced when I had to purchase a bus ticket and check into my hotel without knowing any useful Japanese, the only time I felt that overwhelming sensation was when I was in Tokyo Station trying to simultaneously find a vegan ramen restaurant while buying a train ticket. Turns out the ramen place was inside the station and, in retrospect, not that difficult to find! By the way, the restaurant is called T’s TanTan and it’s a fantastic place for vegan ramen, but I digress. I am very pleased with how far I’ve come with travel. I am now at the point where I felt more excitement than anything in a country that is nothing like my own.
It certainly helps that Japan is one of the safest countries in the world and the Japanese are known for being very respectful. My first night, I walked around alone exploring the area outside my hotel and I felt completely safe — safer than I do walking around some American cities during the daytime. And my Japanese roommate was even kind enough to offer me fresh fruit since I had just gotten off my flight and hadn’t eaten yet. The first of many kind gestures I would receive from the Japanese.
The Japanese culture is one of a kind. The Japanese bow when saying thank you (arigato gozaimasu). They do not talk on the phone when riding public transportation. In fact, they hardly make any noise in public, especially when commuting. Only rarely have I seen two or more Japanese people walking together and talking unless it’s a crowded and touristy shopping area. In homes, hotels, and some restaurants, they take their shoes off and wear slippers. When they are sick, they wear medical masks to help prevent the spread of infection. But my favorite custom is when receiving anything — specifically cash — they use two hands. I am genuinely going to miss extending both hands out too receive change and lightly bowing my head in thanks. There is something so polite and delightful about it.
Let’s not forget, the Japanese are also very trustworthy. I never once was worried about my belongings being stolen or being cheated by anyone — which too often happens to tourists. There were literally times that I left my bag unattended in public places because I knew no one would touch it. One time, in a huge park in the middle of Tokyo, I dropped my phone in a highly trafficked pathway. Despite not realizing I dropped my phone for five to ten minutes, it was still right where it fell untouched. The Japanese even leave their bikes unlocked and unattended all throughout Tokyo. I even saw a man in Tokyo Station run after another to return cash he had dropped.
The city Tokyo is like a giant, adult amusement park. The downtown neighborhoods are filled with lights and sounds coming from all directions. The advertisements are completely unique and — to a Westerner — feel almost a bit insane. They often involve song and dance, animated characters, and overly expressive actors. The consumerism in Japan is on another level, with endless amounts of stores and tiny trinkets for purchase. And if there is one thing I’ve learned from Tokyo, it’s that you are never too old for cartoons and things normally reserved for children in Western culture. Tokyo even has a neighborhood dedicated to Japanese pop culture called Akihabara. I walked around a ten-story high store, Akiba Radio Kaikan, in this district that was filled to the brim with anime and manga collector's items.
Tokyo's transportation system is extensive and prompt. There are trains and buses that will take you anywhere — including day trips outside the city into the mountains in less than two hours and bullet trains that zip past mountains to go all over the country. There are vending machines that serve cold and hot drinks — yes, hot drinks! On every block, there is a convenience store with not only cheap and edible food, but actually quite delicious. I had many meals at convenience stores. My favorite was Lawsons, but Family Mart and 7-Eleven are also good. I found it fascinating to observe such a traditional culture juxtaposed with some of the most modern products and technologies in the world.
One of the best parts about Japan is all their public toilets. Anyone that knows me knows that I always have to use the restroom. In Japan’s cities, there is always a public toilet within fifteen minutes of where you’re standing, even if it may be a squat toilet (Google if you’d like to know what a squat toilet is). While we're on the subject, the toilets in homes and hotels are decked out with bidets, music that plays while you go, and even heated seats.
Japan is one of the cleanest countries and their cities are no exception. I think these public toilets are part of the reason. Interestingly enough, there are hardly any public trashcans anywhere in Japan, which you think would cause more littering. On the contrary, the Japanese carry their trash with them until they have access to a garbage can in either a convenience store or their home. The Japanese also do not walk while eating. It is expected that if you purchase something from a convenience store or food market stall and would like to eat it immediately, you eat it directly outside the store or in front of the stall. Food stalls will happily talk your trash for you and convenience stores almost always have trash cans inside or outside the store.
Shall we talk more specifically about the food in Japan? I can confidently say that I ate my way through Japan. The Japanese are known for making delicious meals and sweets. I had noodles on average once a day, from ramen to soba noodles, to udon. The sushi is half the price of sushi back in the states and melts in your mouth (Yes, I had fish while in Japan. Although I am proud to be vegan, I was pescatarian while traveling so I could experience that part of the culture. And I am happy that I did not overly restrict my diet! Just not eating meat made eating out difficult enough in Japan, since most of their broths are surprisingly made with pork). And the Japanese will eat whatever they want at any time of day. I visited a sushi bar at 9:00 am one time, filled with Japanese people. As for sweets, I drank so much bubble tea and ate so many Japanese desserts, like oddly flavored gummy candies (coca cola for example), mochi (rice flour pounded into a chewy paste, often served with ice cream in the middle), and dango (a dumpling made from rice flour that is grilled on a skewer and topped with sauces).
I’ve never been much into clothes and would consider myself almost a minimalist, but the fashion in Japan inspired me to step up my game. Currently, the women in Japan are wearing these effortless, layered looks that feel both modern and ’70s inspired. I became enamored by the wide leg pants, neutral colors, plaid patterns, and long jackets. I also noticed how — for the most part — the Japanese are quite simple and sleek when it comes to fashion. Even most wedding rings are just the gold or silver bands, rather than a gaudy engagement ring you often find in Western culture.
In contrast, the Harajuku fashion is out of this world. Harajuku fashion is a street style that goes against all social norms and rules, often involving tons of colors and crazy accessories. Although, I only saw one person fully decked out in Harajuku fashion. I heard the style is going away, but I can still remember Gwen Stefani’s fascination with Harajuku girls about 15 years ago when she launched their style into world-wide fame. The Harajuku neighborhood has a shopping street with stores filled with crazy clothing and endless amounts of sweets shops, selling everything from giant rainbow cotton candy to animal-shaped ice cream. Oddly enough, the shopping street is right across from Yoyogi Park and the Meiji Jingu Shrine, a peaceful and sacred park.
When I first read about visiting the parks in Japan, I figured they were large grassy areas like they are in the United States and most other places. But in Japan, the parks are covered in beautiful trees, pathways, gardens, ponds, tea houses, and shrines. The Yoyogi Park, in particular, is a giant forest of trees with the Meiji Jingu Shrine embedded in the center. Only in Japan will you find huge parks all over the city that make you feel like you have literally been transported deep into the forest when you are only steps away from the largest metropolitan city in the world. My favorite parks were the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden and Hamarikyu Gardens. Gyoen has beautiful foliage in autumn and Hamarikyu is so relaxing, with tea houses overlooking the ponds.
To say I fell in love with Japan is an understatement. The technologies are fascinating, the food is delicious, the nature is breathtaking, and the culture is humbling. The country is unlike any other and I am so grateful to have visited it. I would happily return to explore more of its natural beauty.
Watch my video blog from Japan:
When In Rome
Two of my most cherished hobbies go hand-in-hand. Writing is my favorite way to reflect after traveling to a new country. I have kept this blog ever since I studied in Rome to share my travels with families and friends. I hope you enjoy learning about my experiences and getting a sense for my writing skills. If you have any questions, please reach out!