I travelled to Japan feeling a little cocky. Kei and I met there about 12 years ago and I lived there for an entire year so I should feel right at home right? Not exactly. Even with 12 months of Japanese living under my belt, I still managed to discover more than a few things that surprised me or pushed me out of my comfort zone – and of course I relished every minute of the challenge.
1. It really can be as crowded as you’ve heard.
12 years ago I lived in a Japanese “city” of 60,000 people – not exactly your bustling metropolis. Kei pretty much lived in the middle of a rice paddy. Sure, we visited Tokyo for weekend trips, but our everyday experience of Japan was far from the crowded trains and busy streets that are shown in the media as “normal” Japan.
Yokohama definitely opened our eyes to life in the city.
After a marathon flight followed by a 90 minute train ride, we finally arrived at Yokohama station. It was about 8pm on a Sunday night and the station looked something like this…
Did I mention that it was 8:00 on a Sunday night?
The Taxi rank looked like this…
… and our home for the week was nestled in this quiet little neighborhood (cough!).
2. It’s easy to find something you’ve never experienced before (and probably never will again)
On our third day in Japan we traveled to Hakone, a lovely little town in the mountains famous for its onsens (japanese bath houses). We spent the day at a huge family onsen complete with a 100 degree pool and fish that clean your feet. No – not a typo. I didn’t have my camera with me but managed to grab a shot of a poster in the hotel we stayed at. There is nothing quite so strange (and weirdly wonderful) as the experience of hundreds of tiny little fish nibbling the dead skin off your feet. I suppose you’ll have to take my word for it.
The same onsen boasted hot baths inspired by drinks. I thought my mother-in-law was kidding when she said there was a coffee pool and a red wine pool but I was proven wrong when we stepped outside to a pool of hot water that gave off a distinct coffee aroma. REAL coffee in the water. Weird but also very enjoyable. We then made our way up the hill to the red wine bath (real bottles of wine added four times a day), the green tea bath, the beer bath and, of course, the sake bath.
Again, no real photos but this poster should give you a good idea. What you won’t get from the photos is the wonderful smell of coffee and wine. I’m considering a red wine bath for our back yard – may be a waste of good wine, but what could be more decadent.
3. The food is just as amazing as I remember.
Oh the food, the wonderful food! No matter how much I try to recreate the experience of Japanese cuisine here in Portland, it will never quite reach the heights of the real thing. From traditional Japanese breakfasts laid out with rice, fish, pickles and the works, to home-delivered sushi that melted in my mouth, the food was definitely one of the highlights.
Check out Samuel with his super-sized children’s meal.
If Thomas had his way we would have eaten soba noodles for every single meal. Thankfully, he was easily distracted by promises of onigiri, japanese curry, ikura sushi and even something a little more adventurous.
I was also able to eat my first okonomiyaki in 12 years. Yes, we made the most of every available eating opportunity, even on the shinkansen…
4. Life in Japan can be a little overstimulating.
It starts with the endless flow of people (everywhere!) and continues with the sounds and the constant visual assault. Although I felt as though I were getting used to it by the end of our trip, I found the incredible amount of visual and audible stimulation overwhelming at first. It isn’t sufficient for them to merely say something on a TV show, they have to emphasize it with Japanese writing across the screen (complete with exclamation points!). Walking into Yodobashi camera (one of Japan’s largest electronics chains) was an insane experience. Not only do they carry every single product on the planet (over about seven floors), but they reinforce every product and price with hanging signs and loud announcements.
But I can’t complain too much – they had a full Canon camera section where I was able to play with my dream camera – even if I couldn’t buy it thanks to the sad state of the US Dollar.
5. If you wait long enough and wish hard enough you WILL see Mt. Fuji.
It took a few hours of willing the fog to clear during our visit to my brother-in-law’s house, but Fuji-san finally peeked out from the clouds – just enough for me to capture a tiny sliver on camera. It counts. (Oh, and my brother-in-law may have one of the best views I have ever experienced from someone’s living room)
More stories and photos from Japan coming of course, but I just had to share these initial thoughts while they were still fresh in my mind.