Saturday, May 26, 2012


Fore-note: I added a page with a rough itinerary for the rest of my trip. I'd love to hear your thoughts and suggestions.

Shorty after I blogged about my excitement for Japan, I hopped on what felt like a quick 12-ish hour flight (I stop counting after 8) and was teleported to the Land of the Rising Sun.

During the flight I spent a lot of time studying the culture and language and reading about Tokyo. Upon landing I immediately wished I had had more time to prepare. Japan felt so foreign in so many ways. If it hadn't been for some of the signs being in English, I might not have been able to find my way out of the airport. It's not that anything was particularly confusing or disorganized, quite the opposite in fact, it's simply that the culture and writing were so instantly different from what I was used to. A little culture shock and an unwillingness to try to decipher the strange writing.

I spent the first day in Tokyo visiting many of the popular tourist sites, walking around, taking photos, gawking at the “strange” clothes and “weird” customs, and very quickly learning how to efficiently use the subway system. That first day felt in many ways like a practical exam. The day before had been 8+ hours in the plane of intense cramming about sights, sounds, language, and customs I had never really heard of before, then in the morning I was immediately immersed - sink or swim. I had to practice what I had tried to learn and attempt to find the places I had read about for the first time the day before. It was a little surreal. I read about things in a book, and then the next day there they were in real life.

By the end of the first day, much of my initial culture-shock induced anxiety had gone away (along with my jet lag, now that I think about it).  I suspect the speed and ease of that transition was largely due to the incredibly helpful and friendly people I met. During my first 2 days in Tokyo I was approached in the subway by no less than 5 different people who asked if I needed any help. This included one lady who offered her help despite the fact that she couldn't speak English. She used her smart phone to translate her offer from Japanese to English and showed me the text on her display. In that case I actually did know where I was going, or thought I did anyway, and I told her as much. Later when I tired to get off the train at the wrong stop, she chased after me (risking getting stuck at the wrong stop as well), and made me get back on the train. After experiences like that you can't help but feel welcomed and happy to be somewhere.
Wonderfully detailed and properly oriented maps like this were all over the cities in Japan. 

Having people come to me with honest offers to help was in such stark contrast to many of my recent foreign travel experiences, that it took some getting used to. In those other places, whenever someone comes up to you they are either trying to sell you something, get you into their taxi, or scam you in some other way. I was so used to this behavior that I almost completely ignored the first guy in Japan who offered his help. I was very suspicious, but I'm glad I didn't, because he probably saved me at least an extra hour in the train my first night. Lesson learned (once again): new culture = reconsider all of your previous assumptions.

I only spent 2 days in Tokyo, and then I jumped on a shinkansen (aka bullet train) to Okayama where my friend Ray lives. Visiting Ray was the primary reason I decided to stop in Japan on my way to Indonesia. I've learned through experience that I enjoy places much much more when I visit people I know even if that means skipping out on some touristy things. This was the case in Okayama – there are some really nice things in and around Okayama, but if you only had 1 week in Japan, it probably wouldn't be on the top of your list. But Okayama was the highlight of my trip!

Breakfast at Ray's apartment

Back story: For those of you who don't know, I first met Ray about 6 years ago when I was in Germany for a summer school program about Sustainable Energy Supply. After the summer school, I needed a place to stay for six weeks while I was doing an internship in Dresden with a company that installs solar panels. After meeting Ray's roommate slacklining in a park and inquiring about short-term rooms for rent, I ended up sleeping on their couch for the rest of my time in Germany. Since then­ we've stayed in touch off and on through emails, facebook, and proofreading the occasional section of a master's thesis.

In Okayama, Ray helped me rent a bike and we peddled all over town the first day – visiting a really nice park, seeing his kyudo dojo, and going to an Onsen. Onsens probably deserve a post of their own since they're a prominent and interesting part of the culture, but instead I'll just direct you to this article. The one we went to was very nice – rock work around the pools, saunas, indoor and outdoor parts, and some very very hot stone floors which you were supposed to lay and relax on (but no more than 5 minutes at a time lest you cook your insides). And I think it was all less than 5$. Now I know why they're so popular.

Getting ready for the onsen.
Ray's girlfriend, Machi, is Japanese, and she lives with her family not far from Ray's apartment. In addition to seeing Ray again, getting to spend time with Machi and her family made my experience in Japan very special. They invited us over for lunch one day, so I got to see how they live and what they like to eat. It was really great. Their house was beautiful, the food was wonderful, and they are an incredibly kind and welcoming family which further convinced me that the Japanese must be some of the nicest people around.

Cooking with chopsticks

One day I decided to get out of the city for a little bit so I took a train to a small town, walked around a small park, and hiked a bit in the hills. After time in San Diego, LA, Tokyo, and then Okayama it was nice to be surrounded by farms and trees instead of just building and streets.

My last night in Japan, we met with Machi's family for a very delicious and traditional dinner at a Japanese pub called an izakaya. The food was wonderful. Everything comes in really small portions, like appetizers, so you get to try a lot of different things before you're full. Things like sushi, squid, vegetables, little bits of cooked meat – too many things to list; look at the photo. Another  interesting part of the izakaya is that it's a place where the Japanese relax much of the formality and “face” that is expected during the workday and allow a more casual, laughing, smiling atmosphere. I really enjoyed seeing the contrast.

at the izakaya
Once again, this was an experience I most certainly wouldn't have had without Machi's family (particularly her dad; he did all of the ordering for us). Ray and I were the only non-Asians in the room. And no way would I have figured out what order or how much … and for that matter, how to eat some of the items. Once again, Machi's family wins the hospitality award. These are the kinds of experiences that, for me, making international travel worth while.

Despite the rough start, I left Japan with a high regard for their culture. Many travel books will tell you Japan is a study in contrasts – new and old, high tech and ancient, giant sky scrapers and meticulously constructed parks. I found this to be a an accurate description. I like that the old customs are still quite strong and mixed with the new. The food was tasty, the sidewalks clean and orderly, the traffic well behaved (more bicycles than I've ever seen in my life), and the people friendly, happy, and welcoming.

Check out the photo album for more photos, videos, and captions.

A huge thanks to Ray, Machi, her Dad, and rest of her family for hosting me and making it a great experience!

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