Japan: General Reflections

When you return from a trip, others invariably ask what the best parts of the trip were. This a reasonable question, I think. While it’s obviously impossible to convey the full breadth of your subjective experience, it should be possible to distill several key “highlights”, which can come in the form of either concrete events (e.g. a night out, a particularly beautiful scene, etc.), or general reflections upon the experience (e.g. what is it like to be in a place).

Recently, Pam and I spent 12 days in Japan––Tokyo, Kyoto, Hakone, then Tokyo once more.

Concrete Events

Tokyo

In Tokyo, we stayed in the Shibuya Ward, in an apartment just southwest of Yoyogi Park. I was expecting the area to be densely populated and mildly overwhelming, but it was surprisingly peaceful and quiet. We woke up fairly early (~6am) the first morning due to jetlag, and I particularly enjoyed wandering around the narrow streets by the apartment, sheltered from the rain with an umbrella purchased at the nearby 7-11. We passed by vending machines, coffee shops just opening for the day, people in suits walking to work, and even young schoolchildren dressed in their school uniforms, presumably walking to school. The streets gave way to Yoyogi Park, and perhaps it was just a combination of the jetlag and the contrast with San Diego’s relative arid landscape, but the greenery and crisp air felt almost like a drink of cold water on a hot day.

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Another top event in Tokyo came on our second night. We were quite tired, after a long day of walking through Shinjuku Gyoen Park––a beautiful area recommended to us by Jeannetta, my brother-in-law’s friend (who kindly met up with us in Shibuya our first day, and again on our last day in Tokyo).

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It was dark by this time, and we were both hungry. We found an okonomiyaki restaurant (a name which, broken down, means “how you like” [okonomi] and “grill” [yaki]) on the street corner by our apartment. It was a small place, with only two tables and a bar. We sat at the bar and watched our meal emerge from the raw ingredients––green onions, pork, noodles, egg., and of course, the mix for the pancake-like base.

Kyoto

After Tokyo, we took the shinkansen to Kyoto, where we stayed in the Fushimi District, an area well-known for its sake breweries. It’s probably not surprising, then, that my favorite part of Kyoto was a guided “experience” through the Gekkeiken Sake Brewery. The brewery has been passed down through the Okura family for over 300 years. It was pretty amazing to see artifacts of the bento boxes that people used for picnics in the 1800s, along with their matching sake sets. We acquired a lexicon with which to describe and compare sakes––distilled or not distilled, the extent to which the rice was polished, the kind of koji mold that was added––then went to a nearby izakaya and sampled 7 different sakes. I learned that I’m particularly fond of namagenshu sake.

 

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Hakone

After Kyoto, we took the train to Hakone, an area nestled in the mountains and forests just southwest of Tokyo. We stayed in a ryokan, a kind of traditional Japanese inn, in which the bedrooms have a tatami mat floors and the patrons are served elaborate kaiseki dinners. During the day, we went sightseeing in the area. We took a gondola on a ropeway above the trees and mountainside, and first stopped in Owakudani, a volcanic region featuring sulfuric gases pluming up along the sides of the mountain. We ate “black eggs”––hardboiled eggs soaked in sulfur-infused water so that the shell turns black.

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We then rode a ferry across Lake Ashi. After stopping for some tea, we went to see Hakone Shrine. One of the gates for the shrine was constructed over a stone walkway that leads into the lake, so that the gate, flanked on both sides by low-hanging trees, frames the lake and the mountains beyond.

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General Reflections

It’s quite difficult to settle on one’s “favorite events” to report from a trip. While writing this post, I felt compelled to add as many details as possible, and had to refrain from describing everything we did. This is probably emblematic of a more general compulsion people have to record everything they do and think, as a way to distribute and memorialize one’s subjective experience.

I’m more comfortable reflecting on what it was like to be there. The first, and most notable, thing to report is the quality of the food. It’s not simply that high-end restaurants are fantastic––this is presumably true in most major cities, and we didn’t really frequent any high-end restaurants anyway––but the baseline quality of food is quite high. For example, we ate lunch from 7-11 multiple times, which consisted of a $2 box of sushi rolls. Additionally, high-quality food was well-integrated into the transportation system. All of the major train stations in Tokyo that we went to had delicious food (sushi, ramen, desserts, etc.) that you could buy, for a relatively cheap price. I’m used to packing lunch and snacks when I take a long train (or airplane) ride, because I anticipate that the food options will be both expensive and bad; this was not my experience in Japan.

The other major thing is the ease of getting around. I currently live in an area of San Diego that, while cheap, is not particularly walkable. So it was a welcome contrast to experience cities that were designed to be traversed either on foot or via public transportation. In each city we stayed (but especially Tokyo), getting from point A to point B––no matter how far––felt easy. The subway system in Tokyo is fairly intuitive, and fortunately for us contains English translations for each stop; for all places we needed to go, the subway got us quite close. And when we felt like walking, the walk was pleasant and varied. You could walk through residential neighborhoods, parks with tree cover and greenery, and busy city blocks. Furthermore, I felt comfortable walking at any time of day or night; the amount of people out and about made me feel safe pretty much anywhere I was.

Of course, I recognize that my experience of Japan was as a tourist. I have no idea whether my experiences generalize to living there for an extended period of time. But from my own, admittedly limited perspective, I can say that the cities I visited were very livable. And while I’m happy to be back in San Diego, I do hope to return someday soon.

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