OYOP: Tokyo, Japan. You had me at kon’nichiwa.
As I boarded the plane from Hawaii to Tokyo, Japan, I felt a wave of nerves. It had finally sunk in that I was once again moving on to a new country. Only this time, I would also travel to a new continent and for that matter, a whole new side of the world, farther from home than I had ever been before.
We were to spend 3 weeks total in Japan, with Tokyo as the first stop. Incredibly, while at yoga teacher training in Hawaii, I’d had the unexpected fortune to meet and spend 16 days with Taeko, who is from Japan and lives a one-hour metro ride outside of Tokyo. Taeko generously extended the offer to have us during our Tokyo stay, and we could not have been happier to accept. For me, it was the first reunion of many I’d hoped to make with my new yoga teacher friends over the years. But now I didn’t have to wait years, only a week! More practically, her offer saved us much stress as our stay in Tokyo would take place during Japan’s Golden Week, the one week each year that 3 national holidays occur and many Japanese take their little precious vacation time, meaning available accommodation would be not only scarce but also much more expensive.
The nine-hour flight to Japan was no ordinary one. As I recall it, I boarded the plane in Hawaii at 6:00pm on April 30th, but I stepped off the plane in Japan at 10:00pm on May 1st. I’m still a bit baffled by the magic that took place when that plane transported me through space and time to skip all but 2 hours of one day this year, but suddenly, I had left behind any trace of May 1st and the entire Western world with it.
In a mere 5 days, Tokyo provided many reasons to admire and appreciate Japanese culture and ignite my desire to see much more. Here are some of the highlights from Tokyo and our introduction to Japan:
First and foremost, let me talk about sushi. Quality sushi restaurants are all across the United States, so why the fuss over having it in Japan? Well, first of all, the fish in Tokyo comes fresh from the largest fish market in the world, the Tsujiki Market, where sushi restaurants are lined up outside the market like tents at a festival, and it is acceptable and welcomed to eat sushi at any time of the day. Second, Japan has conveyor belt sushi restaurants, which are possibly the best restaurant invention anywhere. These restaurants, on which small plates of sushi continually pass by your table on conveyor belts, have already been around for decades in Japan. Plates are either all one price (as low as 100 yen (US $1)) or are colored coded by price. New concoctions pass by continuously, and simultaneously, orders can be placed on a computer screen at the table and delivered at the speed of light on the conveyor belt directly to you. It’s genius, it’s convenient, and it’s cheap at $1-$2 on average per plate.Besides sushi and just as delicious is ramen. Ramen noodle houses dominate the food scene. And no, this is not like the packaged ramen noodles you ate in your dorm room in college and still occasionally pretend you didn’t just heat for 3 minutes and eat for dinner on the couch. These are noodles in a delectable broth, often served with thinly sliced pork, green onions, and soft boiled eggs. Though there are many, many other variations and as Taeko says, you could spend all 365 days in a year (or 364 if you happened to skip May 1st) tasting different types of ramen in Japan.
Tokyo and the surrounding area provided my first introduction to many months ahead of sightseeing temples and shrines that dominate the Eastern world as churches and cathedrals do in the Western world. Even in the bustling city of Tokyo, you can escape into an urban park or a narrow side street and find yourself transported back through time to marvel at a shrine that was originally built hundreds of years ago and is still beautifully maintained today. We visited a few lovely shrines in Tokyo of the Shinto religion.We also visited the Narita-San Buddhist temple outside of Tokyo with Taeko. We were able to take part in the customs of washing our hands and mouth in the public wash station before entering, lighting incense, and writing our wishes on goma wood which would later be burned at a service to manifest our intentions. We also attended a Buddhist service, where shoes are left at the door, kneeling monks and attendees alike chant in Sanskrit, and people line up to have their belongings cleansed in the smoke of the burning goma wood, while watching as their goma wood intentions and wishes come alight in the burning flames.
The Bath Experience
Everyone loves a hot bath. But not everyone knows how to maximize the hot bath experience. Here’s where Japanese culture has the edge. Almost every single home in Japan has a heated bath tub – the key word being heated, so the water doesn’t get cold no matter how long you soak. Showers are taken first in the separate area next to the bath, after which you can step into the hot bath and relax for hours. You are already clean and not bathing in the water, so you are not sitting in dirty or soapy or cold water. I know, mind blowing in its simplicity and perfection.
Outside of the home, public baths called onsens are also an important part of Japanese culture. These are typically separate hot bath facilities for men and women, in which you follow the proper etiquette of showering then stepping nude into the public bath. We visited one which had 3 floors of indoor and outdoor baths of different sizes with beautiful countryside views of rice fields.
The Weird, The Wacky, The Wonderful
We barely scratched the surface of the uniquely Japanese quirks in the city of Tokyo. But we did get to witness a few. We visited a bunny cafe, where you pay by the hour to play with and feed bunnies and have a soft drink or tea. There are also cat cafes and owl cafes that offer similar experiences. We also popped into a maid cafe, where waitresses dress like maids and wait on customers in a small cafe that looks like the playroom of a young girl, with tea sets, plastic tables, pink cushions, and props like crowns or fuzzy bunny ears that customers can wear as they sip tea. We dashed out almost as quickly as we walked in, but with dozens of these in the anime subculture dominated area of Tokyo, we had to see what it was all about.We were also able to see one act of a show at a Kabuki theater. Kabuki is traditional theater with Japanese style song and dance, elaborate costumes and actors who play out stories like the one we saw of an emperor haunted by a mythical monster. The full show lasts four hours, but at the Kabuki-za Theater in Tokyo, you can buy 4th floor seated or standing room tickets on the day of the show for one or more acts (30 minutes to an hour and a half) for about US $8. I could go on for many more pages in detail on what I’ve learned so far about the wonderous aspects of the Japanese culture like the omnipresent efficiency and preciseness, the overwhelming feeling of safety and cleanliness of Tokyo, and the overly courteous and gracious nature of the people, especially Taeko as our host. She went above and beyond treating us like the most honored guests that she could possibly have received. Fortunately, we will be in Japan another two weeks, so I’ll have more opportunities to experience, learn, and elaborate about this country that has already put me at ease about being so far from everything I know, so far from home.