Reflecting on my travel to Japan, part 1

I’ve finally fulfilled my biggest dream and  between March and April this year I flew to the land of sakura, anime, AKB48, sake and wasabi, to spend there almost three weeks. In general it was no spontaneous ,last-minute sort of deal, which would be built around visiting those few places that pop up on the first page of Google, after writing down ‘Japan things to see’. After buying the plane ticket (more than a half a year beforehand), the real fun began, as I wanted to pick the most interesting spots to catch a glimpse of. The temples like Fushimi Inari or Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto (which first impressed me in an animated form – through anime Lucky Star), or the memorial plate  of my favorite Japanese singer – late Yutaka Ozaki, in Shibuya, Tokyo were on my trip’s must-see list from the very beginning, but the rest of the itinerary was a real dilemma. It turned out my knowledge about Japan was mostly based on countless watched anime titles, movies and TV series, and dozens or hundreds of pop and rock bands I listen to. For the next few months, I had to learn a bit more about what Japan is all about, when it comes monuments, and otherwise.

I feel  I need to mention this again – and I cannot stress it enough – at the age of 27, it was my first ever travel abroad,  the first plane flight ever, the first such a long vacation out of home, and the first thing ever which I’ve planned in its entirety. Looking back on it, I believe I’ve done a decent job – however in retrospect, I have to admit the whole travel had a pretty intense tempo – together with a friend who decided to accompany me (almost in the very last moment )for 2/3 of my wandering around Japan, we often did more than 20 kilometers on foot daily, + hundreds of kilometers on trains. Considering my homebody character, it was quite a substantial change of the lifestyle (at least temporarily).

Apart from the places, which every tourist really has to see, like Shibuya, Shinjuku, Akihabara or Asakusa in Tokyo, Kyoto temples, Osaka city center, or the Museum and Peace Park in Hiroshima, I decided to pay a visit to few less obvious cities – Matsumoto in Japanese Alps, Takayama (tempted by a certain Polish blogger), Kanazawa, Sendai, Yamadera and a city of Niigata. As I pumped in so many  locations into a 19-day plan, I made us change hotels very frequently. I soon realized that it was a pretty grave mistake, which I will definitely not make in the future. Constant packing up was a real pain in the ass, although I’ll never say I regret the whole ordeal – if I were to spend my life trip being bored out my mind somewhere, with nothing to do or see, now that would be a true reason to be mad with yourself.

Before the travel to Japan, the concept of ‘jetlag’ had sounded weird, and not exactly understandable, but when I landed just around 9 am in Japan (1 am next day Polish time) after a 10,5-hour-long flight, I  was a zombie. A happy zombie, but a tired one,  exhausted like a horse used in western movies. The airport in Narita wasn’t packed with people at the time, so the procedures were done extremely  efficiently. Picking up a portable wifi from the post office and JR Pass and Skyliner ticket to Tokyo took very little time – and the ladies from the desk staff gave me a foretaste of the famous Japanese kindness and friendliness, which basically followed me around during the upcoming weeks. Soon after I was sitting in a cozy Japanese train for the first time, glancing at the world behind the window. I had tons of information and images to process in my head, though I was staying strangely relaxed – the travel from the countryside village I live in to Warsaw was more stressful than the fact that I’m thousands of kilometers away from home now.

Be it at work or at home, I always try to avoid responsibilities (even when it’s time to order the pizza, I’m never the one to make the call, I’d rather not it eat at all), while in Japan planning and organizing stuff came to me easily. Unfortunately, soon after my return I realized it’s not so easy to change one’s life and the old habits.

My hotel in Tokyo was located kind of far away from the actual city center (if there is such thing there), it was close to Asakusa, Ueno and Yanaka though, in between Nippori and Uguisudani stations on JR line. It meant 30 minutes ride to Shibuya Station, although commuting was never particularly bothersome, especially since we got ourselves the Suica cards (our JP Passes got activated only after we left Tokyo). Lugging my suitcase from Nippori to my hotel, the internet and Google Maps immediately came in handy, as the hotel was a bit out of the way, amidst narrow streets stuffed with love hotels. In the morning or in the evening, during the 5 days in Tokyo I was regularly seeing Japanese pairs going in or out of those sparkly, luxurious/kitsch-looking buildings.

Most of my friends and family members was convinced that ‘with your English you’ll have it easy there for sure’, though the internet sources warned that it’s not that simple to converse with the Japanese. For this reason, among few others,  those several months spent on the preparations for the trip gave me lots of calm – things like JR Pass or Suica mentioned before, or learning quite a lot of vocabulary and sentences in Japanese proved to be a huge headstart – without these it could have been difficult in the beginning. With my research, we could easily jump into the whirl of sightseeing with no worries. The Japanese folks we’ve encountered spoke little to no English, or felt embarrassed to talk (there were few exceptions) – in my hotel in Tokyo, the reception lady was extremely kind, but didn’t speak any English- my  caveman-like Japanese was useful time and time again. I’m definitely generalizing to some degree, but at certain point I felt how difficult it is to approach some Mr. Miyagi and befriend him (unless alcohol and good humor come into the equation – suddenly all language and culture barriers did not have any meaning).

As much as I did not have much luck with speaking to the Japanese in English, the country is prepared extremely well to host foreign tourists, even those not exactly sharp – the train stations and pretty much everything else has directions written in English, most of restaurants have English menus (though they often may lack some delicious stuff translated so it’s better to consult Japanese menu as well). Getting/charging a Suica from a machine like that was also easy as hell.

Although I was darn delighted taking first steps in Asakusa and admiring the temple buildings there, the jetlag was effective at damaging my well-being – the short nap around noon helped only slightly. In spite of that, I decided that I have to survive until the evening, and there was no other way. The first Japanese ramen was not heavenly in taste, but shochu turned out to be quite kicking, and Japanese alcohol stayed in our menu for every evening (usually we did not go too far).

The climate of Japanese restaurants and bars is one of the things I miss a lot

Months of planning is one thing, but spontaneous situations did happen frequently – it’s all good.

As a man, who hasn’t seen much in his lifetime, few days into the trip I accepted the fact that I caught a travel bug (which in June has been painfully squashed, as I broke my leg and now I can only write about my insignificant experiences).

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