I could go on and on (and on) about our recent trip to Tokyo and Kyoto.
Mostly, we found that, as we gleaned from our limited studies and American popular culture, Japan is a place with a strong, specific culture. Every detail is considered, from the flower motifs on the manhole covers to the precise design of the public parks to the tiny origami that decorated shelves in shops.
The scene that most typified Japan for us took place on the streets of Tokyo at night. We were walking from one place to the next and noticed a homeless man under a bridge. As we got closer, we realized that he was preparing for bed. He had a plastic set of drawers on wheels and put something away in the top drawer. Then, he proceeded to use the broom that was leaning against his wall—aka one of the bridge’s support beams—to sweep up his area.
I thought, “Even the homeless are neat in Japan.”
We told this story to a friend, who said, “That’s self respect right there.”
People went above and beyond to help us. We met two Tokyo locals at a bar and they were our unofficial tour guides of the city the next day. They had broken English and a translation app. We spent quite a bit of time in comfortable silence. They brought us to places we never would have seen without them, including a cheesy 150-year-old amusement park where Phil won a stuffed cat pillow for throwing ninja stars (or shuriken…which is now the name of the cat pillow).
In Shinjuku, we went to a second-floor bar in a gay district and were greeted in fast-talking Japanese by a man dressed like a flamboyant Varys from Game of Thrones. When we looked flummoxed, he said, “English OK?” We nodded, and the man behind the bar led us to a basement karaoke bar across the street, saying “English OK” as he held the door open for us.
Weighed down by our bags in a part of Kyoto that was labeled as “hamlet” on my maps app, lost while trying to find our Airbnb, some neighborhood women noticed us and tried to help. It started raining, and one brought out an umbrella for us to stand under. We spoke English to her and mimed a lot—she spoke Japanese back and mimed as well. She found the owner of another guesthouse, who spoke some English and invited us inside so we could use her internet to try to find the place. The guesthouse owner was able to figure it out. It was just around the corner. The two of them walked us there.
As with most countries, learning a few words helps. You probably already know a couple: arigato means thank you and sayonara means goodbye. Everything IS in Japanese, but you can find English. You just have to try.
Go to the parks and eat all the sushi you can—conveyor belt to high-end. Drink Japanese whiskey and sake. Enjoy ramen and udon and get your breakfasts from the convenience stores to save room for lunch and dinner. Go to Shibuya and walk down narrow alleys next to love hotels, where they charge by the 20 minute interval. Enjoy the salarymen with bright red faces from alcohol bowing to one another as they part ways, taking different subway lines at midnight on a Wednesday. Check out the kitsch—it’s easy to find.
If you go to Japan, your experience will likely be very different from ours. It should be. But if you have the chance, go. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
I quit a job I enjoyed at Founders Brewing Co. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and left my family, friends, and beloved dog to join my boyfriend in moving across the world, in search of adventure and new experiences. I arrived in August 2015.