Visiting Japan: Hearts Filled With An Open Calmness

It’s been a week since I spent 10 days in Japan. Memories of sushi, temples, and cartoon cats still dance around in my mind during my waking hours, and sometimes, even invading my dreams. Thanks to my obsession with anime during high school (I’m not afraid to admit my love of DBZ and Sailor Moon — I may even be guilty of shipping characters from both series ^_^;), visiting Japan had been on my travel wish list for more than twenty years. However, I didn’t begin to seriously consider making the trek until last year, when I discussed the possibility with one of my cousins who has called Japan “home” for the past three years.

After some meticulous research and number crunching, I had decided: now was the perfect time to take that leap. Japan beckoned like maneki neko, and I, a loyal disciple, answered the call. Joined by another cousin and her son, we formed a motley trio on our way to the land of pagodas, bullet trains, and Miyazaki, oh my! Every day was a whirlwind adventure. We were sore and exhausted on our final day, but upon reaching Narita Airport, we had already begun plotting our eventual return. That’s how much we enjoyed the country and her people. Japan, how I love thee! Let me count the ways:

1) The Food!! *drool*

It’s near impossible to visit Japan and not check out the culinary scene. Sure, you can probably spend the whole trip looking for standard American fare like KFC or McDonald’s (yes, we did visit the golden arches — twice, because of the found-nowhere-else ebi burger and melon soda), but the best way to reach the heart of Japan is through her stomach. Our first experience in a restaurant was breakfast at Shinjuku Station. We found a tiny, hole-in-the-wall place that served different types of hot soba soups. Some restaurants, like this one, require guests to order using a touchscreen machine. You input your order, feed the machine some yen, then take the resulting ticket to the front counter for your meal. Of course, we didn’t know how to do all of this at first, so we observed how the locals did it, then followed their lead. I ended up with a steaming bowl of kamo-nanban, which had a delicious broth, tasty soba noodles, and rich slices of duck. And since slurping noodles is not only acceptable but expected, we joined our fellow diners in making loud, satisfying slurps.

From then on, we were much braver in entering restaurants and ordering food. None of us spoke Japanese, but the language barrier proved to be no problem. Some places offered an English menu, others had pictures or wax food displays that you could point to. Our foodie treks led us to many tasty meals: ramen, curry, sushi, tempura, okonomyaki (“Japanese pancake”), and takoyaki (“octopus dumplings”), just to name a few. I even tried uni, which is a type of sushi featuring sea urchin gonads. I know, sounds gagworthy. I only tried it because it came with my nephew’s sushi order, and he was afraid to eat it. Surprisingly, uni turned out to be one of the most delicious things I tried during the whole trip. Its texture reminded me of a soft custard, and its delicate flavor had hints of the salty sea it came from.

The pièce de résistance, however, came on our final night in Kobe, the city that elevated beef to heavenly heights. We had dinner at a restaurant called Wanto Burger, which I read about in a small blurb in my Lonely Planet guidebook. For a very affordable — at least, in Kobe beef terms — price of 3800 yen (~$34), I had the Super Wanto Burger. Living up to its name, the burger consisted of a Kobe beef patty, slices of Kobe steak, bacon, a garlic egg, garlic chips, steak sauce, and mustard. It sounded hefty, but the burger was actually a manageable size, perhaps similar to the Big Mac. I was concerned that the multitude of ingredients would cover up the taste of the Kobe beef, but that was not the case. The cook knew what he was doing. Those ingredients were on the sparse side to enhance rather than hide the buttery, rich umami flavor of the beef. Each bite was incredible. It was like sitting in the comfiest chair at your grandparents’ house and just sinking into its warm cushions, all while listening to a mix of reggae and hip-hop.

I can’t end a section about Japanese food without mentioning all of the delightful snacks readily available. Family Mart and 7-Eleven stores are on almost every corner, and these places sell fresh snacks prepared daily: onigiri, fried chicken, cold soba, and all kinds of other quick bites are packed into neat, plastic containers just waiting to be unraveled. Oh, and vending machines! Japan has them in droves, bathing streets with their blue neon glows. Drinks ranged from the normal (bottled water, juice, coffee) to the surprising (beer, wine), to the unusually delightful (I LOHAS peach-flavored water, Pocari Sweat) and to the downright bizarre (Beard Papa cream puff-flavored drink, Pokemon-themed soda).

2) Public Transportation

I live in Los Angeles, where “good” public transportation is just a pipe dream. Some areas offer decent ways to get around, but none of the locals would ever tell you that it’s easy to get from the west side to downtown in half an hour via bus or subway. In fact, it’s downright impossible to make it in under an hour unless you have a car and it’s not a busy weekday.

In Japan, the mentality is reversed: why drive a car when you can take the train instead? The rail system throughout the country is impressive. You can travel to almost any city or region via regular train or shinkansen (AKA bullet train). And, unlike most other places I’ve visited (I’m looking at you, Italy), the trains run on time WITHIN SECONDS. That’s right. If a train is scheduled to arrive at 8:11, you better be there at 8:11 or it’s leaving without you. Trains run like clockwork, which makes travel-time estimates almost 100% accurate.

Riding the bullet train was one of the most comfortable and easy experiences I’ve ever had with public transportation. We purchased JR Rail Passes ahead of time, which provided us with access to almost every JR Line available. There were times when we had to transfer to a privately owned line, but we paid an average of 300 yen (~$2.60) to switch over. One of the best benefits of the rail pass, however, is the ability to reserve seats on long distance trains and the shinkansen (except the Mizuho and Nozomi lines). The shinkansen was amazing. We reserved seats on the Hikari Shinkansen from Tokyo to Osaka, stowed our luggage behind the last row of seats, and enjoyed a peaceful, smooth two-hour ride. We even purchased coffee and cakes from a lady pushing a snack cart through the different cars. What else made the ride so stress-free? Everything was clean, even the restrooms were immaculate; the seats were cushy and could easily recline; and the best part: Japanese people are quiet on the trains. It’s considered very rude to yell on your cell phone or speak above hushed tones while riding the train (any train, not just the shinkansen). Compared to the racket I have to deal with daily on the LA buses/trains, the quiet was surprising but very welcomed.

There are a couple of downsides, however. One, navigating Tokyo’s tangled train lines would be like Pac-Man trying to escape an Escher drawing. However! Having access to the internet (we had rented a pocket WiFi hotspot) makes it surprisingly easy. Using a combination of Google Maps and Hyperdia, we were able to figure out the best routes to take us to our destination quickly and efficiently. Two, the other downside, is that rush hour in Tokyo and Osaka is no joke. It is some SERIOUS stuff, like man-bear-pig SERIOUS. Our first morning in Tokyo, we wanted to ride an early train to visit the famous Tsujiki Fish Market. We didn’t make it. I had never seen such a conglomeration of humanity threatening to spill out of a glass and steel tube. We gave up and had breakfast instead while waiting for rush hour’s end.

3) Art & Architecture

We visited more than twenty Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples during our ten days in Japan. That may seem excessive, and I’ve heard the argument that once you’ve seen one shrine, you’ve seen them all. To us, however, each shrine and temple had its own distinct characteristics. They also presented us with a unique look at Japanese architecture, artwork, gardens, culture, and religion. Additionally, these experiences often came with the traveler’s favorite price tag: free. Some of the bigger, more famous temples charge an entrance fee (Kiyomizu-dera and Kinkaku-ji/Golden Pavilion come to mind, both in Kyoto), but the fees never exceeded 500 yen (~$4.50).

While visiting the various shrines and temples, we also participated in an ancient tradition: Goshuincho, which I discovered while browsing travel blogs. From my understanding, during ancient times, the faithful would go on pilgrimages and visit specific temples to pray and meditate. As a way to track their journey, they would carry books with them and receive vermilion stamps (identifying the temple or shrine) followed by statements written in Japanese calligraphy by a monk, priest, or shrine maiden (these statements usually indicate the deity enshrined, a blessing/reminder to “pray respectfully,” and the date of your visit). It’s a tradition that continues today, though mostly carried on by older Japanese people and tourists. Temples and shrines ask for a small donation, which is almost always 300 yen (~$2.60). Once the book is filled, it opens up like an accordion so you can see your entire journey. It’s a unique way to take home some artwork that reflects your travels.

We also visited the more traditional places for experiencing and learning about Japanese culture and history: museums, in particular the Tokyo National Museum (albeit we only had time to see the main wing); the Ghibli Museum (we bought our tickets a month in advance — thanks, AJ!); and the Samurai Museum in Shinjuku. The Tokyo National Museum had some incredible pieces on display, from masks to statues, paintings to tapestries, all steeped in history. It’s a large place where a visitor could easily lose herself/himself for a couple of days. The Ghibli Museum was a rare treat. As a fan of their films, I loved seeing how they approach the process of animation and filmmaking. Unfortunately, no pictures are allowed inside, so I can’t show the intricate dioramas or the giant cat bus full of squealing children. The place overflowed with magic, and there were moments where I felt transported to the worlds of Spirited Away or My Neighbor Totoro. And the Samurai Museum, while small, provided an intimate look at samurai history. There are English-speaking tour guides, and ours (on the off-chance you see this — konnichiwa, Shiori!) gave great backstories to the armor, weapons, and other artifacts in their collection. The highlight of the tour, however, was being able to try on clothing and even hold swords that were accurate reproductions of what samurais, shoguns, and empresses wore during those time periods.

4) There is SO. MUCH. KAWAII.

The word “kawaii” refers to things that are cute or adorable. And oh my pikachu, do the Japanese people LOVE things that are kawaii. It’s a part of their culture, so much so, that even everyday, mundane items like manhole covers can be re-imagined as kawaii. Below is a random sampling of just some of the adorable things we encountered.

Perhaps one of the strangest experiences I had in Japan was dining at a Maid Cafe. While walking through Akihabara, we decided to check out @Home Maid Cafe (thanks again for the recommendation, AJ!). I’ve had a lot of time to think about that evening’s festivities, and I still struggle to describe what a maid cafe actually is. The ladies are dressed up as French maids (but not in a kinky fashion), and they act as your servers and entertainers. They serve kawaii food all while maintaining a very cutesy air themselves. They also take the time to teach you this little chant where you have to form a heart with your hands and move with the rhythm (“moe, moe, CUTE”). Oh, and they sing and dance, too! It was like Chuck E. Cheese’s, except confusing and perhaps a little uncomfortable. Overall, it was a really fun night, and despite the strange premise, it was a family friendly place. My teenage nephew wholeheartedly approved.

5) The People

Hands down, the best thing about Japan are the Japanese people themselves. They are some of the nicest, most polite, most honest people I’ve ever encountered in my travels. They have a strong sense of pride for their cities, which is why you’ll rarely find any trash littering the streets or graffiti etched into mirrors in public restrooms. Waste bins are hard to find because people pick up after themselves and take their trash home to throw away or recycle. We did the same, often carrying a small plastic bag to hold any trash we might accumulate throughout the day.

I also noticed how much they care about their jobs and providing the best service possible. We never encountered disgruntled or angry servers, ticket clerks, or cashiers. We were always greeted with a smile and a bow, and even though we couldn’t understand Japanese, everyone tried to help us, oftentimes relying on pointing or hand gestures. Just because we couldn’t communicate didn’t mean they would turn us away. In fact, they worked even harder to ensure that we got what we were looking for.

The best place to witness Japanese kindness and patience, however, is while riding the trains. No matter how crowded a platform becomes, people will form lines. When a train arrives, everyone steps aside to allow passengers the chance to get off. As you enter the train, there is no pushing, no elbowing, no cutting in line. People are considerate of one another, and seats are offered to the elderly or passengers with disabilities. Even if the train is crowded and you’re being squished by seven of your newest friends, everyone remains calm and maintains a respectful silence.

One memory that I’ll always carry with me is when we traveled by bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka. Upon arriving in Shin Osaka station, we needed to ride the local line for one additional stop to get to our hotel. We were carrying all of our luggage with us, and it was still the tail end of morning rush hour. I was concerned that we’d get stranded on the platform, waiting for a train that would have enough space for us and our stuff. Well, the first train pulled up, and as expected, it was very crowded. I considered splitting up and having my cousin and her son go ahead while I would catch the next train. However, as soon as my nephew placed his luggage inside the car, the people near the door looked up and then quickly squished together to make room for the three of us AND our luggage. It wasn’t comfortable, but no one complained or gave us angry glares. They moved out of the way simply because it was the considerate thing to do. I was stunned. I don’t think that would ever happen on a crowded train here at home. The moment I stepped off the train with my luggage in hand was when I realized how much I loved Japan.

While Dorothy’s wise adage of “There’s no place like home!” remains true, it can also be easily said that “There’s no place like Japan.” Arigatō, Nihon! Until we meet again.

–LA

Title Quote:

Although we live
In a world which is fraught
With turbid confusion,
Our hearts should remain filled
With an open calmness.

— a waka poem by Emperor Meiji

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