During my travels, I spent a little bit of time in Japan. At the time, this was my first real travel outside the U.S., and looking back on it, it showed. For anyone who has travelled or been travelling for a long time, you learn to avoid doing things that would be fine to do where you are from, like drinking a little too much, traveling in giant groups of people, or recklessly spending money without really thinking about how much you are losing. Unfortunately, I somehow did all of these in a span of less than a week, but at least I learned a little bit from it.
To start with, I went to Japan while on a study abroad trip called Semester at Sea. This took us around the world on a ship over the course of four months, and let me tell you, it was spectacular and scary and everything you could ever want from travelling.
For our first stop, we landed in Yokohama – a port city about half of an hour outside of Tokyo. I had met a few people, and we became fast friends as you tend to do when you spend two weeks on a ship together going through waves that started at 30 meters and tapered off as we got closer to Japan. For some reason, seeing each other at your worst really brings people together. And it did exactly that for everyone aboard.
When we finally did land, everyone was excited and ready to explore. Tokyo was our first stop. After a quick bite to eat at some hole in the wall place in Yokohama, we took the train in to Tokyo. Now, if you haven’t been to Tokyo before, you can imagine it as being kind of like New York City but really clean. Like REALLY clean. Compared to big U.S. cities, it was like walking into a sterilized operating room.
As we got off the train and walked out of the station, it really hit me. The immense size of the buildings and the surge of people busy with their day was almost enough to overwhelm the senses. I found myself happy I had gone in a group, although the size of our group really made us stick out. As we walked around, we were swarmed by homeless people looking for a quick buck from some obviously culture-shocked tourists. They offered to help us find our way around. Although this seemed like an appealing offer, we had the good sense to refuse politely and kept going on our way.
We started getting farther and farther into the city, and soon I was completely lost, swallowed up by Tokyo. Luckily, other people knew where we were going, and we soon found ourselves at our first stop in the Shibuya District. Some of you may have heard of it, as it houses the busiest intersection in the world. Words don’t do it justice, and it really is something you have to see for yourself, preferably from the comfort of the busiest Starbucks in the world. The second floor offers some amazing views overlooking the intersection, and this soon became our landmark to find our way around the rest of Shibuya.
It was here that we met up with a friend of someone in the group who had lived in Tokyo for a while and offered to show us around. She took us to a few bars, karaoke bars, and some of the best ramen I have ever had. At this point, a few people had broken off from the group, and a few others joined us, which made the group stand out a little less, despite the fact we were all obviously not Japanese. Despite the decrease in size, we made our second mistake and ended up drinking a little (a lot) too much.
After one of the group members endured a short hospital trip and a few others from the group got lost, I found myself back at the Starbucks a little rattled but ready to push onward towards the Tsukiji Fish Markets. Up until this point, I thought I couldn’t find a place that was busier than the Shibuya intersection, but I was sorely mistaken. Not only were roughly the same amount of people running around, but some of them were on these small flatbed truck-like vehicles whipping around so recklessly that I genuinely don’t understand how they didn’t crash. All of that mixed with the noise of fish merchants setting up and yelling at each other made it shocking to say the least.
We toured around until it became time for the blue fin tuna auctions. With more yelling and what I assume was local Japanese restaurant staff, we watched as these massive tunas were bidded on and moved to trucks in a frenzy that can only be described as organized chaos. At this point we realized the sun was starting to come up, so it was time for a few hours of napping and a shower to wash away the night before.
From here we took a more spiritual route, as I’m pretty sure everyone was feeling it in the morning, and went to the Meiji shrine, which I highly recommend to you if you’re given the chance. Now, I am not an overly religious or spiritual person, but there was something about this place. It was almost as if the whole earth was vibrating with some unseen force, and the walk through the forest to get there only increased this effect. It made you forget that you were in the center of Tokyo which was much needed after the night before.
If you haven’t tried a sushi conveyer belt restaurant, you have to while in Japan. After eating at one, I decided it was time to break off from the group with an overnight bus ride to Kyoto. I arrived around 6 A.M., tired, hungry, and disoriented from the past 30 or so hours, desperate for some sleep.
When I finally woke up, it was time to explore the city, which was much more manageable than Tokyo. During this time, I acted like the tourist I was and aimlessly wandered. Just seeing the city with no plan was honestly the best thing I did the whole trip. It gave me some time to think and really take in my surroundings, and it made me run into someone from the ship I didn’t realize was even in Kyoto.
At a bar crawl later, it was time to meet up with the person who had to go to the hospital the night before. We opted to do some more wholesome activities, like the Arashiyama Monkey Park. Sitting on this mountain nearby was a naturally occurring colony of Japanese Macaques that are accustomed to humans and even pose for pictures sometimes if you are lucky.
Another short train ride later, we found ourselves in Nara, a small town near Kobe that houses a group of deer that are revered as sacred messengers of a local deity. These semi-domestic deer wander all over, but most of them stay in a park near the center of town because tourists feed them crackers that can be bought all over the place. The deer get pushy sometimes, but for the most part they are polite and will even bow if you bow to them as well. Just make sure to feed them afterwards, or they will headbutt you or push you while your back is turned.
After exploring the rest of town and spending the night, it was time to go back to the ship to move on to the next country, China. While this was only the first in a long string of countries, it was easily one of my favorites and holds a special place for me, as it was the first country I visited on my trip around the world.
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