I visited Tokyo for the first time in August 2009. My main motivation was to see a friend I had not seen in a few years, but things didn’t quite go as planned, so I ended up spending a lot of time exploring the city alone. A little disorientated and heartbroken, I wandered through backstreets until the ubiquitous neon glow of the city faded. I was thrown into the city at its most sweltering and humid. I woke up every morning to shades of grey, and the threat of rain always loomed large. Despite the weather, I walked miles everyday, exploring the Tokyo Imperial Palace, Happo-en Garden, Akihabara and many other places in Tokyo and some of the Kansai region.
I came back to Tokyo in late July 2010 to begin my tenure with the JET Programme. Much to my disliking, the weather felt the same – like a big, boiling nabe dish. I unfortunately did not have a lot of time to explore the city for a second time, as much of my time was spent at work orientation for JET. I stopped briefly in Tokyo for a third time in early October when I flew home for my brother’s wedding, but most of my time was spent in Narita Airport.
Despite these visits, I can’t say I truly understood Tokyo until last week, when I went to the capital to celebrate the New Year. This time around, I finally got to explore Tokyo when the weather didn’t feel like a sweaty gym room. I feel more at ease in Japan than when I first came, so this trip helped me learn a lot more about Japan’s capital. These were some highlights of my trip:
Listening to and observing Japanese people: My Japanese is awful, but I know a lot more than when I first came here. It’s definitely possible to get around Tokyo with just English, though it really helps to know a little Japanese. I found myself able to read some menus, order food in Japanese and ask simple questions. When I asked a train conductor why my ticket wasn’t working, he explained in English that I had to take a different line. I thanked him in Japanese and added the word wakarimashita (I got it/I understood). He seemed taken aback when I spoke Japanese to him.
Since my mind was less occupied this time around, I also found myself able to observe Japanese people in a new light. One image that will stick in my mind is a mother and her young daughter playing janken (the Japanese version of rock, paper, scissors) on the subway. Japan is a highly consumer-orientated society, almost much more than the United States. There are konbinis almost at every corner and it’s nearly impossible not to stop and marvel at all the things you could buy. Yet, a game as simple as janken never fails to excite my students, and I found it heart-warming how much pleasure a young girl in Tokyo could get out of playing the game with her mother on the subway.
My Mom’s a big fashionista, so I also tried to observe Tokyo style for her. I truly detest the Harajuku style (I just don’t understand it) but I must say that older Tokyo women are some of the most elegant I have seen. They dress very simply (skinny pants, scarf, turtle neck, trench coat with boots) but everything is always tailored perfectly and extremely neat. I could learn a few things from them, as I always feel like a disorganized fur ball rolling down the street.
Temples & Gardens: I enjoyed all of Tokyo’s gardens and temples during my first visit, but something about the crisp winter weather made me like them even more this time around. We stayed in Asakusa, which is often considered one of the most traditional parts of Tokyo. Asakusa is home to the famed Sensoji (Asakusa Kannon Temple), and our hostel was just steps away from it. We explored the area our first day in Tokyo. Although it was definitely crowded, we stepped outside the main area to explore a hidden garden. Unfortunately, this garden was blocked by a gate and not open to the public, but the statues around the area and just peeking inside made me appreciate how serene Tokyo could feel. We also received our fortune at this temple and tied it to a post.
Cartoons: Some of the crazy anime culture of Japanese freaks me out, but I definitely learned to appreciate some of it more. My friend Xue and I couldn’t help but stop by Hello Kitty Land in Odaiba. The inside of the store was the pinkest thing I have ever seen, but just outside a man was selling hot apple cakes shaped like Hello Kitty. The best part was how he gave the cake to you – through a sparkling tube (see the video below). I was the only Snoopy fan of the group (probably because my Dad always gives my Mom Snoopy cards for birthdays and anniversaries), so we also stopped by Snoopytown in Yokohama. I’m not 10 anymore, but it’s cute to indulge in cartoons every once in a while.
Japan at Night: It got a little nippy at night, but we still walked around plenty. Seeing Rainbow Bridge in Odaiba lit up was a true treat. This is said to be one of the most romantic parts of Tokyo at night.
Celebrations: The Japanese are really into celebrating their culture, usually in the form of festivals or parades. On January 2nd, the palace buildings and inner gardens of the Tokyo Imperial Palace open to the public (the only other time this happen is on December 23; the east gardens of the palace are open year-round). After going through a security screening process and waiting in line, we received paper Japanese flags and waited outside of the palace to see the Imperial Family greet the crowd on the balcony (but behind glass). As soon as the crowd caught a glimpse of the Imperial Family, everyone waved their flags and shouted, banzai (there’s not quite an English equivalent, but it generally means long life or hurrah). It was a touching way to celebrate the New Year.