I have wanted to visit Japan since I was four. True, the main reason back then was because I thought I could become a Pokémon trainer if I went there. But as my interest in its history and culture grew over time, there were too many reasons for me to put off going.
Having prepared myself for an intense culture shock, I stepped off the plane and into the organised, vibrant, yet stress free world which was Tokyo. The people were kind and helpful as my friend and I asked for the easiest way to get to where we were staying. To convey just how organised it was, I should mention that we queued for the metro. We reached our traditional Japanese ryokan hostel without any hassle. Despite the fact that we were on the other side of the world, that I had never even left Europe before, that I know barely any Japanese and the culture is so starkly different, our entire trip seemed free from stress.
Our first hostel was the Toco Tokyo Heritage in Iriya, Tokyo and it was a wonderful introduction to our trip to Japan. Our rooms were in the traditional Japanese style, with tatami mats for our beds and sliding doors. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming, and so often we’d join the other guests for a glass of sake or two after a long day exploring the nearby Asakusa, home of Tokyo’s oldest temple, the Senso-Ji. We took others’ advice and decided to avoid Roppongi, the main area for Tokyo’s nightlife, and visited the Senso-Ji at night while it was quiet. It was pretty magical and, personally, an experience I would always choose over a dodgy night out. (We heard a lot of bad things about Roppongi…)
We also had the chance to visit Kyoto, the centre of traditional and historical Japan. There seemed to be a temple or a shrine at every corner, either Shinto or Zen (Buddhist), which was surreal. We tried out the area’s specialty, the ‘matcha latte’ (green tea powder in hot milk) and I slowly became addicted to it. However, my favourite part of Kyoto was the Fushimi-Inari shrine and the four kilometre journey up the Inari mountain, through a weaving tunnel of bright orange gates. While it was generally rather busy, it didn’t detract from the tranquillity of the wooded mountain walk.
That was lost as soon we ourselves became lost on the mountain. We took the incorrect route back down, and the peaceful atmosphere was gradually replaced with bewildered unease. We found our way (after an hour…) and consoled ourselves with Japan’s best street food: takoyaki, battered octopus, and taiyaki, fish shaped cakes filled with either green tea cream, custard, sweet red bean paste or chocolate.
That’s not to say that we only explored the ancient areas of Japan. We visited Shinjuku, which resembles the Tokyo everyone imagines, with its neon lights and bustling night-life. My memories of Shinjuku are not entirely pleasant, as my friend and I innocently wondered into the red light district and (again) got lost for over an hour within the mob of ‘hosts’. An experience I would not repeat, but also do not regret. Harajuku, too, was incredible. The fashion there is outrageous, varied, individual, yet up to date with the rest of the world. It’s a shame that I fit hardly any of the clothes, as someone who’s 5’9, practically a giant in comparison to Japanese women.
Wandering through the nooks and crannies of Harajuku led us to Sakura Tei, a well known okonomiyaki restaurant. The customers make their own okonomiyaki, a sort of Japanese pancake; you’re presented with a bowl of your chosen ingredients- such as spring onions, prawns, squid, noodles – which are mixed with batter – as well as some sauce, seaweed and bonito fish flakes on the side for toppings. When you’ve completely mixed together the contents of your bowl, you cook it on the frying plate, which is fixed into the table. The sensation of successfully flipping your very own okonomiyaki is very satisfying.
Finally, the moment I’d been waiting for since I was four- the anime and technology district, Akihabara. This area is filled with seven story buildings dedicated to anime merchandise, manga, magazines, music, museums, more than my anime obsessed mind could comprehend. And to add to the bizarre and over stimulating sensory experience of Akihabara’s bright colours and happy music, our Japanese friend took us to a maid café, where the waitresses dress as maids and perform dance numbers. There was singing and glow sticks. I’m still not entirely sure what happened, it was very surreal.
Having spent two weeks there, there’s a lot more I could relay about Japan- the strangely confident, sacred deer of Nara, the oldest Zen temple in Kyoto with its stunning rock gardens, or the uncharacteristically hectic Shibuya crossing- but instead, I’ll just encourage you to visit, because it’s a trip of a lifetime.
Images courtesy of the author.