January 2015

Me: bow Konichiwa! (hello)
Shopkeeper: bow Konichiwa! (hello)
Me: Arigato gazimasu! bow (thanks for taking my money)
Shopkeeper: bow Arigato gazimasu! (thanks for your money, come again soon)
Me: awkward bow, because I’ve said all the Japanese phrases I know
Shopkeeper: return bow, because being polite is more important than a foreigner’s awkwardness
They say the trains in Japan are world class and they’re not wrong, but no one said they were so confusing! Thanks to my couchsurfing host, Shun, I successfully navigated the spiderweb of local, regional, national trains. Shun took me on his morning commute to downtown and I felt like I was living the clip of Japanese train conductors with white gloves squeezing people onto trains. At every station, people nearest to the door would get off and stand to the side of the doors on the train platform, letting other people off. Then the people next to the doors would get back on. Finally new passengers boarded, who were waiting in line. Rinse, repeat. No pushing, shoving, or cutting line. What a difference from China (and the USA), where people lose their heads as soon as the doors open.
I wandered through the Tsukiji Fish Market a few hours after the famous 3AM tuna auctions. I’ll admit, I was an ignorant tourist and I had never heard of the fish market. It’s a necessary consequence of constantly traveling and not reading travel guides. Sometimes you miss the good stuff.

Many times I battled with the “fear of missing out”. I would stress that I might meet someone who would say “OH MY GOSH YOU DIDN’T GO TO <insert attraction>??!!”. It took a long time for me to learn (and re-learn) that it’s okay to miss out. We all have different experiences traveling, and usually what I liked to see what not on the list of Top 25 Things To See In This City. Plus, next time I’m in Japan I’ll still have new places to go and things to experience.
I’ve used a lot of toilets around the world. I’ll spare you the details but I’m proud to say that until Japan, I’ve never needed a translation in the lavatory. Japanese toilets were spectacularly clean but more complicated than most coffee makers. There was a control panel on the wall or a robotic arm on the side. Some had English translations, some I guessed and hoped for the best. And yes, I pressed the button for the “flushing sound”.

February is cold in Tokyo. Luckily some brilliant person perfected the art of dispensing both cold and hot drinks from the same vending machine; I drank so many hot milk teas. But there are no public trash cans, so I always ended up with a backpack full of empty cans (public trash cans disappeared after a sarin gas attack in 1995). You were responsible for your trash so you had to bring it home or drink fast and use the recycling bin near the machine.

Vending machines also sold hot meals. You selected your choice and put in money, then took the ticket inside and the person behind the counter brought your food. As a vegetarian I played roulette that I wasn’t ordering beef stew, but thanks to the plastic food displays I was usually successful.
The day before I left Tokyo, Shun and I visited Mount Fuji with 30 couchsurfers, a mix of backpackers, tourists, locals, and wanderers. Earlier Shun showed me that you could see Fuji for a brief second while riding the metro in Tokyo, 60 miles away. But traveling 5 hours each way to see the mountain up close was worth it. I happened to visit at one of the two times annually when the sun will set directly on top of Mount Fuji, called Diamond Fuji. The pictures from Lake Yamanaka don’t do it justice.

Fun fact, it’s hilarious to watch people play with snow who have never seen it before. They pick up a chunk with bare hands and pose for a picture, then drop it because their hands are freezing.


After a long day of touristing, always refuel with sushi from the conveyor belt.

This post is dedicated to my grandmother, for her birthday.

She has followed my travels for more than 7 years and cheered me on every step of the way. Knowing she reads every post has motivated me to publish this blog for the last two years, and continue updating now. Happy Birthday Bama, I love you!

Categories: Japan

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