Imagine you have a month to travel anywhere in the world. Amazing, right?
When the opportunity landed in our lap thanks to my husband’s job, part of me was thrilled. But in truth, I’ve never been much of a world traveller. Don’t get me wrong: I like to experience new places. What I enjoy a lot less is getting there. Since I met Stefan in Toronto all those years ago and ended up moving to France, seeing family and friends means crossing an ocean, or at least the English Channel with our daughter in the UK.
But November? We would have to go much further afield for decent weather. Not to mention Covid. Planning any kind of big trip this year felt like a crap shoot with the pandemic working its way around the world, and the rules about vaccines and PCR tests constantly shifting. Plus, a whole lot of other stuff: a new grandchild, a move in the offing (even though it’s off for now), what feels like uncertainty for the future.
But if there’s one thing that’s held true in life for me it’s this: if an opportunity comes along, you take it. So when the Japanese government announced it was dropping most travel restrictions and opening to tourism again in September, we booked. A first for me; the third time for my husband, a confirmed Japanophile. His last trip in January 2020 had been skiing in Hokkaido. We decided to focus on the southern half of the country.
Landing in Tokyo after a 14-hour flight was a relief. No matter how many times I do it, sitting in a metal tube as it shoots through the atmosphere 35,000 feet in the air makes me nervous. I am that annoying passenger who keeps their light on the whole time. I read, I scribble, try to focus on a film…but my eyes keep going back to that bloody screen. Even though it was longer, it was reassuring to see that we avoided Russian airspace.
It was also my first time in Asia. And I realized as we walked down the street that it was my first experience as a visible minority. Most of my previous travel in exotic destinations has been in places that attract hordes of tourists. In Japan, while we did see non-Asian faces at key locations, we were often alone in the crowd. Which was not a problem at all. Mostly I forgot about appearances in the struggle to understand; occasionally I caught a few furtive looks and remembered that we were clearly outsiders.
The first day in Tokyo we were so exhausted from the trip that I barely noticed when the earth moved shortly after we checked into our hotel room on the 8th floor.
“Did you bump into the bed just now?” I asked my husband. He looked over from where he was unpacking his suitcase and shook his head.
“Can’t you feel that?” The bed was shaking. It lasted about a minute and then it stopped. Later we learned that there had been an earthquake in Southern Honshu (Japan’s main island). Thankfully there was no fallout from the quake (5.6 at its epicenter). I guess it was Japan’s way of shaking my hand in greeting.
Our hotel in the Shiba-koen district was the perfect landing pad, set on a quiet residential street with good access to the lively Minato area with its tall office towers. There is a nearby shrine and statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, in the park. The area also offers nice views of the Tokyo Tower, inspired by the Eiffel. It helped me to feel at home.
But Tokyo is big. It is bigger than any other city I’ve experienced. And even after a few days exploring it, we barely grazed the surface.
Getting around was half the fun, even though I must admit that after my welcome handshake, I was happiest taking the Yamanote Line of the subway system which mostly runs above ground. Also, we did a lot of walking which is probably why I managed to enjoy so many treats without carrying away extra baggage.
Some of my most distinct memories:
A tea-tasting experience. Husband doesn’t drink but I took the course with alcohol. To be honest, by the time we found the place I needed something to take the edge off. And while I’m at it: some of the tea-inspired tastes (including eating tea leaves) left me less than inspired, but the herbal and tea-infused gin and tonic was delicious!
A walk around Ueno Park, with its shrine and museums, beautiful especially as darkness fell and the lights came on.
Crossed with the crowds at the chaotic Shibuya intersection. Waited in a line-up of people taking selfies with the famous dog, Hachiko, a Japanese Akita dog memorialized for his incredible loyalty; the story goes he waited at Shibuya Station every day for nine years after his owner’s death.
Had a drink in the bar on the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt, made famous in one of my favourite films, ‘Lost in Translation’.
Visited the Meiji shrine where we witnessed a Shinto wedding in progress.
I was captivated by all of wishes written on small wooden plaques called ‘emas’. Especially this one…
While I don’t know the author of that wish, I will borrow her sentiment. While were in Japan we celebrated our wedding anniversary: I am grateful that my barnacle husband has stuck to me for 36 years!
Stefan stayed on for an extra week of Japanese language training while I flew home. As per my usual ritual, I imbibed whatever was on offer during the flight while watching the slow progress of our plane on the screen, this time along a route I’d never flown before: straight north, skirting the eastern coast of Russia to Alaska, then across the top of the globe at 37,000 feet to Scandinavia and down.
So now I’m back and still digesting it all, especially the wonderful food. I will share more in my next post.
What is your most memorable travel experience?