Finding my feet in Japan

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?

27 comments

  1. mistermuse · December 11

    Very interesting. This Yank has been to Europe, but not Japan.
    If I weren’t so old and decrepit, I’d go there as soon as I can!

    • Garfield Hug · December 11

      I am sure you are not “so old and decrepit” as you are witty and funny! I hope you get to see Japan and pop by Singapore one day💞😃

      • mistermuse · December 11

        Thank you, but for me, the old saying doth speak:
        “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
        😉

      • Garfield Hug · December 11

        Haha!! Understand. But stay young at heart Mistermuse. Just remember I am “old and equally decrepit” due to my medical condition too😛

      • MELewis · December 12

        Love to see you guys having a little convo on my blog! ❤️

      • Garfield Hug · December 12

        😃👍Thanks MELewis.

    • MELewis · December 12

      Ha, ha, I’m sure you are neither old nor decrepit, but I will admit as a senior traveller myself, it is not for the faint of heart! Everything from the long flights to navigating traffic on the left takes a bigger toll with age. But if you get the chance, Japan is well worth the effort!

  2. Garfield Hug · December 11

    Glad you are enjoying Japan👍😃

  3. suzlearnsfrench · December 11

    Japan sounds like a dream. My most memorable travel experience so far was our recent bike tour that took us to eight European countries – part of the trip took us to Albania. It was like stepping back in time.

    • MELewis · December 12

      That must have been amazing! Wish I still had it in me to cycle so far but I’ll settle for lots of walking. Never been to Albania but have heard good things. Japan was amazing!

      • suzlearnsfrench · December 12

        It was very cool. Looking forward to your next post.

  4. margaret21 · December 11

    I’ve had two experiences in Asia, and they could hardly have been more different. One in India, the other in South Korea. This latter trip seems to share a great deal of similarity with yours. The two countries have absorbed 21st century urban life and technology with a vengeance, and both have an extremely dedicated work ethic, while having a great deal of respect for the transitions of the past. It would be fun to compare notes!

    • MELewis · December 12

      Both India and South Korea have their appeal for me, even if I’m reluctant to go so far. You are right about Japan being both modern and traditional, which makes for interesting travel. Also a very safe experience, except for the left-side driving. Definitely not for the faint of heart! More on that soon. And yes, would love to compare notes one day!

      • margaret21 · December 12

        Reading these comments put me in mind of a small South Korean vignette. We had embarked on a long-distance bus journey. Before he revved up (this was the bus terminus) the driver left his seat, bowed to us all respectfully and wished us (I suppose) a pleasant journey. Bowed again, resumed his seat, and drove off

  5. chezperrier · December 11

    As a Japanophile myself, I just loved this post. My mother lived in Japan in the 1950s but I have yet to go. As far as memorable travel experiences, I think that they are too numerous to even mention here! Lithuania? Russia? Brazil? Colombia? Greece? There is so much in this world that is unique and wonderful. I hope that Japan will be a place that I will have memories of, too.

    • MELewis · December 12

      Thank you! How interesting that your mother lived in Japan back then. I can only imagine she had an interesting life. My impressions of women in Japan (which may be wrong but simply based on our time there) is that they are decades behind other countries in terms of equality. Clearly you must go and see for yourself. That’s quite a list of countries visited. You are certainly far more adventurous than I!

      • chezperrier · December 12

        I think that can be true but it is slowly changing. My mother also taught English as a second language and her Japanese student told her that she would go to university but likely end up serving tea to executives. That was in the 1970s and things have changed even since then.

  6. acflory · December 11

    Thank you for the wonderful pics. Keep them coming. Hoping that one day I’ll be able to visit some of the places. 🙂

    • MELewis · December 12

      I hope so too, Meeka. You deserve to be able to get out and see the world while staying safe health-wise. Certainly safety comes first in Japan, where everyone is masked both indoors and out. In the meantime, happy to share my experiences!

      • acflory · December 12

        Yes. I think I’d feel safe in Japan. I just need to win tatts to pay for the trip. 😀

  7. Colin Bisset · December 11

    Beautiful photos, and such a varied experience. It’s amazing how little scenes, like the Shinto wedding, play out in the big city. I loved that sense of the micro in Japan – not just the cars but the way things are wrapped and, of course, the endless little gestures of politeness. An architect once told me how after he had spent two years working in Japan he found it very difficult to accept the clumsy brashness of Sydney when he returned. Looking forward to your further posts!

    • MELewis · December 12

      Agree about the politesse and the attention to detail in wrapping and the artful presentation of everything from food to shops. Also the pure kindness of the people on the street, who were often so helpful. Of course the flip side is the complexity; nothing ever seems simple and straightforward. Since I’ve been back, I’ve thought of so many little things I could post about, including a few times when my Western self felt into the culture gap. Will think about how best to package them up!

  8. midihideaways · December 12

    Japan is right up there for me – nothing yet has come close to that amazing experience! I’d be going back at the drop of a hat if I could…

  9. Suzanne et Pierre · December 19

    Glad to hear that you enjoyed your travel in Japan, a country I have yet to visit. Your photos and text are quite evocative of your experiences. Difficult to determine my most memorable travel experience but India would be at the top of the list for its culture and people and more recently Antarctica for the sheer beauty of its untouched landscapes and its wildlife. Looking forward to reading more on your travel. (Suzanne)

    • MELewis · December 22

      Thank you, Suzanne! I am behind in getting my posts together, what with the year-end chaos, but will share more soon. India and Antarctica both sound like amazing places to visit, but perhaps too much for me. I look forward to your next photographic adventures. in the meantime, Merry Christmas!

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