I have always had an interest in Japan. For an ethnically homogenous island nation which has remained isolated for much of its pre-World War history, Japan has managed to export its culture throughout the world. Japanese restaurants line our streets, Japanese idioms have infiltrated our languages, Japanese technology fills our homes and Japanese design has made a marked impression on the things we build and wear. When I booked my ticket to Tokyo, I was curious to explore the inter workings of this culture exporting machine.
Even though my home in China was only a short distance from Tokyo, I had avoided traveling to Japan due to several accounts of backpacker killing prices. Apparently just a simple dorm bed in central Tokyo could cost upwards of $25, more than my entire daily budget in a developing country. Nonetheless, if I kept my travel distances to a minimum and utilized my couchsurfing account then I figured I could make a few weeks in Japan manageable on a backpacker budget. Due to small living spaces and long working hours, finding a couch to crash on in Japan is not easy, but I took the time to apply to many hosts and managed to organize a couch (or at least a floor) in every destination I was to visit before I even landed in the country. It was going to save me bundles but saving money wasn’t the only reason for finding hosts. To be honest, I was not particularly interested in temple hopping. I was more interested in Japanese culture. Staying with locals would provide interesting insights into typical Japanese life.
After a comfortable overnight flight from Jakarta I landed in Tokyo just as the sun was rising. I had to wait until the evening to meet my first couchsurfing host so with a day to kill I threw my bags into a coin locker and set out to explore the city.
My initial impression of Tokyo was that it felt completely different from China or South East Asia. For a metropolis of over thirty million, many of Tokyo's districts feel quite quaint. I rarely encountered a traffic jam and the sidewalks were not particularly crowded. Few Japanese were outside save for a couple people walking their dogs. I guess everyone was at work.
The narrow streets of smaller neighborhoods just outside city center were lined with tiny cafes and sushi shops, many of which allowed only enough seating space for three or four patrons. Old temples and small green parks dotted the landscape. As I moved into more developed areas, I encountered larger more modern buildings, lots of bright neon signs and tree lined boulevards. The architecture and city layout took on a more futuristic element but it was not the futurism I was expecting from Japan. It was the sort of retro futurism. The technology was advanced but the design reminded me of the set of some ultramodern movie made back in the 1980s. Bubbled glass, colourful lights and shiny metal walls were common. Blade Runner came to mind. The thing I found most interesting, however, was the strong emphasis on detail. Everything, from the buildings to the parks to the table cutlery, was designed down to the smallest element to be both aesthetically pleasing and functionally efficient. I had never seen anything quite like it. Everything was beautiful in its own practical way.
After absorbing this initial impression, I returned to Nippori station to gather my things and meet my host Yuki who had just finished work. Of the fifteen people I applied to in Tokyo, Yuki was the only one who accepted my request. I really could not have found a better host. Yuki is a genuinely kind young woman who really seemed to care about my experience in Tokyo. Before I had even arrived she had read my blog and brainstormed various activities she thought I would enjoy during my stay. As is the case with most Japanese, her living arrangements were modest. She had only a small room with a bed and barely enough space to fit an extra futon. But even though her space was limited, she kindly allowed me to sleep on the futon for four nights.
After I dropped my bags at her place, we went out to find some food. She knew all the best cheap eats in her neighbourhood and we ended up at a popular sushi joint where you order from a computer attached to the table then snag your sushi as it passes by on a mobilized track. High tech shit. Each plate was only $1, one hell of a deal for Tokyo. We got to know each a little better over dinner before we went back to the apartment so I could finally get some much needed rest.
The following morning Yuki went to work and I set out to further explore Tokyo. While my initial impression of Tokyo was focused more on layout and design, my second excursion into the city was focused more on its inhabitants. Everyone I encountered was extremely polite. People often greeted each other by repeatedly apologizing for some small mishap. I heard ‘sumimasen’ (excuse me) far more often than ‘konnichiwa’ (hello). Simple rules seemed to dominate daily conduct. Everyone kept to their own personal space, lined up properly when necessary and religiously obeyed all signs and traffic signals. I never once encountered a J-walker. Even if there was only a narrow one lane street with no cars in the vicinity, the Japanese would not cross until the little man turns green.
Everyone appeared to be in a hurry to get somewhere. The few who did seem to have a little free time took part in one of several bizarre past times. Some shamelessly read graphic anime pornography in full view of those around them while others walked down to one of the city’s small rivers to a fenced enclosure where they could pay a small fee to fish for carp in the middle of the city. It was a catch and release system.
The fashion was also out of the ordinary. In the more youthful districts, woman dressed like hipster school girls. In the high class areas everyone looked super chic and stylish and in the business districts I rarely saw a man not wrapped in a dark black suit.
In my worn Levi jeans, ripped shirt and dusty brown cap, I certainly had the feeling I was a little underdressed for Tokyo when I returned Yuki’s apartment that night. Unfortunately, my vanity was no the only thing that was damaged. I had also developed a sharp pain in my left knee which had demobilized me by the end of the day. I thought a good night sleep and a couple of IB Profen would do the trick but I was wrong. The random pain ended up staying with me for the rest of my trip and slowed me to a limp for much of it. But even if I had to hobble instead of walk, I only had 18 days in Japan and I was not going to stop exploring now.
So the next day I loaded up on painkillers, bought a Tokyo metro pass and set out into the city once again. The expensive metro pass decreased my walking distances but increased my stress level. The Tokyo transportation system is probably the most extensive in the world but it is not the easiest to figure out. There are countless overland and subway lines which are run by several different companies. If you buy a ticket for one company’s trains, you cannot use it on another’s. It’s not like typical metro systems were you just need to buy a ticket for the subway and can transfer anywhere you like. In Tokyo, in order to buy a ticket you have to find the closest line, figure out the transfers necessary to make it to your destination without using any other subway company’s lines, then calculate your fare using a massive fair table posted above the ticketing machines. This system is just one example of how Tokyo can be likened to a big super computer. It’s huge, complicated, and takes time to understand, but once you have trained yourself in how to use it, it is incredibly fast and efficient.
Having the metro pass allowed me to explore many different areas of the city in a short time. I soon came to understand how every district of Tokyo has its own unique flavour and feel. I started in Shiodome, a high class business district next to the water. Unfortunately, it was a cold rainy morning and I only spent an hour or so enjoying the sophisticated architecture before I was forced to find refuge in the Subway station. Thankfully, the weather improved as I rode the subway to Shibuya, Tokyo’s hip youthful area and likely my favourite district in the whole metropolis. The buildings aren’t huge like in Shiodome, but they are more unique. The immediate area around the train station is home to a cool restaurant and nightlife scene packed full of more trendy joints and neon lights than you can imagine. In the surrounding area trendy artists, skateboarders and dancers occupy small green parks sandwiched between tree lined boulevards to hone their respective crafts. I happily spent a few hours hobbling from place to place and absorbing the atmosphere.
In the late afternoon I returned to Nippori station to meet Yuki who had just finished work. It was Friday night and Yuki had the following two days off so we hit up Shinjuku, one of Tokyo’s most developed nightlife districts, for some darts and drinks. At a small bar on the 8th floor of an office building, we ate edamame and ordered cocktails from an Ipad perched on our table. I was a little buzzed and Yuki was nearly falling asleep when we caught the last train back to Nippori at midnight.
After a good night sleep we awoke early enough to catch breakfast at Tsukiji market. Tsukiji is one of the world’s largest fish markets and it’s quite common for tourists to catch a sight of the early morning catch around 5AM. Yuki and I were satisfied with showing up at around 9AM to get a fresh sushi breakfast from one of the market restaurants. I’m not going to pretend I could actually taste the difference in freshness but it was definitely good sushi.
After breakfast, we took the subway to Asakusa to see Senso-ji, Tokyo’s most famous temple. It was big and beautiful but too busy to enjoy. From the temple we took the bus to the base of Tokyo’s brand new sky tree, the tallest tower and second to tallest structure in the world. The observation deck was not worth the price tag so we just admired the giant building from the base until the rain forced us into the metro and back to Yuki’s apartment. My knee was bothering me and it was too rainy to explore so Yuki and I decided to stay in for the evening. I taught her a little guitar and we rented a movie.
The weather did not improve the next morning. Neither of us wanted to brave the cold so we spent the morning at a modern art gallery. I’m not really into the modern art thing but the there was an exhibition on the evolution of industrial design in post war California which was actually quite interesting. After we were sufficiently sophisticated we walked to Roppongi, the foreigner district of Tokyo and home to a slew of international restaurant chains. We finished the afternoon by taking the elevator to the top of the Bunkyo municipal building. We only had a half hour at the observation deck to enjoy the view before I had to grab my things and head for the train station to catch a bus to Kyoto. Thank god Yuki came with me since the bus actually picked up at some random intersection a few blocks away from Tokyo station and I would never have found it on my own.
As I boarded the bus I thanked Yuki for her hospitality. She had been a great host during my stay and really added to my experience in the city. I then settled into my seat and prepared for an eight hour overnight ride to Osaka. Luckily, I was seated next to a friendly Australian traveler who had both a Gameboy and an Ipad. He was engrossed in the Gameboy and let me use the Ipad to watch movies. I was able to complete The Hobbit and few TV shows before we arrived in Kyoto at around 6AM. My host in Kyoto worked late and could not meet until 10PM so I had a lot of time to kill. I hadn’t slept on the bus so I put my backpack in a coin locker and found a nearby park to take a long nap. When I awoke a few hours later, I took a stroll around the center of Japan’s former capital.
Kyoto is a small relaxed city but due to its wealth of historical sights it attracts hoards of tourists. The city is a patchwork of small apartment buildings, old thatch-roofed wooden homes and some modern high class shopping areas. Thousands of ancient shrines, temples and parks are scattered throughout the town and its surrounding hillside districts. It would take weeks to explore them all and I had neither the time nor the money. Instead, I paid to see only a couple temples then spent the majority of my time walking the city, its parks and its shrines, all of which are free. I also spent quite a bit of time at Kyoto Station, an incredible piece of modern architecture. The station itself is full of photo opportunities and the roof has a nice garden which offers nice views over the city.
After sixteen hours of aimlessly exploring, I was finally able to meet my host, a friendly recent graduate named Manami who works a ridiculous schedule. She was not able to meet me until 10PM since she works sixteen hours a day six days a week. Everyday she left her home at 6AM and often did not return until after 10PM. This astounded me but I would soon come to understand that this type of work schedule is not that unusual in Japan. Given her crazy hours, I was not able to spend a lot of time with Manami but she generously gave me the key to her small apartment and told me to come and go as I like. I was amazed someone as busy as her still opened her small home to travelers in need. I hope she is shown the same courtesy when she travels the world.
After a long and well needed sleep, I found a cheap bento box for breakfast then started walking north towards Ginkakuji (The Golden Pavilion). This gold covered pavilion is Kyoto’s biggest draw and it certainly deserves the attention. The temple is small but shimmers with a coating of pure gold leaf and sits next to a beautiful Japanese garden amid colourful hills.
After snapping a ton of pictures of the temple I made my way to Arashiyama, a forested district north of Kyoto where many beautiful temples and parks can be found. The area had a nice mountain setting and a thick bamboo forest, but all of the temples were too expensive to enter. When I had my fill of nature walking, I bussed back to Kyoto and ate fried pork cutlets at a Japanese style diner before going to bed.
The following morning was dark and wet. I did not want to explore the countryside in the rain so I made my way to Gion, Kyoto’s old geisha district. The small neighbourhood was beautiful in the rain as the wet stone streets reflected their ancient surroundings. Occasionally, I would see a geisha, her face painted white and dressed in a colourful kimono, scurry from one beautiful old wooden building to another. The attention to detail in the design of these aged wooden buidlings was amazing. Everything from the windows ceils to the flower gardens were attractive and well maintained. When night had fallen, I bussed down to Kyoto’s main night life street. The neon laden alley followed a small river lined with cute pubs, chic restaurants and strip clubs. I did not have any intention of drinking. I was just curious. Beers started at $8 a piece anyways.
The weather improved the next day so I caught a morning train to Nara, Japan’s ancient capital before Kyoto. Once again I had several hours to wait before I could meet my host so I went straight to Nara park where most of the city’s attractions are concentrated. The park is thousands of years old and is home to many of Japan’s most important historical sights along with hundreds of deer which have far become too accustomed to humans. The area was full of cherry blossom trees, lakes, pagodas and gardens. The main attraction was the Daijo-ji Temple, the largest wooden building in the world which houses the largest brass Buddha in the world. Both the temple and Buddha were very impressive but overrun by loud Japanese school groups. I found refuge from the busloads of kids in the many peaceful gardens and canals surrounding.
When evening came I made my way to Heijo station to meet my hosts. A smiling middle aged woman with a beige Japanese akita named Tan was waiting for me. Her name was Ayako and she led me through a neighbourhood of old style Japanese homes to a cute bungalow. The house was small but cozy and had matted white walls dissected by thin symmetrical wooden beams. When I used the washroom I was a little intimidated by their high tech toilet. It had a heated seat, an electronic control box which performed various cleaning functions and an automatic tap which dispensed water to wash one’s hands when it was flushed.
Ayako could not speak very much English but her husband Toru, who spoke English well, soon arrived home from his job as a social studies teacher. Like most Japanese, he had just finished a twelve hour work day. After I had settled into the guest room I joined Toru and Ayako in the living room. I noticed a sign taped to one of the houses wooden support beams which brandished a Canadian flag and read Welcome Braden. It was a very nice gesture. We sat on the ground of the living room floor, our legs kept warm under a small heated table which had a thick blanket attached. Since the house had no heating, this was how they kept warm in the winter. Ayako watched a manga cartoon about zombies while Toru and I got to know each other.
After a little small talk Toru declared that it was time to start drinking. He opened the fridge to reveal three different brands of Japanese beer and a couple bottles of sake. He then turned to me and stated his two house rules.
First, the guest must help himself to whatever food and drink he pleases during his stay and second, the more the guest eats and drinks, the more honoured the guest.
We both smiled broadly as I opened a can of Asahi lager and Toru poured himself a large glass of sake. Ayako soon appeared with a large bottle of Kirin, a plate of seared tuna sashimi and a bowl of edamame. We chatted about life in Canada and traveling in Asia while we ate and drank.
Once we had polished off the appetizers and a few beers each, Ayako returned to the kitchen where she put on a pair of surgical gloves and prepared a delicious meal of pan fried pork cutlets, mixed greens with mandarin dressing, tofu and miso soup. It was one of the best meals of my Japanese adventure. We watched a few bizarre Japanese TV shows before hitting the hay. Stuffed full of Japanese food, beer and good conversation, I slept very well that night.
When I awoke the next day Toru had already gone to work. Ayako took me on a quick tour of the neighbourhood then I wondered into downtown Nara. I spent most of the day exploring the ancient neighbourhoods surrounding Nara park which were full of temples, craft shops and cafes. I came across a local micro brewery and purchased a bottle of cherry blossom sake for Toru and Ayako before returning to their home at dusk.
Our evening was quite similar to the one previous. Once Toru returned home we all started drinking. Ayako made each of us a large sashimi rice bowl topped with pieces of salmon tuna and fish eggs for dinner.
I’m sorry, it is to difficult for us to make proper sushi
, Toru said as Ayako placed the large bowl of fresh fish, a salad and a miso soup in front of me. Not only were these two kind souls giving me a place to sleep, they were cooking me fantastic Japanese food then apologizing for it. They were too generous. After dinner Toru requested that I play them a couple songs on the guitar before bed. I gladly obliged.
I said goodbye to Toru and Ayako as they left for work the next morning and thanked them for their extraordinary courtesy. I showered, gathered my things and I caught a midday train to Osaka. As is typical in Japan, more than half of the train passengers were asleep. Some were sleeping standing up, others with their head between their knees. One girl feel asleep on my shoulder then, as if she possessed some internal arrival warning system, jumped up as soon as we reached her stop and exited the train without missing a beat. For someone who can’t even sleep on a train much less wake up promptly when required, I found this all pretty impressive.
I arrived in Osaka mid afternoon and, once again, had several hours to waste before I could meet my host. It was a beautiful day so I just wondered the city. Osaka felt quite different from Tokyo. It was a little busier and less organized. The people were a little friendlier but dressed crazier. I stumbled upon a youthful area called Amerika mura (America Village) where Osaka’s peculiar fashions were on full display. Goths, skateboarders, hipsters, hip hop MCs, Barbie girls, emos… you can find it all in Amerika mura. It’s like Halloween everyday down there. I ate one of Japan’s favourite snacks, doughy octopus balls covered in various sauces, as I people watched. Since it was a holiday everyone was in the streets drinking with friends, buying up the latest fashions and enjoying the nice weather. It was also one of the few places in Japan where I had a few locals approach me for a little broken conversation. The whole vibe was pretty fun and interesting.
The vibe changed as I moved into Umeda, Japan’s business district. The buildings were more imposing, the people more hasty and the atmosphere far more serious. After sunset I made my way to Dontonburi, a busy nightlife district plastered from head to toe with colourful neon lights and signs. It’s an amazing sight at night. My host was waiting for me at an Irish pub nearby where a couchsurfing meeting was being held. It was there that I met the majority of the people I would end up hanging out with during my stay in Osaka. First there was Shu, my excellent host who always seems to have something interesting planned and Zoey, a Taiwanese born kiwi who had recently moved to Osaka to teach kindergarten. We bonded over our similar experiences teaching cute little Asian kids. There was a Belgium party animal named Michael who was in Osaka for a month to learn a little Japanese and tear rip up the dance floor of every club. A friendly local woman named Aya joined us. She had such a youthful demeanour and appearance that I swore was younger than me. She was actually 38 years old. And finally, we had a Spaniard with us named Ivan, a romantic intent on finding himself a Japanese girlfriend. We got to know each other over some Kirin stout on the eighth floor rooftop patio of Dublin's Irish Pub. Since Osaka`s subway close at midnight, as the night wore on we had to make a decision to go home or stay out until sunrise when the subway starts again. Our small crew opted for a party so we searched out an underground hip hop club and danced until they kicked us out at closing time.
Since we didn’t get back to Shu`s place until about 7:30AM, we slept quite late the next day. Shu had some business to take care of in the afternoon so I met Zoey at the Umeda Sky Building to catch the sunset from the observation deck. We chatted about life in kindergarten and enjoyed the view before meeting Shu for sushi and beers.
The next day Shu organized a large group of couchsurfers to meet at a local festival. The festival had something to do with boys becoming men and carp. Hundreds of carp shaped kites were hung from lines running across a river. Children played underneath and various dance groups competed for a prize. We just sat on the steps and drank. In the evening Aya invited myself and a few other surfers to her favourite hookah bar for pizza and shisha. We finished the night with a few drinks at the pub before catching the midnight train home. No partying til sunrise on this night.
The following morning I thanked Shu for showing me a good time in Osaka and caught a mid day bus to Nagoya, the last destination of my Asian adventure. My host was a friendly young Moroccan name Otoman who was studying engineering. Otoman was busy with school and we spent much of our time together in the lobby of his residence surfing the net. But I rather enjoyed chatting up all the beautiful female students, many of whom spoke mandarin, as they passed by.
Nagoya itself is not the most jaw dropping destination but a nice relief from the more touristy areas I had visited previously. The city’s main draw is a big old castle which was rebuilt after World War II. The view from the outside is impressive but the inside felt more like a museum. It even had an elevator. The rest of the city center felt more low-key than Tokyo or Osaka but was still full of interesting modern architecture, fancy restaurants and some nice cafes. I found a great udon noodle bar just off of central park which had the feel of a New York style bar on one side and an entire wall of graphic manga novels on the other. The décor and the noodles were some of the best I had experienced in Japan. I returned to Otoman’s residence after sunset and caught an early night sleep.
I had to wake up early the next day to catch a 7AM bus back to Tokyo. The bus arrived in Shinjuku mid afternoon on a clear sunny day. It was the first time I had seen Shinjuku during the day and I was mesmerized by all the tall modern skyscrapers shimmering in the midday sun. I took the elevator to the top of the municipal tower for a nice view of Tokyo before heading to my hotel for a rest.
It was my last two days in Asia and my uncle Steve was in town to show me around. My Dad also generously booked me into a beautiful hotel room near Shibuya station as a welcome home gift. It was the nicest room I had seen in several months. This was bound to be a more comfortable weekend than I was used to. I met Steve at the station in the evening. I had not seen him since he showed me around Beijing over a year earlier. And just as he had done in Beijing, Steve treated me to some great local cuisine. For dinner he found a fancy Shabu Shabu restaurant. Shabu Shabu is Japanese style hot pot with thinly sliced beef and vegetables cooked in a large pot of boiling water and served with various dipping sauces. We were in Tokyo, the food capital of the world, and since Steve had been in over forty times before, he really knew how to find the best places to eat. The food was fantastic and the staff polite to the point of irritation. I’m pretty sure sumimasen came out of our waitress’s mouth more than three hundred times during our stay. We spent a couple hours chatting about life in Asia and chowing down on various Japanese delicacies before meeting a couple of Steve’s friends for a drink at a Shinjuku pub. Steve had picked up a bad cold before arriving in Tokyo and I had been up since 5AM so we packed in it a bit early to get some rest.
The following morning we strolled around Harajuka, Tokyo’s equivalent to Amerikamura in Osaka. Unlike Amerikamura, however, Harajuka is all about the teeny bopper style. Lots of pink, plastic and glitter. We moved on to Ginza district to stop into the Sony building and catch up on all the latest gadgets from Japan’s electronics giant. As we left the building, we witnessed something very peculiar in the streets of Ginza. A long line of people were chanting and carrying banners down the side of a busy boulevard. It was a large peace protest in the middle of downtown Tokyo. I was rather surprised. Japan and public demonstrations did not hold a close association in my mind. But in true Japanese style, the protest was incredible organized and well mannered. Pylons were placed along the road to mark a clear protesting path so that traffic would not be disturbed. The march was organized into blocks, each led by a patrol car. When one block reached an intersection everyone would quietly stop behind the car and allow traffic to pass. Once the light turned green, they would continue chanting and marching down the pylon marked path.
There were almost as many riot police as protesters but their presence was actually more amusing than intimidating. They were decked out in thick riot gear but all looked lost or bored. They had nothing to do. When one of the protesters finally stepped out of line he was surrounded by over thirty police. There was no violence. They just huddled around the unruly gentlemen and slowly moved him towards the police van. It was the most organized and gentle protest I had ever seen in my life. We never did figure out exactly what it was for.
Once the tranquil protest had passed and we caught the tram to Odaiba, a man made island covered in modern architecture and a five story transformer toy. We stumbled into a German beer festival where hundreds of young Japanese were getting wasted on fine European beer and jumping up and down to a live western cover band. It was a ton of fun. In fact, if the beers hadn’t been $10 a piece we could have stayed there all night.
Steve once again treated me to a great meal in Shibuya for dinner. The set feast included a little taste of basically everything on the menu. We were each given close to twenty small plates of tasty Japanese delicacies. It was delicious.
Since it was my last night in Asia I decided a night out on the town was in order. Steve was still feeling ill and had to get some rest so I was running solo. I made my way to a couch surfing meeting to see if anyone was interested in a night out. There were over fifty people at the event and a group of ten were down to party. We went to Roppongi, Tokyo’s largest night life district, and found a little club with a big cover charge. The club was far too packed, the drinks were far too expensive and, to be honest, the night was a bit of a disappointment. Nothing bad happened, I guess I just had high expectations for my last night in Asia. I failed to realize that when your traveling solo, your the only one that really cares if its your last night. But I was stuck there until sunrise when the trains started running again. I paid for it the next morning when after less than an hours sleep I had to leave for the airport. I met with Steve briefly to thank him for, once again, showing me such a good time. Then, with my feet dragging, I boarded the train bound for Narita airport.
It was a sombre ride. After twenty months, my stint in Asia was coming to an end and the simple truth was just starting to sink in. I hadn't really allowed myself to think about it but as the train sped towards the airport, the thoughts were unavoidable. A sinking feeling lingered as I checked in and passed through security. It deepened as I boarded the the plane and I was nearly in tears as I settled into my seat. I knew that it would eventually pass, that soon I would be laughing and sharing experiences with a family I had not seen in ages. But for the time being, it was inescapable and exacerbated by sleep deprivation and a bad hangover.
I peered out of the cabin window while the aircraft gained speed and lifted off of the runway. As Tokyo disappeared below the clouds, I finally allowed myself to realize that this long crazy adventure was at last over. It was sober moment. The mackerel with brown rice, Haagen Daz ice cream and personal TV with a decent selection of Hollywood flicks onboard were a nice distraction. But there was no denying it, I had an amazing experience in Asia and I was sad to be leaving.