Now that I’m almost over the jet lag, the summary version of my trip to Japan is that I had a great time, though naturally I discovered some things I’d do differently the next time. I felt very well prepared for the trip, and in general comfortable in this very foreign country. Believe it or not, I credit my anime watching for at least some of this. For now that I’ve seen the real people in the real country, I’m here to tell you that what you’ve seen in anime (at least the more realistic / slice-of-life ones) is all there on display — the crowded but efficient train system, the schoolchildren in uniforms, the fashionable young ladies and smug bishounen glued to their cell phones, the sea of kaishain of all ages in their white shirts and black pants, the little old couples on vacation, the cool modern (or drab depressing) apartment complexes, the row houses, the drink machines (they are everywhere, and I for one was grateful), the modern skyscrapers amidst ancient shrines and palaces. All I can say is that you must go and see it all for yourself!
In the first part of my trip, I took day tours in the ancient capital of Kyoto, with the Imperial Palace used by the Shogunate until they surrendered their power to the Emperor; the rebuilt modern city of Hiroshima and the nearby delta town of Miyajima (which was completely untouched by the nuclear bomb), and finally Osaka. Probably Hiroshima was the emotional high point of this part of my trip. I cannot recommend enough that visitors to Japan see Hiroshima and the Peace Memorial complex. Although you might not want to bring small children into the Peace Memorial museum as it has a few displays that are quite graphic.
Afterwards, I took the shinkansen back to Tokyo in order to meet my guided tour group. There we spent three days visiting some of the more famous districts in or near Tokyo, such as Shibuya, Kamakura, and of course Akihabara. I am embarrassed to say that I bought very little, apart from a few figures. I am even more embarrassed that I have no pictures of Tokyo whatsoever! I think it is a combination of having spent a lot of time in large cities, and especially in Akiba, wanting to keep moving along in the limited time I had. The news I can bring from the mecca of all things anime and electronic is that the big things are One Piece, Hello Kitty, and now that the new movie is coming out, Evangelion.
We then moved on to the sleepy seaside town of Ajiro, and our ryokan stay. I was expecting to find it difficult to live in a Japanese-style room for three nights, but the two guys I was rooming with were extremely friendly and accommodating. Besides visiting nearby towns during the buildup to O-bon, navigating the fish-laden traditional breakfasts, and of course enjoying the baths, we stared open-mouthed at some of the TV programs, trying our best to understand without subtitles.
Finally, we ended the guided tour with three more days in Tokyo. During this time, I caught up with Zeroe4, who is nearing the end of his time in Japan. And as I’m sure he’ll attest, we had quite the adventure in finding a super sento located in the shadow of a big amusement park outside of Tokyo. I feel like we discovered a hidden gem as it was clearly a place where locals came with their families, and where they did not seem used to seeing foreigners. And I discovered some other things too.
Japan is clean, safe, efficient, and hard-working. None of which came as a surprise, but it was still a pleasant discovery. The trains were always on time. I felt entirely safe walking the streets after dark. And I couldn’t help feeling that the ubiquitous Irasshaimase! that we all heard from every shop employee, was actually heartfelt.
Producing spoken Japanese is not the hardest part of learning the language. It is understanding what native speakers say to me well enough to form a response. The few times I understood actual natively spoken Japanese — coming at me very quickly, and again without subtitles — I could manage a response well enough. But while I did fairly well with reading, the level of my listening comprehension was much lower than I’d hoped.
Zeroe4 is a flutist! Who would have guessed that he not only plays my main instrument, but also is a doubler like myself? In fact, I have to give him props for being able to play the bassoon, an instrument that I’ve always loved but wouldn’t dare to try to master.
It is best to visit Japan as part of a small group. One question I hoped to answer was whether I preferred travelling alone or with a tour group. The answer is “neither.” If I visit Japan again, it will be with one to three other like-minded people, and at our own pace. After having met Zeroe4 and some others in my tour group, I am glad to know others who would be eager to visit Japan again, besides some of my friends back home.
Bring cash and lots of it. Stores and hotels don’t necessarily accept credit cards, and it is not uncommon for Japanese people to carry 30000 yen or more on their persons. It is even difficult to find an ATM machine, though I eventually found one (in a 7-11) that accepted my foreign ATM card.
Be prepared to carry your trash around for a while. Public trash cans are few and far between in Japan, due to the emphasis on recycling.
Other than that, I am grateful to have had the opportunity to go on this “fact-finding mission” in Japan, and would certainly go back again. Only this time I would try to work it out so that I didn’t take the 12-hour flight to Tokyo immediately after a similar length of time travelling domestically. Next time I hope to go north, maybe even as far as Hokkaido.
Now there’s a place to visit in August if ever there were one.