So, I've arrived back from my trip to Japan. And what a trip it was. My friend Keri arrived in Seoul from Milwaukee on Thursday evening (July 27). I had to work Friday, so she hung out in Seoul in the rain. The rainy season should have technically ended by end of July, but I guess weather doesn't pay attention to technicalities. So unfortunately she got a taste of it (it's a nonstop downpour all day--my friend at work actually wears those aqua socks things to walk in outside, it's that bad). Saturday morning we left on a train to Busan, South Korea, which is about 3 hours away by bullet train (it's on the other side of the country). From there, we had reservations to take the Hydrofoil ferry (it actually runs on a jet engine and sort of skips over the water) to Fukuoka/Hakata, Japan. That was also a 3 hour trip.
THEN, after successfully arriving in Japan Saturday late afternoon, we picked up our Japan Rail passes and hopped their Shinkansen bullet train (186 mph)to Osaka. Why all the travel, you ask? Well, because it's high season for travel in Korea, all the flights to Japan (which is a brisk 1.5 hours away by air) were around $600. While Geoff and Gilles opted to fly directly to Tokyo, Keri and I decided to take various forms of transport (Ferries, Trains and Automobiles, sans Steve Martin and John Candy) and see the country while we were at it.
It was cool. We stayed in Osaka (about halfway to Tokyo) the first night, and hopped a morning train to Tokyo the next morning. Despite the conflicting web information on which is a bigger city, Tokyo and Seoul have similar
populations, so I was pretty comfortable navigating the city. The subways work a little bit differently, but it was really no problem. We were all a little worried that the reputation Tokyo has for being one of the most expensive cities in the world would ring true, but it really didn't. Some things were more money, like the subways (in Seoul it costs about 80 cents to ride each way, where as in Tokyo it was double), but other things were similar (maybe a little bit more) such as food and drinks. But rumor has it all wrong....don't let it stop you from experiencing one of the world's great cities. DON'T BELIEVE THE HYPE PEOPLE!
Tokyo has some great neighborhoods that we were able to check out. Our hotel was in Shinjuku, which is really the Tokyo of the movies. Glaring jumbled neon lights blinking and flashing at all hours of the day; a sea of faces pushing past you on the streets; fast-paced and hectic. Someone with ADHD would not do well here. Or wait--maybe it's made for them. So much going on at once; sensory overload. You don't know which way to look first. And then you look again and it's gone. The subway station we stayed next to is the busiest in the world; 2 MILLION people pass through every day. Wow.
One of the things that really stood out to me (mostly in contrast to Seoul) was the diversity. I've commented on this before, how on the surface, in Seoul, most people are cookie-cutter. Japan is the Baskin-Robbins of Asia. Everyone had their own individual flavor. The sub-cultures were overwhelming --goths, punks, skaters, fashionistas, gangsters and more....this is exemplified in a particular area of the city called Harajuku (Gwen Stefani actually has a song called "Harajuku Girls" that really hits the nail on the head). On Sundays there is actually a "freak parade" where people come out to strut their stuff and really just get attention. Harajuku was my favorite part of the city, not only was there diversity (so great people watching!) but there was also good shopping. One of my favorite stores from Europe was there! Another interesting thing that I wasn't expecting was that some people actually wore kimonos on the streets. I thought they were completely "old Japan" but not at all....there were a decent amount of people wearing them in the city. True kimonos are silk and pretty heavy....they are beautiful though. Some people were wearing "summer kimonos" which are made of cotton. They are called "yukatas". I actually bought one for myself. They are beautiful!
One weird thing I noticed was that there were a lot of things that Japan seemed to rip off of other countries, for example, "Tokyo Tower" which looks a lot like the Eiffel Tower (and is actually a couple of meters taller). We went to the top and saw a great cityscape. There is also a fake Statue of Liberty. I didn't bother going to see it, not that interested. Keri and I went to a famous Buddhist temple one day. It was really pretty. There was also a more traditional area of the city (in stark contrast with the crazy, flourescent lights of the modern part) we went to with a market near the temple. It was neat because they had a lot of traditional Japanese goods and foods.
The food was good, overall. Of course I had to eat sushi several times while I was there, which was great! Rather than the wasabi being on the side (to mix in with the soy sauce), it was built right into the pieces. Yum. And I had some sake to wash it down.
One night the four of us went out to dinner and the menu was all in Japanese (of course), so we just pointed at things that looked good. Later, after realizing that my "beef" was a little chewy, we were reading the chopstick covers and I read that what I thought was steak was really BEEF TONGUE. Yikes. Needless to say, I stopped eating it. :)
We also went to a karaoke bar one night (kinda had to, since it originated there!) that we *think* was the same one that was in "Lost in Translation". It was awesome. We were on the 9th floor and there were windows in the room that overlooked the city! We originally planned to only go for an hour or two, but in true noraebang style, we stayed until the sun came up! It's like a time warp in those singing rooms, I swear! This one was a bit more expensive ($40/hour, whereas in Seoul they are only max $20/hour). We had SUCH a good time! To keep with our "Lost in Translation" obsession, we also went to the Park Hyatt Tokyo for a drink (this is where Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansen stayed in the movie). The Park Hyatt was actually directly behind our hotel, so we had a view of it. We just had
to have a drink there....it was beautiful but a martini was $18! I guess we were paying for the view....
I'd better wrap this up before it becomes the longest blog entry of all time. I could say so much about Tokyo....I want to go back! I was wondering about teaching English there....but I've heard that they don't treat their teachers as nice as they do here (no free housing, less of a salary). It's too bad because I would love to dig into that city for a year! Here are a few pictures of Tokyo...