By Dana S. Mar
The North American Post
From Sept. 9 to Dec. 6, I visited Japan for the first time.
I lived with my best friend, who currently has an apartment in the Shinjuku area, for the majority of my stay. She was incredibly helpful in introducing me to life in a new country and encouraging me to explore as much as I could. While I had some difficulties venturing out on my own, I thoroughly enjoyed the time I spent learning about not only Japan but also the great amount about myself.
It was comforting to be able to use her apartment as my “home base” and even more so to know that she, similarly half Japanese and born in America, could relate to much of the way I experienced Japan for the first time. Nonetheless, I still felt the strange dual isolation-and-kinship of being yonsei in this country that was not “my country.” I spent those three months pondering the meaning of this phrase.
As a small child, I attended Megumi Preschool, which many of the readers may recognize as a local Japanese-immersion school and daycare. It is from that time and the years I spent studying Japanese from middle school onwards that I attribute my understanding of the language and culture going into this new experience. Even those years in school and the cultural inheritance of my Nikkei half could not truly prepare me for the journey. It helped, but I was prepared to be unprepared.
Despite steeling myself against the inevitable culture-shock and jet-lag, I surprised myself with how quickly I picked up on situations that had before only been hypothetical. I could comprehend in listening and reading more than I thought I would, having not brushed up on my studies in a year. Walking on the “other side” (of the sidewalk) became second nature quickly, but adapting did not stop me from marveling at the differences between Japan and the United States.
I crammed all of my traveling outside of the Tokyo area into the last full month, which some would consider a terrible idea and possibly the result of procrastination but I rather enjoyed the pacing of pretending to “live” in Tokyo for two months and the change of mood throughout November. Having received numerous suggestions to obtain a Japan Rail Pass, I purchased an extra pass for the purpose of exploring parts of the country on my own before my mother arrived to do a mother-daughter round of travel.
Luckily, I had friends to visit who helped show me around. Visiting them and plotting out my solo trip through seven prefectures granted me insight of things that I would otherwise not have realized staying in Tokyo.
Some people travel to Japan looking for the “most Japanese experience,” which typically seems to include visiting world heritage sites, wearing yukata, and following a structured tour eating at restaurants someone swears is “Number One” in the region and staying in hotels with English accessibility. This is more or less the way I traveled with my mother in the last couple weeks of my time in Japan. Prior to that, I lived just about the way I would at home under the same circumstances of not having to go to work or school until setting off on my own with a premeditatedly freshly purchased suitcase and a Japan Rail (JR) Pass.
It was an experience I would like to describe as distinctly unique, though I imagine there must be some people who have traveled similarly to the way I did. It is difficult to describe such a trip without getting carried away in greater detail especially since it was decidedly both planned and unplanned. Like an outline made out of pipe cleaners, my JR trip was structured but malleable–not unlike jazz.
The general idea was to hit a few major cities, visit some temples and castles, spend time with friends I had not seen in a long time and eat delicious food. At the suggestion of my best friend, I left two days earlier than I had initially planned. This, however, left me without a place to sleep for the first two nights.
While capsule hotels are certainly spectacles of Japan, I found that the lesser known and somewhat cheaper alternative “manga kissa” or “internet café” would suit my needs perfectly. Perhaps not as secure or comfortable as a hotel, the two internet cafés I used certainly fit my needs. Needless to say, I left this experience out of my Line messages to my mother who was likely worrying anyway nearly five thousand miles away in Seattle. I told her a few weeks later.
The remainder of that week involved sleeping over at a few extremely generous friends’ homes in Hiroshima, Nagano and Yokohama before returning to Tokyo. The three cities came after a short stop at Himeji because, well, castles. I am eternally grateful to these three friends for allowing me into their homes and sharing what they knew of each area. Notably, I loved visiting Miyajima so much that I even took my mother on our mother-daughter JR trip.
Two days in the Tokyo apartment later, I departed for Okinawa for five days. After which I returned slightly more tan and much less accustomed to the cold. Tokyo, it seemed, had a desire to welcome me back in the coldest and most beautiful way it could. For the first time in 54 years, Tokyo saw hatsuyuki, or “first snow,” in November. That night, the snow having nearly completely melted, my mother arrived.
We saw no more snow for the remainder of our trip, despite having gone further north to visit our distant family in Kitakata, a town near Aizu-Wakamatsu in Fukushima prefecture. I had never met the part of our family that lived in Japan. They were warm, welcoming and very Japanese. It was there that my Japanese language skills were put to the ultimate test–my mother understands little Japanese and speaks even less. Although it was daunting and I was constantly in my phone nosing around an online dictionary, it turned out fairly well. Returning to Tokyo, my mother and I squeezed as much vacation out of the last few days of our trip. We visited Lake Kawaguchi and took some shots of Mt. Fuji in all its glory and I spent a few hours in the company of my dear friend at her apartment, sad to be parting once more.
It may be a cliché, but to say it was a trip I will never forget is about as accurate as I could be. In August, I could not have given a solid answer regarding the things I wanted to see or do in Japan. Having been there, I now have a rather lengthy list of places to photograph and things to experience. I can only hope that I will be able to return one day to go through that list. In the meantime, I can enjoy sharing anecdotes of travel as a Japanese-Chinese American. In the coming weeks, please look forward to reading about my first experience of Japan.