I was so excited when Alisa, a friend from university, invited me and my best friend Zoe to visit her in Japan for a week. I had been a little starry-eyed about Japan since before I could remember: my parents met taking Japanese language classes, so I tried to teach myself in my early teens (…mostly through anime!) and could not wait to book a flight.
I had never been to Asia before and I was not really sure what to expect from the people or the place, so I was glad that we had Alisa there with us on our first visit. Her dad’s apartment in Yoyogi (not far from the Shibuya ward in central Tokyo) made a great base for the week, and her family really helped us to get settled in, from great tourist advice and delicious home-made sushi from her step-mum Hiromi (Hiro) to her dad’s hilarious sing-alongs to the Beatles.
His apartment was typical for the area: pretty compact and part of a complex—a sign of Tokyo’s large population and its need for tightly-packed housing. But despite all this it was surprisingly quiet, perhaps a testament to the ‘respectful’ aspect of Japanese culture and also because we were in a strictly residential area.
“However, [she] also pointed out the women-only carriages on trains (specially designated after increased cases of unwanted groping on mixed carriages at night).”
The most surprising thing was how safe it felt everywhere we went, even at night. For starters, none of us were catcalled once—although we had some comments from a few brave tipsy party-goers on an evening river cruise from Odaiba. Plus, the only stares I got on pretty much the whole trip were (I guess) friendly/curious ones at the onsen (Japanese baths) … Presumably, this was because I was quite a different shape, size and colour to the other women there.
When we met up with our friend Becky, who was on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) programme, she told us that she was on her way back from a shopping trip when she realised that she had left a bag (with her laptop in it!) inside a shop. When she arrived back at the shop a few hours later, the bag was still in exactly the same spot! However, she also pointed out the women-only carriages on trains (specially designated after increased cases of unwanted groping on mixed carriages at night) and other problems, which makes it clear that the society is far from perfect.
Whilst people may love or hate the bustling atmosphere of Tokyo, there is no doubt that Kyoto is absolutely beautiful. We got the best nights’ sleep on the whole trip on tatami mats and futons in the beautiful guest house there (Waraku-an—go for the deluxe room if you can!) and we only scratched the surface of all the things to see and do. Wandering around one UNESCO world heritage site after another, spotting terrapins, heron and koi from picturesque bridges over ponds and feeding bowing deer makes you feel rather special…
“…most people were quite welcoming of us in traditional dress and I gradually started to feel more at ease after a few compliments and more cups of bad free wine.”
One thing that struck me was how foreign I felt. Japan’s population is noticeably very homogeneous- something unusual for me, being from South East London where no two people really look the same- and it took a while to adjust to standing out. Plus, we were a pretty unusual trio- being three young women, all of different mixed heritage, so even for tourists it was clear that we were not all native. This made it a bit tricky for Alisa at times, especially in Kyoto, when people addressed us all in English and she had to make it clear that she could speak Japanese. Since people largely went off of appearance- Alisa being half-German, half-Japanese- her heritage was not immediately obvious to natives.
Zoe and I could not have stood out more than when Alisa encouraged us to rent yukata to wear to the evening boat party, which involved a slight panic over whether the fabric would be long enough on us. A small army of skilled dressers assisted us, wrapping us up with bows like stuffed parcels in layers of fabric. It felt a little uncomfortable (in both senses), but most people were quite welcoming of us in traditional dress and I gradually started to feel more at ease after a few compliments and more cups of bad free wine. It is not something I think I would do again, but it was interesting to experience and share in part of the culture.
Overall, Japan really was an incredible trip and I am saving up for another chance to go back. It is an amazing place for anyone who is interested in going—so long as you are aware of the dos and don’ts of social customs and practice your noodle-slurping beforehand!
After a day of straining to see Mt Fuji through the clouds, finally catching a glimpse as the sun was setting on our way back to Yoyogi. Then the next morning, getting to the Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto as the sun was rising and enjoying a couple of hours of crowd-free roaming to the top of the mountain.
tsukemen (cold noodles with meat and greens that you dunk into a hot broth and slurp!); karupisu (calpis- a questionable-sounding milk-based drink that ia tasty by itself and in cocktails) and yuzu (a delicious fruit that is amazing in everything, especially ice-lollies).