こんにちは - Kon'nichiwa
Welcome to my first blog exclusively on travel. I love traveling, I’ve been fortunate to have traveled to Mexico (4x), Cuba, Dominican Republic (5x), Aruba, Las Vegas (4x), NYC (2x), Mount Rushmore, Vancouver Island and many other places – but I’ve yet to have been overseas. So this was a first!
Life can be so complicated at times can’t it? My life in particular has been nutty as of late … but at the spur of the moment, I made a decision – we all have choices and decisions to make each day of our lives in the betterment of ourselves, our lives, our spirituality and for our own personal growth. So, I decided last minute to go and visit my friends Linda and Mark in Japan! They had moved there just 3 months ago for Mark’s work project with Honda.
It was late night, I texted Linda “Hi! How are you? Saw your pics! Looks like you guys are having a good vacay with Mark. I have a few more wks before I have to go back to work. Up for some company maybe?”
Linda and I have been friends since high school at St. Mary’s – initially an all catholic girls high school and then went co-ed in grade 10. I loved being part of their “porto” group – I was accepted at as a quasi-porto (right Dill?). The memories of being in high school — of sleeping over at her house and waking up to her mom and tias making Portuguese food (some of my faves – Rissóis and col verde) – that’s where my love of Portuguese food started – thank you Rosa! We lost touch for a number of years mostly because our lives took us in different directions. I had a baby at 19 and while I cared for her, most of my friends were out and about living average 19 year old lives (which is completely understandable). We reconnected a few years ago and have been tight since … probably more than ever. In any event, Linda and Mark said yes and their kids were excited to see me (and I them).
Travel Day – I flew coach from Pearson International (Toronto) to Narita, which is the furthest airport from Tokyo centre, so, if you’re traveling into and/or are staying right in Tokyo, you may want to fly into a closer airport (flying into Narita was the cheapest option for me at $1080.00 CDN – return). However if not, taking the train into Tokyo Station is very easy – I managed it solo (you can also take a bus which takes longer than the 53 mins by train). Most people at the stations speak English. The flight was 12h55 mins, and thankfully the flight wasn’t sold out – so I asked the flight attendant for a row without anyone in it and was able to sprawl out – but I didn’t sleep – I’m not the best of sleepers on flights. It was smooth and uneventful, hardly any turbulence at all. The time seemed to fly by (no pun intended) and the next thing I knew I was at Narita on the Narita Express (Nex) to Tokyo Station to meet up with Mark – this is gonna be quite an experience!
Mark met me on my platform and we hopped on the train to Masashi-Sakai to their house. They live in Mitaka Osawa, a suburb of Tokyo. I was pretty pumped to see Linda and the kids – these kids are the cutest things I’ve ever seen (other than my own of course). Their house was bigger and more modern than I had expected for Tokyo to be honest. A 2016 United Nations estimate puts the total population Greater Tokyo Area at 38,000,000. It covers an area of approximately 13,500 km². It’s the second largest single metropolitan area in the world, only behind New York City. So as you can imagine land is limited and at a premium. Homes are typically small and inside space is tight – their house had an ingenious toilet/sink combo to maximize space (this Japanese toilet only dispenses water in its attached sink when the toilet gets flushed. You wash your hands and that water goes into the tank to be reused and flushed – brilliant!). They have storage in the floors and in the pulldown attics. What surprised me compared to most typical homes I saw is that they had green space in their yard (i.e. they actually had a side yard with grass).
Mount Fuji (Fujisan) – Jet lag is pretty rough! I’ve never experienced hard core jet lag before, prior to this the biggest time difference was only 3 hours. My travel day commenced at 7:30 EST and went to bed 2:00 AM Japan time – so I was awake for an insane for 30 hours STRAIGHT! Unfortunately, my body wanted to wake up after only 4 hours of rest, so, while everyone else – including the kids, were still sleeping – I got up and ate an entire plate of rice and shrimp lol. When the kids got up we walked up to McDonald’s (yes, McDonald’s!) for a Filet o’ Fish – so sadly I suppose that was my actual first Japanese experience. What can I say, my body was telling me it was still nighttime – and yes, you can get Filet o’ Fish on the breakfast menu there and yes, I am aware I’m one of the very few who actually eat them 🙄.
For my first full day in Japan, we decided to hit up Mount Fuji! Mount Fuji is a distinctive feature of the geography of Japan. Fuji-san is the highest mountain in Japan at 12,389 ft. It’s an active volcano which last erupted in abt 1707/08. She lies about 100 kms south-west of Tokyo. It was added to the World Heritage List as a Cultural Site on June 22, 2013. According to UNESCO, Mount Fuji has “inspired artists and poets and been the object of pilgrimage for centuries”.
We went up to the 5th station, which is at 2,305 metres. Check-in at the base of Fuji called for sunny skies, but it was not so. The weather on Fuji-san is volatile and changes by the minute. It can be clear one minute and the clouds can roll in the other minute totally obscuring your view. The weather Gods were not with us this day, we never saw the summit. It was only 8 degrees celsius.
We took the scenic route home and drove through the mountain ranges and some of the The Fuji Five Lakes at the northern base of Mount Fuji at about 1000 meters above sea level. We stopped at Lake Yamanaka (山中湖) to take in the sunset and breathtaking views of Mr. Fuji, even though she was still partially obstructed by cloud cover.
Shopping Day – Today was a shopping kind of day. We went to GU – this clothing chain is part of the Uniqlo brand – but cheaper – you’ll often see both stores side by side. Not much for me there and a little too fashion forward and frumpy for my liking (it would def. be more for the younger generation). We also went to Uniqlo outside of Musashi-Sakai Station since I hadn’t even been to the one in Toronto. I ended up finding a fab end of season dress for only ￥995!
Later that day, I was introduced to Tonkatsu for lunch. It’s a Japanese dish which consists of a breaded, deep-fried pork cutlet and is often served with shredded cabbage, rice and miso soup. Super yummy!
I accompanied Linda in picking up some groceries at Ito-Yokado. I wanted to experience what a Japanese grocery chain looked like, the different food selections and the similarities. What I found interesting was that Seven-Eleven Japan is held by the Seven & I Holdings Co. We all know 7-11 as our local convenient corner stores, what I did not know is that 7-11 is part Japanese and they have FULL grocery stores in Japan.
Afterward we went shopping at an awesome second hand store (most of which was 100% name brand items). The store had the worst of names “Hard Off”. At first I thought it was because those who shopped there may have been “hard off” but when I saw a store called Book Off I was thoroughly confused. Anyway, despite the horrible name I managed to pick up a Burberry scarf & Ralph Lauren pencil skirt as well as a Yukata (a casual summer kimono) and obi for the upcoming Fall Festival later in the week in Shinjuku.
Shinjuku – What a great day for a completely unplanned one! Linda and I spent the day exploring near Shinjuku Station. We went to Shinjuku Goyen National Garden, a gorgeous garden space in the middle of this bustling city. The garden, which is 58.3 hectares, blends three distinct styles: a French Formal, English Landscape and Japanese traditional. A traditional Japanese tea house can be found within the gardens. We visited Kyu Goryotei (also referred to as the Taiwan Pavilion) which was built on the occasion of the wedding of the Showa Emperor.
Afterward we decided to go to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building where we went up to the 45th floor north observatory and took in the landscape city views. Of note, this government building is currently on “high alert” due to the ballistic missiles being launched over Japan and into the Sea of Japan by Kim Jong-un, North Korean Leader who seems to be begging for war. Despite that, we enjoyed a drink and had some good chats.
Lucas and I went for a bike ride in the International Christian College grounds, where I got to ride a traditional Japanese bike (thank you Sofia). I have to say, Tokyo has much more green space than I ever thought it would. Knowing I’m a fan of curried foods, Linda made an excellent dinner of Japanese curry. Japanese curry is a lot less spicy than Indian curry and is fairly sweet in comparison.
Kichijōji – Rainy day today. We went into Kichijōji, a fashionable neighbourhood in Mitaka City in the western suburbs of Tokyo. It is almost always at the top of surveys of the most desirable places to live in Tokyo. We checked out where the festival we are going to this weekend is going to be held, shopped a bit, had lunch at Crown House (a North American locale) and of course had a couple of yummy sangrias. Cheers to friendship !
Sensō-ji Temple: My first week here in Japan with the Middlestedt’s is nearly done. Today Linda and I went to Asakusa to visit Sensō-ji (浅草寺), the oldest Buddhist Temple in Japan. It is one of Tokyo’s most colorful and popular temples. The legend is that in the year 628, two brothers fished a statue of Kannon, the goddess of mercy, out of the Sumida River, and even though they put the statue back into the river, it always returned to them. Consequently, Sensō-ji was built nearby for the goddess of Kannon. The temple was completed in 645, making it Tokyo’s oldest temple.
We walked around town taking in the mixture of huge tourist spots and the normalcy of everyday life there. Even though it rained, it didn’t put a damper on this most spectacular of days.
Harujuku: We went down the famous I竹下通り Takeshita-dōri in Harujuku. We were in search of some Harujuku girls and saw maybe only 2. For lunch I tried a Japanese version of a cheeseburger combo. The meat was good but didn’t taste like typical North American burger/beef, it tasted like it had spice to it and almost tasted pork like – but was good, it felt lighter. The fries tasted very much like home, the combo came with a side of fried chicken and a cheese powder, which I assume was for the fries – it tasted like Kraft Dinner powder. The Pepsi was Pepsi Nex which I found to be super sweet – do we even have this back home?
Fish Pedicure: We scooted over to Shinjuku by subway so that Lucas and I could have a fish pedicure aka Dr. Fish. I was excited to try this as I had heard so much about it. We soaked our feet in tanks of hungry Garra rufa fish. The small, toothless fish gently ate the dead skin and left the healthy skin untouched. For ￥1050 , it was worth the experience – but if you’re wanting an actual pedicure – pay for the real thing.
Awesome day: This was a super awesome jam packed day. We started our day off at the Kichijoji Aki Matsuri (Autumn Festival), which was taking place on September 9 & 10 2017. I was excited to fully partake and immerse myself into the Japanese culture and along with Linda and Sofia wore a traditional Japanese Yukata. The main event is the procession of mikoshi, the ornate palanquins which transport the kami on their journeys through the shopping streets of Kichijoji. In addition to the mikoshi from Musashino Hachimangu, ten others from the district, each with its own team, join in the festivities. Each team has its own unique rhythm and chant. Teams of mikoshi bearers suit up in traditional costume and prepare to march. Bearers take turns carrying the weight of the mikoshi.
Next stop: Odaiba/ Tokyo Bay – We took the Yurikamome rapid transit train across the Rainbow Bridge to Odaiba (お台場) – which is a large island in Tokyo Bay. Odaiba is a mixture of major commercial, residential and leisure – it would be fabulous to be able to live in this area, there’s so much going on! We walked along the beach, dipped our feet in the bay, and watched the gorgeous sunset over Tokyo Bay.
They also have a replica of the Statue of Liberty which I found to be odd, given that while we were in Shinjuku Goyen I saw a replica of the Empire State Building and that the Rainbow Bridge bore a striking resemblance to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco, USA. Having been to the Statue of Liberty in NYC, this paled in comparison – actually there is no comparison, but, I had a bit more of an appreciation once I understood the reason for it. The French Statue of Liberty from the Île aux Cygnes came to Odaiba from April 1998 to May 1999 in commemoration of “The French year in Japan”, because of its popularity, in 2000 a replica of the French Statue of Liberty was erected at the same place.
Staying in Odaiba, we dined at the Aqua City shopping centre (literally there are so many restaurants in all prices ranges in this centre to choose from). We were looking for an izakaya (a type of informal Japanese gastropub) but we couldn’t find one nearby so we changed our pallets minds and decided to enjoyed the most mouth watering Indian dinner at Mumbai restaurant overlooking Tokyo Bay. The butter chicken I had was sweeter than I’m accustomed to, but paired nicely with garlic naan, and a glass of sparkling white wine.
From there we headed to Shibuya (right in the heart of Tokyo) to check out the night life, the night lights and of course the Shibuya Pedestrian Scramble. Located in front of the Shibuya Station Hachikō exit and rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world (definitely in Japan), Shibuya Crossing, is just as the name eludes to – a giant scramble to get across the intersection before every light change. Hundreds of people – and at peak times I’m sure to be over 1000 people – cross at a time, coming from all directions!
Sumo!: Today was all about the sumo wrestling – 1000%. What an amazing experience! Sumo Wrestling is the national sport of Japan and compared with most sports in the world today, sumo originated a heck of a long time ago, about 1,500 years. The rules are simple: the wrestler who first exits the ring or touches the ground with any part of his body besides the soles of his feet loses. A contest usually lasts only a few seconds. I found it shocking that there are no weight restrictions or classes in sumo, meaning that wrestlers can easily find themselves matched off against someone many times their size.
We attended Kokugikan, the sumo stadium in the Ryogoku district, where tournaments are held. We attended the 1st day of this particular Fall tournament, each tournament lasts for 15 days. After a few chūhais and high balls Mark and I decided to wager on a few bouts. Having no knowledge of these Gods of their sport or their records we chose simply based on their pre-match ritual, size and the colour of their mawashi (loin cloth). I lost 26-15.
Relaxation day, spent some time watching some docs and Gilmore Girls. Felt a cold coming on, nooooooooo!!!!
Is it ever hard to calm your mind, especially when you feel your getting sick!?!?! On the morning of my departure from the most respectful, quiet and kind culture, Linda and I spent the morning being trained by a traditional Japanese Monk on the art of Zazen meditation. Zen meditation is a very simple method of meditation, where the correct posture is imperative, most of our session focussed mainly on the importance of posture. Zazen is practiced sitting on a zafu (a thick and round cushion). The purpose of this cushion is to elevate the hips, thus forcing the knees to be firmly rooted to the floor – this is very important. This way, your Zazen will be a lot more stable and comfortable.
Zazen is like water in a glass. Leave the water to sit quietly and soon the dirt will sink down – Taisen Deshimaru
In Zen, the eyes are kept open during meditation. This prevents the you from daydreaming or becoming drowsy, this was a change for me as I have always mediated with my eyes closed. Your hands are held in the Hokkaijoin (circle with fingers and thumbs barely touching). There are two reasons for this hand position, the Monk explained. First, the shape of the hands harmonizes our minds. Secondly, if your mind starts to wonder elsewhere else, the shape of this oval becomes distorted and you can correct yourself (realign your posture and your mind). The bell wrung 3x and we commenced zazen, after 14 mins zasen meditation was completed. Typically is lasts 40 mins, but since we were beginners and we required a tutorial – he recommended 14 mins to start. To do this in a traditional Buddhist temple was a memory of a lifetime.
After my most enjoyable, peaceful morning of meditation – I was off to Shinjuku to catch my Nex train back to Narita airport to commence my 12 hour journey back to Canada.
On departure from Narita, I did however, catch a gorgeous sunset view of Mount Fuji ….
A most heartfelt thank you to my gracious hosts Linda and Mark (and the kids) for opening your home and your hearts to me during this most unreal experience! I look forward to returning next year …. I’m already thinking of next places to visit on my return — Nagano, Hiroshima, Okinawa, Nagasaki???
Have any of you been to Japan? Where are some places you’d recommend for my next journey?
また近いうちにお会いしましょう - Mata chikaiuchini o ai shimashou
(see you soon)