Welcome to Japan
SOPHIA WASYLINKO (ME) WEARING A KIMONO RENTED FROM WAKAMURASAKI IN ARASHIYAMA, KYOTO.
PHOTO BY: WAKAMURASAKI STAFF
I went to Japan this summer. My first solo international trip. To say it was life-changing is an understatement.
Now, this being my first trip abroad, I’d done some research. I learned useful Japanese phrases and planned my schedule as well as I could. And for the most part, things went smoothly.
But there were still things I didn’t expect, and some rookie mistakes I made. And as a seasoned traveller (ahem), I’m here to share both my adventures and mishaps.
Here we go:
It’s a hot girl summer … literally.
I’ve experienced heat. I’ve experienced humidity. Not the two together.
I’d been warned of the heat, especially during the period I’d be travelling (end of July to mid-August). But when I arrived in Tokyo, I was still shocked by how heavy the air was, even in a semi-covered metro station.
People carried hand-fans pressed to their faces. Sweat trickled down their necks. Some even carried umbrellas. A lot of the women’s wardrobe included loose pants and flowing skirts, which made me grateful that I’d packed summer dresses.
I took precautions: wearing a hat, buying a fan, hydrating whenever possible. I’d taken a water bottle with me, but it was so hot that the water never stayed cool. After a few days, I ditched it and ended up just buying cold drinks whenever I had the chance.
I never fainted or came down with heatstroke, though I may have come close on occasion. There were a few sprinkles in Kyoto but no downpour until the day I returned to Canada.
I’m never complaining about the heat or humidity in BC again.
You’re taking THAT THING with you?
Biggest mistake I made: taking my big green suitcase. Yes, go ahead and laugh.
I can still see myself packing the afternoon before the trip. My purple carry-on lay on the floor, and I was dividing my things between it and the black-and-brown backpack I sometimes take to classes.
Then, I thought, “That’s going to be tough on my back. Why don’t I just stick everything in my suitcase?”
It was a brilliant idea. Especially when I climbed up and down the subway stairs and got on the smaller buses (my apologies to the commuters in Kyoto).
A SELFIE TAKEN AT TOKYO’S IMPERIAL PALACE. NOTICE HOW FLUSHED MY FACE IS!
There’s nothing worse than navigating crowds with a huge suitcase.
When I told some family members about this decision, they seemed disappointed with my lack of common sense. One of them showed me a backpack/carry-on that could fit a few changes of clothes and some necessities. Perfect for when they biked in Poland.
I’m not seasoned enough for that. But I’m definitely packing more lightly in the future.
“I’ll take you by the fingers / To the forbidden forest where cicadas cry.”
The words above are an excerpt from the opening to one of the best, and most terrifying, anime I’ve ever seen.
Higurashi: When They Cry is a mystery with horror elements, set in a village with seemingly normal girls that have a few screws loose. It has amazing music, plenty of gore, and many insane twists. Despite some disturbing content, When They Cry is a must-watch.
Why is this relevant? Higurashi (evening cicada) cries are an iconic part of Japanese literature, associated with melancholy. They’re usually heard in the late summer and autumn, before sunrise and after sunset, mostly in the country and less-developed suburbs. Basically anywhere that’s green and has shrubs or trees.
On my second full day in Japan, I went with a friend to the Kyodo-no-Mori Museum in Fuchu City, Tokyo. The cicadas were deafening! We had to shout to be heard over them. Later that week, I also saw the insects in Kyoto, resting on tree trunks or lying dead on the sidewalks.
A VIDEO I RECORDED IN HIGASHICHO, KYOTO. YOU CAN’T SEE THE CICADAS, BUT YOU KNOW THEY’RE THERE!
Someone give the designers a raise!
What do Sanrio Puroland and Japanese malls have in common? Their efficiency when it comes to layout!
For the uninitiated, Sanrio Puroland is an indoor theme park home to Hello Kitty, My Melody, and more. The décor is kawaii at its finest, with lots of bright colours and lights. I’m not much of a Hello Kitty person, but I loved how cute everything was. (Also, I’m still stunned by the number of characters in the Sanrio universe.)
The architects and designers did an excellent job. In every corner, there was a new photo spot with character motifs or a window display with adorable animatronics. And then there were the light fixtures ready for the spectacular “parades” or shows. Sanrio Puroland didn’t look so big from the outside!
THE ENTRANCE TO SANRIO PUROLAND. NO PHOTO CAN DO JUSTICE TO THIS AMAZING PLACE!
Then there were the malls, like Tokyo’s Chofu PARCO mall and Osaka’s LUCUA mall. Each floor (of several) was dedicated to a different shopping category (Men’s Wear, Dining, Lifestyle Goods, etc.) and packed with pop-ups. I personally believe they’re more efficient than the one or two-floor malls you’ll usually find in Canada.
Another thing worth mentioning is how extensive the subway stations are. As I hurried from line to line, I saw lots of concrete and overhead pipes indicating how low down we were. Other signs warned people to come up when there was a risk of flooding.
(Cue the “What if…?” scenarios in an underground subway station at rush hour during a storm.)
Jokes aside, Japan’s approach to building modern structures is different from here in Canada. Whether you like the futuristic aspects or are shaking your head at the environmental impacts, you can’t deny that Tokyo at night is a sight to behold.
(And before you ask, no, I didn’t climb Tokyo SkyTree. I’m scared of heights.)
UMEKITA SHIP HALL IN GRAND FRONT OSAKA, TAKEN THE SAME DAY I ARRIVED IN OSAKA.
Join the crowd. You have no choice.
Like the heat, I expected the crowds. I’d seen the photos of Shibuya Scramble Crossing (which I didn’t visit, unfortunately) and on the subways. I knew what to look out for.
But knowing you’re going to a place with lots of people is different from actually being there. Keep in mind that I was travelling in the summer, with multiple festivals on the go, and (as my siblings like to remind me) I’m short.
To be honest, the hordes taking public transit weren’t bad. Sure, there were a few times when I had to squeeze my way onto trains, holding onto a nonexistent pole to keep my balance. But it wasn’t too claustrophobic.
The throngs I met in Tokyo were different. First, there was the mass of tourists in Shinjuku that I met coming back from Osaka. I’d hoped for a leisurely stroll while visiting Korean shops, but elbowing my way past everyone left me hot, tired, and grouchy.
Then there was the crowd at the Tomioka Hachimangu Shrine in Koto City, Tokyo, where the Fukagawa Hachiman Festival was about to take place. While more people would arrive the following night (August 13), there were already swarms eating festival food, praying at the shrine, and watching the performances. Since it was my last evening in Tokyo, I tried to enjoy myself without getting run over.
(Oh, and I encountered both of these crowds on the same day. Go figure.)
I’m not saying they shouldn’t have been there, but the tourists at Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto and the Osaka Aquarium KAIYUKAN could have been more mindful of their fellow visitors as they grouped together to watch animals and take selfies.
I don’t have enochlophobia, but after those experiences, I definitely like crowds less.
Basutei wa doko desu ka? (Where is the bus stop?)
For the most part, navigating Tokyo’s metros was a piece of cake. Sometimes I went in the wrong direction, but usually it wasn’t a hassle. Osaka’s signage was more confusing, especially when it came for me to take the Shinkansen back to Tokyo.
Travelling on foot proved to be a pain. I didn’t use Google Maps until two thirds of the trip had passed (don’t ask). Luckily, people were ready to help me. Using a mixture of Japanese and English, Tokyo residents would point out the direction I wanted to go.
Of course, I can be hopeless with directions even in Vancouver, where I’ve managed to walk past entire SkyTrain stations. That didn’t stop in Japan.
Case in point:
THE CROWDS AT TOMIOKA HACHIMANGU SHRINE.
I thought I could easily walk to Kyoto’s Nishiki Market. I trekked for almost an hour before giving up and taking the bus! Honestly, it’s a wonder I found my way back home.
Even then, finding the bus stops in Kyoto was challenging, since the street names were usually in kanji.
I never took cabs, since I wasn’t confident enough with my Japanese and, more importantly, I didn’t want to spend money on a taxi.
To my surprise, Japan was pitch-black by 8 pm—or at least as pitch-black as it can be with the city lights. So I ended up walking through some spooky empty neighbourhoods on the way back to my lodgings.
However, I never felt unsafe. A bit creeped out and sometimes disoriented (like when I returned from Kyoto’s Gion Corner), but never in danger. Maybe it’s luck and maybe it’s my guardian angel, but I fared well despite the occasional wrong turn or getting on the opposite train.
Honestly, it’s a wonder I found my way back home.
Arigatou gozaimasu (Thank you very much)
Taking the express from Narita International Airport, I sat by a lady who started talking to me as if she’d seen me before in passing. On another occasion, I chatted with a young family who would be going to Vancouver for their summer holidays.
Usually, the commuters on the buses or trains sat in their seats in silence or talked to each other. But some of them did start conversations with me, making me feel like I was back in Canada, where it’s normal for random people to say hi to you.
Now, I was only in Japan for two weeks, so I can’t say much about their cultural beliefs other than what I’ve read, seen in anime, or heard from students. But there are a few other observations I had:
Respect is a big part of social interactions. Whenever I’d enter a store, the staff would bow and greet me. In return, I’d bow and respond. People bowed a lot in general, and I have noticed myself doing it even before going to Japan.
Whenever I could use Japanese, I did, though on several occasions I had to switch to Google Translate. (My most-used phrases happened to be Arigatou gozaimasu, or “Thank you very much,” and Sumimasen, or “Excuse me.”) However, many people also spoke English, which made it easier for us to understand each other.
The children were very well-behaved. Sometimes I’d see elementary school-aged kids taking the bus by themselves, but often it was toddlers with their parents. They were quiet and cute and I had flashbacks to when my brothers were that age. (Though not as good!)
My experience might have been different if I’d gone to a remote village where fewer people spoke English. But in general, I’d say that Japanese people are as polite and friendly as Canadians. I highly recommend learning some Japanese phrases and reading up on social taboos, though, especially if you’re going there for the first time.
Museums, temples, and castles, oh my!
I’m always excited to visit historic sites and museums in different cities. Take the Tokyo National Museum (TNM), for example. The prehistoric section spanned several eras, including Palaeolithic, Jomon, and Yayoi, each with their own distinct tools, jewellery, and pottery. It was incredible seeing archaeological items from the other side of the Pacific.
Then there was the artwork: paintings (both Nihonga, or traditional Japanese styles, and Yōga, or Western-style), calligraphy, byōbu (folding screens), kimonos and yukatas, and so much more. The rich colours and patterns took my breath away.
It was one thing to see these items in pictures or videos, and another to see them right in front of me. It was especially true of the castles and temples. You can imagine how many photos I took!
Speaking of, one of the exhibits at the TNM involved Buddhist statues. I had snapped a couple photos when a staff member ran over with her hand up, saying, “Stop! No pictures!”
I soon learned that you’re not allowed to take pictures (especially not selfies) or videos of the Buddha in Japan, whether inside a museum or inside a temple. While the statues aren’t considered sacred in Buddhism, they are venerated as representations of divine beings.
After that hiccup, I was more mindful of when I entered temples, shrines, or museums with these images. Being raised in a Catholic family, I was already respectful in places of worship, but I was hyper-aware of my manners as a non-Buddhist and a Western tourist. I refrained from taking interior photos and offered silent greetings to whatever spirits lived there.
It’s amazing that so many of these places have been preserved and are still in use.
Gochisou sama deshita! (Thank you for the food!)
Note: The above phrase is said after the meal, as opposed to “Itadakimasu” (literally meaning “I humbly receive”) said before it.
Whenever I ask Japanese students what they miss the most about home, they say, “The food.” And after this summer, I completely understand why.
My most adventurous day was at Nishiki Market, where I tasted so many new things: melt-in-your-mouth Wagyu beef, tako tamago (soft-boiled quail’s egg inside a small octopus), and sake with pickled vegetables.
In Osaka, I had takoyaki (octopus dumplings, which I’d made last year with students from Doshisha University) and okonomiyaki (savoury pancake). At the izakayas, I ate yakitori (skewered chicken), tempura, and sashimi using the seafood that Osaka is famous for.
But what I remember the most is Japan’s festival food: dango (rice flour dumplings) in soy sauce, various meat skewers, and candied fruit. I loved being able to buy food and walk around eating it (which you can do at festivals, not so much at markets).
And let’s talk about Kyoto’s ice cream. There were so many soft serve matcha options, as well as yuba (tofu skin) ice cream and warabi mochi (made with bracken starch and kinako, or roasted soybean flour).
Confession: Kyoto was my favourite city, and I’d go back for the ice cream alone.
THE TAKO TAMAGO FROM NISHIKI MARKET. I ONLY ATE THE HEAD WITH THE EGG INSIDE!
Parting is such sweet sorrow.
I felt the same way about leaving Japan as I did after seeing the Seventeen concert in Vancouver: I couldn’t recall the experience without feeling sad. It was a few weeks before I could look at my photos and videos. And every time I heard or saw something that reminded me of Japan, I felt melancholic. Even now, I feel nostalgic just thinking about the memories.
I’ve mentioned a few times how amazing it was to experience things and be in places that I’d only heard of or seen in pictures. And it was freeing, if a bit scary, being in a completely different country without any family members, knowing only a few students that I’d met when they came to VIU the previous year.
I didn’t check everything off my bucket list, but I stumbled across things I hadn’t planned on (case in point: the summer festival at the foot of Tokyo SkyTree). I met up with friends and some great people at both the hostels and tourist attractions.
And even though I made some mistakes, things could have been worse. I was lucky not to get injured or sick or have anything bad happen to me. Japan treated me well.
I want to return someday. Spend more time in Kyoto. Travel to each prefecture (province) to experience different sides of Japan. Visit the country in the fall. Do research for my mystery novel set in Tokyo (which I didn’t write as an excuse to go back haha).
I strongly recommend readers visit at least once. There’s so much to learn and experience by actually going there. Though, if you do, you won’t be the same again.
I’ll leave you with a few tips: Take some Japanese lessons, whether it’s from a student or Duolingo. Make a list of places where you want to go and activities you want to do.
And never travel with a big suitcase.
PHOTO BY: MIKI KOBAYASHI (WHO ALSO CAME TO VIU LAST YEAR)
Sophia is in her third year at The Navigator and fifth (final!) year of the Creative Writing and Journalism program. Outside of The Nav, she volunteers as a Peer Helper and is doing another year of Portal Magazine. This summer, a solo trip to Japan ignited Sophia’s wanderlust. She hopes to return soon, next time with a stop in Korea.