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  • Alison Merrill

Japan - Bucket List Accomplished


At the end of our day in, Nara at Ikaruga Temple.

At the beginning of Sam and my six-month journey around the world, we mapped out what countries we wanted to travel to. The problem was, we wanted to go everywhere. To help combat our "kid in a candy store mentality", we decided to rank places as either: 1. a must-see on this trip, 2. would really like to see on this trip, or 3. have an interest in visiting but would be ok seeing another time. A lot of our rankings differed from country to country. However, for both of us, Japan ranked as the number one country we were most excited to go to. No matter where our journey took us, one thing was clear, we were going to Japan.


The New and the Old


Blending the new and the old, the traditional and avant-garde, Japan is an anomaly with no other country like it. One hardly goes a day without hearing of Japan or experiencing its' influences. From sushi, anime, sumo wrestling, cars, fashion, Maria Kodomo (author of New York Times bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up / binge-worthy Netflix TV show), and the legendary Samurai, many foreigners have a fascination with Japanese culture.


The fascination is rooted in the differences between our cultures, identities, and lifestyles. To explain Japan’s uniqueness, starting in1633-1639, the emperor feared colonization, so he closed Japan’s borders – severely limiting trade and forbidding citizens from traveling. In 1853, Japan’s borders opened after being isolated for over 200 years.


Admirably, in such a globalized world, the Japanese are the best country at preserving their history while at the same time, being one of the most advanced. Japan's superior technology includes high-speed bullet trains, ordering food from computers, and the Electric City - an entire district dedicated to electronics, robotics, and anime. Their fashion trends have spread across the globe; kawaii “cute” culture, cosplay (wearing costumes that represent a specific character), and popular brands like Uniqlo. Their lifestyle design is unlike anywhere else in the world with cat cafes, capsule hotels, and heated toilet seats to name a few. From technology to fashion and lifestyle, Japan has consistently paved the way while retaining its own identity.

Fall in Japan is notorious for being beautiful. Sam and I had no idea until we got there - lucky us.

Being vegetarian in Japan is challenging. I ordered this tofu ramen and discovered the broth was made from fish. Extremely hungry, I ate it anyway and... it was delicious.

Tokyo – An Anomaly

November 1 - November 7, 2019


Tokyo is the largest city in the world. Over 100 million people live in Japan with 30 million residing in the greater Tokyo area. When one thinks of big cities: Shanghai, New Delhi, NYC, etc. they think of crowds and chaos. However, for the world’s biggest metropolitan area, Tokyo does not feel out of control. In fact, Tokyo ranks as the world’s 7th or 8th (tied with Toronto, Canada) most livable city after Vancouver, Canada and ahead of Copenhagen, Denmark - a remarkable achievement for housing one-fourth of the country's total population!


What is the Japanese secret to having one of the largest yet most livable cities? For starters, they have an organizational system for everything: buses that run perfectly on-time, complete silence on the subway, even instructional diagrams for how to take a bath.


With so much to explore, Sam and I dedicated six days to see Tokyo. Some of the experiences we enjoyed most were:


Takeshita street – Japan created Kawaii culture. Kawaii culture refers to all things "cute", although Kawaii encompasses more than just that. Takeshita Street is the epicenter of youth fashion and the shops are dedicated to this trend.


Shibuya crossing – The “Time Square” of Japan and the busiest crossing street. After running through the crossing multiple times (for reference of our antics, see Sam’s Instagram account… sigh, the Japanese must love American tourists) we decided enough was enough and enjoyed the view from a Starbucks on the second floor.


Shinjuku Night Tour – Japan is known to have a wild drinking culture – think working professionals drinking from 7:00 pm to 2:00 am, passing out on the street (which is fine because Tokyo is extremely safe), doing Karaoke until the wee hours of the morning, and then rolling into the office at 8:00 am the next day. We learned about the host and hostess culture where customers can pay up to $1,000 to have a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” experience for the evening (and it is not prostitution), love hotels (google it), and Izakayas (bars where Japanese will converse around specific topics). While Sam and my drinking days are pretty much over (RIP Elon University), we enjoyed hearing about the crazy nightlife rather than binge drinking and passing out on the street ourselves.


Asakusa Temple - Here is a place where we got a feeling for “old Japan” and saw one of the oldest temples, tried Japanese sweets, and watched many tourists walk around in kimonos taking selfies.


Akihabara: Can we say electronic and anime center of the world? Sam and I are not huge fans of anime, but when in Rome. We explored all the shops and got lost amidst the comics, movies, costumes, gadgets, and people dressed up in cosplay.


TeamLab Borderless: This museum had a three-hour queue. With anything that popular, one has to wonder - was it worth the hype? The answer is yes. This is a futuristic art exhibition where guests can interact with art in a virtual world.


The Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. Photo: Sam.

Some of the fun store decorations in Akihabara - the Electric City. Photo: Alison.

Street view from Shinjuku - one of the main night-life areas. Photo: Alison.

View of the Tokyo Skytree and the Asahi Flame or "Golden Turd." Photo: Alison.

Shibuya crossing in action. Photo: Alison.

Chigasaki - Getting off the Beaten Path

November 6 - November 8, 2019


Backpackers and travelers often follow similar routes. While nothing is wrong with going to major travel destinations and tourist attractions - they are usually popular for a reason, it is important to get off the beaten path every now and again. For that reason, Sam and I decided to give a beach town that no guide books or friends recommended a try and went to Chigasaki. Spoiler alert, we loved it. Our time in Chigasaki was spent biking along the beach, surfing (or trying to), watching sunsets over Mount Fuji, and indulging in the art of Japanese bathing.

Enjoying the sunshine and crisp fall weather while biking through Chigasaki.

Our first sunset on the beach overlooking Mount Fuji.

Kyoto – The Psyche of Japan

November 8th - November 15th, 2019


While Tokyo is the capital city of Japan, Kyoto can be described as Japan’s psyche. Kyoto is the second most visited spot in Japan (after Tokyo) and is famous for being the old capital, having beautiful temples, and the home of the Geishas who still practice the art form to this day.


Some of our highlights in Kyoto were:


Geisha Performance –A festival performance with the Maiko and Geisha featuring dance and music. While I was busy having my Memoirs of a Geisha moment, Sam whispered halfway through that he was “having a hard time connecting to the performance.” He then pointed out that half the audience was asleep which was true. I guess beauty is in the eye of the beholder.


Zen meditation: We did a meditation class with a Buddhist monk at the Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine. We got to try some chanting as well as different meditation techniques.


Golden Temple: Sam and I are not “temple” people and therefore, did not go on a spree to visit all of Kyoto’s 2,000 temples. We made an exception with this and saw an entire temple covered in gold - astonishing.


Nara – Once the old capital of Japan and famous for the giant Buddha, temples, and most importantly...deer. The deer roam the streets and tourists can feed them with “deer crackers” that are available for sale.


Eikando Zenrinji: Japan is famous for having truly spectacular falls. After not having autumn in three years (thank you San Francisco), we saw the leaves changing and enjoyed some long overdue fall foliage.


View from the top of the Eikando Zenrinji gardens. Photo: Alison.

The beautiful Golden Temple. Photo: Alison.

The Fushimi Inari-Taisha Shrine where we did our meditation class. Photo: Alison.

A view from the path on the Philosopher's Walk. Photo: Sam

Sam's favorite food in all of Asia - dumplings. Photo: Sam

One of the many deer in Nara. Photo: Alison.

Should we take the plane back to Boston?


Sam and I stood at the Beijing Airport (post-Japan) with a flight bound for Dallas, Texas - our transfer stop before landing in Buenos Aires, Argentina (our next destination). We saw at the gate next to us, a flight bound for Boston. Sam jokingly said, "Should we hop on the plane and head back home?" After a minute of neither of us wanting to admit it, we both agreed that if our trip ended at that moment, we would have felt content - having achieved what we set out to do.


Japan was our end goal as we traveled across the world. Oddly enough, it was not the best part of our trip. Many of our highlights have been countries, communities, and activities we had not planned on experiencing in advance. These include hiking through the mountains of Sapa, Vietnam, adventuring through India, jetskiing through Malaysia, and being a part of the Blessed Hope School in Kenya. It goes to show, that while a lot of times we strive for a goal that will bring us happiness, a lot of the joy, excitement, and adventure, lies in the middle of the journey.


With our "bucket list" accomplished, it leaves one wondering, "So what is next? Why not just come home?" And the reality is, once the perceived goal has been accomplished, and the planning is over, that is where the true journey of self-discovery lies.


Highs, Lows, and Lessons Learned


Sam:

Post surf and feeling good. Photo: Alison.

Highs:


1. Soaking in the beautiful orange and red sunsets over Mount Fuji (best sunsets in the world).

2. Experiencing the colors of autumn for the first time in years at Eikando Japanese garden.

3. Surfing in the refreshing and cold water of Chigasaki.


Lows: Tokyo. My expectations were too high and I prefer nature over big cities. Plus, it was expensive and we spent 2 hours plus on public transport each day.


Best bites: Blow torched tuna steak from Tsukiji Fish Market and spaghetti and meatballs on the beach in Chigasaki.


Lesson Learned: I love nothing more (besides burritos) than beach towns, mountains, and bird watching.


Alison:

Making new friends with the deer in Nara. Photo: Sam.

Highs:


1. Spending a day in Harajuku and going down Takeshita street - all the fashion was incredible!

2. While it was probably Sam's low, seeing the Geisha show. I read Memoirs of A Geisha years ago and loved watching them perform live.

3. The day we spent biking in Chigasaki: puppy cafes, matcha lattes, and sunsets by Mount Fuji.


Low: Our hostel in Tokyo was an hour and a half from anything. Major bummer.


Best bites: Honestly, not my best country for food as a vegetarian. The seaweed wraps from the convenience stores...


Lesson learned: "You don't self-experiment like this if you want to fit in. You're trying to stand out. To be outstanding" - Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Author of Rest; Why You Get More Done When We Work Less


With Love,

Alison


Enjoying the scenery at the Golden Temple.

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