It wakes you up to take a journey for a while, wherever it may be. As you walk around the place, looking here and there at rustic scenes and mountain villages, everything seems most unfamiliar. And how amusing it is the way people snatch the first opportunity to send a letter back to the capital: “When you get the chance, don’t forget to do this, don’t forget to do that.” In such a place, you really notice everything. Anything good–even the possessions you have brought along with you–seems better, and anyone you meet with artistic talent or handsome features seems more impressive than he usually would. It is delightful also to go into retreat at some temple or shrine, unknown to anyone.
It’s been a while. I finally know exactly how my cousin Susanna feels, the need for something to be perfect, and if not perfect, then sufficiently impressive to want to show off. But here we are. In that time, I’ve settled in to be one of the “old boys,” as many of the teachers who were here when I started left and new ones replaced them. Preceding that was a mindless dash to the finish of the month in a haze of tests and grading and special days and field trips and report cards, culminating in my friend from home come to visit.
I have this unfortunate habit, I’ve found, of only being able to plan out/ look forward to one trip at a time, and this Japan trip was a titan, despite in retrospect there being a complete lack of planning on my part. I’m not that good of a solo traveler yet, it seems.
Going to Japan is every teenage punk-weeaboo’s dream, and though my Japan-centered sensibilities have cooled completely into just fond regard for the country in the meantime, it still meant a lot for me to get to visit. I was also afraid. Did I choose my home-away-from-home well? What if I chose wrong and really I end up liking Japan more? How will I live with myself then? I was plagued with those questions before going.
The morning of the day I was to leave, I woke up early enough to clean my whole apartment and do all the dishes and pack. It was quite miraculous, honestly. The whole day was just everybody going through the motions because they’re so excited to be elsewhere. In the last class, coworker Jennifer suggests to me that I ask the boss if I can take off early so that I can get to my 8:45 flight on time. Even taking the taxi instead of the bus or train, there’s almost no way I could have made it in time. I would get in trouble for this later with the vice-director, but the director of the school signed off on it and allowed me to leave early. Incheon is far from Gwanak. I’m stressing the whole time because I’m afraid I won’t get there, and although the driver was perfectly fast and there wasn’t as much traffic as expected, he thought for a full 20 minutes that I was saying I was meeting a friend in Incheon city and not going to the Incheon airport… … so after we figured out that was where the misunderstanding had occurred everything went way more smoothly.
Peach Airlines is weird. It’s the Tiger Air of Japan. The seats were insanely small and I did not sleep a single wink on the entire 1.5 hour flight… but uncharacteristically for me, I did not bring any books with me. Tragic. So it was a pretty painful flight. Airport was fun at 11:30 pm trying to go through customs and figure out how to get to my hostel. Once you’re at your hostel everything comes easily. I made a grave error in taking a taxi from the airport, because hey it was only 50,000 won in Korea so it shouldn’t be that bad in Japan, right? Wrong. 17,000 yen IS NOT $17!!! It is $170!!! I struggled with the conversions throughout the whole rest of the trip, and I ended up using my American debit cards because my Woori Bank card never ended up working… Travelling is a lot easier when you can guarantee that you will definitely be able to pay for everything. Anyhow, the taxi was pretty much the only option at 12:30 am when all the trains and shuttles are done and you can’t speak the language or anything, even though it ended up murdering my bottom line for the rest of the trip.
I woke up the next morning in my cute little box of a hostel room. It’s like your bed becomes a little platform room and you have a light and outlets for chargers (which, blessedly, are the same as American outlets) and a little writing desk and everything. You draw the curtains and the room is yours. You relinquish your shoes at the front of the hostel and walk around in little scuffling slippers the whole time.
I took a long time to get out of the hostel because all I had was a vague inkling that I should get into the city of Osaka at some point during the day. As I hung out and contemplated life over free wifi and free coffee, I started to notice that the hostel front desk attendant was playing some music that sounded… quite familiar. Especially language-wise. With a connection over Korean music, the girl explained where I should go that day, so eventually I got out to the Osaka castle and then went to the Shinsaibashi, a very famous shopping street. At this point in the day, I had not eaten anything substantial in many hours. My friend, Gabby, play-threatened me over facebook message, “don’t you pass out on me!!” as I sat in a café where I had a remarkable coffee prepared by a really nice barista. I was supposed to meet this friend a few days later in Kanazawa. At around 8pm, I finally got a real meal: I caught a ramen at the purportedly best ramen shop in all of Osaka. It was pretty good, and it was one of those places where you sit at the bar and watch the chefs make your order right in front of your face.
Japanese trains are substantially harder to use than Korean trains, it was really hot the whole day and I was mostly out in the sun for a while when I sketched the Osaka castle, and I had taken for granted how easy it is for a person to get around when they can just read the language (as I can in Korea). There’s substantially more grunting, pointing, and nodding when I’m in Japan.
The next morning I went to the Shinsaibashi street again for breakfast, but also most specifically to buy a book. I had the train ride to Kanazawa ahead of me and I did not intend to go without a book. I bought the above-quoted “Essays in Idleness” which spoke to me on many levels, but it was cool to read some Japanese literature while in Japan and get some insight into the Japanese psyche, which really hasn’t changed in 1,000 years.
I succeeded in buying my train ticket, but due to going to the wrong set of gates at first, missed my train by mere minutes and had to wait a whole extra hour for the next train. I did not get the memo about reserved seats and unreserved cars, so about 20 minutes in I had to move to the unreserved car. I slept far better on that train, and it helped to have a book with me. I always feel more at ease with a book that I can pull out at any time.
Gabby really graciously waited the extra hour for me to arrive in Kanazawa and took me to a place where we got burgers, and later nachos and margaritas. Gabby’s house is far nicer than mine and has actual rooms. But Kanazawa is also the size of Pittsburgh, whereas Seoul is more comparable to New York City in population. Japan is also much quieter and cleaner than Korea, which was nice at first, but became unnerving after some time.
The next day, ever-industrious Gabby (I would have been totally content to sleep forever but we had to start moving sometime) woke me up with French-press coffee and rice, which was sprinkled with some sort of salty prune powder which was nice. We went to the Kanazawa castle, which was pretty remarkable-looking from afar. I can imagine going for runs through the surrounding parks or the ahjummas going for strolls on the weekends. I had sakura (cherry-blossom) ice cream!! It was wonderful! Gabby said that the trademark in Kanazawa is gold-leaf ice cream, but even though I’m generally pretty extra, that was even too extra for me. She explained the details of the design of the castle to me, and I was impressed because man, I don’t know nearly anything about Korean architecture in comparison.
In addition, we went to the fish market to have a look around. IT IS SO CLEAN COMPARED TO KOREA, I was floored. Gabby seemed to think it was silly to make that remark, but I’m used to the ahjummas barely wiping their hands and squatting on the ground all day, so it was a surprise to see it so clean and organized. I came to find that that’s the norm for Japan, though. Gabby ducked into a small restaurant in a side alley and it turned out to have sushi, so that’s where I had my first proper sushi in Japan. We got those assorted-fish sushi bowls, and some was wonderful as expected, and some, like the octopus, was terrible. I’ve tried octopus and squid on so many occasions in the last six months and I hate it every time. Especially raw octopus tastes and feels like you’re just chewing on salty rubber… Anyhow it was really nice to have a guide to explain what to properly do in a sushi restaurant so that I could do it later, in Tokyo, and not embarrass myself.
The other thing that we did that day was going to the temple. I saw many temples and shrines. I still don’t properly distinguish the temples from the shrines. Shrines are for the Shinto religion; temples are for Buddhists. They are all equally special and amazing and beautiful, filled with ritual significance. It was nice to have a friend to explain to me how to wash my hands, how to do the cute little clapping-bowing thing before you throw the coin into the slatted box, and how you buy and tie your fortune. At first, the fortune I bought (which I though was for “”love””) ended up being wishing for a son to be born… No. How about no. The second one, a general-good-luck fortune, said that I will be really lucky but you probably should not be travelling, which, lol. As we prepared to tie our fortunes onto the little box, a crane strutted by in the pond next to us. It was all very picturesque until an old couple sort of walked through the path to try to get a picture with the crane and made it fly away. Ahjummas and ahjusshis are the same in every country, it seems.
We got coffee at this cute little place with a really cute menu. Gabby wanted to be sure we could get a Japanese sort of dessert, so I had some sort of soybean-powder parfait which was deliciously bizarre. After a day like that, we collapsed into Gabby’s house for just long enough to watch Star Trek: Into Darkness before passing out. Gabby’s house is cute because you just slept on futons on the floor. I thought it might be like that in Korea, but that’s probably for the best that I have a proper bedframe; my floor here is always filthy despite my best efforts.
In the morning we went to Tokyo by train. This was far easier with Gabby to show me the ropes on the trains. We bought bento boxes because it’s apparently very auspicious to eat a bento lunch on the Japan Railroad Shinkansen train. I usually just fall asleep immediately upon getting into a moving vehicle so it was happy that I had Gabby to watch out for me.
Getting out the train in Tokyo, I was not immediately impressed. Granted, we went to Ueno station, one of the other big stations besides Tokyo, so we missed a lot of the hustle and bustle. Our hostel, SPACE Hostel, was really cool. This one was one where you only have curtains around your bed. My dorm room was constantly damp, and as I accidentally left an onigiri (or samgak kimbap) in my bag for a whole night, left the whole room smelling like damp ham for more than a day. Whoops. In the evening, freshly arrived in the city, Gabby had promises to meet her mom’s friend for dinner. I agreed that I would just find my own dinner during that time and not worry too much. This was a stupid idea on my first night in the country and not being able to read Japanese and not being in a prominently touristy area. Anyhow after a full hour of walking I ended up getting a pizza margherita and a peach shochu smash or something like that. Moulin Rouge! was playing on the screen above the bar. It was kind of surreal. Walking back to meet Gabby, I was invited in to meet Gabby’s mom’s friends. They invited both of us to the friend’s bar, which was a converted geisha’s house, now a bar-teahouse-art-and-antiques showroom. The view of the river and the atmosphere was amazing. I was enthralled. Naturally, Gabby’s mom’s friend invites us to her house which was nearby. We went from 100-year-old teahouse to 21st-century high rise. Very swanky. The view of the Tokyo Skytree and the river and city lights from here was stunning. What a welcome to Tokyo!
The next day, we went to the big temple near Ueno. I can’t tell you exactly what it was called because I’m terrible at remembering Japanese names, but it’s the one with the really big lantern that could fit 6 full-grown adults inside. It was a huge complex, and we got to see people purifying themselves with smoke and water, everyone tying on the wishes, and many smaller pilgrimage sites. It’s really such a bustling marketplace and I imagine it would have been much the same on a holiday 100 years ago, too.
Speaking of marketplaces, we also went to the Kappabashi kitchen street. This is a famous place in Tokyo, because it’s the place where all the restaurants buy their plastic replicas of the food that they will display outside. From small sushis to huge noodle dishes to ice-cold beers or flaky pastries, they were all represented in painstaking plastic detail. I was tempted to buy some for my mom, but then again, if you don’t have a restaurant, what use could you have for those plastic foods? It was cool going through all of the restaurant banners, tableware, and other things. It gives you a really succinct understanding of the food culture in the country. This street makes it ***feel**** like it would be very easy to open a restaurant in Japan. We got really wonderful coffee at a shop that looked quite unremarkable from the outside, but I could tell would be awesome on the inside (kind of like people, I guess). Japanese establishments have an amazing aesthetic that I appreciated every second of every day that I was there.
Gabby has a lot of family friends. We met her other family friend, a young professional living in Tokyo, and we somehow chose a paella restaurant in Shinjuku, I think, and had such interesting sangrias with our dinner. Afterward, we set out for a view from the top of the Tokyo Government Building. It was quite the ordeal to get there, but it’s free to get to the top, unlike going up to the Skytree. There was a group of boy travelers trying to get up the building at the same time, looking for the entrance, and they were all really nice and cute. The view from the top is amazing. The city seems to go on for miles upon miles, as far as the eye can see. Seoul has lots of mountains, but Tokyo is mostly flat, so all you can see is just lights that go on into the distance like stars in the galaxy.
That night was Gabby’s last night in Japan for about a month, so even though Gabby rarely drinks, we drank a bit out on the fire escape of the hostel. We said a toast in every language we could find on the internet. I was not feeling great the next day but it apparently wrecked Gabby for her long flight the next day.
I stayed for the next day by myself. Since we mostly saw a smaller-street kind of scene, temples, and castles, I wanted to see for myself if I could find the real Tokyo hustle and bustle that I’d always pictured I’d find when I came to Tokyo. I wanted Shibuya, I wanted Harajuku, I wanted Ginza. I wanted the crush of people so strong that I’d never want to see another human being for ten years. Shibuya crossing is the busiest street crossing in the whole world. As I sat nursing my drink from the second-floor Starbucks and watched the light cycles, people ebbed and flowed like the waves and tides at the beach. They could juke and dodge perfectly like they were those birds flying in perfectly timed swoops, hundreds all at once. My brother called me during this time, extending my intended stay from 10-15 minutes to more than an hour. Whoops. I had a vague idea of how to get from place to place, but most of this was walking. I think I attempted to walk from Shibuya to Harajuku, which did not end up happening. I took the train and Harajuku was just as crowded as one would expect. Like, suffocatingly so. There were tons of cute shops and things, but during this time I really would have appreciated a Japanese-speaking friend to help me find somewhere to eat and smooth the process, but I ended up getting McDonald’s and a strawberry crepe. I ended the day in Ginza being awed and impressed by all the big and beautiful stores and realizing I couldn’t afford anything in the dinner department in that neighborhood. I made my way back to Asakusa to our hostel and then got sushi at one of the conveyor-belt restaurants. A kindly young guy, with motions and carefully slow demonstrations, showed me how to hail the sushi chef and tell him what I wanted.
The next day I had to head to Kyoto on the train. I felt like a pro at the Shinkansen train by this time. I arrived in the early afternoon in Kyoto. My coworker Myra had also come to Japan and to Kyoto at the same time, so there had been some sort of plan to meet for sushi for lunch. As I couldn’t take any wifi until 3 I discovered that she had already left to go out to the temples and shrines for the day, so I was on my own for that day and evening. My hostel was very cool, like big bunk beds with a little platform for hanging out.
On the first day in Kyoto I went to the big temple nearby our hostel. It is apparently the largest wooden structure in the world. Despite anything else, this was my favorite temple I visited because it was so peaceful. Since everyone has to take their shoes off directly after stepping on the gravel of the square, everyone is automatically more quiet and reverent. Everyone walks around slowly on socked feet. The dark wood structure looms high above not frighteningly, but rather reassuringly. Like a protector. I sat a while sketching until they told us the temple was closed and we had to leave.
I learned from Gabby that a good way to eat well and sort of cheaply in a place where they are more able to cater to tourists is in the department store food courts, so I ended up getting what would have been called in Korean deop-bap, or rice with stuff on top. Mine had raw salmon and was delicious. I ended up spending a long time in the hostel kitchen trying to unwind and drink some coffee and ended up staying way too late.
My last full day in Japan was spent touring shrines and temples. I picked the two most important-looking ones as I took an extremely early breakfast that morning. I had gotten up at 5am because it was too hot to sleep. In the morning I went to the Fushimi Inari Shrine. It’s a few stops down the JR Line, but it was nearly a 10-year dream in the making. I had read about this shrine when I was in elementary school and the vision of those thousands of bright orange gates stuck with me for so many years. As you start out, the crowds of pilgrims are loud and boisterous. They crowd and swarm and it is uncomfortable to stay there amid the masses. But then you move off to the side and up toward the mountain. Even going through the smaller rows of gates, it’s still crowded with people taking selfies, but it thins out as you go on. It quiets down. There are little stands to sell talismans, souvenirs, and refreshments along the way. There is not much of anything at the top, but the graveyard shrines are littered with small replicas of the orange gates and small fox figurines. Fushimi Inari Shrine is dedicated to the fox god. Shrines are so peaceful and even among so many people you can feel at peace.
I returned to Kyoto to meet for ramen with my coworker Myra. Being in a different country and be able to meet with my friend Gabby was unreal enough, but what were the odds that I would be able to meet with my coworker as well? Unlikely at best.
In the afternoon I took the train out to the Tenryuji Temple. It’s also kind of far, as in not within walking distance, but I walked through the bamboo groves to get there and even with all the people taking selfies galore and crowding and clogging, it was still beautiful and serene. This temple is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and taking in the temple and its surrounds, contemplating the beautifully manicured ponds and gardens and chilling out. It truly feels like a pilgrimage site. That evening I had the most amazing butter fried rice for dinner. Truly awesome.
A full day of travel followed, with trains and more trains and planes and more trains, but I had never been more relieved to touch down in a country whose language I understood. I had such an odd thought: “I’m home.” When did that happen? When did Seoul become home? It’s so weird how that definition of home changes. Is it just somewhere to rest your head at night or is it how you lay down your roots?
A toast to home, wherever that may be.
tl;dr: I was afraid that I would like Japan more than Korea but even despite how beautiful everything was and how long coming my trip had been, I still somehow liked Korea better.
When did Korean soil become home? Weird.. 🇰🇷🌚✌🏽️
— Georgina DiMarché (@bibimbetch) July 31, 2016