And so it was I shook the dust from my feet, took off, and crossed another ocean.
I randomly agreed to be B’s bucket list travel buddy, as Japan is his 30th birthday present to himself. I’m paying it forward in a way. Just as I asked people to accompany me on my dream trip, I am now helping a friend. Japan, though beautiful from what I’ve seen, has never been on my list of countries I simply had to visit. It’s difficult to explain. On some level the memories from my family who’d fought in the Pacific Theater did not create a positive connotation. That history, though old and not directly related to me, does create an energy. Plus I’m only moderately interested in anime and manga. The biggest draw, when the trip was presented, was the opportunity to learn more about the shinto religion, of which I have a general affinity. (See, even my strongest interest is not enthralling.)
Alternatively, I’m being very self-centered and traveling again because the wanderlust has not left my blood. This trip provided me an ideal reason to leave my sweatshop job and reassess my goals.
The sheer magnitude of residual excitement from friends who’d been, however, had a strong effect. Those who’d been provided me pages of necessary stops, top sites, personal favorites, general guidelines, and food recommendations. Japan made a strong impression with them, so I’m hoping I’ll get to see what they mean during this trip.
I will say it’s nice to go somewhere and have no reason to be there, other than tourism. B speaks some Japanese, and is so excited to go that I plan on relying on him to be the leader (another rarity).
Fourteen hours is a long time to be on a plane. I don’t know if it’s the longest I’ve been on a plane in one go, but it’s certainly up there.
I arrived at Tokyo Narita Airport, and got through security and customs with minimal hassle. Finding the train station proved to be just a little convoluted, with signs pointing diagonal down and then up again after I’d gone down. Patience is the best thing to have in these situations. Patience, and a willingness to retrace one’s steps.
The longer wait was getting my JR rail pass validated. You must buy the pass before you arrive in Japan, and then they give you the actual pass at the JR counter at the airport. It turns out that you cannot get a rail pass if you are a Japanese citizen or have been a resident for any length of time. It’s a bit pricey – the most expensive thing I bought in preparation for the trip – but it allows for almost unlimited rail travel throughout the country, as well as major subway lines in the major cities. No brainer.
It was my idea not to start in Tokyo, since most advice from friends who’d been suggested that there was not that much to see in Tokyo in terms of shrines and temples. Our trip is as follows: Kyoto, Nagoya, Fuji, Tokyo. So I had to find B. at Tokyo Station. Though I had printed out a map, and had asked ahead of time for a recognizable landmark, it was crazy. The station was a sea of people, all moving independently and in concert somehow. I tried to make myself streamlined with my two small roller boards, and took cover behind pillars when I needed to reorient myself.
The bell. I needed to find the Gin-no-suzu. I knew not to leave floor B1. There are…5 or six levels total to this labyrinthian station, and my map was not quite to scale. Any scale. Everything is mochi stands and pastry shops. Then B. texted me to say that he couldn’t find it, that he was going outside, then that he found it after all. He’d already been in Tokyo a day, and this defeatism did not sit well with jet-lagging me. I found the bell using the overhead signs, and saw B. first.
Aside: This is a game I play with most people I know. I love to try and find them before they find me. It’s like pretending to be a spy, except no hiding.
Gin-no-suzu is touted as a “popular meeting spot” in Tokyo station, but it was so small I wonder how it got that reputation.
So together we boarded a high speed train for Kyoto.
Reminder: I have to write a post about high speed trains.
This is the first trip where I have used AirBnB to secure our rooms. I’m used to hotels, or recognizable locations. This apartment is residential, and as we arrive in the dark proves very difficult to find. B.’s gps is not being friendly, and eventually I have to call our hostess, who instructs me to go to the Japanese 7-11 (kombini, I learn, is the word for convenience mart), whereupon she instructs me to give the phone to the cashier, who in turn walks us out to the building, which is next door. This is in flagrant violation of the gps map, which had us walking down alleyways.
Stereotype proven day 1: I did not feel unsafe wandering around Kyoto in the dark, save for the lack of sidewalks and the speedy cars.
It’s late when we arrive, and I write this in exhaustion. I am sleeping on a mat on a tatami floor, and there is a welcome basket of sweet crackers that I forgot I missed. The country has gone by in an evening blur of condensed buildings, stretches of green field, hints of water, and tile roofs that make me think of other places I have been.
Tomorrow brings dawn and tourism!