There is a delicate balance between the modern and historic aspects of Japan with a harmonic rhythm that connects the two. The culture, beauty, and stimulation is richer than any country I have ever experienced. Before my recent visit, I had never been to Asia, had not watched an episode of animé, and spoke not a word of Japanese. My Japanese immersion prior to our trip was limited to eating sushi. But, after travelling to Tokyo and Kyoto for spring break, my family became more greatly immersed. To say we experienced a culture shock would be an understatement—but the shock was awesome.
A major influence in my family traveling to Japan was visiting the exchange student, Takuo Iizuka, who lived with my dad one summer when he and my dad were ten years old. After not seeing each other for forty years, my dad and Takuo reunited. Three generations of the Iizuka family graciously welcomed our family into their home, dressed us in Kimonos for a traditional tea ceremony, and took us to a dinner at a local Izakaya pub where we sat on tatami mats. We could not have asked for a more special and authentic welcome to Japan.
Prior to visiting Japan, we often heard friends and strangers raving about Tokyo, and it did not take long to realize the Tokyo infatuation is well deserved. We spent much of our time in the Harajuku neighborhood, popular for crazy food, extraordinary shopping, and possibly the coolest street style I have ever seen. Each pocket of the neighborhood is unique but it feels as if every other person is decked out in a combination of Supreme, high end designer, and vintage Nike, Adidas, or Champion clothes. There were vintage stores around every corner, each full of American college sweatshirts, converse, and other classic American pieces.
Tokyo is electric and incredibly innovative. But is also frenetic. The amount of stimulation and busyness is hard to believe. Even the baseball games are next level; each player has a personal cheer, including chanting, instruments, and, for some, rally towels. Meanwhile, girls run through the stands, representing different beer companies, with miniature kegs on their back. Additional, memorable experiences in Tokyo include ordering ramen from a vending machine and eating at a hedgehog café, where you order a hedgehog with your coffee. We also watched a sumo wrestling practice and we were surprised to see that the wrestlers were much smaller and more muscular than we expected.
From Tokyo, we rode the bullet train to Kyoto which travels at approximately 320km/h. Kyoto is absolutely magical and, in my opinion, underrated. I surprised myself by liking Kyoto even more than Tokyo, which is a hard city to beat. In Kyoto, we stayed in a very traditional hotel, called a “Ryokan,” which felt more like we were staying in someone’s home. We were each given a set of traditional clothes for meals and another, for sleeping. My family of five slept on futons on the tatami mat floor in one room, about an arms’ reach from each other. I have had very few camp experiences but, to me, this felt like sleep away camp.
I read Memoirs of a Geisha shortly before our trip and arriving in Kyoto felt like I was transported into the story. The beautiful Kamo River runs through the city, women stroll the streets in Kimonos, and temples pepper the neighborhoods. We spent one morning exploring the bamboo gardens, the last of the cherry blossoms, and the most beautiful canal with Japanese boats floating by.
From the compassionate, happy people, to the intricate food and the incredible shopping, it’s hard to not to get lost in the allure of Japan and Japanese culture. In a week, we just scraped the surface of this amazing country and I cannot wait to go back and experience more. There is truly nothing like it.