Around this time last year, I went with my family to Japan for the first time. We spent eight days touring the island of Honshu, visiting a mixture of big cities and small towns, all the while eating good Japanese food to our heart’s content. Considering that this summer is just around the corner, I thought that I would dedicate a series of posts to my time in Japan, in order to gear up for this year’s trip somewhere in the world (you’ll soon find out!).
Just a month after I’d returned home from my first year teaching abroad in France, I had only enough time to get settled back into my life in the States before having to pack my bags and go overseas again, this time for summer break. Not to say I was complaining about the constant moving around…in fact, I was excited to go somewhere I’d never been before, someplace different from what I’d been doing the past few months gallivanting all over Europe. With that said, it was a “bon voyage” for the next few weeks!
Catching the *long* flight from Los Angeles to Tokyo (with a transfer in Taipei), my family and I finally made it to Narita International Airport almost 24 hours later, exhausted but happy to be back on land again. We would be taking a guided tour throughout our time in Japan, so one of the tour agency workers greeted us at the airport before directing us to a small shuttle that would take us to our hotel within Narita, situated roughly 77 kilometers (44 miles) from Tokyo. Getting into the shuttle, I was surprised to see that vehicles in Japan drove on the left side of the road: granted, I had been aware of this fact before arriving, but seeing everything working oppositely reminded me of that again. Thankfully, I wasn’t the one driving while in Japan—that would be a nightmare!
We arrived to our hotel, where we checked in and got settled into our rooms. Later, my family and I went down to the hotel’s restaurant for dinner (complementary of the tour). The four of us got bento, aka Japanese lunchbox, which contained an assortment of sashimi, pickled vegetables, and tofu. Simple stuff, but it got the job done. Horribly jet-lagged, I turned in right after dinner…before 19h00!
The next morning, we checked out of our hotel before loading our luggage, along with thirty or so other tourist, into the tour bus we would be taking to our next destination(s). We would be heading towards Tokyo, but not before stopping by other towns along the way. My family and I took a Taiwan-based tour company, so our tour guide (along with the tourists) spoke pretty much all in Chinese. That said, it was a good way for me to brush up on my Chinese skills while also discovering a new country and its culture.
Our first stop was at the Tokyo Bay Aqua Line, a bridge-tunnel which connects two prefectures– Kanagawa and Chiba– together, across the Tokyo Bay. Years before it was constructed, it had been a hassle for people who had to commute between the prefectures, spending over an hour just to make a roundabout to the other side. Since then, the Tokyo Bay Aqua Line has reduced travel time to a mere fifteen minutes. Aside from stopping near the tolls for a break, there was nothing much to see or do there.
We made our way to Kamakura, a city known for its distinctive shrines and temples, one of them being the Tsurugaoka Hachimangū, a 1000-year-old Shinto shrine. Before entering, we had to wash our hands using long-handled cups in a basin. There is actually a specific method to it, washing first the left hand before the right. Admittedly, I screwed up the first time, so I hastily corrected myself before catching up with the rest of my tour group. After all, I didn’t want the chance of misfortune while in Japan!
Following the visit of the Tsurugaoka Hachimangū, we were directed to a cluster of rickshaws outside of the shrine, where we would be given a small ride around the quieter neighborhoods of Kamakura. I’d never taken a rickshaw before, so it was quite the experience. Huge respect for the driver, who pretty much carried me and my dad around town!
The rickshaw ride lasted no more than 15 minutes, and afterwards we headed into the touristy part of town for lunch. Our group was subsequently shuttled into one of the restaurants where we were given a combination of udon noodles and tempura rice bowls. Literally carb on carb, but heavenly so! Although we were quite full from lunch, that didn’t stop us from treating ourselves to ice cream (I got a matcha-purple yam swirl—delicious!) and some fresh mochi in the bustling shopping district.
Our final stop for the day was at the Hase-dera, a temple in Kamakura. It’s especially well-known for one of the largest Buddhist statues in Japan called Kannon, aka Guanyin, the “Goddess of Mercy.” I don’t think we got to see the statue, since there were so many people in that afternoon, so we just explored the buildings from outside. Also stumbled upon a wealth of blue and purple hydrangeas, along with a small cave where my sister and I ducked into to explore. There wasn’t much to the Hase-dera, but it was certainly pretty.
Towards the end of the afternoon, we boarded our bus to head over to Atami, a city situated on the slopes of a volcano crater(!) and is known for its hot springs. We would be staying there overnight (in a hotel, not the volcano), where we had full access to the hot springs and sauna, neither which I’d done before. Our hotel was literally on the cliff’s edge, with its lobby perched 17 floors above ground level, the latter which contained the sauna and hot springs. Our rooms offered stunning, calming views of the blue-grey sea, and what was particular about this hotel was that we were required to dress up in yukatas (“summer kimonos”), as part of the tradition. Didn’t know beforehand, but turned out that our hotel was a few hundred years old! When getting dressed, I learned that it’s important to make sure that the left side wraps over the right—if you do the opposite, it implies you’re in mourning. Not good at all!
Before dinner, I decided to check out the hot springs and sauna inside the hotel. At first, I was a bit nervous being completely naked in front of others, but it turned out not to be a big deal—after all, everyone was naked! The sauna and hot springs proved to be very…hot (obviously), but definitely made me feel good afterwards. Never before did my skin feel so smooth and soft until then!
Dinner was in the hotel and, keeping up with traditions, we ate our meal on the kotatsu, which are low, wooden tables. We sat cross-legged on mats (no chairs!) and listened to our tour guide sing karaoke (and some tourists, too) while eating. There was a mochi-making event later that night, where I got to pound the glutinous blob of rice with a wooden hammer—it’s a stress reliever, to say the least! Trying out the creation afterwards proved rewarding, too. I went with my sister to the hot springs and sauna once again afterwards, before hitting the sack that night. It’d been a long day filled with activity after activity, but we were excited to see what was in store for us in the days to come.
Coming up: Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park & Tokyo, Japan!