Japan

At the end of April, I took a 10-day trip to visit my brother, Bryan, in Japan. He is a teacher in a city called Sendai, about 4 hours north of Tokyo in the Miyagi prefecture. He has been living in Japan on and off for the last 7 years but this was the first time I had an opportunity to visit him there. Being half Japanese, this trip was important for me for a few reasons. Most importantly, I wanted to experience my own family’s culture, my culture. My great grandparents on both sides of my mom’s family immigrated to Hawaii from Japan in the early 1900’s. Despite having Japanese roots, I’ve never felt particularly close to Japanese culture or the Japanese community. Having spent most of my life in the predominantly white state of South Carolina, my experiences have been limited to watered down (white washed) versions of Japanese culture. For me, there has always been a disconnect to the Japanese community because there is no Japanese community for me here. 

I wouldn’t say that I went to Japan looking for a sense of belonging, but I definitely wanted to immerse myself in the culture to feel closer to it. 

I left Charleston at 6:00 AM on a Wednesday and, three flights later, landed in Tokyo at 3:00 PM on Thursday. After being funneled down to customs, I waited patiently in line until it was my time. Once I was cleared, I found the post office at the terminal to pick up my pocket wifi device. I rented a portable wifi router so I would have access to the Internet at all times. Mostly, it was to help with navigation and translation and that’s what I primarily used my phone for. After the post office, I went down to the lower level to wait in another line for my rail pass. Foreigners visiting Japan can purchase rail passes that are good for a certain number of consecutive days. I bought a 7-day pass for when I left Tokyo to see my brother in Sendai. Taking the bullet trains can be expensive (sometimes $200 for a round trip train ticket) so buying a rail pass is worthwhile if you plan on traveling more than two ways. The line was long and I waited for maybe 45 minutes before I finally got my rail pass. I waited to activate it until the day I left for Tokyo. In order to travel around Tokyo in the meantime, I purchased a Suica card - essentially a reloadable metro card that can be used for other things like vending machines and even arcade crane games. It was just $5 for the card deposit and you can load any amount you like. I had to reload it a few times while I was in Japan. After getting the Suica card, I was finally ready to take the train from the airport to the neighborhood I was staying in that night. The train ride is about an hour from the airport to Tokyo central station.

I decided to stay in a place called Asakusa while I was in Tokyo. I found a couple of highly rated hostels and knew that the other places I wanted to see in Tokyo were easily accessible from Asakusa. Plus, Asakusa also had a few different things I wanted to see - including Sensoji Temple, Nakamise shopping street, and the Kaminarimon. I also knew I’d be able to find some great food options around Asakusa from sweets and baked goods, to ramen and curry. My first couple of days in Japan were spent exploring around Asakusa, visiting the Don Quijote (a grocery store / department store like chain in Japan), getting a panoramic view of Asakusa from the Asakusa culture and tourism center, seeing the Sumida river from Sumida park, eating ramen and dongo, and also exploring Shimokitazawa, the hip part of Tokyo that includes many cafes and second hand stores. Just FYI, second hand stores in Japan are the best. Japanese people take such great care of their belongings so all of the clothes, household goods, etc. are in excellent shape.

On my third day in Japan, I woke up early, ate breakfast at my hostel, checked out, and headed to Tokyo central station to catch a train to Sendai. It was a busy travel day as it was the start to Golden Week, a week of Japanese national holidays. Schools are closed and many businesses (not in the service industry) are closed so many people travel during this time. So it was a bit overwhelming being in a busy train station but I managed to find the ticket office and get a seat on one of the bullet trains that would get me to Sendai in 120 minutes.

I arrived at the train station in Sendai and Bryan met me. We grabbed lunch before heading back to his place - a modest studio style apartment. That night, we walked around Sendai and grabbed a light dinner of gyudon, miso soup, and a salad with sesame dressing. 

The next day, Yoko, one of Bryan’s former co-workers, drove us to to Jogi mountain to see Saihoji Temple and eat aburaage (a deep fried tofu specialty). It was a beautiful day and, unlike Tokyo, cherry blossoms were still in bloom in Sendai. I had my first squatting toilet experience that day too. After visiting the temple, we stopped by the Nikka Whisky Distillery and I bought a few mini bottles to bring home. On the way back to the center of Sendai, we stopped at a McDonald’s and I ate a teriyaki beef burger. It was actually quite tasty! Yoko dropped Bryan and I off at the Umini-Mori aquarium in Sendai so we spent some time there. After the aquarium, Bryan took me to a store called Mandai (a chain of stores in Japan that sell video games, figurines, clothing, and candy).

The next day, Yoko and her daughter Marika took Bryan and I to a place called Shiroishi in order to visit Spashland Park (a park with hundreds of flowers) and Shiroishi castle. On the way, we stopped to eat at a restaurant known for hamburger steaks. I, of course, had a hamburger steak and it was really good! Spashland Park was really beautiful despite the fact that some of the flowers hadn’t bloomed this year. We stopped by Shiroishi Castle before heading back to Sendai.

Bryan and I took a trip to Matsushima the next day, a little seaside town that features fresh seafood and a beautiful view of the ocean. We took a ferry tour around Matsushima bay and drank a beer while eating rice crackers and peanuts. It was a little overcast at first, but the sun ended up showing itself. After the boat ride, we grabbed a snack and walked about Matsushima. I also got to try cherry blossom soft serve ice cream.

On my 5th day in Sendai, Bryan and I took the Loople Sendai - a trolley bus that goes around the city of Sendai stopping at major tourist attractions. We made our first stop at the Aoba Castle, or what remains of it. The castle was destroyed during WWII when US troops bombed the city of Sendai. The location of the former castle provides a beautiful view of the city of Sendai. There is also a shrine you can visit and various shops and food vendors. I got to try zunda (edamame paste) filled taiyaki - a Japanese fish shaped cake. After Aoba Castle, we caught the Loople a few stops to the Tohoku University Botanical Garden. It was a good weather day so walking the trails and seeing the varieties of trees and plantlife was super enjoyable!

The day before I left to go back to Tokyo, I took a day trip up to Hakodate in Hokkaido, the northernmost island in Japan. I wanted to visit Goryokaku tower and park, which was said to have some of the most beautiful cherry blossom trees. I took a bullet train to Hakodate and passed through the beautiful countryside of Japan. Once I got to Hakodate, I took the trolley to Goryokaku and got in line there to buy a ticket to the observation deck. It was so beautiful at the top! You get a panoramic view of the city. After spending some time looking at everything, I went back to the ground level and went outside to walk around in the park. There must be thousands of cherry blossom trees there. It was truly breathtaking. I spent the remainder of my time in Hakodate walking around before heading back to the train station.

The next day, Bryan and I had lunch together before I had to leave Sendai. I mistakenly got onto the wrong train car and couldn’t access my actual car because the conductor’s car was between them. So I panicked before being reassigned a different seat. Once I got back to Tokyo, I returned to Asakusa and checked into my hostel. I met a traveler from The Netherlands and we decided to explore Akihabara together that night. We walked around, ventured into the Don Quijote, and even spent some time in a cat cafe. It was fun!

I got an early start to the next day and ventured out to Shibuya. From Shibuya station, I walked up to Harajuku station and did some window shopping along the way. I stopped into the Tower Records and listened to some Japanese music. I didn’t understand what any of it meant, but it was still a fun experience. Once I got to Harajuku, I walked around Takeshita dori, a busy shopping street. I popped into a few of the boutique stores and also explored the Daiso. After Harajuku, I took the train one stop up to Shinjuku. There, I visited the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building to take a free ride up to the observation deck. From there, you can get an almost panoramic view of Tokyo. I say almost because the cafe at the top includes part of the view but you can only access the cafe if you are a customer. I walked around Shinjuku and walked through Kabukicho (the red light district) in order to get to Golden Gai - a network of small streets containing about a hundred different bars. It was 5:00 PM so none of them were open, but it was still a neat area to visit. 

The next day, I met up with some folks from Girls Rock Tokyo. I met two of the GRT members back in March at the Girls Rock Camp Alliance conference. They organized a picnic while I was in Japan so I could meet some of the founders and volunteers involved with GRT. We met at Yoyogi Park and had a really lovely time. I got to see Tamaki, one of the organizers I met at the conference, and meet her husband and two children. I also met two of the founders of GRT and 3 volunteers. We had delicious food (including karaage chicken) and drank beer and sparkling sake. It was a nice way to end my trip to Japan. 

The next morning, my new friend from The Netherlands and I both had to check out of our hostel but agreed to grab melon pan, a type of Japanese sweet bun, for breakfast from this well-known shop in Asakusa. It was still warm and delicious! We both went back to our hostel, checked out, and went our separate ways. I finished up some postcards before heading to Narita Airport.

Overall, I had an amazing trip and enjoyed getting to spend so much time with my brother. I was amazed by his fluency in Japanese and also how clean and seemingly efficient things are in Japan. I’m looking forward to my next trip there, which will hopefully be sometime next year!

Below are some photographs from my trip.