My Trip to Japan: Nara and Tokyo
As much as I want to keep living vicariously through my photos of Japan, this is my last post! This was honestly the trip of a lifetime and it has been such a joy going back through my pictures and reading my journals from it. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned, but I was actually really nervous to go on this trip – this was the furthest I’d ever travelled on my own, my first trip to Asia, and only the second time I’d travelled alone in a country where I didn’t speak the language. But I knew it would be such an incredible experience and I was ecstatic to see my best friend from college, Betsy, after such a long time.
Anyway, enough exposition – today I’ll be sharing the last several days from my trip including a brief trip to Nara (home of the bowing deer) and our weekend in Tokyo. This may be the longest post I’ve ever put together – so make yourself a cup of coffee and buckle up!
Day Five – Onsen Day
After the last few days of walking and drinking, we decided to take it slow and head to the onsen for the day. An onsen is a traditional Japanese hot bath and there are hotels that specialize in having some sweet onsen facilities. We grabbed lunch at one of Betsy’s favorite local places in Otsu, where the owners were super sweet and we had the whole place to ourselves. It was humid and rainy and felt like the perfect day to hang out and relax.
I was a little nervous about going to the onsen because there’s a lot of etiquette to follow, but luckily I had Betsy to guide me. She got us through the paperwork and actually to the onsen itself, which I already couldn’t have done, and then walked me through when to take off my shoes, how to appropriately wash up before going into the pools, and what each of the pools were designed for. You go into the baths naked, in case you were wondering, so I advise doing this with people you’re already pretty comfortable with (luckily, Bryn Mawr prepared us pretty well for this whole thing lol).
There were a few different bath rooms we did throughout the day. The first room had one big hot bath with an indoor and outdoor portion. It’s essentially a big hot tub, but without the jets. The second room had a variety of pools with different healing properties. There were pools that helped with your skin or circulation, there was a walking pool that massaged your feet, and another with a slight electric current running through it (this was the craziest one!). The third bath (pictured at the top) had an incredible view of Lake Biwa and we had the entire place to ourselves. 🙌 Best place ever for having life chats with your bestie, I’d say.
Day Six – Nara and Betsy’s School
The next day, I struck out on my own again for Nara, a town south of Kyoto famed for it’s incredibly tame deer population. It takes a few trains and a bus to get there (so give yourself time), but you’ll know once you’ve made it. Deer are literally roaming the sidewalks like pedestrians. You can buy cookies to feed them, but even without food they come right up to you.
I’ve gotta say – the deer are cute, but also kind of awful. They follow you around, sort of pummel you with their antlers, and can bite if you’re not careful. I didn’t even bother buying cookies because I didn’t want them all over me. Still, I’m glad I went because it was sort of surreal being so close to animals like this and I got my #deerselfie.
After my dances with deer experience, I raced back to Otsu to spend the rest of the afternoon with Betsy’s students! I have to say, if you ever want to feel famous/special for doing absolutely nothing, be a 20-something white girl from Chicago in a small Japanese town. I got to meet Betsy’s English Club students and it was hands-down the best part of this entire trip. Her students were so sweet and it was awesome to see how amazing Betsy is at her job. She is totally on their level and is so present and joyful with them. I’ve never been good with kids and teaching makes me nervous, so it was incredible to see her at such ease with them.
The first part of class the kids asked me questions about Chicago, what I eat, what my hobbies are, and the question on every 16-year-old’s mind: do I have a boyfriend lol. Then they prepared short presentations for me in English about different parts of Japanese culture. I learned about Japanese festivals, local kinds of artwork, and traditional stories (like Hatsuyume: where it’s good luck if you dream about Mt. Fuji, a hawk, or an eggplant on the night of January 1 – drawing below). I got to keep their artwork and I seriously treasure them. Below are a few of my favorite drawings from that class and some Dos and Don’ts that another one of Betsy’s classes put together for me.
A drawing of Hatsuyume.
A picture of their fireworks, which really do include animated characters. Plus, a little person with a camera because I told them I do photography as a hobby. 😊
Some things not to do in Japan – eat too much wasabi lol and make loud sounds while drinking. Other donts included: tipping, talking too loudly at dinner or on trains, and putting sushi back that you’ve picked up at conveyor belt sushi restaurants.
Some dos: bowing to your boss, giving up your seat to older people and pregnant women on trains (there was a lot of train etiquette), and enjoying my trip! So cute!
Days Seven, Eight, and Nine – Tokyo
The next morning we headed out on the Shinkansen to spend the weekend in Tokyo! We found a good hotel last minute near a big train station and set off for a weekend of exploring. Honestly, the weekend was kind of a blur – we packed in so much in so little time – but here are some of the highlights.
After checking into our hotel, we searched the area for somewhere to grab lunch. We ended up at this little ramen place that was literally in an alley, but the line was out the door which seemed promising. When we finally got into the restaurant, everyone was crying and had a pile of used tissues next to their enormous bowl of ramen – this place was not fucking around. I’m not usually a fan of super spicy food, but it seemed like the thing to get so I ordered one of the milder options (note the crazy amount of chili peppers on the menu below). I was a teary, snotty mess but it was seriously delicious.
After lunch, we took the train to Harajuku for some shopping and to find a Purikura photo booth, sort of the original snapchat pretty filter on steroids (results below). As a fashion lover, I’ve always wanted to visit Harajuku and see the girls’ fun, over the top style. We went into so many cool shops and tried on some crazy pieces. It was also funny to see a lot of vintage American clothes on the racks – things like big 90’s t-shirts from Orlando and remade Levi’s jeans were all over the place and looked 100x cooler on the Japanese girls.
For dinner, we grabbed some Tonkatsu (deep fried breaded pork cutlets) and picked up a few Strong Zeros to drink before going out on the town. To be honest, we were pretty dead by this point in the week. I was still getting over the jet lag (14 hours is rough) and Betsy had worked and been hostess with the mostest to me all week. But it was Saturday night and our only night together in Tokyo and we were going to make the most of it, damn it! We straight up rallied and took one of the last trains of the night to Shibuya, where a lot of the clubs and nightlife is in Tokyo.
Our plan was to hit up a club called Womb (for obvious reasons), but since the trains stop pretty early we wanted to kill some time before walking over there. So we grabbed a few cans of beer from a convenient store and sat on the curb in busy downtown Shibuya for a few minutes just to hang out. And before we knew it, we were out at an Izakaya with a Japanese reporter and a diplomat to China getting ready to sing karaoke until 6 o’clock in the morning. We never made it to Womb and we had the best freaking night ever. If there was ever a case for rallying.
I was content to let the next day pass in the haze of my hangover, but Betsy made sure that I actually saw more of Tokyo than the inside of a bar and got us up for some sightseeing. We walked toward Tokyo tower, stopping at some shrines and parks along the way, and I was surprised at how many peaceful places we found in the one of the most crowded cities in the world. Here are few of my favorite shots from our adventures that day…
That night, Betsy had to head back home and I had to prepare for my 30 hours of travel ahead. It was a tough goodbye after such an amazing week and I know we were both really bummed not knowing when we’d see each other again. I tried to distract myself from the blues by stocking up on some last minute souvenirs and planning my route to the airport, but it felt so weird to be alone in Tokyo. The next morning, my giant suitcase and I took the cramped Tokyo morning commute to Narita and started the long trip back to Madison.
Looking back, I can’t believe I did all of this in a week. I was so nervous about this trip: that it would be so hard, that I would be worried the whole time and not have fun, that Betsy and I wouldn’t get along as well as we used to. But I jumped in and went anyway and, although things were tough and I did have to push myself at times, it was the best decision I’ve made in a long time. I learned that I can always rely on myself, that I have the best friends in the world (literally), and that people can be kind in even the smallest ways.
I’ll end on this last little story: when I was taking the train from Tokyo to Kyoto on my first day, I was absolutely drained. It was the last leg of my journey and I had found out that I’d gotten on the wrong train. It was going in the right direction thankfully, but would take even longer to get there. I was so frustrated that I cried and promptly fell asleep from exhaustion. When I woke up, sitting on my suitcase was a tiny note from the conductor giving me the time we would reach Kyoto and wishing me a nice trip. It was the sweetest, smallest gesture and it meant the world to me in that moment. And that’s what I’ll take away from Japan.