“Hurry, hurry, we need to get in the van,” the little Filipino women said as she urged us into the back of a relative stranger’s 7-seater white van with darkly tinted windows. In other words, it was everything that driver’s training told me not to enter.
My friend piled into the back, I followed, then the woman squished into the back seat with us and we waited.
Amid fans urging him to autograph apparel and take pictures with them—with cell phones posed at the same van taking pictures—a pro sumo wrestler and his manager appeared. Away we went.
We spent an hour in strained silence driving him to his sports massage. All the while, I couldn’t help but thinking, ‘What is even happening right now?’
That thought sums up a lot of what I felt when I was in Tokyo. And it may have summed up some of what the people who had to interact with me felt.
Overall, Tokyo wasn’t so different than Seoul. The transportation system that seemed confusing when reading about it online was surprisingly easy when it was actually encountered in person. Just as there is an abundance of Japanese influence when it came to food, so there was quite a bit of mingling of Korean food. And people didn’t stare nearly as much (or at all), which led to more ease in actually going around.
My favorite spot was probably the least cultural spot.
As soon as the idea of going to Disney took hold of my mind, I couldn’t get it to leave. I had an image in my mind of running around in Mickey ears looking like a child in heaven. The downside was that there were no plain Mickey ears, only Minnie mouse ones with a large, red bow in between them. Other than that slight disappointment, the experience was magical.
What amazed me so much was the amount of detail that went into the DisneySea resort. It blew my mind, and that was considering that I had worked at Universal Studios in Florida for two summers. There was just something to do everywhere. The lines waiting for rides were completely and totally covered with interesting things to look at. It didn’t hurt that the volcano the park was centered around sometimes actually spit fire.
I never appreciated as a child when I went to Disney how in-character the character actors actually were. Cruella Deville strutted in five-inch stilettos through the park tossing sarcastic waves to people and nearly kicked a pigeon on her way to her show. On top of that, going in the September-October season meant that many of the park-goers were dressed up in full-fledged costumes.
I felt like a kid in wonderland. I could have spent far more than just a day at the parks, riding rides and watching all of the shows. It was nice to have a part of a vacation that felt like how a vacation probably should—like a getaway to do fun things and relaxing.
I learned to eat by myself. Again.
My first night trying to eat by myself was a small torture. I spent thirty minutes wandering up and down the back streets around the airbnb we stayed at trying to find a place that wouldn’t make everyone stare at me as soon as I walked in. The area around the apartment was littered with small bars and restaurants, each containing one long bar with 4-5 seats and usually two smaller tables. I felt self-conscious about eating alone. Eventually, when I realized that if I didn’t go somewhere, that I would be left eating the same convenience store food I could eat in South Korea, I stepped into a sushi restaurant and took a seat at the bar around where the sushi was made.
Unfortunately, there was another group of tourists from America eating at the other end of the bar whom the waitress seemed keen on me getting to know. To say that it made the time uncomfortable until the larger group left was an understatement. However, I sunk into my book on my phone and ordered way too much sushi to make up for my lone presence.
And I learned something: when in a country that I’m not living, I can eat by myself. I can do it. The thought made me smile as I stuck a piece of sushi into my mouth.
When I moved to Korea, I learned quickly what meals were to be eaten with groups of people and what could be eaten alone through going places with coworkers and new friends. In Tokyo, I didn’t have the luxury of finding out what was acceptable to be eaten by myself, and my friend being a vegetarian, meant that some meals I ate alone with no experience as to whether it would be odd or not.
One particular meal was Kobe beef. As soon as I put my name on the waiting list to get a table and the waiters kept assuring me that everything was okay and they would have a table waiting for me in a little bit did it occur to me that maybe this wasn’t a meal to be eaten alone (and maybe they felt bad for me).
They sat me at a four-person table and placed an extensive menu with pictures in it in front of me. I still had no idea what I was looking at. I flagged a waiter over to my table and asked, “Do you speak English?”
“A little bit,” he replied, but his voice was laced with trepidation.
Unfortunately for him, I had many questions.
“Cow…here,” he said gesturing to his shoulder.
“Is that enough food? No, I need more. What do you think?”
“Uhh… let’s start with this. You can get more later.”
Before he could escape.
“I want something to drink. What’s this? What’s that? Which is the best?”
Thankfully, he was pretty good-natured about all my questions and tried his hardest. I do think he took care to avoid my area after my interrogation.
If you want to experience something, sometimes you have to do it on your own (even when you’re traveling with friends) is what I learned here.
And, sometimes, you order unfortunate things. Like chicken breastbone.
Be in the moment, not a million miles away. Don’t tie yourself to a schedule.
A lot of the time in Tokyo was spent doing nothing. There were the hours spent being transported all over the city, the time waiting in lines at Disney, and the moments of just walking around. It was easy to get caught up thinking about things that weren’t in the here and now of what was happening.
Thankfully, I was blessed to be taken out of my own thoughts more times than I can count and now have small memories of things that might not have happened otherwise.
The last morning in Tokyo, I woke up early to get in line for a one-act pass to go to a Kabuki play. I was early enough that I managed to snag a seat waiting on a bench, squished between some older women. For the two hours I sat waiting to purchase my ticket, I spent most of the time glancing at my phone, scrolling through Instagram, and reading through one of the books I had downloaded to iBooks.
But, then, one of the ladies left and when she came back it was with flyers for the play. They shoved one into my hands with small smiles, and I thanked them quietly back. I examined the flyer—it was completely in Japanese with the faces of the actors both in makeup and out of it printed on the back.
One of the smaller images showed a handsome man, and I thought, ‘Oh, he’s handsome.’
When I glanced at the woman who handed me the flyer, I found that she had brought it close to her face to examine the small picture of the handsome man more carefully. She tugged on her friend’s arm and pointed to the picture. They both hemmed and hawed over how handsome he was, and when they saw my glance, I nodded with them.
That sent them into hysterical giggles and teasing me without words through nudges. Later, the ladies saved an elevator for me so that I would be among the first wave to find seats in the theater. I think that I’ll remember that more than I will the play itself.
And then there was veering off track while walking from Rygoku Station to the Tokyo Skytree. The loud thump of drums filled the air, and we chanced a glance down a side street to see men hauling a strange object between them with a crowd following quickly after. We hurried down to the next cross walk then followed the sound of the drums back to the side street.
There, we found that while the larger crowd had passed, there was a stage set up high with two men banging a drum to the beat of older music. Around the circular stage danced women in kimonos and some in streetwear. Everyone knew the same routines, and when the song changed, so did their movements. In the dark, the dozens of dancers were only lit by street lights. Giggles abounded when friends forgot their steps, and children tried to step in to learn the movements, only to quickly run away with their friends.
There are moments that you won’t forget, ones that you never planned to have. Those are the moments to watch out for, the ones that will take you off from your beaten track and set you somewhere new.
Tokyo exceeded my expectations. I enjoyed getting up early in the morning to walk along the streets of the city. I enjoyed my time shopping, thrifting through vintage band t’s that were far to expensive for me to consider buying. If I’m being honest, the best meal I had was the last one: in a department store, a brunch dinner place served the meanest eggs benedict. I hunted for crazily-flavored Kit Kat bars. I ventured out on my own. I failed a lot. It seemed at every single place I had to kick myself for not remembering to politely put my money in the tray, not hand it to the cashier. I learned so many new things about myself, it is hard to believe that I was there for only five odd days.
What are some things you remember most from your vacations?