We’ve just returned from eight nights in Tokyo, and we had a fantastic time! We were fortunate enough to be able to stay with family friends outside the city – they gave us a great insider’s view of the sights and transport around the city. We also have another friend who lives in the city and was able to meet with us for dinner one evening. She answered all our questions about cultural differences and politics and language. Having people to answer questions was a relief in such a huge city! Tokyo is an overwhelming city with nearly double the population of the entire country of Australia (23 million vs 37 million). Read that again – this single city has over 1.5x the number of people living in it as a country the size of the continental US. Throw in the fact that the language doesn’t even closely resemble any language we’ve ever studied, and, well, we were very grateful for friends to help us out.
I can’t help but talk in superlatives when discussing Tokyo. We traveled through Shinjuku station almost every day. It is the world’s busiest train station with nearly 4 million people traveling through it daily. Daily. It is huge and scary and big; and there were others nearly as huge and scary and big. Fortunately, it’s wildly efficient and makes perfect sense once you get over the intimidation factor. We were very impressed by the English signage in the train stations. And because the population is so dense, the longest we ever waited for a train was thirteen minutes or so. Regardless of the time of day, we caught trains quickly. And they were always crowded. Getting a seat was a rare treat, whether we were riding into the city at 8am or at 1pm.
One of the coolest things we did was take an elevator to the top of the Metropolitan Governmental Building; it’s the free option for getting a view from way above the city. From there, we could see the parks and forests and green spaces with their autumn leaves. We could see some of the more interesting looking skyscrapers. Dues to fog and generally grayness, though, we didn’t get to see Mount Fuji that day. Apparently it’s not particularly common to see Mt. Fuji from the city this time of year. Mostly what we could see from the 45th floor, though, was the sprawling immensity of the city – people walking to and from stations and offices and shops and apartment buildings and, well, life. Streets and skyscrapers and life in every direction as far as the eye could see. What a magical place – a city moving in every direction at all hours.
And so, one of my favorite activities of the trip was the onsen I went to – just outside the city, an isolated spa with an outdoor pool to lounge in and watch the clouds go by in peace and quiet. My feet were killing me. My back was sore. And the onsen was the perfect solution. It was heavenly. It was so awesome. Onsens are traditional Japanese bathhouses; most have water piped in from hot springs. The one I visited had approximately zero English signage – the only thing I could read was that the murky, dark water I was sitting in said “1200m”. I assume the hot spring was 1200m away. I could also read the temperatures – almost exclusively at 40 degree Celsius, except for one that was inexplicably at 19.1 degrees Celsius, which is cold. Painful-to-submerge-in cold. I spent an afternoon lying in what basically looked like a giant flower pot, staring up at the blue sky and thinking that nothing could be more perfect.
I actually returned to an onsen on the evening we were meant to fly out. It was a cold, rainy night; the steam added to the experience. Fortunately, while I was there, I wasn’t aware that I had memorized the time of our flight incorrectly. I thought we were meant to fly out at 10pm on Wednesday night; I learned at 7:00pm that our flight was going to take off at 8:00pm. We panicked and ran through the airport, only to be told that we were too late to check in. Another stroke of good fortune, though – it was only $130 (total!) to get our flights changed over to the next night at 8:00pm sharp. We changed our flights; I had a good cry to get all the feels out; and we headed to the nearest city to find a hotel. And an English Pub. Thursday ended up being one of the most beautiful days of our time there, and we spent it at one of the most beautiful temples in the world. While I have no intention of missing a flight ever again for the rest of my life, it ended up being an excellent end to the trip.
Tokyo is big. It is huge. But one thing we really appreciated was how kind and helpful the people are. Everyone respectfully bows to everyone else, all of the time. Please and thank you are the most common words you hear. People in shops go far out of their way to help you get what you ask for. And even though they may not have the best English, they will patiently work with you to figure out what the heck you’re trying to say in Japanese. We were very impressed with the hospitality we felt. It’s nice to be in a far off land and have helpful, smiling people around. We loved our trip, but we recognize just how much more there is to see. You couldn’t possibly see all of it if you had a year there. Japan also extends far beyond just this one city. And so we are grateful for what we received, and we look forward to our return to see even more that this beautiful country has to offer.