I’m a fourth generation Japanese American. In Japanese, this is known as “yonsei.” Growing up in Hawaii, where many Japanese Americans reside, I was heavily influenced by the Japanese culture. To be more specific, I’ve enjoyed a wide array of Japanese food – like sushi, tempura and tonkatsu – as well as intermittently using some of the words in day-to-day language. Being familiar with the culture inspired me to visit the country where my ancestors lived, so undoubtedly, I knew I would go there eventually.
A few months ago, my mother announced that she and my father were interested in taking a tour to Japan in March 2013. Lucky for me, she suggested I could tag along on the condition that I pay my way since the tour would be quite costly. Initially, I had a few doubts since I was just about to graduate from my master’s program and would be swimming in student debt. However, how could I possibly pass up the opportunity to visit the country that has always meant so much to me?
So alas, we departed Honolulu for Narita, Japan on March 28. We flew on ANA and I can honestly say that the flight was the best flight I’ve ever been on. I don’t know if I ever saw flight attendants smile as much as these ones did and each was extremely cheerful. It was quite refreshing. We also got individual screens – on the back of the seats in front of us – to watch movies on (I watched Silver Linings Playbook). I got my first glimpse of how Japanese present their meals. Each tray included a wet towel neatly rolled in a plastic bag fronting containers of perfectly-sized squares to house different food items, almost like a bento box. I couldn’t imagine how actual meals would look (and taste) when I would land!
Walking in the airport terminal and observing all the Japanese signage and people around me made me all giddy. I couldn’t believe I was actually in the motherland! We met up with our tour guide, Hiro, and hopped on a charter bus heading to our hotel at the Sunshine City Prince Hotel. Little did I know how funny, intelligent and entertaining Hiro would be throughout the two-week duration of our tour! He was born and raised in Osaka and now lives in Tokyo, but his English is impeccable! Any Japanese native who can pick up the witty, American-like sense of humor the way he did is truly a force to be reckoned with.
After checking in and settling in our hotel rooms, Hiro offered to show our group around the mall adjacent to the hotel. The mall was like a maze! There were so many twists and turns and escalators going up and down. And the people! Oh, the people! When they say Tokyo is a crowded city, they didn’t lie! You could lose your travel companions in a heartbeat (especially if your travel companions are also Japanese and can easily blend in with the crowd).
We enjoyed a buffet dinner back at the hotel. I was impressed with my first official meal in Japan! Even though the restaurant was more international – with Chinese and American choices – I still got to eat my favorites: sushi and tempura.
The following day, we met our official bus driver, Mirubayashi-san, and his assistant, Eri-san. They would be traveling with us for the entire duration of our tour. Both of them were young, Mirubayashi-san in his 30s and Eri-san in her early 20s. If you do tours in Japan, bus assistants and drivers come hand-in-hand for the most part. There are even bus assistant training schools and most are young females around Eri-san’s age.
Our first stop of the day was the Edo-Tokyo Museum which showcases interesting exhibits of Tokyo history from its birth to present day. It reminded me of a Japanese history class I took during my undergraduate studies which taught me that Japan certainly has such a long and rich history. Any history buff would appreciate this museum.
Following the museum, we drove through the populated city where Hiro pointed out some of the noteworthy districts including Harajuku (Gwen Stefani), Shibuya and Shinjuku (where the movie, Lost in Translation, took place). The next time I go to Japan, I’d like to peruse these areas more.
Mirubayashi-san dropped us off at an area called Nakamise-dori in Asakusa, close to where the Sensoji temple resides (Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple). My mom, dad and I walked through the crowded shopping district to get to the temple, took some pictures and met up with the rest of the tour group at a restaurant towards the front of the shopping area where we ate a delicious tempura meal.
We then hopped back on the bus and were dropped off at another lively shopping area called Ameyokocho where we found a discount snack store. I found all kinds of familiar candies – like Kit Kat, Mentos and Pocky – in flavors sold only in Japan. This was an easy “omiyage,” or gifts to bring home for friends.
As dinnertime approached, we went back to the hotel to explore the adjacent mall for shopping and dinner. Facing the maze once again, we attempted to find one of the shops that Hiro led us to the previous night, but after an hour of searching high and low, we gave up and decided to eat. After another half hour of indecisive scanning of restaurants on the top floor of the mall (I wanted sushi and my dad wanted ramen noodles), we finally settled on a cute Italian restaurant called Miami Garden. Although we were a bit skeptical of Italian food in Japan, we were too tired to go anywhere else. To our surprise, the food was delicious (“oishii”)! We split a fresh garden salad and fried eggplant pizza. The portion was smaller than we thought so we ended up ordering a second salad!
All in all, my first two days in Japan were so much fun! The next day, we traveled to Hakone to see Mount Fuji! More on that at another time. But until then, sayonara!