Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Tokyo, Japan

After leaving San Diego on January 6th, we spent 17 of 19 days at sea. During our route to Japan we were alone at sea. No ships, no land, only a few seabirds, and weeks of ocean water. Waking up on January 26th to finally see other ships and to finally see land, was surreal and I struggled to comprehend that we had crossed the massive Pacific Ocean. The last few days brought rough seas. Students fell out of chairs, dishes slid and broke, my shower water poured out of the shower and onto the bathroom floor, people were slightly grumpy, and I often felt nauseous during the last two days. A week earlier we went hundreds of miles off course to avoid a major storm that would have brought 50 foot swells. Fortunately we only had 18-20 foot swells. Before arriving in Japan, the ocean apparently wanted to remind us that crossing the Pacific is not easily accomplished. After weeks at sea without visiting any countries outside of the United States, and having experienced a Semester at Sea voyage before, I felt as if something was missing. I don’t think I knew what was missing at the time, but as I left immigration and walked into Yokohama, Japan, I found what was missing during the Pacific crossing, which was the feeling of visiting a new country.  I couldn’t read the signs, people didn’t speak English, I didn’t know where I was going, and I couldn’t have been happier. We eventually found our way to our AirBnB apartment in the Shibuya neighborhood of Tokyo. We crossed Shibuya Crossing, one of the busiest intersections in the world, on our way to a small ramen restaurant, Kiraku, popular with the locals, which was unbelievably delicious and possibly one of the best meals I had. The broth, noodles, pork, egg, bean sprouts, and gyoza were all fresh and full of flavor. We then found a second-floor aerial view of Shibuya Crossing, watching all the cars stop once all the lights turned red, clearing the intersection for a brief moment before a flood of people cover the white crossing stripes seconds later. In Harajuku, we slowly walked through the smell of crepes, the sight of clothing stores, and the feel of a crowd of people strolling through the narrow Takeshita street. Upon recommendation, we made our way to Golden Gai, where narrow alleys with messy electrical lines reveal small two-floor shacks of old Japanese architecture, with tiny bars. Without a recommendation, these alleys might have looked like trouble. Albatross was a highlight, with only about five bar stools, two tiny circular tables tucked in the corner, and chandeliers, a disco ball, a deer head, and liquor bottles filling up the small space. Hungry for dinner, we ate a delicious Japanese meal with a former UVA international student from Japan, who fortunately did all the ordering for us. The next morning I continued my love for Japanese convenience stores, konbinis, by getting breakfast at the Family Mart. I navigated the subway system to meet up at the Senso-ji shrine in Asakusa. Our senses were truly alive with the rituals of cleansing water, burning incense, clapping hands, coin throwing offerings, fortune stick shaking, and crowd gathering. After a tempura lunch on tatami floors we went to the Tokyo Skytree. I will never forget the shock of arriving on the 350th floor and looking down on Tokyo, a massive city which looks like a futuristic CGI representation of some futuristic city. The scale of the city is difficult to comprehend and I couldn’t stop staring out at the 360-degree view of city neighborhood after city neighborhood. As night fell and the city started to light up, I didn’t want to leave, but we had to meet others for dinner, where we grilled our own fish at the table. I can’t describe the robot burlesque show that followed, other than to say that each skit began eccentrically and nonsensically, only to escalate to greater eccentricity and much less sense, like pandas riding cows fighting robots, which made the Japanese girls playing drums on robots, the show opener, seem rather normal. The show was especially fun because we brought around fourteen Semester at Sea friends together for the show. We all gathered into a karaoke room after the show, which made the evening a fully eccentric Tokyo night, ending around 3am. The night definitely brought us closer together, as this was one of our first nights out in a new country. The next day I ventured out alone, wandering around the streets in Harajuku, stopping for coffee, including a stop at one of the best coffee shops I have ever been to, a small home with a single counter and a single barista making some of the best coffee I have ever tasted, so good that I followed my cappuccino and baked custard with a macchiato and another baked custard. Later I had conveyor belt sushi, where a nice Japanese woman helped me understand what was going on. She even made my green tea for me from the matcha powder. One of my favorite parts of traveling alone is the increased wandering that you can create, which often leads to surprising interactions and a greater awareness of your surroundings. The Meiji Shrine was my final visit before grabbing some tonkatsu for the bullet ride to Kyoto. I absolutely fell in love with Tokyo. The energy of the city is contagious and addictive. The variety of neighborhoods makes exploring the city an unending adventure. The quality of the food and the attention to detail is hard to leave behind. The eccentricity is uniquely Tokyo. The shrines, parks, and open spaces give breathability to Tokyo. As I looked out at the city from the Tokyo Skytree I thought about what it would be like to live in Tokyo, choosing a neighborhood, finding endlessly new places to eat, easily navigating the seemingly complex transportation system, and falling in love with a new city. I thought about the feelings and experiences travel evokes. Those feelings and experiences were missing in the first few weeks of the voyage, and although they were worth waiting for as we built the foundations of the shipboard community, the Spring 2015 Semester at Sea voyage was beginning again in a new and exciting way, and I found what was missing.     

No comments:

Post a Comment