When I was younger, Japan was a country I knew I had to try to get to at some point in my life. As I got older and the responsibilities of life and career accumulated, the possibility of going to Japan seemed more and more distant with each ‘yes’ that I gave away to those that asked me for my time.
Life must’ve known that I was ready to trade in the good karma I had racked up. Last year, as I said “I do” to my best friend and forever adventure partner, I felt like I was turning the page to a new life chapter; one that was meant to be fully enjoyed. This was when my travel dreams started gaining momentum and little by little, I felt emboldened to take the leap and make Japan happen.
It wasn’t exactly one big leap… more like a couple steps forward and a few steps back. At work, I debated whether I should even request time off. I hesitated to bother my manager. I worried that it would interfere with the workflow. I catastrophized what might happen with my patients if I was on vacation at a time that they might’ve needed me. For those that work in healthcare, or even for those who serve as caregivers, traveling does not just involve throwing essentials in a carry-on or suitcase. Along with the luggage, we take our patients with us, mentally placing them in the compartments of our mind to be called upon when something we do or something we see reminds us of them.
Those close to me were quick to have me believe that everyone was entitled to a honeymoon, something they insisted must happen after a wedding. With their reassurance, I finally hit the send button on my request. It was a near-miss; my travel plans to Japan would have been denied had it not been for a generous co-worker who withdrew their initial vacation request. Finally after multiple hurdles, both real and imagined (remember the catastrophizing?), we booked the flight to Japan!
1) Sometimes you have to take time out to care for yourself, even if there is a price to be paid.
When we first arrived at the airport, there was the usual chaos of people going all different directions and rolling carry-ons to dodge. The signage at the airport made it easy to navigate past the hustle-and-bustle to where you needed to go. Out of the many transportation options available, we chose to take the Narita Express to our AirBnB. It was the pricier option but the chance to enjoy reserved seating with plenty of leg room was too tempting after getting off an 11 hour flight that had me feeling packed in like sardines in a can. I noticed immediately that Japan invested well into its infrastructure; everything from the trains to the public toilets were well-designed for the comfort of its citizens. With the train’s wide windows, well-cushioned seats, and roomy areas for luggage placement, I was granted my first glimpse of the city in a distraction-free environment; I had gifted myself with the chance to fully take in the moment.
2) Walking is good for the heart and soul, it magnifies the important details.
In Tokyo, we averaged about 20,000 steps per day. It probably would’ve been more had it not been for such an efficient transportation system. Each day we set out for a new neighborhood, I had the same collection of items: water, hand sanitizer, jacket, camera equipment in my backpack and coins in my pocket. I don’t think I’ve ever kept an accurate count of the change I had with me until I found a fun use for them on my walks in Japan at vending machines located in alleyways and on main streets. With everything from hot ramen to iced green tea, it was important to check my pockets every so often in case I spotted a machine worthy of a short detour.
Walking was a better “vehicle” for connecting with locals and a good way to see everything close up. It was also the first time I truly felt torn between looking at life through a camera lens versus my own eyes; there was always that worry that I’d miss something special the minute I looked down at my phone/camera so I took fewer photos back home with me. Below are some of the neighborhoods that I paid close attention to and documented.
Shibuya neighborhood – It was the perfect place to book our AirBnB as it was close to all the action and central to most neighborhoods we planned to visit during our trip. There were also plenty of coffee shops nearby to start off the day. We did our best to fight off jet lag the morning after we landed, but it still won. Both of us were wide awake at 4am on a Saturday. This ended up working out as we were able to experience the closing hours of Tokyo’s night life and witnessed a more extroverted crowd.
In Shibuya, Daikanyama T-site Tsutaya Bookstore was well worth the time. On the outside the building is known for its architectural layout, but the design interiors are just as beautiful. The “lifestyle-navigating customer space” houses books, music, magazines, a market, coffee shop, and lounge. The employees there are very careful not to disturb your peace as you wander through the aisles in awe. The only time we were approached to be helped was when one of us was doing the universal dance in search of a restroom.
- Kichijoji neighborhood – Inside its hidden alleys, you’ll find charming storefronts like these, picnicking areas where kids roam free, and coffee shops like Light Up coffee that are owned by award-winning baristas.
Meguro neighborhood – It was a more laid back neighborhood than other districts in Tokyo and filled with unique taverns, residences, and shops. Although its known for being a prime cherry blossom viewing spot, its also the birthplace of Toru Iwatani, creator of Pac-Man. As we walked along the street beside the Meguro River, we felt like we were in his video game, strategically trying to find the best path to maximize opportunities for both cherry blossom viewing and window shopping at the same time.
3) Some people choose their jobs and other times their jobs choose them, either way, outlook is everything.
No matter what the job tasks were, whether it was transporting fish or creating plastic foods, I witnessed a sense of pride and care for the work being done.
Tsukiji market – We caught the Tsukiji Market at a quieter hour, post-wholesale auction. Men on scooters were finishing up the last of their delivers, navigating the twists and turns of the market with such a high level of precision that I felt they probably could’ve done their daily work blindfolded without incident. After multiple decades in Central Tokyo, its planned closing occurs later this year as the market will be moving to reclaimed land in Toyosu. I can’t help but wonder how long it will take for the men to shake hands with the landscape and come to know it as intimately as this one.
Kappabashi neighborhood – Known as Kitchen town, the street is lined with shops filled with everything from porcelain bowls to plastic food samples that are widely used in restaurant displays. With so many places to eat per square feet, I saw how attention to detail with regards to the aesthetics (store front look, food packaging, window display) were important to helping individual restaurants stand out.
4) When you have clarity of purpose, there is no need for excess.
Whether it be sushi or pizza, many of the chefs refrained from adding ingredients that distracted from from the true essence of the food they prepared. To them, there was no need for heavy sauces or toppings. Instead, they chose to rest purely on years of experience and skills gained through constant practice to manipulate and extract the best from the ingredients used in their dishes. Simplicity was the ultimate measure of confidence and contentment in what they created.
- Savoy – it is a small Neapolitan style pizzeria, but don’t let its size fool you. The simple ingredient list of flour, sauce, oil, and basil is masterfully crafted by the hands of the chef. Playing along to the sound of jazz, the chef never skips a beat when it comes to creating a pizza that yields an amazing flavor profile.
- Sushi Yamazaki – I’ll let the pictures do the talking on this one. Make sure to order the omakase! It isn’t on the printed menu but if you look at the wall to the right when you enter, there’s a handwritten sign with the omakase pricing.
5) The ability to present ourselves in a way that is far removed from any type of “branding” brings authenticity to light.
What I admired about women’s fashion in Japan was the level of confidence in their wardrobe decisions. They are intentional about choosing clothes that are extensions of themselves and bravely shun the need to conform to fashion trends. Sometimes I feel that there’s pressure to rock known brands because it automatically gives the individual a connection to the dominant culture. On the other hand, there are those who desire a certain level of authenticity and bypass the need for brand recognition. These are the ones to be admired for the way they lead their lives.
6) It takes a village to lift up a generation, but this investment is what continues to build strength within the community.
I am amazed not only by the level of physical affection and closeness that Japanese parents bestow on their children when they are first born but also how they adapt their parenting over time to produce kids that grow to become socially-responsible individuals in society. In Tokyo, I saw tiny kids walk themselves to school unaccompanied, working people in their business suits sweeping public areas of the street before heading to their job, and grandmas on the metro choosing to stand so that tired teenagers could sit. Generations of parenting done right, and as a result, a whole community that benefits from it.
7) There is beauty to admire in all the seasons, just as there is something to appreciate in the changes that come with each new life chapter.
Even though we had not officially planned it out that way, I felt lucky to be in Japan during its peak cherry blossom season. The cherry blossom blooming period varies each year and can last up to 14 days. The stages of bloom start at the bright pinks of unopened buds and transition to pastel as they begin to blossom. Eventually they fall slowly to the ground, coloring the surroundings in white petals that mimic snow. This cycle reminded me of a concept in Buddhism called impermanence (also known as Anicca or Anitya), this asserts that all of conditioned existence, including the self, are impermanent, transient, and constantly changing.
Japan changed me. It warned me about the risks of overworking, of getting caught up in the hamster wheel of worry. In turn, it pushed me to embrace authenticity and take in the beauty of the present moment, whatever it is that life may bring. Although I have only experienced a small part of it, Japan gave me permission to be unapologetic about taking time out for myself and created opportunities for me to genuinely connect with the food, culture, and its people. And those coins in my pocket? They’re long gone. I gladly surrendered them to the vending machines to make room for these lessons that I have taken back with me.