In the blink of an eye I’ve been in Japan for just over five weeks. I tried to write a post that sums up some fun cultural facts I’ve learned since my last post, which includes 2 weeks in Tokyo along with trips to Hiroshima, Nikko, and a mad dash across the Japanese alps on the stunning Tateyama Kurobe Alpen Route. But for some reason I’ve been struggling to put my Japan experiences into words. Then a few nights ago I went to a bar to watch Japan’s first World Cup match against Colombia and had such a cool experience that I decided to just start with that.
Any reader who knows me knows that I love sports. I’ve tried to attend sporting events along my trip but it’s one of those things that just isn’t the same as a solo traveler. When watching sports I want to be able to share my passion for the game (literally any game) with other fans, learn from their local knowledge, and share in their joy (or sorrow).
In Munich I attended a Bayern Munchen match (soccer), which was a cool experience because I got to see one of Europe’s all time greatest teams on their home turf, but I sat in between two middle-aged Austrian and German men who spoke no English, so the experience was fun but not amazing.
In South Korea I attended a Lotte Giants baseball game in Busan. I went with others (both foreign and local) who enjoyed the game and the locals around us were extremely generous providing a seemingly endless supply of food and soju. By being with a local you learn what some of the cheers mean, that the red plastic bags everyone puts on their heads in the 9th inning are actually handed out to clean up your area on your way out, and that you can bring in your own alcohol (what!?). The experience was a blast.
In Osaka I attended a Hanshin Tigers game because Japanese baseball was an experience I needed to have. I went alone and didn’t have much interaction with the fans around me. The experience was cool because… Japanese baseball… but, again, not that fulfilling because I wasn’t able to share it with others.
After watching countless Warriors basketball games on my iPad in bed at hostels (because it was 5am in Europe) or at Starbucks in Japan (the only place I could get my VPN to work) I found a bar in Tokyo to watch game 3 of the NBA finals (at 10am). It was fun to watch with actual people, but nearly all the Warriors fans were Japanese who spoke little to no English and, again, it wasn’t as fulfilling as I’d hoped.
I reverted to Starbucks to watch the Warriors take home the Larry O’Brien trophy in Game 4, and huge shoutout to my family and friends who put up with live texting me during the games to make me feel like I wasn’t alone.
Which brings me to World Cup. Drawing from these past experiences, I was hesitant to put in the effort to go to a bar solo to watch Japan’s first match of the World Cup. But as with other situations I thought, “When in my life will I get another chance to watch Japan play in the World Cup from a bar in Tokyo?” So, Tuesday night (the game was at 9:00 pm Tokyo time) I made my way to Ueno, found an English pub and paid 3,000 yen ($27) for entrance, which included 4 drink/food tickets and a soccer style scarf saying “You’ll never walk alone” which seems to be Japan’s World Cup motto and is entirely ripped off from Liverpool FC.
After assuring the ticket collector I was not Colombian (something I’d have to repeat several times throughout the night) I got a beer and awkwardly tried to make myself look comfortable in a big standing room only space which was about 10% full of 100% Japanese people.
After some awkward failed attempts at talking to locals (many Japanese people speak decent English but are afraid to use it) I settled for reading some pregame match articles and texting with friends, and accepted that, similar to other sports events I’ve attended, this would be fun because I’m watching Japan play in the World Cup in Tokyo (and hopefully it’s a great match), but that’s it.
As kickoff neared the room started to fill up and finally a brave Japanese guy said to me “Um, excuse me, are you from Colombia?” (No…but yes! Someone speaks English!). We ended up chatting throughout the first half (he’s 24, an aspiring real estate agent, studied abroad in Vancouver, BC where he improved his English, and loves soccer). During halftime a second guy approached me with “Uh, you’re not from Colombia are you?” NO! But I got to chatting with this guy and his coworker throughout the second half, (he works for a Japanese Human Resources company but is based in Jakarta, Indonesia, hence the confidence in his English), and it was so fun to get to share in their celebration when Japan pulled off a huge upset, rather than watch everyone celebrate as an outsider.
After discovering I had not yet tried omurice (omelette rice) they insisted we go to a 24-hour diner (sidenote: the popular Japanese 24-hour diner chain is called Jonathan’s…) where they treated me to omurice and helped me with my Japanese.
I realized that this experience sort of summed up a Japanese theme I had noticed – Japan runs the gamut on everything. What do I mean by this… here are some examples:
- Let’s start with toilets. You can enter a public bathroom on a mountain side and five stalls might contain squat toilets and one stall will have a western-style toilet with a heated seat that plays privacy music.
- There is a common stereotype that Japanese people are reserved and shy. Sure, some of them are, but this same culture also loves karaoke, whatever the current arcade version of dance dance revolution is where there is constantly an audience of tourists watching, college football-style cheering at baseball games, a popular way to spend vacation is naked at a public bath, and nearly everywhere I go someone tries to talk to me.
- The sights are loud but the sound is quiet. There is so much going on everywhere all the time visually, but it’s rare that the area around you is loud. There isn’t much yelling, nobody honks, there’s no loud music, it’s like the streets are sound proofed to stop noise from carrying. But then you walk into a pachinko building to see what that’s all about and BAM! you’re hit with intense volume and a wall of smoke.
- The red light district has what any big city red light district has, but there are also places, mostly in Akihabara, called “maid cafes” where you are essentially paying for a cute girl dressed as a maid to talk to you and pretend she’s interested. What????
- A common nickname for Tokyo is “concrete jungle”. Sure, there are some huge commercial-type areas but the following pictures are all taken within the center of Tokyo. I was as impressed with the city’s green spaces as I was with the commercial architecture.
- Japan is expensive and cheap. Sure you can probably buy the most expensive sushi in the world here, but the hostels are more than reasonable and quality food (including but not limited to the convenient stores) is on par or cheaper than an average American city.
- Walking around is organized chaos. Nearly everywhere you go in Japan there will be signage telling you which side of the street you should be walking on, which side of the stairs are for up vs. down, and which lanes are for bikes vs. people. This city is so crowded that these rules have to be followed or no one would get anywhere. If you happen to find yourself on the wrong side of a walkway you’re going to have to fight human traffic to get yourself righted (and you’ll catch some dirty looks on the way, but no one will bump you). Contrast this with Shibuya crossing, the most crowded crosswalk in the world, which is a complete free-for-all (but again, no one will bump into you!).
- Smoking. You can’t walk and smoke in public places, you can’t smoke in parks, and you definitely can’t smoke in gardens. Instead, there are designated “smoking areas” set up around the city. Sometimes these are in a closed off room in the basement of a commercial building, or hidden away in a subway station, or down an alleyway. But you will also find that most bars and many izikayas (kind of like a Japanese-style dive bar with food) are smoking friendly, and many restaurants have smoking and non-smoking sections, but the separation is actually just an invisible line down the middle of the restaurant. Below is a picture of people waiting in line for a spot at a smoking station in Tokyo Station (they are often set up like standing cubicles complete with individual charging stations).
- The Shinkansen are the bullet trains in Japan. These trains max out at 200 mph and are completely silent and smooth (and expensive). In Asakusa you can hire a rickshaw to take you around for a tour – this means an insanely buff man will jog around the city while pulling you in a rickshaw behind him (he’s also your tour guide!).
Some other experiences that were so cool I need to share:
- I did what’s called the Tateyama Kurobe Alpen Route which is a 50 km route up and over the Japanese alps via a series of busses, cable cars, gondola rides and trains. I was lucky and got an unbelievably clear day for June (though the hiking routes were still covered in snow).
- I spent four days in Hiroshima which was a bit of a surreal experience. The city is covered in memorials and monuments to the victims of the first atomic bomb dropped on August 6, 1945. The museum is really well done and something I found interesting is you won’t read one bad word about America’s part in the bombing. The entire city has found its place as a voice against nuclear warfare and the museum has a lot of educational material on the effects of nuclear testing. If you want to learn more about Hiroshima in the immediate aftermath of the bomb I recommend this free short story, Hiroshima, by John Hersey, available on the New Yorker website.
- The city of Hiroshima is not much to look at, it was built rapidly in the 1950s so that’s understandable, but the area around it is stunning, and it houses what was hands down my favorite garden in Japan, Shukkei-en.
- In between my two weeks in Tokyo I took a three day break in Nikko, a mountainous region about two hours north of Tokyo. Again, the weather was in my favor and it was great to get out in nature for a few days.
- On a rainy Monday, a day when every museum in Tokyo is closed, I attended a 5.5 hour matinee Kabuki performance at Kabukiza Theater. Turns out Kabuki doesn’t just mean that small theater that shows indie films in the Mission. Kabuki is a style of Japanese dance and theater originating in the early 17th century where performers (all of whom are men) wear crazy elaborate costumes and makeup. The performance is entirely in Japanese but they provide a little subtitle screen so foreigners can follow along (and the nice lady next to me clued me in on some local knowledge). 5.5 hours is a long time, and attending a matinee means the audience is full of old people, so most people take naps at some point or another. Luckily the story lines are pretty easy to follow.
- I finally put the $20 spent on my international drivers permit to exceptional use and rode a go-kart through Shibuya while dressed up as Toadstool from Mario Kart (along with Mario and Luigi), because “when in Tokyo”.
- I sampled ALL of the foods. Favorites include ramen, matcha ice cream, Lawson’s egg salad sandwich, and roasted dango, but honestly, everything was amazing.
Some more of my favorite photos from Japan:
Tomorrow I head back down south to meet my friends Cooper and Monica in Bali! While I am really sad to leave Japan, I am SO excited to see friends from home! Get ready for some beach photos.