Friday, August 15, 2008

Nippon Thoughts

My first impressions of Japan: so, so clean. Especially coming from korea, where things are not so clean. The streets of Japan are garbage-free and fishy smell-free. I'm usually easily disgusted by pretty much anything remotely dirty, but in japan i could sit down on the floor in train stations and eat a snack without cringing.

The people: so polite, generous and helpful: "all you need to do is tap one shoulder from the swiftly power-walking stream of pedestrians to receive a curious smile and gracious assistance" (Lonely Planet). As much as I hated Lonely Planet while traveling, the previous statement turned out to be very true. People were determined to help us find our way around, despite the language barrier. We also met Yoshi, who works for a clothing company (X-Large, Beastie Boys' Mike D's line), which is also linked to Sofia Coppola's line Milkfed. Crazy coincidence for me, as we were just exiting Sofia's boutique, Yoshi saw us lurking around his Harajuku store and invited us in for a drink. We later met up with him for a few more opening parties (he gets invited everywhere) and got a first-class Tokyo experience with real Japanese (new) friends.

Kyoto: Very traditional and beautiful, but also very touristy. It's a bit of a turn off to be walking down the historic streets of Gion with a tour group of loud Germans following you. We did get an amazing moment, late at night, in the dark alleys of Kyoto when we spotted a few Geishas going to and from appointments in exclusive teahouses. It was the icing on the cake.

Toyko: Tokyo is very similar to Seoul. Both are huge urban centers with eclectic neon lights and too many shops to count, and crowded as ever. My best moment was at Shibuya crossing, made famous in Lost in Translation with the tall buildings and moving graphics. It's the busiest 4-way intersection in the world, where a green light releases a timed surged of humanity. I probably went back like, 5 times. There is a huge Starbucks from where you can get an amazing view of the whole phenomenon, but they are nazi-like when it comes to tourists taking pictures. However, they deliver the fastest service ever as like 16 employees are busy preparing your drink.

Summer Sonic: Huge, huge music festival. And guess what? It is held indoors. Really. In a building resembling an airport, which I was thankful for, giving us a break from the insanely hot Japan weather. My favourite acts were: Death Cab For Cutie (finally got to see them live, although they played too many new songs), Hot Chip (Hot Chip will really make you dance, plus we got to see them up close in the press area), and The Prodigy (not for the music, but for the show, surreal in the biggest stadium I've ever seen). I also loved the backstage access our press bracelets provided us, got to see Yelle in person and just chill out and be a groupie ;) However, one day of music was enough for me, Tokyo was awaiting me for one last date.

Japan weather: Too hot. Insanely hot and humid. I mentioned that Seoul was crazy hot, right?! Nothing had prepared me for what Japan had in toll, I had to change clothes 3 times per day and we went through huge 2-liter bottles of water at a fast rate. Best workout ever though: walking all day in the heat and surviving on water.

Japanese food: The flavours are amazing, the choice seemed a bit limited to noodles, pork, and sushi. Can't complain though, we had the best, freshest sushi in the world. No kidding. We hit the Tokyo Tsujuki Fish Market at 6am to look at the catches of the day and eat them right away in the form of sushi. It was the best breakfast ever, it was literally melting in my mouth. Delectable, with a hot cup of green tea. I will dream of that meal for the rest of my life, but I wonder if I'll be able to enjoy sushi somewhere else in the world ever again...

Tokyo style: I was prepared to love it, and indeed I did. Just like in Seoul, girls are dressed amazingly. However, they're less girly and feminine than Korean girls. Japanese girls are more laid-back, they wear flats and let their natural skin color show (instead of trying to be whiter and whiter). And apparently scrunchies are back in style (or did they ever leave?) Many Tokyo fashionistas were seen sporting them, although I'd never dare to try, it would look trashy on me. Asian girls can pull off anything, I swear. I saw lots and lots of colored tights, and colored everything. Japanese fashion is fearless and cutting-edge, I love that. They wear whatever they love without worrying about it being trendy or whatever.

Tokyo shopping: After my mini breakdown at Marc Jacobs in Harajuku (I saw this amazing yellow coat for very, very cheap, but it was like 12 sizes too big), I settled on some boots and a few cheap tops and a clutch from Zara. I also got a Hello Kitty Japanese key chain and I ate loads of Pocky chocolate sticks(even though they're readily available in Korea).

Backpacking: Exhausting. I hated all my clothes on the second day. My feet and shoulders hurt. I hated checking in and out of hotels every night and trying to find hotels with a map and vague directions. However, it was the best experience ever at the same time. I did not feel like a dirty backpacker, as I was able to do laundry a few times and shower daily and look halfway decent (I think). And we stayed at some pretty great (and cheap!) places, thanks to some great organization. Don't think I'll ever do the Youth Hostel ever again thanks to a snorer that kept me awake the second night (but people were not rowdy, they were all asleep by 10 pm). The bunk beds were actually comfortable, and it felt like camp. I loved the Japanese guesthouse the best, with the futon and jacuzzi. Felt so luxurious after the hostel!

Trains: The Shinkansen (bullet train) is amazing! 300 km per hour, it's fantastic! Quick and efficient. People were quiet. It was depressing to take the slow train Busan-Seoul train home (6 hours!!!!), where people eat dried STINKY squid and kids scream "Waygook!!!!" (foreigner) in your face while you're sleeping.

Bottom line: I fell in LOVE with Japan. I'm going back as soon as I get a chance. And yes, Japan can be done on a budget if you are very organized and prepare well in advance. I miss Japan already, and I feel sort of homesick since I got back. Homesick for Montreal maybe, I don't know. I'm leaving for Thailand in 2 days, so that should cheer me up ;)
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