One of my favorite things about traveling non-stop for an entire year is what we call New Country Day. Even though New Country Days usually involve long uncomfortable bus rides, or overnight trains, or multi-leg flights with time changes, and figuring out logistics like where to stay, how to get around, and where to eat, New Country Days have a level of excitement and anticipation unmatched by any other day. On New Country Day, the whole country lies before you, waiting for exploration.
As much as I enjoy seeing the subtle ways that the cultures of neighboring countries blend into each other when we travel overland, one unique aspect of flying is how it drops you right into a completely different environment. By this point in our trip, we’ve had some pretty big transitions: France to Morocco, Spain to the Czech Republic, Poland to Ireland, Ireland to South Africa, South Africa to Jordan, Jordan to South Korea. And, of course, Japan to India.
You probably couldn’t find two countries who are fundamentally different: Japanese society is predicated on order, and Indian society is predicated on anything but. One of the reasons I think I found India to be so shocking was because we just had spent a month in Japan. Japan was pleasant and enjoyable, but by the end, we were a little bored and itching to move on. And move on we did.
(A note about Delhi’s metro – the picture above doesn’t really reflect what it was like most of the time. I would have loved to have taken a picture in the height of the crowds, but it is a little hard to use your camera when you are being jostled and pushed in all directions. At times, the metro cars are stuffed to the gills, meaning that people have no room to stand and don’t fall down only because they are being held up by the compression of the crowd. When the metro rolls up to the platform, people impatiently waiting for the metro push their way on as people already on the metro push their way off. In the more crowded, popular stations, an attendant tries to keep people in line. Try being the operative word. As you can imagine, as unpleasant as it is for men to ride Delhi’s metro, it can be distressing for women. The first couple of times we rode the metro, I rode with Sean in the general cars, doing my best to shield myself from stares from the men around me with a scarf and sunglasses. Once we started encountering metros that were overflowing, I separated from Sean to ride in the women’s only car. Delhi instituted the women’s only car so women can avoid the physical contact, leering, and groping that can be part and parcel of riding in the general car. Yet I’m not sure that riding in the women’s car was much better. I may not have to stand pressed between sweaty men, but the leering was worse. Inevitably, the overstuffed nature of the men’s car compared to the extra room in the women’s car meant that men overflowed into the front of the women’s car. It often seemed like the most pervy men took advantage of overcrowding to get an unblocked access of a car full of women. Some defiantly strode right into the middle of the women’s car. It is not surprising, I suppose, that things are so bad that a women’s only car is required, that some men don’t follow the rules. At the most crowded stations, enforcers boarded the women’s only car and shouted at the men until they scurried away. Interestingly, all of the enforcers that I saw – the few that there were – were petite women. I didn’t realize until I wrote this post that the women’s only car had only been instituted in the month before our arrival, so perhaps conditions have improved.)
(As a further sidenote, Japan also has women’s only cars, but the restrictions only applied during rush hour. We never saw a need for a separate women’s car firsthand during our subway travels in Japan.)
How bizarre became my favorite phrase upon arrival to Asia. I didn’t even notice how often I was using it until our friend Kevin made fun of me while we were in South Korea. But there is just no other way to describe Asia, especially Japan. On the one hand, it is just like home, except the people are Japanese. On the other hand, it is nothing like home. Consider the following oddities I noted throughout our month in Japan:
It is discovering the little, random observations, like these, that I love the most about traveling.
Some people say to skip Tokyo, that if you’ve seen one big city, you’ve seen them all. Maybe it is because we both love cities, but Tokyo was one of our favorite spots in Japan. It is a big city, sure, but it is also uniquely Japanese. If you break Tokyo down by neighborhoods, it becomes more manageable. Each neighborhood has something fun to offer. In addition to exploring Ueno, here are some of the other neighborhoods we visited:
We hear that Harajuku is where all of Tokyo’s young people like to hang out.
Perhaps it was because we were there during a Halloween parade, but Tokyo families (and their cats) seem to like the area as well, especially trendy tree-lined Omotesando Dori street.
On Sundays, Japanese teenagers dressed up in cosplay can be found hanging out on the Jingku bridge, checking out each other’s costumes and posing for group pictures on each other’s cell phones. At first I had no qualms photographing the cosplayers, especially since they were in public and I had heard that they enjoyed putting on a show for the public.
But when a gaggle of tourists began swarming them, sticking zoom camera lens in their faces, I retreated, lest I become part of the spectacle and intrusion.
Plus there was no shortage of people to photograph. The day we visited Harajuku, everyone was in costume, not just the cosplay kids.
Ginza, one of the more famous Tokyo neighborhoods, is one of the really upscale shopping neighborhoods where the Japanese fulfill their desires for high end Western and Japanese brands. On Sunday afternoons, Ginza Street turns into a pedestrian only strolling lane. Ginza is where I attempted to indulge in some Pierre Marcolini, but failed. I had to settle for the Japanese chocolate brand Mejii’s 100% Chocolate Café, which, sadly, despite its devotion to chocolate, just wasn’t the same. For his part, Sean got his kicks at a 5 story Apple store.
Much to Sean’s delight, we were staying within walking distance to Tokyo’s famous electronics district, where building after building houses bright, beeping electronics stores with all of the latest gadgets. While Sean browsed the electronics during our multiple visits, I amused myself by taking pictures of a computer dork in his natural habitat. I am such a nice wife.
Lots of big buildings. That’s all I have to say about that.
Shibuya is home to guess what, more shopping, and the famous 4 way intersection, supposedly the busiest in the world. Again, Tokyo came through for Sean: there is a Starbucks above the intersections, with big windows to watch the action.
We went to Tsujuki for the same reason as everyone else: to visit the world-famous fish market. In addition to eating super fresh sushi, we toured the market. There are rumors they might close the market off the tourists; already, they’ve imposed some timing restrictions. I could see why. Despite our best efforts, we felt like we were in the way the whole time, but I’m glad we got to see it before it is off limits completely.
Saturday in the park/I think it was the Fourth of July/Saturday in the park/I think it was the Fourth of July/People dancing, people laughing/A man selling ice cream/Singing Italian songs/Eicay vare, eise narde/Can you dig it (yes, I can)/And I’ve been waiting such a long time/For Saturday
- Saturday in the Park, Chicago
On a sunny autumn Saturday in Tokyo, we wandered our way through Ueno Park. We weren’t expecting to be entertained any more than our usual casual people watching, but it turns out there is a sideshow to just strolling through urban green space.
Every time we turned the corner, we came across a crowd watching someone perform. Like this flamboyant yo-yo performer, dazzling the crowd with his high-energy yo-yoing:
Or this hunchbacked geisha, grinning and smiling for photos:
Or an acrobat, climbing higher and higher on a stack of chairs:
This three were just a sampling of the many street performers we saw that day. The one that really took the cake, though, was this guy. I really don’t know if I have the words to convey how utterly strange this performance was. Perhaps I need my art spoon fed to me, but I just didn’t get it. And judging by the faces of the others in the crowd, either did anyone else. In an attempt to convey the bizarreness, I will show you a series of pictures of his performance. It is one of the few times I wish I had a video camera. If you’d really like to experience the bizarreness, you will need to pretend that dramatic songs such as Ave Maria and How a Man Loves a Woman are playing in the background. And no I am not kidding.
Injecting confetti into a giant balloon:
Injecting himself into the giant balloon:
Walking over to bystanders while inside the giant balloon. Note the man shielding his daughter’s eyes from this hot mess.
Trying to give his heart away:
And, my personal favorite, laying on ground with dog balloon, scooping up confetti with a dust pan, and throwing it on himself.
Like watching cherry blossoms in the spring, viewing koyo – autumn foliage – is a national pastime in Japan in the fall. The weather person reports on the best koyo, and websites track the progress all over the country. Without going way north, we were there just a tad too early (the last week of September through the third week in October). The weather grew from warm to cool while we were there, and everything felt like it was on the verge of turning to full blown fall, but the elusive koyo failed to materialize. Meanwhile, all around us were advertisements for the best koyo spots, showing the landscapes ablaze in firey reds and oranges. I kept my eye out wherever we went. We managed to spot a few places where the leaves had turned, but nothing like the posters.
In the Japanese gardens, everything felt like it was on the precipice of fall, but not quite there yet.
It was comforting to be somewhere where the season aligned with the season at home. Not that I’d want to trade places on the basis of weather now!