A Chronicle of Amy and Sean's World Travels
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New Country Day

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.

Japan is often a sea of black, white and grey...

...whereas India is bright colors, all the time.

Japan's orderliness is embodied by people patiently waiting in lines to board the metro...

...whereas India's chaos pushes itself into and out of the metro, all at once.

The elaborateness of scaffolding in Japan was impressive...

...whereas the scaffolding in India usually were tree trunks.

(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

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:

  • For the first week in Japan, it was impossible to get Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto out of my head, resulting in a constant soundtrack to our travels through Fukuoka and Hiroshima. Once, a Japanese man caught me singing, domo, domo under my breath and gave me a really strange look.  Okay, this probably makes me bizarre, not Japan.  Moving on…
  • The buses in Fukuoka and Hiroshima shut off at every intersection, leaving an eerie silence every couple of minutes (except for the sounds of Styx running through my head).
  • We were given 10 minutes of instructions about how to watch a parade, but were able to roam freely with monkeys with no instructions other than to not look them in the eye.
  • Japan has tons of no-smoking zones in outdoor places like parks and public streets, but most of its restaurants and hotels are full of smoke.
  • It was always a crap shoot upon entering a bathroom stall whether you’d find a super modern toilet with buttons for fake flushing noises to cover embarrassing sounds, buttons for sprays of water at different angles, a heated toilet seat, and in some cases, a seat that automatically lifts, or a primitive squat toilet that was essentially a hole in the ground with a flushing mechanism. I would have settled for a consistent happy medium of regular, non-electronic toilets, but when it comes to Japanese toilets, it is all or nothing.

  • Speaking of bathrooms, there were never any paper towels, leaving me to wipe my hands on my pants while the Japanese women daintily wiped their hands on their personal washcloths they carried around in their purses.
  • People line up in orderly queues and wait to board the metro until everyone has gotten off.
  • Ice cream comes in green tea matcha and wasabi, not vanilla and chocolate.
  • The Japanese women are obsessed with their skin, but I couldn’t find a face moisturizer or lotion to save my life. There’s whitening creams galore, and even something known as face milk, but anything marked as a lotion actually was straight liquid.
  • Kids either go to school on Saturdays, or like wearing their uniforms on the weekends. (I’m guessing the former).  I’ve never seen so many school kids in uniforms in my whole life. Young school children are forced to wear matching hats (which is adorable, by the way). Japanese school girls wear super short skirts, knee socks and penny loafers (which I’m told, by a friend of my mom’s living in Japan, is only because they hike them up after school).
  • The Japanese like things to be at the ready with just a flick of some yen, should the need arise. Need rice? Japan’s got you covered. Milk or eggs? No problem. Batteries? Sure. Want something to read? Buy a book! Drinks? Of course.
  • But don’t think about carrying that drink with you, or you’ll be carrying it around all day. Everyone who visits Japan notices the glaring absence of trash cans, but also litter. This is because the Japanese do not walk and drink; they consume their beverage next to the vending machine then throw it away.
  • You can name a drink Pocari Sweat and people actually drink it, including us. (Tastes like grapefruit gatarade).
  • The Japanese have an obsession with the floor and shoe removal that I just do not share. They sleep on the floor, eat on the floor, and insist upon removing their shoes at every entrance. This resulted in smelly shoe racks at the entrance to every hostel. Plus it also begs the question: is it more disgusting to walk without shoes in a bathroom, or wear the shared bathroom slippers? We saw just how deeply entrenched these customs are in Japanese society. At the end of our trip, when the weather grew cooler, homeless people moved into cardboard box “houses” inside the subway stations. Outside each box was a pair of shoes, lined up and tidy.
  • In our month in Japan, I felt like I was in the middle of a giant Nintendo game. There are beeps and boops all over the place, and all signs feature cutesy characters, even if they are trying to tell you what to do.
  • The most adorable public bus I've ever seen.

    Even their nudie bars have cutesy signs (that are bizarre in of themselves - I'm not sure what is going on with this bra-wearing, nose-pierced, patriotic fish/cow).

    Even when being stern, they're still cute.

  • I think I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese, I really think so.  In India, way out of context, I found myself bowing my head ever so slightly in gratitude and politeness.

It is discovering the little, random observations, like these, that I love the most about traveling.

This picture pretty much epitomizes Japan for me.


Oh no, there goes Tokyo…

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:

Harajuku
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.

The largest stroller collection I have ever seen outside of a Babies'r'Us; stroller parking for the Halloween parade

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.

Stalk much?

Plus there was no shortage of people to photograph. The day we visited Harajuku, everyone was in costume, not just the cosplay kids.

Ginza
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.

Sunday on Ginza Street

Even though the chocolate desserts weren't up to snuff, they get extra credit for having a chocolate bar ceiling.

Not the reason Sean enjoyed his visit to the Apple store...or was it?

Two of the five stories of Apple craziness

Akihabara

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.

Rainy night in Akihabara

Electronics (and the geeks who love them) as far as the eye can see.

There's one, right in his natural habitat.

Shinjuku
Lots of big buildings. That’s all I have to say about that.


Shibuya
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.


Tsujuki
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.

Sorry, Karen, and other vegetarian friends.

The obligatory octopus picture.

That's a big tuna.


Saturday in the Park

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:

Breaking his heart and bouncing around in a mad state, still inside giant balloon:

Busting out of giant balloon:

Completely losing it now:

Bursting giant balloon in a cloud of confetti:

Blowing up a dog balloon:

And, my personal favorite, laying on ground with dog balloon, scooping up confetti with a dust pan, and throwing it on himself.


Say it all together now: How Bizarre!


The Precipice of Koyo

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 mountains near Takayama

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!


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