For those not in the know, over summer I worked at Pembroke College with Japanese students from Nihon University (find blog posts from August to know more), and had the most amazing time. Somehow, I ended up using the money I earned to make a return visit, and here’s how that went!
This is the longest blog post and is basically just, literally, a thousand photos. Which by my calculations must therefore paint 10,000 words. Promise I’ll write more in detail about New Year celebration traditions/food/my wonderful hosts soon.
DAY 1 – Ueno, Skating by Tokyo Skytree, Izakaya
Most of this day was spent firstly getting from Chiba (where Kenjo’s family lives) into Tokyo and then soaking up the sights in Ueno, including the famous shopping street Ameyoko, Ueno park and the outside of Tokyo National Museum (sadly closed in the lead up to the New Year).
We then went over to the Sky Tree for a bit of ice-skating (Kenjo found this a little more tricky than I did, aha) before going to find Kyohei at his part time job as a pizza delivery guy for Pizza Hut.
By this time, evening was drawing in.
Walking/new-place fatigue/hunger were all taking their toll at this stage, but my increasingly not-so-subtle pleas for food were seemingly all being deflected by Kenjo…
Turned out there was a surprise dinner planned for me to welcome me to Japan (Takumi made a welcome toast with particular flair and enthusiasm – see video extract), with 18 of the students I had met over the summer. Ahh, suddenly things made sense again 🙂
It was a lovely evening, and my first time in an Izakaya (type of Japanese bar which the students had given a presentation on in August). It was so good to see so many people again, and consume the most beautifully sweet apricot alcohol.
At the end, as we parted ways in the train station, everyone stood in a circle, and did the sign of finishing a informal ceremony (in this case, my welcome party). To do this, you say ‘iyoooo…. pan’. Upon saying/shouting ‘pan’, everyone claps their hands at the same time (pan being just the sound of clapping you hands). It was a nice way to part! Mikio tells me it is called Ippon Jime.
DAY 2 – Shibuya, Cat cafe, Omotesandou (blue illumations), Okonomiyaki and Monja with Mizuki, Purikura
As we were walking along this street I spotted the signs to a cat cafe… I did not need any prompting!
Then walking resumed, the beautiful duo Shiho and Mona appeared, and we went to the Shibuya illuminations 🙂
I then went back to the main crossing at Shibuya (the really famous crossroads you always see photos of) to meet Mizuki, one of the PG students from the summer, who took me to her favourite restaurant. I felt like actual royalty because she’d gone to the effort of reserving us a table.
And, because she is the most wonderful, she treated me to dinner (!) and took me to have my first experience of purikura (pronounce the ‘r’s as ‘l’s) – a Japanese photo machine. More on what I ate and the whole purikura thing elsewhere because there’s just too much to say here…
I also had a photo with the famous Hachikō Statue – in memory of a dog who came to Shibuya Station everyday to meet his master, a professor, returning from work. The professor died in 1925, but Hachikō kept coming to the station until his own death 10 years later.
And so ended Day 2.
DAY 3 – Asakura, Kaminarimon gate and temple, Senso-ji shrine, maid cafe, cow’s tongue, Rainbow bridge
The morning was spent with Kenjo and Yuiko at Asakura and at the Senso-ji shrine.
Down this stretch of stalls I tried an assortment of wonderful and less-wonderful street food, and generally enjoyed the hustle-bustle, noise and colours of all that was going on.
Believe it or not, we were beating the crowds that happen after New Year’s. You can’t see it well in the photos below, but people are standing around and waving the smoke in their own direction – it’s meant to bring good luck.
We then went and found lunch before wandering off in another direction. What is the fireball thing in the last photo, you ask? I don’t actually know, sorry.
I got to visit the AKB48 (famous girl group whose song ‘Fortune Cookie’ I performed with the other PAs when I was working in August) shop, and we then went round this street full of gaming shops and gaming figurines and all things gaming.
We then went to a maid cafe. As you can see, One Direction had been before us – not necessarily a good sign as far as I’m concerned. What followed was certainly an experience, but not one I’ll willingly have again.
The waitresses are in the cafe are dressed in cosplay, and you get assigned an individual waitress (after queuing for about an hour to actually enter the cafe in the first place) who serves your drinks and with whom you can pay extra to have a photo taken. I basically found the whole thing slightly creepy given that the majority of customers are older and male – and because whilst the cosplay may not be sexualizing, it is at least infantilizing. All in all, there was a slightly uncomfortable feeling of very low-level prostitution about it.
After this, we met up with some more friends, and together we had dinner (cow’s tongue) in a shopping mall type place (complete with robot information lady) and looked out over the rainbow bridge.
DAY 4 – NYE! Meiji shrine, China town, Yokohama, amusement park, countdown party
The Meiji shrine is a very famous shrine, unsurprisingly, built in the Meiji period. It includes ōtorii (the grand shrine gate), which is the tallest gate of it’s style and the wood it’s made from is some 1,500 years old. There are also a whole load of barrels of sake and wine around. The sake is donated each year by brewers wishing to pay their respects to Emperor Meiji, who is held in high esteem because he supported technological development and spurred on industrial growth. The wine, somewhat bizarrely, is French. Emperor Meiji adopted Western dress and customs in some instances, including the drinking of wine with food and the wine donated by the French wineries is to mark this.
The red characters in the photo below read ‘Happy New Year’.
As in the photos from day 1, prayers and wishes for the New Year are hung up at shrines.
It may be a Shinto shrine, but the name of Christ can be glorified everywhere.
I then walked with Yuiko, Mikio and Seiya round some place I don’t know. I also don’t know what the giant golden egg is about. However, I do know that I liked the architecture, and that the photo shoot that was going on looked like fun!
A place I actually recognise back near Shibuya.
Onto Chinatown for a (gigantic) lunch.
Onto Yokohama to see a beautiful rainbow sky as the sun set on 2016!
So beautiful. As were the noodles we then ate (long noodle=long life=NYE traditional food), the chocolate banana crepe I had for pudding (complete with a compliment about my eyes from the food vendor aha), and the time spent on the amusement rides I dragged Kenjo and Ryota onto.
At around 11pm we went to the countdown party. I did find it rather strange to do a countdown to what was only 3pm UK time, but it was fun to countdown in a language other than English, with so many other people, and, as my Mum said, it means my 2017 gains an additional 9 hours on everyone else’s.
DAY 5 – Maria’s church, karaoke, yakitori
Church in Japan! With Maria’s Aunt very kindly translating the entire service into English for me, being given a microphone to introduce myself, watching a presentation on what 2016 involved for the church (which included photos of me with Maria in August), eating osechi, and then being asked to sing and ending up performing for 30 elderly Japanese people in an old people’s home that the church helps to run.
This day was one of my favourite (and the standard was very high!).
Have you ever met people who radiate the love of God? These were those kind of people. Generous and joyful and wholly wonderful. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a place that I’ve felt more loved and more welcomed. Even though I was 6,000 miles from what is supposedly my ‘home’, I felt like I stumbled upon a new home when I was at Minamimachida church. Home is where Christ is.
I then went back to Shibuya, for karaoke and yakitori with Kenjo, Ryota and Yoshino.
DAY 6 – Imperial Palace gardens, Tsukiji fish market, Tsukiji Hongan-ji temple, Tokyo Skytree
I was in Tokyo during one of two annual appearances that the Emperor of Japan makes. I was not quite prepared for what turned out to be forty minutes of waiting for every one minute of an Emperor that I couldn’t really see, but I still had a whole lot of fun and learned some Japanese games to pass the time.
And, for the four minutes that the Emperor did appear, I very enthusiastically waved the free Japanese flags we received on the way in.
It was then to Tskukiji fish market to go find some lunch and observe the most fantastic facial expressions, of which none of my photos do justice.
And Tsukiji Hongan-ji buddhist temple.
We then attempted to go up Tokyo Skytree, only to be given tickets to go and queue up in two hours time. So to amuse ourselves we ate green tea ice-cream, visited the Pokemon centre, had a lesson in Japanese calligraphy and used every single filter on the ‘Snow’ app.
And the wait was worthwhile in the end. Please appreciate my being very high-tech and working out how to make an animation from my photos and embed it in a blog post!
The orange building is the Tokyo tower.
After this, and retrieving Kenjo’s camera from lost and found, we ate the most amazing teriyaki octopus balls and then sushi. The sushi restaurant we went to is a chain from the Northern region of Hokkaido which is famous for its’ seafood. It’s also Ryota’s hometown, and so he treated us to dinner (!). The best sushi I have ever eaten (/will ever eat??).
Back at Yukina’s house, I saw a much better view of the Emperor via the TV screen!
DAY 7 – Day trip to Kamakura with Ai and Yukina: Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shrine, Yuigahama beach, Great Buddha Statue, Enoshima
Stop one was the shrine. Now that it was New Year’s, the crowds suddenly got real. We gave up on the main part of the shrine and just went to the little one to the side of it.
Soba for lunch 🙂
Street food fun: kintsuba sweets, sweet rice sake and spicy octopus crackers 🙂
The bronze statue of the Great Buddha.
Yuigahama beach. Ai and Yukina were very amused by my determination/enthusiasm/joy/wish to paddle in the Pacific ocean. I, all too happily, pretended like it was August and not January, and jumped over waves. Yukina was also very pleased, as her favourite anime is set in Yuigahama.
Then came the beautiful, beautiful, beautiful views at Enoshima island. I shunned the option of Enoshima aquarium in favour of a speed boat ride and climbing across the island. I think I made the right choice.
This is Mount Fuji…. Ahhhhhh!!!! Too wonderful!
We walked back across the island as the sun disappeared, and journeyed back to Shibuya for dinner and I tried to end my denial that the day was ending. This really was a very perfect day.
DAY 8 – Ice Cave, Mount Fuji, Onsen
Ice cave fun…
Journeying was already a lil’ too much for Yukina, but the scenery was just too much for me to comprehend (as was the fact that Charles was driving a BMW behind us, aha).
Because photos of the Mt Fuji museum we went to are nothing in comparison, enjoy these photos of the UNESCO World Heritage area around Mount Fuji. Still can’t believe I got to see this all first-hand.
As the sun started to set, we went to onsen overlooking Mt. Fuji. Onsen are traditional Japanese hot spring baths.
Admittedly, it was slightly strange for me to find myself completely naked amongst lots of Japanese women and then stand outside, still very much naked, and watch the sunset over Mount Fuji. I couldn’t take photos of inside the baths (for obvious reasons), so you’ll never quite know just what the view I saw here was like – but let me tell you, it is burned onto my brain.
It was beautiful.
After onsen, everyone was very much relaxed, there was another session of purikura, and we went and had dinner before, finally, journeying back home.
An amazing day, I was only sorry not to be home for my brother’s 13th birthday!
DAY 9 – Kabuki, VR Park, more karaoke
In the morning, we queued to get kabuki tickets. Kabuki is a form of traditional Japanese theatre comprised of three acts which, altogether, take a total of 4.5 hours to perform. We got tickets to see a single act. This was a smart move, since it is a rather strange experience for the uninitiated (all of us as none of my Japanese friends had ever been either). The show we saw, Otsu-e Dojoji, involves in its’ first scene a magician, four Chinese children and a catfish – it only got stranger from there. This does partially make sense since kabuki comes from the word ‘kabuku’, which means ‘out of the ordinary’.
I had a captioning service in English to help me along a bit. At points the captioning service was very amusing, as it included phrases such as ‘he did not want them to cramp his style’ and ‘the chic boatman enters’. Partly because of this, I had assumed that everyone else was getting a lot more from the performance than I was. Additionally, the entire audience was laughing at the point when my captioning service merely said [the footmen make jokes]. However, it turned out that the only part my friends actually understood were the jokes that I missed out on, aha.
I wish I could show you photos of the performance, but photos are strictly prohibited, so you’ll have to have a google!
Lunch and a hair cut followed, before Seiya and Mikio took me to VR Park Tokyo. This is a very strange virtual reality gaming thing which I don’t fully understand. You pay for an hour, and are given these, really quite heavy, headsets to wear. You then play different games in settings which make the experience you have in the headset feel wholly real (when you move your head, your view in the headset changes accordingly, and the setting you stand within may move/air may be blown at you etc.)
I wasn’t hugely good at a lot of the games because on a couple I couldn’t understand the instructions or objectives which were given in Japanese, and I also kept forgetting to move my head around because I forgot that the view would change and that things may attack me from all directions in some of the games. However, it was a very fun experience, Seiya bought me a custard pudding flavoured ice-cream, and the VR Park ticket gave us some free goes on the claw machines downstairs which meant some very intense discussion of claw-game tactics as Mikio and Seiya tried to win me a teddy :’)
After that was a yummy hotpot dinner, sneaking into H&M to find Momoka at her part time job, and more karaoke!
This was the point where the end of the trip suddenly seemed a lot more in sight 😦
DAY 10 – Final lunch, Tokyo Tower
Was not a huge fan of the imminent goodbyes, but I had a really lovely time with everyone eating and going to see Tokyo Tower. We didn’t actually go up because we had been up the Sky Tree, and that’s actually taller than Tokyo Tower (in fact, it was built as Tokyo Tower wasn’t tall enough to broadcast digitised TV signals) but seeing it was enough.
What followed was a sad but very fond farewell in the train station as I said goodbyes to Yuiko, Kyohei, Ryota, Mikio, Takumi, Ai and Yukina 😦 I had the best times with them ❤
And the next day there were even more goodbyes! I said goodbye to Kenjo’s Mum, a goodbye involving tears filling both our eyes, and then was surprised to see Maria and her Mum at the airport again, and therefore be saying goodbye to both them and Kenjo as I left to go through security.
There were tears after I made it through security. It’s something rather special to have such good friends in a place that leaving feels a little like having to tear something of yourself away. And the uncertainty of not knowing the next time you’ll see someone’s face always exacerbates such a feeling. But the tears that stung my eyes were also tears of gratitude, tears that were the result of receiving more undeserved grace and love that I’d thought to anticipate on my trip. They were tears of a thankful heart.
I spent a truly wonderful time in Japan, on the receiving end of omotenashi (Japanese hospitality) once more. There are so many memories from this trip that I will treasure, so many sights I’ll be seeing more of only in my dreams, and lessons learned that I’ll write about at some point soon.
This New Year’s was a very special one.