Lost in Translation and Toilets
I just returned from a trip to Japan (actually an early return due to the typhoon, but I will get into that later). I will be splitting the blog posts into 3 parts based on locations. This one will be about Tokyo, where we stayed for our first and last nights in Japan. Next will be about Mount Fuji and the last one will be about Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka.
For this trip, we backpacked the entire time. We only had 3 night’s accommodations booked ahead of time, but everything else was on the fly. We both just carried giant backpacks around and went with the flow. Although it was fun, I would not suggest backpacking to anyone traveling to Japan. It is not the same as backpacking Europe and you are much better off planning most things ahead of time. I do suggest packing light though.
We quickly learned how difficult the language barrier would be in Japan. When we first landed we had no internet, no cash and no prior planning of how to get to our hostel. (I know we should have planned better, but life happened the weeks before). We easily found a shuttle between Tokyo-Narita Airport to Tokyo center, but once there I was literally lost in translation (also one of my favorite films).
Tokyo reminded me a lot of Los Angeles or even New York. It is very spread out and each pocket has it’s own vibe. One part feels like Wall Street, full of skyscrapers and business people in suits. The other is like Times Square on steroids filled with crane games and vending machines. This made traveling within the city a bit difficult since there were so many subway lines and major areas of town that were spread apart.
After asking several people, we were able to find a person with google maps to look up directions. We found the subway line, but of course you need a subway ticket. The ticket machines themselves had an English option, but the translation was hard to understand grammatically. Then we realized the machine only took cash, and we had not converted our money yet. I had been told by lots of people to use 7/11 ATMs in Japan. I understand that sentence sounds strange, but there are actually 7/11s on every corner of Japan. They have really good Japanese food options and international ATMs (Again Tokyo and Los Angeles are very similar). We ran out of the subway to the streets but of course there is no 7/11 or even an ATM in sight. (I swear the whole rest of the trip, we never went a block without seeing one). After an hour of running around town, we finally found an ATM to get cash using our American cards. Also we finally found our hostel for the night.
For the rest of the trip we purchased a Japanese SIM card for my phone so we could look up directions and translations. This was beyond helpful once we tried to navigate public transit to all the sights and getting from city to city. Our hostel was a co-ed shared dorm. Even in the hostel, everyone had to remove their shoes before entering the bedroom area and the shared bathrooms. The hostel (and pretty much everywhere else we stayed) provided slippers to wear once in the room. This kept everything clean and honestly I’d like to incorporate this way of life once I’m home. (Plus who doesn’t like wearing slippers around everywhere). There were also special slippers used only in the bathroom.
That night was also my first encounter with the Japanese toilets. I could really do a whole blog post about how amazing and confusing these toilets were, but I will spare you that and just go on for a paragraph. Each toilet has a side console with buttons controlling the bidet and it’s pressure. More fancy toilets had different bidet options such as height adjustment and intermittent patterns. Some toilets even had heated seats. The funniest feature was a sound button, that made the sound of running water. For the Japanese, this is a way to cover up the sound of your deification, but it honestly just made me have to pee more. I was scared to try the toilet at first, but by the second day I conquered my fear.
We spent the first two days mainly sightseeing in Tokyo. It was stupid hot and humid in Tokyo (this is coming from someone who lived in Alabama for 4 years). The girls fashion in Japan tends to be very conservative. Most girls wear skirts that cover the knees and tops that cover cleavage and shoulders. Also they all wore heels, or at least shoes that were a step up form sneakers. I do not know how they survive the heat in some of the outfits. I was drying wearing jean shorts and a spaghetti strap tank.
We went to Menji shrine, Shinjuku Gyo-en, the Tokyo tower, Hamarikyu Gardens and some more that I can’t even remember the names. Seeing shrines in Japan was like seeing churches in Europe, there are way too many to see in one trip and they are literally everywhere. We only had a limited time in Japan and of course there was way more we wanted to see, but also we wanted to spend some time enjoying the city, shopping, eating and drinking.
Our second night we stayed at the Hyatt because I love Lost in Translation and why not treat ourselves to a fancy night (we may have said the same thing in Kyoto for one night, but what the hell). We went to the restaurant in the hotel. I am not really sure what we ordered, but Chad’s dish came with a raw egg in a bowl on the side. We had no idea what to do with it. Do we scramble and cook it in the ramen like soup while it’s still hot? Do we our it over something? Slurp it straight? Turns out you scramble it and dip the meat into the raw egg like a sauce. It now has me thinking about salmonella and about how I could be eating raw cookie dough.
Our original plan was to come back to Tokyo for the last days of our trip since our flight out was from Narita. As you may know from the news, the strongest typhoon in 25 years hit Japan yesterday. We were given a heads up about the storm and decided it would be better to fly out the day before the storm instead of risking getting stuck and possibly ending up somewhere unsafe. This meant we lost our extra time in Tokyo, so we were unable to see some main sights. Again, I will come back to the other parts of our trip in the next posts, but for now I will skip ahead to our last part in Tokyo.
The last part we stayed in Shinjuku, which was definitely the part of town for nightlife. We first went to Shibuya Crossing, which is rumored to be the busiest intersection in the world. The backdrop is like Times Square, filled with bright lights, colors and people. The crosswalks in Japan are more efficient in my opinion. Instead of each street having their own time to cross dependent on lights, all of the lights go red and time is given for pedestrians to cross any which way they want (adjacent, across, diagonal). When it was crossing time at this intersection, you could not see the street. It’s like when you are a kid and the screen turns into white and black fuzz. Then the black overtakes the screen. (I think we used to call this the ants fighting as kids, but you get the point of how crowded it can get).
This intersection had a bit more meaning that just being an awesome place to visit and walk around. About a year ago, I was working a reception desk on the Sony Lot. There was giant (bigger than me) canvas of Shibuya crossing at night. It was overexposed so the neon lights were bright and swirly. The facilities workers said that the poster was not going to be used, and they were going to have to get rid of it. I asked if I could take it home and they said it is all mine if I can figure out how to get it home from the office. I knew that Chad had always wanted to go to Japan and that he studied the language and culture in college, so I figured it would be an awesome gift. We managed to get the canvas to his room and hang it up next to the bed. Every night we would stare at it and talk about how we would go to Japan and see it in person. Not even a year later, we made it to the same intersection. Unfortunately we did not have the right equipment to take the same photo as the canvas.
We also went out in an area called the Golden Gai. It looks as if you are walking the streets of Blade Runner, filled with tiny hole in the wall bars. There was also a sushi conveyor belt restaurant around the corner. The whole part of town was just weird and awesome.
After our first days in Tokyo, our next stop was Mount Fuji, which will be in the next post.
Until then, please enjoy this photo on how to use the Western-style toilet…