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Japan Part 1 – Urban Explorers’ Schlep and First Impressions

Who schlepps in Japan? No one except a trio of New Yorkers hauling luggage, cameras, books and kids toys around Tokyo and Kyoto. Yes, we went everywhere with a giant stuffed “Perry the Platypus.” Locals seemed amused. The Japanese don’t schlepp; they stroll…purposefully, quietly, and the ladies often wear high heels whether they are at a stinky fish market or a smoky cafe filled with hipsters and two curious goats (more on that later).

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Japan was sensory overload, and I’m still processing everything I saw, smelled, heard, touched and tasted. I have only been back in the United States for less than 48 hours and already I miss Japanese hospitality, its toilet technology, chu toro bowls, and the obsessive cleanliness that dovetails with the country’s endearing relationship with water (not surprising for a nation of islands). Tokyo felt like a Western city with Eastern touches whereas Kyoto felt like an Eastern city with Western touches. Tokyo’s cherry blossoms were just starting to fall while we were there, whereas Ma Nature flipped the “on” switch during our time in Kyoto, and the city was glorified in bouncy pink spring beauty. Kyoto’s undulating blue mountains, pink petals, stoic temples, and geishas and monks crisscrossing uneven, ancient streets, made it impossible to take a bad picture. Kyoto was the purpose of our trip and did not disappoint. Kyoto and Tokyo offered plenty for the senses, but this quick list doesn’t do it justice.

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Sounds
Mike is right; Japan sounds like a 1980s video game. Auditory cues for train stations, public service announcements, commercials, everything except what the Buddha is up to, cut through the air constantly. To my foreign ears, everything, even useful information coming through a loudspeaker over the train platforms, sounded like a pachinko parlor. Not understanding the language took a backseat to the constant cutesy sounds that I never heard in other major world cities.

Sights
Where to begin? If you’ve seen Sofia Coppola’s wonderful Lost in Translation, then you have a sense of Tokyo’s seductive neon glow. Tokyo IS the cleanest, safest city I have ever walked. I would let Anna eat off the sidewalks there before allowing her to pick up a dropped item on a New York City street. The dedication to cleanliness there is beyond exemplary. Where else can you walk around a city with a population exceeding 13 million and feel completely safe, free from panhandlers and from worries about stepping on someone else’s gum, spilled Starbucks green tea matcha latte or dog poop? Tokyo is a metropolis remarkably liberated from its inhabitants’ detritus. I could wax poetic about Tokyo Tower, the immaculate city parks, the Godzilla statue, puffy cherry blossom trees, and the Zen Buddhist temples (and I will), but the blinding cleanliness of such a busy place stands out. The other sight that stands out is Mount Fuji. I lived near Mount Rainier in Seattle and was always awestruck by it. Mount Fuji is more than 12,000 feet and coyly hid behind the clouds during our first two days in Tokyo. But when the skies cleared…wow.

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Smells
Three simple words. Spring. Fish. Ginger. That’s what I smelled, and I loved it.

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Tastes
Azuki beans…can’t get enough of them and don’t understand why you can’t buy Azuki bean or red bean sweets here in the United States, unless you go to a Japanese specialty shop, which are few and far between. Americans don’t think of beans “that” way, though I think if you start them out by putting that delicious reddish-purple sweet Azuki bean paste in a Pop-Tart, the Azuki bean would have a fighting chance among Middle Americans. I will confess right now after a week of rice, fish, and pickled things that could sometimes not be identified, I craved cornflakes (Michael Pollan is right, there is way too much corn in the US diet!). I could drink green tea and eat seaweed salads every day, but then again, green has always been my favorite color.

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Touch
Gelatinous, if I can to sum things up. Gelatinous green tea ice cream or cherry blossom-flavored ice cream balanced on a tiny cone. Or gelatinous fresh fish flesh, which gets sprayed on to you as you walk through Tokyo’s Tsukiji Fish Market; gelatinous items in Bento boxes; gelatinous globs of sticky rice sticking to everything, including your kid’s hair; mushy mounds of smoked salmon for breakfast, lunch and dinner; sushi that you squished between your chopsticks yet would bounce back and regain its shape when you accidentally dropped your sushi roll on to your plate, thankfully missing the dollop of wasabi.

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My five senses are still digesting the experiences of the past nine days, but I did want to reflect on those first few impressions, which often color a trip. It’s those first few impressions that push us to get off the couch, spend money we probably shouldn’t spend and go somewhere that feels entirely strange and new. Daily routines dull our five senses; walking around New York City I can forget to see, smell, and listen to what’s going on around me because I am too focused on just getting there. Travel invites us to pause and look around, to absorb our surroundings the way children do, with trust and curiosity.

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