Japan 2015, Episode 1: In the Air Again

plane flying into sunset

Well, well, well.

It’s been a while, gang. Between wrapping up busy season, promoting some life changes, and dealing with some *lovely* unforeseen events, I once again fell off the map for a while. But move over, life stuff, because I am in Japan for two solid weeks and ready for action like the saucy, swashbuckling adventurer I am!

Now, before we begin, here are some things you can expect on IC moving forward. Well…until I change them again:

  • Unlike my previous travel-related posts, my future posts will not be just a consolidated list of attractions/areas/sites/what have you. They also will not be play-by-plays of my day and the things I saw and the ratchets falling asleep on the train that I Snapchatted. As wildly interesting as this latter type of entry may be to my myself, my friends, and family members, I don’t feel like this does much justice to those on the outside seeking informative travel advice. In short, my goal is to help readers think about their travel style and what they can gain from travel as well as how to make the best use of their time. As such, each post will read like a short vignette with pictures, followed by some stats of the day (places eaten, sites visited, lessons learned, etc.)
  • That said, each travel-related post will be labeled by the trip and appropriate year (i.e. Europe 2016, Australia 2017) and have a “theme” title.
  • There are no more Thoughts of the Day, because the title itself is supposed to serve that purpose.
  • The blog’s theme has gone through its 19,000th change as well. Please let me know if it’s accessible or if you’d prefer something else — you, readers, are my lifeblood!

Now, let’s get to the real deal: I repeat, I’m IN JAPAN! Did I also mention that…

  • I’m here alone?
  • I have no formally planned itinerary?
  • I’ve never been to Asia?
  • I don’t speak Japanese?
  • I don’t even know anyone here?

Many whom I’ve told all of this to have cocked their head in either concern, curiosity, or wariness. In any event, I get varying degrees of “You’re crazy” vibes from everyone.

And I live for that.

The flight from LAX to Incheon Airport in South Korea takes over 12 hours. As much as I give Asiana Airlines props for attracting so many families with adorable babies, showing awesome Korean movies (e.g. “Fashion King”) on the mini-TV screen, and serving awesome food that is miraculously both spicy and edible, this is a tough jaunt no matter what. However, the layover in Incheon was not.

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Spice can be your friend – introducing gochujang: where “having a kick” (being spicy) and intact tastebuds after eating it are not mutually exclusive.

If you’re flying to Asia and need to do a layover somewhere, you are most likely doing it here. And trust me – that’s a good thing. The Incheon Airport offers tours of nearby sites in Incheon and Seoul that last anywhere from one to five hours long through a service called “Free Korea Transit Tour”. This service is great for two reasons. First of all, they pick you up from the airport and take you back — ON TIME, if not early. You have no idea how much of an issue time is in other countries (I won’t name names), so this alone is remarkable. Second and best of all, the tour is completely free with the exception of lunch that you have to buy for yourself during the longest tour.

Given that my layover was short (4 hours), I opted for the shortest tour, a one-hour tour of Yonggungsa Temple in Incheon. To make the one hour timeframe, you only get to spend about 20 minutes at the temple, which is perfectly fine given that it’s small. There are two of the cutest freaking dogs you’ll ever see there (Bear and Yongseun), some large zelkova trees, and a giant Buddha. It’s a tiny sliver of Korean history and landscape, but it’s definitely a start.

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As awful as most “motion pictures” are (I mean that in multiple ways…ba dum TSST), this one on the way to Yonggungsa was serving me eery, Sleepy Hollow realness and I loved it.

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Tell me these don’t look like a pink version of the bombs you pick up in Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

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“This large zelkova tree is what people look at and pray too when they are trying to conceive a baby!” *walks away slowly…*

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The two hour flight from Incheon to Tokyo Narita paled in comparison to my previous flight, so I by the time I arrived at Tokyo, I still had a bit of energy left to make my way to my hotel. In order to do this, I needed to activate my JR (train) pass, head on the Narita Express to Tokyo station, and take the subway from there.

Using public transport in an extensive, complex metropolis that you’ve never before visited where you also don’t speak the language and you’re abysmal at directions to begin with (ask anyone, the things I’ve done when trying to look for something are mortifying) is rough business. That said, the city of Tokyo does of fine job of “idiot-proofing” the public transport system by displaying gratuitous maps and signs that are at least bilingual, if not quadrilingual (Japanese, English, Chinese, and Korean). Still, the din of passersby, the “dings” coming from every direction, and the busy-looking advertisements can make navigating Tokyo a dizzying experience.

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It’s actually helpful once you get the hang of it.
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Sign at the platform. Contrary to popular belief, the subway (and Tokyo in general) are actually NOT crowded everywhere/at all times.

I likely would have not found my hotel near Ningyocho station had I not come across a kind, Japanese man riding his bike with his daughter on the back. Mind you, I was simply standing on the street and looking at my phone, eyebrow raised only subtly, when he stopped just to ask me if I needed help. It finally hit me that there was no way I could possibly blend in with fiery red hair and a five-foot-nine stature, as much as I wanted to. But his willingness to assist me, which would be true for many of the people I encountered just the next day, reminded me of the amazing stories I had heard of Japanese people showing not only kindness, but help to foreigners.

I reached my hotel around 4:00 pm and researched the rest of my trip until I fell asleep just a few hours later. From the time I hugged my boyfriend goodbye at LAX on Thursday night at 9:00 to the chilly afternoon I landed at the APA Ningyocho-Eki-Kita hotel, I had gone through a wide variety of emotions ranging from raucous internal celebration to “holy crap, I’m going to a foreign country and I’m the only one I can actually count on the entire time I’m there”.

When I originally booked my trip back in May of 2014, I had done it because something had told me that it was time to go. I get a limited amount of vacation per year, so I use that precious time to cultivate new experiences in unfamiliar places. Japan was not only unfamiliar to me in terms of actually visiting but had been a long-standing fascination of mine. For this fascination, I thank the stunning pictures of Mt. Fuji I saw in my history textbook in elementary school. I thank the dozens of manga I read growing up. I thank the unique history behind the various subcultures of Japan such as the sumo or samurai. All of these and more made me promise myself that I would visit Japan one day, and here I am.

So, let’s return to what I had said earlier: people think I’m crazy for doing this trip. When they ask me what I’m going to Japan for, most people had previously assumed business until I tell them it’s just for vacation. But truthfully, even that’s a misnomer.

This is more than a vacation. I plan to make this a cultural experience that will shape the way I see the world. It will shape the way I look at other human beings. It will bring to light the improvements my own country can make and highlight the gifts my country brings when you live there. Nonetheless, there is still a great deal of uncertainty within this trip. At the time of this writing, I don’t even know where I’m sleeping tomorrow. It’s exhilarating, but daunting. It’s an adrenaline rush, but it’s a whirlwind of uncertainty.

So, am I crazy? Maybe, but that’s a question this trip will have to answer.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s entry about my first day in Tokyo, Episode 2, along with more restaurant recommendations, experience reviews, and observations on the city of Tokyo!

H

p.s. For those curious, here is my adorable little abode while in Tokyo, a Japanese-style hotel room at APA Ningyocho-Aki-Kita. Prepare for simultaneous disgust over the fact that I’m posting a picture of my slept-in bed on my blog and jealousy that I have a completely awesome toilet. New idea for the house? You’re welcome.

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There is no problem this toilet can’t fix. I’ll just say that.

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