Well, my time in Japan is just about over. I have very much enjoyed my time here and will definitely be back (hey! I haven’t even been to Tokyo yet!). The Japanese people are kind, respectful, helpful, and generous. I am so glad I decided to come here.
My last week was not too eventful. I took a few day trips to see more shrines around Osaka and Himeji Castle just outside. I visited my first ever cat cafe (pay ~$8 to spend a full hour in a room with 20 cats — I was admittedly a little scared), explored some incredible used and new bookstores throughout the city, did my first handstand (ever!), and competed in my first ever crossfit competition (where I was dead last, but it’s the journey not the destination!).
Oh! And I also found a Denny’s (!!!) near Nagai Park:
Well, I am off to Shanghai. I am a little nervous about acclimating to a new place, learn a new public transit system, and find my way in a new foreign city (again!), but I am excited too.
Goals for China:
+ Explore outside of Shanghai
+ Kick butt on whatever business school interviews I get (so far Kellogg and Booth)
+ Keep doing Crossfit (new box!)
+ Finish (!!!) the complete first draft of my book
I was re-reading some of my blog posts over the past few months and came to the conclusion I needed to make a special post (a break from our normal programming).
This time traveling and writing and learning to code etc. has been amazing and I am so glad I decided to take this journey, but my time away has not been perfect. Sometimes I find that friends or family who post overly positive, make-the-internet-jealous accounts of their amazing adventures are actually, in-person, some of the most miserable, unhappy, dissatisfied people. I always find it ironic that their online presence neglects the challenges and struggles that are sometimes core to their day-to-day.
I realized while looking back at what I’ve posted, that I’ve neglected to talk a lot about my own challenges and struggles. I do not for a second regret leaving my job to take this time, but it has not been all fairies and rainbows (or maybe in my case monkeys, ramen, and wild deer).
1) Hostel-living is hard
Yes, it is cool to meet new people from all over the world and have super cheap accommodations sometimes in incredible parts of the city you’re in. But, staying in hostels for months is pretty tiring. The beds are hard (in Japan tatami mats over wooden bunks), the rooms are very small usually without soundproofing, and guests (other hostel-travelers) can range from kind, caring, and generous to loud, disrespectful of the rules, and utterly abhorrent. I recently had to move out of a hostel early (forfeiting some money) because a group staying there four nights in a row cranked up the tv in the living room (only separated from the bedroom by a curtain), took loud, on-speaker phone calls in the bedroom, and had rowdy conversations all past 1 AM (sometimes 2 AM) in the morning. I had asked nicely for them to be respectful of the mandatory quiet hours (poorly enforced, from 10 PM – 8 AM), but was ignored. And, even when I have met incredible individuals, usually their plans are so firm and they are just as transient as me, that our time together has been too short and we haven’t been able to develop deep friendships. Which brings me to …
2) Traveling is lonely
I am an introvert (yeah yeah I know you don’t think so, but I am and you’re wrong :P). This means I enjoy being alone and find it energizing. Still, in some places where there are few english speakers, I’ll go a whole day without saying more than 5 words out loud. And those times I have made friends, conversation has stayed pretty much on the surface (where are you going, what places have you been, what is there to do, etc.). I miss my family, boyfriend, and friends a lot. I miss hugs.
3) Taking time off is both rewarding and costly
Again, I made the right decision for me in doing this (I am learning a lot and doing what I love), but there are costs to taking significant time away from traditional work. I am so fortunate to have friends and family that support me, but most folks I talk to outside of those two camps and who are on the more standard, professional paths have been pretty critical of my decision-making. I don’t know what taking this time will cost me yet when I return home and look for work (I am hoping not much), but I do have a feeling it is adversely affecting my b-school admission chances given some of the results that have already started to trickle back in.
Right now my life is good, but it is far from perfect. Anyone who paints a picture of long-term backpack style travel as being only amazing and awesome and their-life-is-so-perfect, in my opinion, probably isn’t sharing the whole truth of their situation.
And that’s actually too bad because facing challenges and struggling and making mistakes shouldn’t be dirty little secrets we hide from the world and each other. These moments, especially how we deal with and rise through them, are what make an experience worthwhile, teach us new lessons, and help us grow. As for me, I’ve grown up so much in the last few months more from what has sucked about traveling than from what has rocked. I am excited to see what I will face next and eager to see how I’ll push myself through it.
Nara is a wonderful town about an hour outside of Osaka. One of Nara’s claims to fame is that it is a town full of wild, but social deer. These deer, according to the Shinto religion, are messengers of the gods.
Admittedly, I thought the tales of wild deer were exaggerations before arriving in Nara, but turns out the city’s reputation is spot on. Any place there was grass or forest, you saw deer. And the deer were indeed social (some maybe too social). It was so much fun to walk down the road with a deer or two in toe, sit with one beneath a tree and read a book, or buy some crackers and watch as, seemingly out of nowhere, twenty deer would pop up and, like puppies, hop around you begging for some treats.
But Nara isn’t just about the deer. There is also an incredible temple complex, called Todai-ji, a UNESCO World Heritage site, that contains the largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana in the world. The temple was started in the 700s and is truly impressive. The monuments, buildings, and artifacts surrounding the temple are breathtaking and the gardens it sits within are well worth exploring.
I am coming up on my last week in Japan. One final week of exploration!
If you haven’t already heard, public transportation is AMAZING in Japan, but unlike in *some* places in the US, the amazingness of Japanese transport systems spans the entire country. Getting from one major city to the next is super easy and fairly affordable.
Thus I decided to take my first longer distance trip in Japan on the light-rail (this time the Shinkansen) to Hiroshima.
—sidebar: About a year ago (September 2014), I took a vacation to Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, and Hungary to visit major WWII sites and learn more about the war and its effects in Eastern Europe. It was an incredible trip. So, almost exactly a year later, being in Japan, I thought it would be fitting to visit one of the cities where the A-bomb that helped end the war was dropped. —–
Quick note on the high-speed light rail: Make sure you wait for the express trains when you are traveling from one major city to another. Do NOT take a local unless you have to stop at one of the areas not visited by the express. My trip to Hiroshima (on the express) took ~1 hour; my trip back (on the local) took 3 hours.
Also, light rails look like spaceships and are super spacious 🙂
I was most excited to visit the Peace Memorial site and museum in Hiroshima, but I knew my time there would be heavy. So, as I made my way from the train station to the site and saw all these people walking to a sectioned off area under a big blow-up arch, I knew it would be nice to follow and have some light-hearted fun before a more serious afternoon.
Rule of thumb: if you see something like the above while traveling, YOU MUST EXPLORE. Turns out, the gathering was a small festival in the heart of Hiroshima.
The festival had mascots, inflated bouncy houses, two performance stages, tons of arts and crafts, lots (and I mean LOTS) of pretty awesome food, and (my favorite) free samples!
I have to say, one surprising (or maybe it shouldn’t be surprising?) aspect of spending time in Hiroshima, particularly at this festival, was it really confirmed for me how different all the major cities (or at least the ones I have visited) in Japan are. The food, the people, the culture of each place are very distinct while still feeling Japanese. I liked mingling with the Hiroshimans (?) a lot.
Anyway, from there I headed to the Peace Memorial and, like getting smacked with a ton of bricks, ran head first into the Atomic Dome.
Even the park around the Atomic Dome and the museum was pretty somber. The Children’s Memorial (pictured below) had millions of origami cranes stored and I would later in the museum find out way (see below).
The museum itself was sobering. Filled with visitors of all types of nationalities and with an entrance fee of roughly $0.50 USD, the place was incredibly accessible (just as one might expect). What was really powerful for me was that I had, up until that visit, never walked through a museum where we (the US) were the bad guys. Not to say the museum was negative towards the US at all (it totally wasn’t and I thought did an incredible job of stating facts as objectively as possible), but I couldn’t help but feel, as I went from room to room, reading of the horrors of the bomb, escapes through black radiation rain, the families who would never find out what happened to their loved ones, that Americans made the decision to do this to these people. Without having ever been in a war, I can’t begin to understand what it is like to make those difficult calls, but I couldn’t help but feel like what we created and did to these people was evil.
The stories of survival and the survivors (some first-hand video testimonials) were incredibly powerful. The one that touched me the most was of a young girl named Sadako. The bomb had been dropped when she was two years old. Her mother had had to carry her through the black radiation rain in order to escape the blast zone. Sadako had a normal healthy childhood until she was around 10 or 11 years old. Then, suddenly, her neck began to swell and the doctor her mother took her to quickly diagnosed her with leukemia (sometimes referred to as “the atom bomb disease”). Unfortunately Sadako wasn’t the only child to suddenly show symptoms of “the atom bomb disease” around this time. Sadako was immediately moved to a hospital where her roommate would tell her of an old Japanese legend that said if one folded 1000 paper cranes a wish would be granted. Sadako, emboldened by this, learned how to fold paper cranes and folded over 1000 of them, wishing that she would get better. Although she achieved her goal, when Sadako was only 12, she passed away.
Today the Children’s Memorial in the park holds millions of paper cranes to commemorate her and the other children who passed away because of their exposure to the atom bomb. You can fold a crane or send one in to be added to the exhibit.
Leaving, I couldn’t help but think that, had the roles been reversed and Japan had dropped an atomic bomb on some city in the US, would we as Americans today be as welcoming, accepting, patient, and kind with Japanese visitors to our country as I believe the Japanese are with Americans? My respect and admiration for the Japanese only grows.
I highly recommend visiting the museum if you are ever in Hiroshima.
Afterwards, I continued to explore the city (including a surprisingly well-stocked art museum). Overall I was impressed with Hiroshima. It was a lot more developed and bustling than I would have anticipated. And of course, even had it not been, the Peace Memorial itself was worth the trip.
My adventures in Japan continue! I spent much of this last week exploring Osaka and Kyoto (~$10 train ride from Osaka).
In Osaka I have enjoyed just hopping on the train and seeing where I end up while also trying to hit the highlights. Osaka Castle is definitely one of them:
In the heart of the city, Osaka Castle is a national landmark that played a huge role in Japan’s unification in the 16th century. It was surreal walking around this castle in the middle of a city. I was amazed at how well the structure was preserved (Osaka Castle is older than the United States!).
The day I visited there was even a wedding (sorry I am a creeper, but at least I was not the only one):
It was also funny to see Japanese tourists acting as kooky as American tourists often do (I grew up in Orlando so I have seen some wacky tourist behavior). For example, this booth where you could dress up in traditional Japanese attire and pose with weapons in front of the castle:
There was also a booth handing out free drinks. Lesson: ALWAYS ask what it is before you take a swig …. unfortunately I learned the hard way that the samples weren’t water or Pocari Sweat (the clear Japanese gatorade) … they were shots of sake (OOF!):
Oh and hey … if you were worried about where you were going to buy your Japanese shurikens, Osaka Castle has also got you covered on that front:
Other fun things I’ve learned and seen in Osaka:
There are brothels in Osaka, but these aren’t very popular. What ARE popular are ‘hosts’ – young men and women who you can pay to hang out with you for a night (you buy their drinks, food, etc. and pay for their time by the hour). At first this concept was confusing to me, but it has been explained to me as being similar to paying for the perfect boyfriend or girlfriend for however long you pay them (minus anything physical). The hosts will treat you how you want and in return you get to live your perfect relationship fantasy. Awesome?
Over a third of Japan’s population is above the age of 60. This is a problem that the government is very concerned with as salaried work is often so demanding on the mostly male workforce that dating is difficult and seen as a drain on income and precious free time. You don’t see too many kids on the street or in parks walking around. TOO though, you don’t see that many elderly men and women. Interestingly enough, how convenient much of Japan is (there are at least 2 drink vending machines on every block in Osaka) also makes it easy for the older members of the population to stay indoors. Kind of bursts the “Japanese people are so healthy” stereotype I had certainly imagined before coming here.
Speaking of health — fitness is not a huge concern for many Japanese. If you are a salaried employee you probably don’t have a ton of time to work out and fitness in general is just not embraced in the same way it is elsewhere. As Sean, my crossfit coach says, “most of the Japanese in Osaka are skinny-fat; they have no muscle!” — while it is difficult to verify this, I will say my crossfit gym is the only gym I have seen in my wanderings across Osaka so far ….
Really, why isn’t Japanese fried chicken served in America? It is truly amazing. Below though are takoyaki (Japanese octopus balls!)
BUT, the highlight of this past week was definitely my trip to Kyoto.
I took an express train (which again, round trip was about $10) that got me from Osaka to Kyoto in ~30 minutes. I barely cracked open my book (*side note: is that still an expression if you read from a kindle?).
First stop was Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine:
This shrine was gorgeous and my favorite sight in Japan so far. I cannot recommend it more! I would suggest getting there early / before 9am (being able to explore the shrine alone and in silence was fantastic) and be prepared for a hike (up steps) of about 1-2 hours. You will walk under literally (LITERALLY) thousands of toriis as you venture through the shrine.
That last picture is of the final torii near one of the shrine exits. Apparently it is purposely unfinished as it is believed that the path (along with the torii gates) continue through the sky to heaven.
Really this shrine is so special — a must-see!
I also explored Gion, the Shoren-in Temple, and the beautiful park and shrines in between. Gion is a shopping area / street in a more traditional part of Kyoto.
I have to say, I was surprised by how different Kyoto felt from Osaka. Even the food was different! Crab on stick? Grilled fish? Tofu flavored icecream?
Well, my next stop is Hiroshima (excited to see the peace memorial). Will report back soon!