Visiting Friends in Japan

Three months ago, we traveled to Japan. It was a destination on my husband’s bucket list, but for me, it was all about seeing our friends.

I was very eager to finally meet my penpal, Chiaki. We have been writing each other since I was in grade school and she in high school. Since then, we have both married and she now has two beautiful children. We have been sending each other gifts and letters for over twenty years. Even when we lost touch and I moved to a different state, she searched for me online and we reconnected. Because of her, I studied Japanese for two years in college (though have since forgot most of it). She lives in Sendai, about 180 miles northeast of Tokyo. On March 11, 2011, a massive earthquake and tsunami hit the region, causing major damage and killing over 15,000 people. It was the fourth largest recorded earthquake in the world since 1900, and the photos and videos were devastating. I worried for my friend and her family. After weeks of trying to reach her via email and social media, she finally responded saying that fortunately her family was spared, and they fared better than many of their neighbors, though were without electricity and living temporary in a shelter until it was safe to return home. I felt so helpless being miles away, but sent her a very large care package full of dried foods, books, clothes, and toys for the kids. The kids were especially grateful and thrilled with the gifts. Even after four years, I hear there’s still a lot of damage and the community is still rebuilding. When we purchased our tickets, I immediately emailed Chiaki telling her of our plans. Then I heard no response for weeks, and began to worry again. It wasn’t until two weeks before our departure that she finally responded and shared some sad news. Although she really wanted to meet, both her parents (who are now living with them) are sick, and her father was scheduled to have surgery the week we were to land in Japan. Furthermore, they were rebuilding their home, and it was just not the best time for her and her family. I was really disappointed, and part of me wanted to just show up at her door and be there for my friend. But then realized that under the circumstances and knowing the culture, she would feel obliged to be a good host especially since this was our first meeting, and I would just add to her stress. Believe me, it pained me to know that I’d be on the same island and nearly a few hundred miles away by train, and would not be able to meet my old friend. However, we also had many other friends to visit (in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Yokosuka) and only one week in-country, so it was just not possible to fit it all in one trip. And we had already predetermined that this was to be the first of many more trips.

In Tokyo, we visited the Meiji Shrine (and saw about five weddings, which according to the guide books is very auspicious), Harajuku (for crepes and cosplay), Tokyo Metropolitan building (for the observatory), Akihabara (for electronics), Tokyo Tower (for the nightview), Tsukujii fish market (for the best sushi in the world), Shibuya crossing (for the people), Ueno park and museum (for culture), and Ameyayokocho (for shopping and street food). We even stopped by Ginza (for high end shopping), Takeshita Street (for coolness) and Roppongi Hills (for nightlife), but mainly stayed and ate in Shinjuku and Shibuya. It was great to have local friends who graciously hosted, and took us to some of the best restaurants in the city.

On the way to Kyoto, we rode the shinkansen or bullet train which brought out the geek in my husband. It was an especially exciting ride for him, and helluva smooth going over 200 mph – really cool indeed! We met my old roommate and friend who I have not seen for over ten years. It was so long that when we finally saw each other, we both unexpectedly shed tears of joy. We only had a day to explore Kyoto, so she packed our schedule with a visit to the Kiyomizu-dera Buddhist temple, followed by the best vegetarian lunch ever and most delicious green tea ice cream. Then, we went to the Nijo Samurai palace – a world heritage site – and had a blast taking tons of photos. We ended the day at the Kyoto train station and was impressed by the splendor of architecture and technology. It had the tallest series of escalators we’d ever seen with a beautiful air observatory. The station’s facilities also has fifteen floors of attractions such as an art museum, a theater, a hotel, and plenty of shopping and restaurants. Kyoto was definitely one of the highlights of our trip to Japan, mostly because of our lovely guide, but also because we did not expect to see so many cool places. We will definitely return and spend more than a day.

Finally, we met our friends from Hawaii who now lives in Yokosuka. This was an especially special meeting, because we were to meet their two young boys for the first time. Prior to Yokosuka, we stopped off in Kamakura, a seaside city and popular tourist destination. We visited the statue of the Amida Buddha (a very large statue that you can actually step inside), and then headed to another Shinto shrine with a lookout to the ocean, before heading to our friends’ lovely home. We had a great time catching up, and ended the night at my husband’s favorite – a conveyor belt sushi restaurant.

What we liked most about Japan was seeing all our friends again, the incredible food, and convenient train system. What surprised us most was the population of people in Tokyo – over 13 million – and the vast array of neighborhoods. What we liked least was not having enough time. Sayonara for now!

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