Visiting Japan

Foreword

I've read websites (from anime fans) about their visit(s) to Japan, and it's given me things to think about when considering my own trip. Anime fans don't just "visit" in the same way regular tourists do. They have far more in depth in their knowlege of the place and culture they're visiting, even if slightly warped. If you know the Japanese perceptions of Americans, and how far off that can be, the reverse is also true. The world is an ever changing place, so while I expect about half of what I write here to become irrelevant within a few years, some things will likely be timeless. How do I know? My mom visited Japan a bazillion years ago, and some things are nearly unchanged. Hopefully you will still find this useful by the time you read it.

In sticking with the theme of a website about anime, I won't cover everything I did on the trip, nor what a conventional trip normally entails. Instead I figured I'd point out the bigger points an anime fan might be interested in, to see if it's worth checking out. Before I go into the actual trip, I'd like to share general travel experience and advice.

You can also skip to the respective city article if you don't care =P

     

"I'm going to Japan someday" Many of us say that with a vague notion of "someday". Most of us first get into anime in highschool / college; coincidently when we don't have enough money to go. The younger you are, the better it is to travel, with the caveat that it's best to be over the drinking age (20 in Japan) and old enough to know getting totally wasted for the entire trip duration is stupid. You can do that shit at home. Being kinda drunk at night is ok if you're smart enough to stumble through safe areas (which Japan 99.5% is - unless you're a jerk then that drops to 98%). As it turns out, your biggest enemy is not money, it's time. Life will happen to you. Countless anime fans swear their soul to anime, then within a few years don't even watch it anymore. Your interests change. Your priorities change. If you have kids, everything changes. Getting to the point where you CAN and still WANT to go is no small feat.

I got mired in life stuff, but eventually started prioritising travel. I was too chicken to visit Japan outright, so I chose "easier" destinations; what I'd consider preparation for "the big one": Japan. I kept putting it off, thinking I should learn more Japanese, study the culture more, plan, etc. As the saying goes: "Tomorrow never comes". I've gotten to the point where I just said, fuck it. I can afford it. I'm going. If I want to "get it right", I'll go BACK to do it (maybe).

On a trip a few years ago, I was chosen to represent a group as a chief during a Maori welcome ceremony. Think of it as a test to see if you're a friend or enemy. The tour guide had an interesting story about a guy who didn't take it seriously, and got his ass kicked. A simple lesson in not only travel, but life: if you treat people with respect, things will generally be ok. Courtesy, friendliness, and respect are universal traits people like to see in strangers. Mocking culture is rarely well received. In Japan being reserved and polite is the golden standard. You should be particularly concious of keeping your voice down. The nice thing about Japan, is that (nearly) everyone is so polite they'll help you even if they hate your guts. This doesn't always work, so in general your plan should go like this:

Plan A:

Be polite, calm and quiet. Apologize to people for imposing when you ask them for help. This almost always works. Often Japanese are willing to assist when they see you're a tourist who isn't an ass. You may also luck out if they want to practice their English on you, but being polite is the first step to being approachable.

Plan B:

You are a crazed foreigner who no one will ever see again anyway. Just "gaijin smash" (pretend you don't understand, then do things anyway even if obviously objectionable) your way to your goal. I find this a bit disrespectful, and you won't be looked on fondly for this, but sometimes things need to happen. Keep in mind once you're on this path you've closed a few doors.

Plan C:

Annialation.

A defence mechanism I've acquired is becoming "mysterious foreigner". I'm "fortunate" not to look any particular race. Not being fat helps as nearly all Americans are fat (It's mean to say, but... my last trip I really noticed this.) I'm often by myself, so I rarely talk to people. This is important because I pretend to speak no language, keeping me fairly neutral. Restaurants will hand you a receipt, which often easiest. English is the lowest common denominator for language. Stick to simple words and people assume you're from "somewhere" but happen to know some English. I talk to people, but avoid starting conversations for the sake of having them (mind you, I'm normally a quiet person). People who hate Americans generally don't speak English and start conversations. The guy who's already screaming in Italian at you? Yeah, he might also hate Americans on top of already being pissed. Acting like "a naive foreigner" has worked wonders for me.

In Japan it's different though. If you're not Asian you have no prayer of blending in, especially if you're anywhere close to average Caucasian height. In America you assume people come in all shapes and sizes, so things are larger than they need to be. It's pretty weird how so many things are the wrong size in Japan. Embrace being a foreign entity. Kyoto and Tokyo see tourists, so most will treat you as an exotic (hopefully amusing) conversation piece. In remote towns, you are essentially Bigfoot just stepped off a UFO asking for directions in sign language because you can't speak Japanese. Although if you're an attractive blond woman with big boobs and blue/green eyes you can substitute "Bigfoot" with "goddess", but they will still gawk at you.

Because the Japanese generally regard foreigners equally (good or bad), and since you don't blend in anyway, there really isn't any reason to hide what language you speak. One key phrase that helps is "Nihongo wa wakarimasen." - I don't understand Japanese. If you do speak some Japanese, you should honestly give it a go. Even if you totally suck at it like me, the Japanese will generally credit you for making the effort. Amusingly I've spent the last few years deprogramming myself from formal polite Japanese so I can talk like a regular person. Unfortunately that's precisely the tone I needed to use.

Recently on trips I've been disturbed by people taking pictures. And I say this even as a hobby photographer: it's important to put down the camera. I've seen people walk up to amazing works of art and architecture to simply snap a picture then walk away, sometimes after waiting in a long line! Being there is more important than taking pictures. Every trip I spend time absorbing what I can, thinking something like "hell yeah, I'm in Japan!". You aren't at work. You're not stuck in traffic. Enjoy your vacation. Many will probably disagree with me here, but for this reason I don't take music players, or game systems. Wherever you are, you can experience a lot looking around. On the photography side, Japan is relatively lenient about taking pictures, but tripods are rarely allowed.

On a similar note, try keeping a journal. Taking notes will make the experience FAR better when you get back. Key words will bring memories rushing back in ways that photos can't. Years later you might feel nostalgic about the person you were when you took that trip. Honestly, I've never gotten through an entire trip with a journal (including this one). I have the first few days, but never the whole thing. Now reading through those logs, I wish wrote more. I wouldn't take time out of the trip itself to write, but consider at least scribbling some notes to expand on when you get back.

I hate tourists

Irony right? Actually I kind of hate everyone, but under some circumstances I can eventually respect people enough to regard them dubiously. I can't strait out say I hate tourists. People like me travel and we get to see all sorts of things. Then you meet REALLY STUPID PEOPLE. The real kicker of a tour group is that you're stuck with people. Tours are a crap shoot that way. That's one benefit of doing it yourself. Mind you, the reverse is also true. You can have fun chatting with cool people on a tour. If it seems like I'm always trying to avoid people, well... I am. I don't like big crowds, but I especially want to avoid tourists.

Tour or No Tour?

I've been to places both on and off full tours, and I've seen good or bad points to both. All tours are not equal and I've seen very different approaches in them, making a big difference in the experience. Tours can drastically cut time traveling, waiting in lines, and trying to figure out where you're going. Mind you I've had a blast being lost too (which I did a lot of in Kyoto). Tours like to quickly push you through things to get the "most value" for your time. As I said before, people often spend 30 seconds at a place, take a picture and leave, so this isn't unexpected. To properly linger and absorb, you need to be off a tour. For some, the peice of mind in hand holding allows them to better enjoy what they're seeying without worrying, so that's also a factor. I'm the kind of person who does't worry, even when I really really should.

What I do is a hybrid approach. I go on tour for a week. Since I'm already in the country, I stay a few more days on my own. This trip I had a formal tour for six days, and five days by myself. Both ways involves luck to have fun, but if you're open minded enough to roll with things you'll have plenty of interesting experiences - even if they're sometimes stressful when doing them. This trip was the first time I got aggravated with a tour. Many things I wanted to see a lot longer, anime fan in Akihabara for 3 hours? :( Many tourist spots didn't interest me, I would have been better of shifting time to the spots that did. I was unhappy with my tour group, especially how they never met up on time and screwed the schedule even worse. Instead of going to the next spot to look around we spent time waiting and had less time for touring. If I had known before hand my phone GPS would work, I could have had a blast with my own on a similar itinerary. I did experience many things I wouldn't have on my own, so you take the good with the bad.

On to Tokyo...

 

Tokyo

Population: 13 million

Region: Kanto



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