Thank you so much for following my journey in Tokyo! ありがとう ございます (arigatō gozaimasu/thank you) and さようなら (sayounara/goodbye) Japan!
I’ve been steadily going through a list of well-known places in the Tokyo area while here. Each trip has yielded amazing sights, good food, and surprising cultural events (not all the time, but every once in a while). However, one thing I recommend that everyone should check out if they have time is a university cultural festival. I don’t know about the spring, but I know a bunch of cultural festivals occur in November. My friend and I managed to attend two: Waseda University’s and Keio University’s. Two reasons why you should go: it’s cheap and a great way to experience some Japanese culture.
The two cultural festivals I attended were both free of charge. The trick is finding it. Waseda University’s cultural festival my friend had told me about (and she had found out from a friend). Turns out the festival we had attended for that school was not its main festival but rather a smaller section done by its science department located at the science campus (go figure). It was still great fun though and probably better for us because it meant a much smaller crowd. Keio University I heard about from the Japanese girls on our hall (a good number attend Keio). We arrived there fine because we just followed all the college-aged kids who left the train station at the same time.
Outside you’ll see lines of stalls, probably selling food. All of them are decorated with construction paper and are probably manned by one particular university club. Be prepared to be bombarded by college students, holding posters, and advertising for their stalls. These stalls are a great place to try some Japanese food for cheap. I had hashimaki (okonomiyaki on chopsticks) for the first time at Keio.
If you follow along these stalls, you’ll eventually hit a stage. My friend and I got to see many awesome performances there. Waseda University had a bunch of dances that looked like classical Japanese dance with a modern twist (maybe). At Keio my friend and I saw a couple of juggling performances, Michael Jackson dances done by the Michael Jackson club, and a bunch of awesome dances done by another dance group. Everyone was very talented and blew our socks away.
Don’t spend the entire time outside. I recommend going inside the university’s buildings because there are events inside. Waseda had a bingo sheet with the room numbers as the spaces (we did not know where we would have gone if we had gotten bingo). Each room had a different kind of activity, probably relating to the club that was hosting. Keio had a floor dedicated to each music club and each held a performance. The third floor had a bunch of lecture halls with more performances. I’m sure there was more but I had no idea how to go about finding them.
A fair warning to all who decide to attend a cultural festival: they are not super English friendly. These events are not catered to tourists so that means while some things may be written in English, not everything is. Also, the level of English each college student knows is different so you may end up getting someone who’s struggling with English or someone who knows a decent amount (chances are that you’ll meet the former rather than the latter). That should not deter you from going but just be prepared. Probably go in with a basic understanding of hiragana and katakana. It’s definitely worth seeing to see what Japanese college students get involved in.
Tori no Ichi is a famous outdoor market held on the Chinese day of the Rooster (Tori), where people buy decorated rakes to wish for happiness and good business in the upcoming year.
Roughly three weeks left and I still have not begun souvenir shopping. When traveling, souvenirs are a given. Everyone who hears you’re going to a foreign country wants something back, which may not be stressful for some, but when you’re on a budget and as indecisive as I am, souvenir shopping is horrible. Not only do I have to find something for everyone that will make them happy, but I also have to manage to bring it all back with me. The whole process is way too stressful. Here’s some steps I’ve used to simplify the whole debacle a bit.
Designate a suitcase for souvenirs.
Before you even begin traveling, you should designate a suitcase for all your souvenirs. Usually, this is the suitcase filled with things that you will end up using in Japan and can throw away (e.g. lotion, soap, old shoes, etc.). By knowing how much space you have, you can know how small you should keep your souvenirs.
Write up a list.
Write down all the people you’re going to buy for. This act will make the process seem much simpler. You will have a clear idea of how much you have to buy. If there are people you have to buy souvenirs for, but you’re not really close to them, you should buy bulk gifts for them (stuff that comes in sets, so you can give each person one thing from each set).
Make things easier for yourself and ask people what they want. I’m a super indecisive shopper. I will spend hours walking down aisles, second-guessing what people want, until I finally put everything back and decide to try another store. The worst is when people say, “just get me whatever.” Just remember that these are people who love and care about you and that you can’t go too wrong in what you choose. Worst comes to worst, they’ll remember you’re a poor college student on a budget and that there was only so much you could buy.
Set up a budget.
Tell yourself how much money you are willing to spend. If you are on a tight budget like me, you will want to spend as little as possible. Overestimate how much you will spend (this way, when you go under budget, you’ll feel better about yourself).
Go to 100-yen shops.
This step is not a must in this list, but it’s helpful. Japan has 100-yen shops (you can look them up online) where you can buy souvenirs for cheap. They’re like the American dollar store. Meaning, not everything is actually 100 yen, but still cheap. In the end, most people want things that can only be found in Japan. Instead of spending money on ridiculously overpriced souvenirs at tourist destinations, you can buy something from a 100-yen shop that screams Japan but hurts your wallet less. I recommend small beauty products (less than 100 ml so that they can go in your carry on) or face masks. Cool mugs are my personal favorites (wrap them in plastic bags and carry them on your carry on, so that they don’t break). Tea and snacks if you really want to scream, “I was in Japan.” Cute charms and school supplies are a good go-to as well.
Don’t go overboard.
Pace yourself. After all, if you have trips outside of Tokyo, you’ll probably want to buy things for yourself. However, it’s not like you have unlimited space. Make sure you don’t buy too much and leave room for the souvenirs for other people.
Don’t let souvenir shopping get to you too much. Have fun checking out all the cute and useful things Japan has to offer.
All the Places to Explore Will Make Saying Goodbye so Hard
Before leaving for Japan, I had so many people ask me what countries were I going to visit while studying abroad. I told them that I’d be too busy exploring Japan to be leaving it. The truth though was less glamorous. I did not have enough money to be going to a foreign country every weekend. Besides, I may be in Japan but I was still here as a student. Meaning, I still had schoolwork to be doing. In the end, I did not end up leaving the Tokyo area (except for one trip I’m currently planning and will do in two weeks). Honestly, there’s nothing wrong with that. The Tokyo area has so much to offer, that I feel like I need another two months to visit every part of it. Probably a whole year. What I have seen so far has been gorgeous and exiting.
Asakusa is where I went for my first solo trip in Japan. I had originally gone to see the Sensō-ji temple. The temple was a bit of a let-down. It was such a tourist attraction, with way too many people crowded in to enjoy the experience of being at a temple. The streets of shops, on the other hand, were great to wander through. They sold a great variety of souvenirs and Japanese sweets (wagashi). It’s also really hard to get lost because apparently every one of those shopping streets somehow lead you back to the Sensō-ji temple. Either that, or my sense of direction is just that bad.
I’m not much of a night life person, so if that’s what you want to know about, sorry, can’t help you. I did go out to Shinjuku at night once. While our planned activities turned out to be a bust, the lights and hustle and bustle of the people at night were well worth the trip. I was mostly satisfied with the amazing street magician we ended up seeing.
On a separate trip, I went to Shinjuku to see the Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens. It costs 200 yen to enter but well worth the money. In fact, I feel like they are really underselling it because the views in that park are well worth 1000 yen, if not more.
Shibuya station is huge. There’s so much to see in Shibuya so if you’re ever in Tokyo, you will end up going there. My experiences involved shopping for the most part but from what I hear it’s where the clubbing happens.
My first trip to Yokohama, I ended up going to Yamashita Park and walking alongside Ōsanbashi Pier. The waterside view was stunning. My second trip, I explored Yokohama’s Chinatown with a friend. Japan’s Chinatown is very different that the Chinatowns I’ve visited. The Chinatown in Chicago is Americanized but many Chinese people visit Chinatown and shops are more catered to Chinese Americans. Japan’s Chinatown felt like it was catered toward the Japanese. That comparison made visiting Yokohama’s Chinatown interesting.
Ueno Park is a gigantic park with a zoo and a ton of museums. You can do what I did and just wander or you can visit the zoo or one of the museums. A great tip for those wanted to save some cash: bring your own food. A easy way to spice up the trip is to give yourself a little picnic at these great scenic spots. Not a great cook? That’s fine, then just buy a meal at the conbini and bring it with you.
A great place for thrift shopping. Harajuku Chicago is a great shop to use as a starting point. The area around it has a great many thrift stores. It was amazing how many cute outfits I was able to buy for cheap.
Ginza and Kamakura are on my list and I plan to go in the next few weeks (the former for kabuki and the latter for the shrines). If you’re like me and are already stretching your wallet by coming to Japan don’t fret so much about travel. As you can see, there’s still plenty to do right within Tokyo.
What no one tells you about coming to Japan
11 weeks passed and I’m not sure if I’m used to Japan. I still don’t know much Japanese and I use more hand motions than words in my conversations with the Japanese girls on my hall. I can navigate the Metro fairly well, even without Google maps (not that I wouldn’t use Google maps, but if it stopped working I would be able to decipher the maps and ask people for help). I can confidently order food (with pointing) and I don’t feel so confused about what side of the road to be on. All these little things that were so jarring about Japan have become normal for me. I thought I should share all the little tidbits of Japan that I had wished someone had shared with me before I had arrived. These facts aren’t necessary to know beforehand and one could argue discovering these facts adds to the experience but I thought I might as well share them.
I’m sure everyone’s heard about Japan having a convenience store at every corner. If not, you know now. What I did not know about these conbini is that they also sell lunches or bentos. I can buy a box of rice, chicken, and some pickled something for roughly $4.00. Conbini makes me wonder why America is not doing the same but that’s besides the point. Turns out, when you go up to pay for your bento cashiers will say a bunch of stuff at you. Knowing no Japanese like me, you assume they are saying something about the price. They are. If you don’t catch a word of what they are saying no worries, you can look at the register for the total. After, they will say something else. The first time this happened to me, I had no idea what was being said and my cashier did not gesture to clarify, so I just shook my head no. I found out later that they were asking me if I wanted them to microwave my bento, free of charge. Next time I went up, I nodded my head and got a hot meal to take back with me.
Bicycles and Walking
Japan is an island country and much smaller than America. Tokyo is a very crowded metropolitan area. Most people take the train to go anywhere. If you have the train, a car becomes rather useless in the city. Most people in Japan have a bike. Which I had expected to some extent. I was not expecting so many people to be riding their bikes on the sidewalks. Be warned folks. One of the greatest truths I’ve ever heard was that drivers don’t like pedestrians and pedestrians don’t like drivers, but both don’t like cyclists. Some days walking to and from school can feel harrowing from avoiding cyclists. While on the topic of walking, you should know that cars are on the left side and not on the right like in America. I would have expected that to translate when walking but I feel like there is no standard side to be on when walking. Just follow along with what everyone else is doing and maybe generally stay on the left to be safe.
There are unspoken rules about escalators. I don’t know who came up with them and how every Japanese person learned them but they exist. The left side is for standing, the right side is for walking. Don’t do anything to mess that up because that’s just rude to those who’re trying to rush (I would know; I’ve been there). It’s amazing how neat Japanese people stand at the escalators. In America, people tend to clump in groups on the escalator and if it were to get crowded, I would expect jostling and pushing. Not in Japan. People stand in line here. I have to say this aspect of Japan I really enjoy because it’s nice not to have to fight to the front.
These are only three aspects of Japanese life that took me by surprise, but the list could go on. I hope you all have a chance to live in another country and find yourself stumbling through their normal as you try to find your own normal.