Vail Travel: Exploring Japan
July 26, 2010
Editor’s note: This is the first part of a four-part series about Community Editor Lauren Glendenning’s travels through Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
VAIL – When the opportunity of enough vacation time off and enough money to travel halfway around the world presented itself, there was no doubt I was going to Asia.
My boyfriend, Ryan, is a world traveler – he’s been everywhere from Norway to Brazil to New Zealand to Fiji. He had been to Southeast Asia before, to Thailand, but wanted to focus on Vietnam this time around, and it wasn’t hard to convince me that we should travel there.
Turns out the Japan Airlines flight to get us to Hanoi, Vietnam, connected in Tokyo, and extending the layover for a couple of days didn’t cost much more.
So there we were – on our way to a part of the world that we couldn’t wait to see, with a stopover in a place so radically different from the place we were headed. Even the 11-hour flight to Tokyo from San Francisco wasn’t enough time to prepare me for the world we were about to enter.
When you get off the plane in Tokyo, it looks like any other international airport. One thing I noticed right away, though, is how clean everything is in Tokyo. It’s the largest metropolitan area in the world in terms of population – with estimates putting Tokyo and the surrounding areas at more than 32 million people – yet everything was spotless.
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Another surprise is that not as many people speak English there as I imagined. Typical Americans, expecting people to speak our language wherever we go, but I really did think Tokyo would have more English speakers than we found there.
The language barrier made being there that much more exciting, though. We were somewhat helpless at first, trying to figure out the Japanese machine that spit out train tickets to get us to the city center. The Narita Airport is about a two-hour drive from downtown Tokyo and a little less than an hour by train.
An American businessman from San Francisco walked by and helped us out – he was a regular in this country and didn’t seem to stick out like we must have.
We arrived at Tokyo Station for the transfer to another subway line that would bring us to the Shiba Park Hotel, an international hotel with a history dating back to World War II.
As confusing as the subway lines seemed at first – there are lines going every which way, and there are different companies that operate various lines – it is unbelievably efficient and easy to understand. We had read in our guide book that there wouldn’t be much English in the subway stations, but we found many signs in English, including subway maps.
Being underground in the hustle and bustle of the subway chaos was one thing, but once we walked upstairs and ended up on the street, it was like we had just landed on another planet.
I’ve lived in New York City, so big cities aren’t foreign to me, but Tokyo’s bright lights and traffic were just mesmerizing.
It was April 22 – the weather was chilly, and it was drizzling. We walked through the city with smiles on our faces as we took in this amazing place.
As big a city as Tokyo is, the neighborhoods really do have their own feel and character. We fell in love with Shiba Park, just near the happening Roppongi section of town.
The main street leading up to our hotel was lined with restaurants and bars, or izakayas, as the Japanese call them. We were hungry and wanted an authentic place, so we walked around looking for the right place to stop.
Many restaurants have plastic displays of their food in the windows – something that took a little getting used to. In America, restaurants with pictures on their menus aren’t typically the best places to stop, but in Japan this is very normal and doesn’t mean anything about the quality of the place.
We picked a place that couldn’t have been more perfect. The menu, which was on the wall, was all in Japanese characters. Not a soul in the place spoke a word of English – not an employee or a patron. It was great.
We sat down and just pointed to things on other people’s tables that we thought we’d like. We didn’t know how much anything cost, but we just knew the people were honest and wouldn’t screw us around.
Who knows what we ate. We had a soup that I think had pork belly in it by the way the owner of the place patted his belly and made a gesture like a pig.
Whatever it was, it was really tasty. We had a lot of the other tables in the place laughing, too – hopefully with us rather than at us.
The place was tiny, which made it even funnier. Ryan is 6 feet, 6 inches tall – nothing in Tokyo was big enough for him, especially this restaurant.
He smiled anyway, even with his legs crammed into the underside of the table. We didn’t eat much because we were just full of adrenaline sitting here in this foreign place, surrounded by Tokyo locals.
As a table of four businessmen in the back walked by us as they were leaving, they began talking to us in a really friendly manner, although we couldn’t understand them. They asked us where we were from and then bought us a bottle of sake. It was such a wonderful gesture that somehow made us feel right at home.
What a perfect first night in this spectacular city.
Community Editor Lauren Glendenning can be reached at 970-748-2983 or firstname.lastname@example.org.