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"I'll find my way home while exploring the galaxy"

Day 363: Turning Japanese (I really think so)

I'm turning Japanese
I think I'm turning Japanese
I really think so.

- The Vapors

I couldn't think of a more perfect place to end the trip than Japan.

Never in my life have I questioned whether or not I somehow got some Japanese blood in me (half joking), which I'll get into in a bit. I think of all the Asian ethnicities I've been mistaken for, Japanese ranks as number one on the list - for reasons I was so eagerly curious to find out about (maybe because of whole Japanese migration to Brazil? The eyes? The seemingly universal lack of actually being able to tell any and all of the Asians apart?). My extent of Japanese culture boiled down to the basics of what American culture imported -- tamagotchis, origami, POCKY (extra !!! for Pocky), haikus, sushi, ramen, Mochi, Marie kondo, yayoi kasuma, harajuku girls, karaoke, Pokemon (cuz yes, I admit, i was a fan growing up), the Karaote Kids and Kill Bills of the world -- to the more traumatic moments of our not so distant past: Pearl Harbor and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. 

Yet, being Chinese (unless DNA results prove otherwise), I received some mixed messages growing up. On the one hand, mom has always spoken so highly of the Japanese as they were her Asian friends of choice in the two years she studied at Beijing university. On the other, her father (my grandfather) felt quite the opposite as his own father was kidnapped by the Japanese during the war. Such distant traumas are not easily forgotten, and that I can respect. Even in one recently memorable tuk tuk ride in Cambodia with four other Asian travelers (memorable simply because meeting other Asian backpackers is so rare, that to get them all in one tuk tuk is the absolute last thing you'd expect), we all somehow got onto the topic of our grandparents sentiments about the Japanese, with one clear takeaway: they were all negatively affected by the war with Japan. And the effect was pretty natural: breeding some deep seated racism. So why bring all this up now?

Well, all the politics, collective traumas and pop cultural imports aside, Japan couldn't have been any further from one of the most fascinating and familiar places to me, ever. It's something I just had to experience firsthand myself. And mind you, even after landing in Narita airport, I hadn't even googled "Japan" once. I was still very much riding the chill wave of Koh Phangan, and resisting the inevitable culture shock that first world expensive Tokyo living would bring. I mean, it's a city of 35 million people that was listed as most livable city in the world circa monocle's recent edition. Yet, in the far reaches of my highly romanticized mind, Tokyo was reduced to movie scene montage after movie scene montage. Translation: It's ridiculous how far off I was. Let me illustrate the absolute wonder and delight that is Japanese culture, starting with day one of Tokyo, quite literally when we stepped off the plane.

Tokyo Day One

The plane was descending into Narita Airport, and at exactly that very moment, my stomach started to turn. Nooooooooo, was it? Yes it was.

But was it?

I hadn't had food poisoning since the April days of Vietnam, and something about this moment felt all too familiar. I'll spare you the details.

The plane lands, finally, and after what seems like hours of waiting on long bureaucratic lines to officially enter the country of Japan, I make a serious b-line jet to the nearby bathroom. And that's when everything changed (and not in the way you think). 

Upon entering the bathroom stall, my attention did a complete 180. Directly to the right of where you'd sit down, a panel of six or seven buttons labelled in Japanese with brail and some very thoughtfully crafted symbols communicating proper bathroom etiquette commanded my undivided attention despite the very time sensitive situation at hand. The button that turns on white sounds to literally obstruct whatever business is happening on the toilet put my entire system at ease. Hands down, the best bathroom experience (one of many I would soon discover) ever.

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From the airport, we boarded the airport limousine shuttle to the Grand Hyatt, only minutes away from John's place (old friend of Wylie's, who has called Tokyo home for the last 9 years). Reminiscent of that feeling of stepping onto first world soil back in Hong Kong circa August, Tokyo was similar -- that is, until I realized it was on a whole other level. Actually, let me rephrase it. Japanese culture in general is just on a whole other level. 

After settling into john's and experiencing the simple luxuries of brushing our teeth with faucet water, which could have easily been the highlight of my day, we decided to go on a stroll around Roppongi. Imagine quiet residential streets right off busy fancy developments, including towers housing all the great tech companies of the world. Within less than a ten minute walk from the apartment, we found ourselves strolling through a Chelsea market type plaza buzzing with real live food porn -- we're talking $8 grapes (meaning $8 for one grape) that are perfect in color and shine and almond croissants that have a texture a hundred times more magnificent than any you've had before. Was this place real?

#thejapanesemakeverythingbetter

Then it came time to eat. As john was suddenly called into an emergency Sunday afternoon work situation, we were thrown into our first quintessential Japanese moment. Before jetting, John took us into a restaurant that apparently had a vegetable section. As we weren't ready to give up the vegetarian ways quite yet, we studied the menu long and hard before putting in our order. The server came back minutes later using the very minimal English she had to tell us the soup was based in a fishy broth. Wylie and I did the telepathic nod of "let's find another place," after which Wylie politely told the server we would leave. Unable to fully grasp even that, I tried a second time to apologetically tell her we were leaving. After a few rounds, it finally clicked. And how did I know? The five or six exchanges of "I'm so sorry!" And "thank you very much!" coupled with synchronized bowing while she quite literally followed us out the door! An outsider looking in would have mistaken our exchange for a game called "who can bow the lowest and longest." She obviously won. Probably one of the most unusually drawn out exchanges, yet one that spoke volumes about Japanese people pleasing ways. And perhaps my own people pleasing ways? Yes. 

Our stomachs were about to fall out, so we made a dash for a hole in the wall ramen house not too far from the plaza. I control-f scanned the menu to find one labelled with vegetables and quickly made an order. And as our karma had it, we had ordered the vegetable ramen based in a creamy pork broth. Smoky, rich and full of flavor. Today was certainly a day of "firsts in a year." What was one more surprise?

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After a rich meal, we naturally found ourselves strolling the streets. It was insane that a city of 35 million people on a Sunday no less could sound like this: eerily quiet. Not a loud peep anywhere. No honking. Nothing. The loudest sound to grace airwaves were the abnormally large black crows flying through the sky. If there is any antidote to China's volumes, Japan is definitely it. 

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In conclusion: So many firsts in a first class city. And this was only day one!

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I Spy a Storefront Obsession

Of all the Japanese things to fall in love with, the Japanese storefront was the least likely of contenders. I can’t tell you how many minutes I’ve spent in total admiring the storefront, taking photos of the storefront, and dreaming up all the ways Wes Anderson would be capturing the storefront. The mastery of zen, symmetry and and overall vibes execution had me googly eyed for days.

Wandering the residential streets of Roppongi

Wandering the residential streets of Roppongi

And then onto old town Asakusa

And then onto old town Asakusa

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Casual cone meets crystal 

Casual cone meets crystal 

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Delighting in the Stranger Things

Eons before I knew I’d ever be traveling to Japan, I had heard of this mythical vending machine in the land of Japan that sells old/used underwear for the kinky minded human. How could that not pique your interest? Well, I never found this vending machine but in the process, stumbled on some even stranger things. No rhyme to the reason, just simply a staple for the sake of absurdity. It made me happy that the Japanese take on a culture of ‘no niche left behind.’ A little something weird for just about every weirdo out there, including me!

Wylie made me.

Wylie made me.

Does it get any more absurd? 

Does it get any more absurd? 

I’ll leave this one up to the imagination

I’ll leave this one up to the imagination

What's up with this leopard onesie? 

What's up with this leopard onesie? 

I support advertisements that promote interracial relations 

I support advertisements that promote interracial relations 

You can game-ify anything these days?

You can game-ify anything these days?

Crepe o clock ain’t no joke. It’s a serious staple in the costume played up neighborhood of Harajuku 

Crepe o clock ain’t no joke. It’s a serious staple in the costume played up neighborhood of Harajuku 

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The crepe eating cool kids 

The crepe eating cool kids 

Crepe o clock continues 

Crepe o clock continues 

Until it's over.

Until it's over.

Pokemon makes me want to buy a facial kid. Obviously.

Pokemon makes me want to buy a facial kid. Obviously.

Guess there’s a market for cats that wanna be bunnies 

Guess there’s a market for cats that wanna be bunnies 

Why not?

Why not?

Lightbulbs are the new mason jars 

Lightbulbs are the new mason jars 

In case you were confused, the Japanese have made their bathroom rules VERY clear

In case you were confused, the Japanese have made their bathroom rules VERY clear

If you like sushi AND cats, then surely you’ll want to buy this t-shirt!

If you like sushi AND cats, then surely you’ll want to buy this t-shirt!

Toast is making a serious comeback in the dessert industry

Toast is making a serious comeback in the dessert industry

ROBOT RESTAURANT! Don’t ask questions - I know nothing

ROBOT RESTAURANT! Don’t ask questions - I know nothing

There's a whole neighborhood dedicated to the Soka Gakkai in Tokyo vs. the one culture center in New York. OG status!

There's a whole neighborhood dedicated to the Soka Gakkai in Tokyo vs. the one culture center in New York. OG status!

Mindful Mornings in Tokyo (Yoga to the Donny’s)

Believe it or not, mindful mornings can (and seriously should) be done in a city as big as Tokyo, read: 35 million humans. In case you haven’t heard, mindful mornings is a little experiment born out of Suan Mokkh’s silent meditation retreat circa late September 2017. The truest test of any mindful practice is, of course, how much mindfulness it can bring in a city like Tokyo! Am I right? Apparently, our friend Johnny (Donny #3 WHAT UP) took to it. Look at us being yoga champs on his rooftop, following by a hearty breakfast featuring the occasional warrior two photo shoot.

Also, sidenote: If you're wondering why I called (and still continue to call) Johnny 'Donny,' it may be part nostalgia for funny New York accents and part excitement for indulging in funny New York accents. 

Rooftop views of Roppongi 

Rooftop views of Roppongi 

Donny leading a class of Donny's (aka Wylie leads a yoga class)

Donny leading a class of Donny's (aka Wylie leads a yoga class)

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Two warriors at breakfast

Two warriors at breakfast

ALSO, in unrelated news, we also sat down with Johnny/Donny for Experiments. Look at all that mindfulness glowing and flowing!

ALSO, in unrelated news, we also sat down with Johnny/Donny for Experiments. Look at all that mindfulness glowing and flowing!

Mindful mornings = more mindfully sought out experiences in a city of 35 million humans!

Mindful mornings = more mindfully sought out experiences in a city of 35 million humans!

Yoyogi Park is a much needed oasis for refuge, especially after chowing down on one too many crepes in nearby Harajuku 

Yoyogi Park is a much needed oasis for refuge, especially after chowing down on one too many crepes in nearby Harajuku 

Wylie in his element (looking up at trees)

Wylie in his element (looking up at trees)

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The Japanese Way

Did you catch the hashtag I sneakily (but not so sneakily) posted earlier? 

#thejapanesemakeeverythingbetter

Well, it’s true and tested, sometimes. For all things fish and sushi related, that’s a no brainer. And for all other foods, especially fruits, Pocky flavors, and seven eleven egg salad sandwiches, there was seriously no comparison. 

Have you ever seen such perfect grapes?

Have you ever seen such perfect grapes?

Or such perfectly cut crust surrounding the fluffiest of egg omelettes? 

Or such perfectly cut crust surrounding the fluffiest of egg omelettes? 

$100 for ONE watermelon! Good for gifting your fancy colleagues 

$100 for ONE watermelon! Good for gifting your fancy colleagues 

They take the almond croissant and infuse it with that perfect Japanese touch. Moisture levels, high.

They take the almond croissant and infuse it with that perfect Japanese touch. Moisture levels, high.

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When in Japan, eat sushi (even if you've decided to go vegetarian). Worth it!!!

When in Japan, eat sushi (even if you've decided to go vegetarian). Worth it!!!

POCKY

POCKY

OR DIE! On a more reflective note though:  A regular biscuit coated in flavor would be well, pretty regular.  The uniquely Pocky shape seems to give what should seemingly taste regular, a whole new dimension. Pocky is delicious because of the shape. Seriously, who would have known? The Japanese!

OR DIE! On a more reflective note though:

A regular biscuit coated in flavor would be well, pretty regular.  The uniquely Pocky shape seems to give what should seemingly taste regular, a whole new dimension. Pocky is delicious because of the shape. Seriously, who would have known? The Japanese!

Dream coat 

Dream coat 

Dream baby outfit 

Dream baby outfit 

Japanese schoolkids in their matching fishermen hat

Japanese schoolkids in their matching fishermen hat

Even in the realm of experience (much like the overly detailed bathroom anecdote I shared earlier), the Japanese seem to have thought through all possible efficiencies and improvements, and nailed it EVERY time. Though sometimes, in the case of taxi rides, there are other more subtle complexities at play.

Case in point, let’s look at the experience of riding a taxi from the perspective of a ‘user journey’: you hail a taxi, and as it pulls up, you notice the door slowly opening automatically from the inside. Awesome! As you enter the cab and take a seat, the driver turns around in perfectly choreographed fashion to ask you whereabout you’re going. After soaking in the immediate wash of customer service, you also notice his pearly white gloves and the impeccability of his entire outfit, including one of those super retro conductor hats. So fresh! The ride is flawlessly executed, so much so that you forgot where you were even going. Upon arriving, you pay for the fare and profusely thank the driver for an A plus experience. That is, until you go to open the door. It doesn’t open. 

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I prefer the taxi

I prefer the taxi

Oh right, it’s automatic and must not be touched, ever. The driver is in control and you are at his whim, begging the question: at what point does automating the experience for efficiency make you realize you, and we, are all simply cogs in the machine of an orderly man made society? Aka the matrix. Think about it.

Anyways, without turning this into a Black Mirror episode, I still commend the Japanese for carving out a special touch that is very distinctly Japanese. 

Onward to Kyoto

Pocky in my mouth Riding on a bullet train Coming, Kyoto  #haikuforyou

Pocky in my mouth
Riding on a bullet train
Coming, Kyoto

#haikuforyou

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After a week in Tokyo, I was ready to peace out, literally. Needed something a little cooler and calmer, which worked out ever so perfectly as Kyoto was just that — a collegiate, young bike town with over 2000 shrines and temples. Plus, it’s little claim to fame: the motherland of Nintendo. It was here that I made the connection as to why Japanese people are as people pleasing as they are — the hundreds and hundreds of years of revering emperor as God has literally carried over into modern day culture. When I wasn’t sampling all the Japanese mochi in this outdoor market and that artisanal dessert shop, I was most likely getting a neck workout, looking up at all the beautiful bonsai trees landscaped to perfection. Plus, the most unexpected surprise was the Monkey Park up in the mountains overlooking the most beautiful view of the city. It was in that moment of staring out onto silhouettes of monkey bodies big and small lining Kyoto’s skyline that I was reminded — things do appear clearer outside in nature. The monkey in me found the peace I was looking for.

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Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto - today a year ago, Wylie left his corporate cubicle to join me on this crazy adventure <3

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto - today a year ago, Wylie left his corporate cubicle to join me on this crazy adventure <3

Hail to all the Japanese chefs

Hail to all the Japanese chefs

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Gold ice cream is a thing, and it costs $9 too!

Gold ice cream is a thing, and it costs $9 too!

All of my favorite things: Pocky and pigtails&nbsp;

All of my favorite things: Pocky and pigtails 

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What you see in Wylie's hands? No big deal, simply a two sided double paged bike parking receipt which outlines ALL the bike laws that you best not break, citing the corresponding section AND article of law (otherwise: fat fines and quite possibly, prison?). WTF!

What you see in Wylie's hands? No big deal, simply a two sided double paged bike parking receipt which outlines ALL the bike laws that you best not break, citing the corresponding section AND article of law (otherwise: fat fines and quite possibly, prison?). WTF!

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There's a special fragrance in the Japanese air, and it's quite indescribable.&nbsp;The only catch --&nbsp;you smell it once, never twice. I was overjoyed to find the source (only once, never twice) &lt;3

There's a special fragrance in the Japanese air, and it's quite indescribable. The only catch -- you smell it once, never twice. I was overjoyed to find the source (only once, never twice) <3

Wylie in his element: in a tree.

Wylie in his element: in a tree.

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Wylie in his other element: under a tree.

Wylie in his other element: under a tree.

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Can someone explain why we need reminding of these safety points? Replace these monkeys with humans, and wouldn't the same rules apply? Hm...

Can someone explain why we need reminding of these safety points? Replace these monkeys with humans, and wouldn't the same rules apply? Hm...

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Last Stop: Hiroshima (Hero-shima)

They say timing is everything, and it hasn’t rung any truer than on our short trip to Hiroshima. Let me remind you - North Korea seems to be locked and loaded in all the ways, so venturing over to Hiroshima at this moment in time felt relevant, important and inevitably, haunting.

Tangentially, I had bought some origami paper the day before in Kyoto, and was excited to get my hands back into the art of folding, otherwise known as origami. And when I say origami, I mean I can make one thing: the paper crane. Following my curiosity to wikipedia, I found out that the paper crane was actually very mystically tied to the bombing of Hiroshima. Apparently, a girl by the name of Sadako was two years old living in Hiroshima when the bomb came down. She didn’t simply survive, but also thrived as a healthy and happy kid in Japan. That is, until she turned twelve and came down with purple legions all over her body. The doctors were confused at first as they couldn’t identify what these were, but soon discovered that the spots were a form of leukemia resulting from the long term effects of radiation. Sadako spent the next year in a hospital. Her hospital friend told her about an old Japanese legend that says if you fold 1000 paper cranes, any wish you make will come true. And with that, she spent the entire year folding cranes. A year later, Sadako passed away having folded 644 cranes. The remaining were folded by friends, family and other loved ones and buried with Sadako where she now rests in peace. Today, a monument called the Children’s Peace Memorial was erected in honor of Sadako and all the other innocent children who died in Hiroshima as a result of the atomic bomb. Paper cranes have become the symbol of world peace and solidarity as the Japanese actively forge their stance on “forgive, but never forget.” 

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I had grown up folding paper cranes with mom and grandma, so this story took me by complete surprise. It was childhood nostalgia coming into the reality of a moment in history so painful and unacceptable. As you can imagine, the day of learning and walking around Peace Memorial Park was an emotionally charged one. Outside the A-bomb dome, one of the only structures that didn’t completely fall under the bomb’s impact, an in-utero survivor by the name of Miko shared his story. In the spirit of wanting to connect with others to share his unfiltered experience, he has been committed to educating people for 11 years exploring the infinite outdoor space as his classroom of choice. 

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A Bomb Dome in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

A Bomb Dome in Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

As I walked over to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, I crossed a shaded grassy patch filled with young school children in uniform and bright yellow matching caps. They were seated on the lawn in their uniquely quiet way, crouching over small bento boxes of sushi and other colorful foods. The fragility and vulnerability of adorable Japanese school kids overwhelmed me with intensity. It brought me closer to the question that had been spinning my brain all day: is there any more obvious evidence for history potentially repeating itself? Have our so called leaders learning anything? 

Anyways, siting with the uncomfortable has become somewhat of a practice this past year. Realizing the magnitude of something so intense can feel isolating, but with the mindfulness gained, I now know this too shall pass.

I folded some paper cranes that evening, and the inner child found peace.

Those Final Moments

As the final days crept of Japan into reality, we were soon off to Tokyo for a final hoorah.

I spy some good looking Donny's!

I spy some good looking Donny's!

We arrived back in Tokyo on what Donny officially claimed was the first day of fall. The temperature was certainly much colder and the experience of a new season was very much exciting and welcome. Transition in motion all around, as we approached not just our final day of Japan but also our entire year of traveling. 

On the morning of our final day, we mustered the motivation for one final mindful morning in a nearby park in Roppongi. Since Wylie had dropped an exceptionally heavy vacuum on his toe the day earlier, we kept it pretty light and yin. Three Donny’s in the park amidst a sea of moving moms and their strollers. Apparently, the sequence was interesting enough to attract a few eyeballs nearby, translating into Japanese women following along discreetly from afar (so Wylie says). Long live the Mindful Morning.

And in those final hours before the airport, we strolled through a grassy patch of manicured lawn. The mental noise faded for a few moments and it became clear. 

We did it!

A year and two days later :)

A year and two days later :)

Tiffany Wen