On this day exactly 10 years ago, I made my first trip to Japan with Carys. And it was this trip that sparked my love for Japan and also why I chose to move to Japan. Twice. (another story that you can read about here)
This trip was like a step into a fantasy dream land for me, and every single thing was amazing to me. And I mean e.v.e.r.y.t.h.i.n.g. Expect lots of gushing (and exclamation marks) as you look through the lens of a starry-eyed girl.
Carys and I always have the funniest and wackiest things happen to us when we are together and I’m glad that we made our first trip to Japan together. It’s a memory I treasure dearly (although some details appear to be getting fuzzy and warped with time, thus this post, before I forget even more!) and I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.
Oh, before you proceed on, I assure you that I did not rip some stranger’s photo album and posted her photos here. Carys and I were poor students. We had to scrape together money for our 2-week trip and had nothing to spare for winter clothing. Carys borrowed clothes from her mom while I borrowed from… my dad HAHAHA. Can you see where this is going already? I admit I looked HIDEOUS on this trip hahaha. But rather than embarrassment, I actually crack up from laughter and fond memories every time I see these photos. Maybe also because I no longer look like that lol.
Well, if you’ve braced yourselves, here we go!
Let me share some hilarious tidbits.
It’s just a 7 min walk to the ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) from the nearest station, but we manage to lose our way almost every. single. time. There was once we even took 30 mins. The kicker? We’ve been staying there for a few days when it happened -_- Although there weren’t Google Maps back then (imagine that!) we aren’t direction idiots either, but somehow things like that always happen when we’re together lol.
We were also extremely sceptical that an air-con could warm us and pondered for the longest time on whether or not to switch it on. All our tropical lives, air-conditioners have been used to cool the room, what do you mean it’s a heater?! But if you think about it, if the air is 10°C and the air-con is blowing out 24°C air, then yes, it makes sense that it is in fact warming the room.
We walked into a random shop and although it’s probably quite ordinary-tasting, to us it was like THE MOST DELICIOUS THING EVAR because hey, it’s our first bowl of ramen. IN JAPAN.
The same day, our first destination was…
We stayed for the night parade and when I saw the fireworks, I was stunned into silence as I thought “Wow, Japanese are amazing! Who knew fireworks could come out in such shapes and designs?!”
We may be smiling happily above, but it’s actually because our smiles were frozen in place. We were severely underdressed and did not anticipate how much temperatures drop to at night. We sprinted from shop to shop because shops were heated lol.
TIP: A thin jacket and a pair of pants is not sufficient for December nights in Japan
We bought a heat pack from one of the shops and shaked it non-stop, but that damn thing didn’t seem to work. We chucked it into our pockets and forgot about it. After a while, our thighs were burning and realized they WERE working, just that they needed to be kept in an enclosed space lol.
TIP: Heat packs do not warm up when out in the cold, no matter how vigorously you shake them
The following day, our plan was to head to Hokkaido (we bought the JR pass to train all the way up). We already researched all the train timings and connections but the bad news is… we forgot to adjust our watches to Japan time (one hour ahead) and MISSED OUR TRAINS. Lol. Brilliant stuff.
And Carys will probably vehemently deny it, possibly wiped it from her memory completely, but she was horrendous in the morning. Every morning without fail, she will keep asking for “5 more minutes” and refused to wake up! Felt like a mother hassling her daughter out of bed every single day lol. But now she’s the exact opposite. THANKS AH CARYS. Why couldn’t you have been like that last time? My life would have been so much easier! -_-;;
Our walk from the station to the accommodation in Hokkaido was, again, fraught with adversity. We spent 1.5 HOURS lost in the freezing cold (remember, it’s Hokkaido, it’s winter, and it’s at night!) It was so cold ice had formed over the walkways, and all we had were sneakers. Very slippery sneakers. Most of the time we were doing an awkward skate-balance dance rather than walking.
Carys took a fall on the icy path – spectacularly with a loud plop on the butt, if I may add – and all I could do was burst out laughing. Lol.
We only found the accommodation when a kind passerby helped us call the owner and asked for directions.
TIP: House numbers DO NOT run consecutively even though the buildings are right beside each other. Why? It’s a mystery I do not have the answers to.
And in the above picture, we have the last photo my digital camera managed to captured before it died completely. I intended to buy the travel adapter after arriving in Japan but when we went to a electronics store, we used broken Japanese from the phrasebook, wild gestures, even drawing out a plug, the power socket and my camera, but they keep shaking their heads and gesturing that they did not sell it.
TIP: Buy your travel adapters before you come to Japan
CAN YOU IMAGINE. MY FIRST JAPAN TRIP AND NO CAMERA ON THE SECOND DAY?!!!
But we had no options left.
From this point on, all photos are low-quality, grainy messes, but that’s ok because you don’t need to see my ugliness in HD lol.
BAHAHAHAHAHAHA. I told you. But hey look. SNOW!!!!!! First time seeing it that’s why random pile on the street also take photo with it haha.
Carys looks quite ok actually. Oh and the back story to this photo is that we were walking along the road and I exclaimed with delight “Look, a crane!” She turned to look at me, turned away, and rolled her eyes, thinking I’ve finally gone mad, happy over every single thing I see in Japan.
I was confused and said “But these are special because they are local to Hokkaido!”
Then she looked confused instead and glanced around. Because apparently at the EXACT moment when I asked her to look, there was another crane on the road, which is this crane:
But we burst out laughing and I forced her to take a photo for commemoration. Thank goodness I did too, because I might not remember this incident otherwise.
And what do you mean this story isn’t interesting at all. SHADDAP. It’s a precious story to me! Lol.
One of the things on the list of things we wanted to try was pachinko! So we marched into one, forced one of the staff to explain us (even though we barely understood lol) and then take a photo of us after our one try of 500 yen was gone in the blink of an eye.
TIP: Don’t waste money playing this, unless it’s just to say you played it (like us haha)
The next day, we headed to Lake Akan, which is famous for marimo!
What we DIDN’T know is that… Lake Akan freezes in winter so all cruises are closed. No marimoooo nooooooo :( No wonder there was no one else on the bus headed for the lake.
As we fed the ducks (our doughnuts), a GIGANTIC – and I seriously mean gigantic! – crow swopped down and snatched up the piece we threw to the ducks. We freaked out because the crow was so huge!!!
We turned behind and saw a ROW of crows standing at the top of the building, staring us down with their beady eyes. It was seriously a terrifying sight to behold. So terrifying that when a few more crows flew towards us, we started screaming at the top of our lungs as we took off running.
Anyone looking out their hotel window at that time would have been most amused to see two crazy girls out in the frigid cold hobbling around in the snow.
We finally collected ourselves and calmed down (after checking furtively that we weren’t about to be mauled by crows). I wanted to have photographic evidence of how big the crow was and told Carys to go stand beside it for comparison. She looked at me as if I just asked her to catch the crow with her bare hands. But I didn’t want to go near the damn bird either, so we took a photo of the crow alone (from a safe distance).
I know it doesn’t look like much, but I SWEAR. It’s HERCULEAN. The biggest crow I’ve ever seen! Compare it to the bench! It also makes frighteningly human-like sounds. *shudders* EURGH. Thinking about it gives me goosebumps.
I love Otaru! It was snowing the entire time we were there and so magical. It’s like a cute little town straight out of a christmas postcard!
It was in Otaru where we were had a taste of the generosity and kindness of Japanese. Quite literally, too.
There were many little shops in Otaru, some of which were food stalls, with delicious BBQ seafood on the grill and beckoning us in. We went into one such shop and ordered a bowl of crab miso soup (it was the cheapest thing on the menu haha). As we sat on one of the benches surrounding the heater, a group of 3 Japanese guys also entered the shop and sat on the other benches, waiting for their food. A while later, they got their grilled crab legs (one was 1,000 yen, I remember very clearly! lol) and they handed one to us!
We were all “Uh, we didn’t order this…” but after a while, we understood that they wanted us to have it! :’) It was the loveliest crab meat I’ve ever had in my life.
On a another occasion, we were in another shop. Suddenly, the shopkeeper hastily asked Carys to say thank you to a gentleman (who was already leaving the shop). She was super confused and didn’t know if she understood the lady correctly, but did so anyway. Apparently he ordered and paid for us! I don’t remember this incident at all (although I probably ate the food lolol) but Carys remembers it vividly as she had to bow to a stranger so it has to be true.
I don’t know is it because we were just two young girls traveling in such harsh weather, or the locals didn’t want us to miss out on the food we should be trying, but if I had to guess, it’s because we looked like poor country bumpkins, having only enough money to buy the cheapest thing on the menu hahaha. I think I would treat us too if I went back to the past. “These poor things, probably never ate crab meat in their lives…”LOL. Seriously though, these random acts of kindness really surprised and warmed my heart :)
Above, we are at the most expensive accommodation of our trip. $150 a night!!! We decided to splurge for this one night on a traditional inn with real, natural hot springs! It also came with a seafood buffet! WITH CRAB LEGS. Haha.
We went to the hot springs in the yukata. Major awkwardness going naked, even if it’s your bestie. We both kept our focus on the other person’s neck and above. Lol.
Some non-ugly photos of us, when we ran out of the hotel to take a photo in the snow haha
Yup. These two photos are all I have of us looking normal.
From Hokkaido to Kyoto, our outfit remains the same…
After Kyoto, we headed back to Tokyo. I realized that I have no photos with our faces in Tokyo. I’m guessing we were too depressed going around town in our arctic garb, whereas everyone else was so trendy and polished. My hair was also breaking off from the cold and extremely frizzy, and face cracking and flaking off from the dry air. ’twas a depressing time for photos.
But… I took photos of the buildings! I can navigate these places freely without even thinking now, but it’s quite nostalgic to remember my first time there! Some places have changed quite a bit since too!
Wandering these places that I’ve only read about was like a dream come true. It felt so surreal. At that moment, I thought that this must be how Alice must have felt in wonderland.
Although I didn’t speak a word of Japanese back then (oh alright, if you insist, I knew “Arigato” -_-) but despite that, I fell in love with the country all the same. If you wanted me to tell you exactly why and what I like about Japan, I can try, but I feel like I can never fully nor adequately express the reasons. Things like love and feelings are like that, aren’t they?
Everyday, I am thankful that I am living in Japan. Even 10 years on, there are still times when little things trigger memories, and the initial magic and awe I felt for Japan all comes rushing back. The smell of the conbini, the chime and announcement at the train stations, the wacky Japanese TV commercials, the omotenashi of Japanese, the mish mash of modern and traditional, wacky and cultured in this beautiful country.
This trip marked the beginning of my journey in Japan, and although rather belated, I’m quite glad I’ve finally written the opening chapter :)