The Tokyo Trip: Hajimemashite

Finally, I managed to tick off one city off my travel bucket list, as DragonAir flight 362 landed at 1:05 p.m. at Tokyo’s Narita Airport on October 10th.

I’ve been wishing to visit Japan since I was a kid, and finally it is happening.

I had both happy and sad tales to share about the country and its people.

My paternal grandfather was killed in action as a member of the United States Army Forces in the Far East while fighting against the Japanese Imperial Army. As far as I can remember, her remains were never recovered, and he sadly became part of the statistics associated with World War 2. (Everytime I share this family history with Japanese friends or colleagues, I get a deep bow of apology from them.)

However, I was also a scholarship recipient of a generous grant from a philanthropic organisation called the Relief Association of South-east Asia, which provided me with free high school education, book subsidies, and superior Japanese-made stationery handed out to us at a welcome party attended by us recipients and our Japanese sponsors. Every grading period, I write to my Japanese benefactors, Kesheiro Saeki, Coco Izumi, Heiji Matsumoto, and Yasukazu Kigasawa, among others. I seldom receive responses, except from Ms. Izumi, who seemed so excited in every letter she wrote to me.

Also, I live in Mintal, a barangay in Davao City with a strong connection to Japanese culture. Pre-war Mintal was considered Davao City’s Little Tokyo, where the Japanese settled and built infrastructure such as hospital, school and cemetery. Japanese relics are said to have been found and have since attracted visitors from Japan, including the late Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

After university, I applied for a Monbusho scholarship but failed. I was hoping to land a postgraduate study grant at one of the designated Japanese universities, where I could further hone my chosen field of work.

That strong association made me even more interested in visiting Japan.

First impressions were impressive

A surge of adrenaline blended with the brisk October air as I walked off the plane onto the crowded runway of Narita Airport, setting the tone for my first contact with Japan. As pen friends Nobue Ozawa and Rie Takahashi had previously mentioned in their letters, the cool breeze gave off a sense of fall and hinted at an excursion rich in red and gold hues.

I was greeted with signage emblazoned with elegant characters dancing in a language alien to my ears as I navigated the complicated web of Narita Airport. The early seconds were a pleasant puzzle for someone who could not speak Japanese. The airport staff’s civility and efficiency, on the other hand, created an immediate sense of warmth as I stammered through a few simple sentences and gestures of thankfulness.

I then took the bus ride to Minami-Motomachi in Shinjuku to stay at my friend and former Hong Kong flatmate Jun Angulo’s place.

Japanese homes: efficiency in limited spaces

Entering a Japanese home as a foreigner is often a lesson in the art of compact efficiency. In the limited space available — apartment rentals are at par with Hong Kong which are among the most expensive on the planet — every nook and cranny is carefully considered, resulting in a living environment that is not only small but also remarkably neat and well-arranged. Jun explained how he overcame initial culture shock when he arrived: rental documents in Japanese, the concept of “key money” (reikin) and large security deposits (shikikin), neighbourhood etiquette, and rubbish segregation.

Japanese living spaces exemplify efficiency and meticulous organisation within small confines. Living rooms feature minimalist furniture, maximising floor space. Kitchens showcase compact designs with clever storage solutions that are accessible to shops like Japan Home, Miniso and Daiso. Bathrooms are pristine, emphasising space optimisation and high-tech amenities. Bathtubs may be deeper than in the West, and shower facilities are smoothly integrated. Toilets with several functions demonstrate Japanese technological strength in a small footprint.

Such amazement is a manifestation of the fact that travel teaches us so many things. Exploring Japan unveils a tapestry of efficiencies, from home interior arrangements to seamless public transport systems. These first-hand experiences inspire personal reflections on how such principles and methods can be adopted and integrated back home. The lessons extend beyond geography, fostering a global perspective and a nuanced appreciation for diverse approaches to efficiency and societal functioning.

Solo traveller impressions

I proceeded on a solo adventure through the bustling streets and tranquil parks of Tokyo, where the metropolis breathes with life and tradition perfectly merges with modernity. As I explored the intricate web of trains and on foot, immersing myself within Tokyo’s neighbourhoods, I blended with locals who go about their daily routine as the cold fall breeze offered comfort for the pedestrian explorer.

The autumn air in a serene street of suburban Tokyo, under a lush green canopy, embraces a crisp tranquilly, carrying the whispers of rustling leaves and the subtle promise of changing seasons.

Shibuya, a buzzing city known for its famed Shibuya Crossing, a spectacle of organised anarchy, was my first stop. I found myself overwhelmed by a wave of individuals crossing the intersection with purpose when the pedestrian lights synchronised. The neighbouring Hachiko Statue, a symbol of fidelity, stood stoically as a monument to man and dog’s enduring bond. Shibuya’s neon lights shone against the evening sky, producing an electric environment that embodied Tokyo’s spirit.

Next, I explored Shinjuku’s maze-like streets, where towering skyscrapers coexisted with serene parks. Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, with its finely designed grounds and seasonal blossoms, offered a tranquil respite from the city’s bustle. A pair of futuristic buildings, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, provided panoramic views of the metropolis. One would wonder how Japanese building technology overcame the perennial threat of tremors that have inflicted significant damage, such as the 7.4 magnitude Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995 and the 2011 Tohoku earthquake that killed almost 20,000 people and left more than 2,500 missing.

The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in Shinjuku is a 243-meter-tall building with two towers.

Omotesando Avenue enticed with its elegance and high-end retailers. The tree-lined avenue, studded with architectural marvels, exemplified Tokyo’s blend of modern and natural beauty. The renowned Tokyo Plaza Omotesando Harajuku stood as a beacon of avant-garde design, a great backdrop for photo-weary tourists or folks who are just out to do people watching while sipping a cup of coffee.

I arrived at the beautiful gates of Asakusa Temple, where the air was thick with spirituality. Lanterns fluttered gently in the breeze, providing an ethereal illumination on the route leading to the famous Thunder Gate, also known as “Kaminarimon” in Japanese. It is the outer gate entrance to Asakusa’s Senso-ji Temple. It is one of the area’s most recognisable and historically significant landmarks. The entrance is ornamented with a giant crimson lantern known as “Chochin,” which weighs several tonnes and acts as a good luck symbol. The gate is flanked by two towering statues, Fujin (the god of wind) and Raijin (the god of thunder), which create a feeling of grandeur and cultural richness.

The aroma of incense blended with the lively conversation of merchants selling traditional items and street food as I strolled through the crowded Nakamise Shopping Street.

Thanks to this random stranger’s photo, Asakusa Temple is now a peaceful haven in the middle of Tokyo, close to the busy Nakamise Shopping Street, where one can browse the local stalls and shops.

I travelled from the peaceful Asakusa to Takeshita Dori in Harajuku, which is a swirl of vibrant colours and avant-garde clothes. As unusual businesses lured with unconventional fashions, the little street pulsed with youthful energy. I immersed in the unique charm of Harajuku fashion among the bustling crowd, visiting businesses that dared to flout convention.

The street shook to the beat of Tokyo’s avant-garde heartbeat and was a trip through Tokyo’s whimsical side, where each step felt like a plunge into a bright carnival of self-expression. Neon signage and manga-inspired art decorated the walls of establishments, creating a strange ambience that seemed like walking into an anime world. Takeshita Dori revealed a distinct blend of ingenuity and youthful excitement that lingered in the air as I wandered beyond the gate.

Harajuku’s Takeshita Dori is a bustling and eclectic sanctuary where vivid apparel, quirky businesses, and a lively, mixed community converge.

Tucked away in the narrow streets were unique cafes and dessert shops, where I indulged in creative sweets that reflected Harajuku’s weirdness. Each culinary invention, from cotton candy clouds to rainbow-colored ice creams, was a monument to Tokyo’s culinary inventiveness.

The transition from Asakusa Temple’s ageless elegance to Takeshita Dori’s explosive vibrancy encapsulated Tokyo’s dichotomy—a city that simultaneously blended heritage and cutting-edge trends. I felt the pulse of Tokyo with every step—a metropolis that revelled in its contrasts, inviting me to explore its many facets and create memories as vivid as the city itself.

Leaving Tokyo, I took a train to Yokohama, a coastal city brimming with marine charm. The massive Cosmo Clock 21 Ferris Wheel dominated the skyline as I went along Yokohama Bay. Its brilliant illumination against the nighttime sky represented the vivacious spirit of the city. The Landmark Tower stood proudly, a rising tribute to Yokohama’s modernism, with stunning vistas of the Yokohama Bay Bridge and beyond.

Yokohama’s waterfront exudes a captivating charm with iconic landmarks such as the Cosmo Clock Ferris Wheel

The efficient train system neatly connected the dots of my tour, whisking me away to new delights in each neighbourhood. Tokyo showed itself in the gentle hues of fall, a palette that painted my solo adventure with amazing moments of discovery and connection. I marvelled at Tokyo’s capacity to embrace solitude and connection in equal measure as the chilly breeze whispered tales of the city’s past and present.

Food delights

Ramen establishments along Tokyo’s winding alleyways emanated an enticing perfume as steam billowed from cooking soup pots. From the bustling, narrow lanes of bustling Shinjuku to the tucked-away gems in quiet neighbourhoods, where committed consumers slurped noodles with passion, each business had its own signature style.

A look of a satisfied customer after a hearty sushi meal. Photo: Joanne Alinsunurin.

Sushi establishments, with their sleek wooden counters and gifted chefs, elevated dining to an art form, as both locals and tourists savoured the subtle dance of flavours at the core of Tokyo’s culinary fabric. The streets resonated with the beautiful cadence of sushi knives and sizzling ramen bowls, creating an ensemble of gastronomic delights.

My quick vacation to Tokyo was a treasure trove of discovery, flawlessly shifting from the quiet Senso-ji Temple in Asakusa to the bright mayhem of Shibuya Crossing, all traversed via fast, efficient public transportation and leisurely strolls through diverse neighbourhoods.

The cityscape unfolded with iconic landmarks such as the Tokyo Tower and Meiji Shrine, while culinary experiences ranged from savouring piping hot ramen in bustling alleys to indulging in the precision and artistry of sushi in intimate local joints, leaving me with a vivid memory of Tokyo’s culture and flavours in just a few unforgettable days.

Thank you, Jun Angulo, Joanne Alinsunurin, and SFC Tokyo.

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