If you have one week to go anywhere, halfway around the world may not be the most logical choice, but it certainly is an exciting one. Over October break, I went to visit my older sister in Tokyo, who, after graduating college, decided to pick up and move to Japan to teach English. I had not seen her in nine months, and was excited to see both her and a city–and region of the world–that were completely new to me.
I don’t think I was fully prepared for the unfamiliarity of it all. Not since I was a toddler have I experienced such complete and utter ignorance when looking at a street sign or nutrition facts; yet in Japan, I found myself searching fruitlessly for meaning in the words all around me. My helplessness to communicate in most situations was both scary and exhilarating. By the end of the week, however, I could find my way around on the subways and through the neighborhood where I was staying, and even recognize some words and characters.
We spent much of the week wandering through different neighborhoods in and around the prefecture. There was no shortage of markets, gardens and festivals to explore. We ate taiyaki, a lightly sweet fish-shaped pancake filled with red beans, in the crowded market streets of Ameya Yokocho; explored vast, lush, manicured gardens tucked right into the cityscape; and learned about the birth of Zen Buddhism at the National Museum. We paid a visit to the Kamakura Daibutsu, the Great Buddha, a stately and serene statue in the center of a temple courtyard. We even spent a little time relaxing on a beach, wading in the suprisingly balmy Pacific.
Shops were also gearing up for Halloween, excitedly advertising pastries shaped like ghosts and cats. The air was cool and the atmosphere celebratory; a lot of festivals take place in the fall, including one centered around pickled daikon radishes, which we made sure to sample.
One day we set out to climb up Mount Takao, just a short and scenic train ride from the city, with the intent of catching a glimpse of the famed Mount Fuji from the peak–the only way we, recreational hikers at best, would experience the highest mountain in the country (at least this time around). By the time we reached the summit, Fuji had receded into the clouds, but the view of the surrounding dusky blue mountain ranges was worth it.
Trying to fit everything there is to do in Tokyo into one week was folly, but we did our best to hit the must-see destinations. On my second to last day, we took the Shinkansen, the so-called bullet train, through the countryside to Kyoto, a city famous for its abundance of Buddhist temples. It was a Friday, which in Japanese is translated as “gold day;” we joined the throngs of elementary schoolers and foreign visitors to see the Kinkakuji, the famous Golden Temple–a building completely gilded to its eaves, and set back from eager sightseers on a little island on a lake. I wish I had had longer to explore Tokyo, but I feel incredibly lucky to have had just a little taste of the most populated city in the world.