This one is about my first trip to Japan and you won’t believe how special it was.
Japan used to be a country I barely knew about and was never on my bucket list. At the thought of going to Japan for the first time, I was reminded of earthquakes; especially the nightmare the Sikkim earthquake was back in 2011. Thank god I didn’t know typhoons are experienced often in the island country too. I had no choice really and I was being sent to the land of the rising sun by my mum back in the summer of 2012. (Read more) It was between the time when I had finished my first two years of engineering, wanted to get out of Sikkim and I didn’t know for sure whether I was going to Manipal. I had one week between returning from Sikkim to home and flying into Japan. I gathered all my courage and had done months of research. My mum had applied for my visa and even bought my Japan Rail pass by the time I returned home. I had that one week to pack, make final reservations, buy my SBI Vishwayatri card and do some basic reading for the study tour. Soon after, I was at the Mumbai international Airport waiting for my Singapore Airlines flight to get me to experience my first trip to Japan.
Into the captial
Two flights via Singapore; along with Family managed business students, some even twice my age, we finally arrived in Narita in the outskirts of the capital by late evening. This is my first visit to Japan. I vaguely remember gathering my backpacks and sitting in one of those fancy trains heading into the city. As I begun to catch sight of the buildings with lights on and being a nature lover I wondered, why am I even here in this urban jungle? Little did I know this trip was going to change my life forever.
I think we arrived at Ueno station and were told to catch a cab in fours. There was also some mild rain and we were given these white umbrellas with blue or pink borders which I managed to carry back to India. We were welcomed into this little hotel with single rooms and I went straight to freshen up. I still remember, I had no idea that dinner was not part of the tour so I just ate some food I carrying from home, that night. I also learnt that international roaming just wouldn’t work on my cell phone.
The one week of Tokyo was absolutely exhilarating. I fumbled but I managed to use the basic Japanese words I was taught before travelling to Japan first time. We were told to never take photos of anyone without asking. Most of all we were guided to observe and learn. We were even given a challenge so we would push ourselves to experience this unique culture. We got points for getting a haircut at a salon (one of our colleagues did), for getting a photo with a Japanese baby (trust me, that needed courage) , for visiting the onsen aka hot spring and plenty of other such activities. This trip was indeed more than just about visiting Japanese companies. I still remember how the centre of the mirror in the washroom after a hot steamy shower just wouldn’t fog. The days were about visiting companies like Uchida Yoko and Asahi Brewery while my evenings were checking off my exploration list.
One of the evenings, I visited my friend and returned back to my hotel at midnight. Mind you, I was visiting Japan for the first time and this was the first time I was abroad, by myself at 20 and that too without a working cell phone. I was scared but not one soul bothered me. That was the moment I started to trust that Japan. I was also told people will run to help you the moment you’re in trouble.
Another evening, few students volunteered to translate for us during the market research outing in Ginza. We ended that day in Akihabara, the electric capital and since they were free later I decided to hang out with them. The two Japanese students and one Chinese student took me to a temple near by and then we started to look for dinner around Ueno station. We could find nothing but Unagi aka eel in the back alleys of the station. At first I refused as images of something snake like came up in my mind. These new patient friends walked the entire alley and back to help me find something I would like even though everyone was really hungry. Finally. they suggested I give Unagi a try and if I didn’t like it, they’d finish it for me. They were even kind enough to warn me about Wasabi. And guess what I loved Unagi! These guys walked me all the way to my hotel because I was a ‘guest’. I introspected that night about if I had just agreed to try out eel in the first place, I would have saved them the trouble of walking around. I definitely learnt to never say no ever again without trying something out while I was first time travelling to Japan
Another time most of the study tour students had rented out bicycles and were sharing it with others. One of the colleagues and I just headed out to explore the city. It was so strange for me at that time to ride on footpaths and even be careful of the pedestrians. We made our stop at the river side of The Asahi building and heard some random person playing music on an instrument on my first time to travel in Japan.
I couldn’t use chopsticks back in India at all when I tried but starting from my breakfast on my first time to travel in Japan I was on it like a pro. I think it happened because all the locals around me at the buffet were so natural while travelling to Japan first time.
Over the first weekend we all had to do a homestay on this first trip to Japan. The bus took us to a community Centre like area where we were welcomed by our hosts. I couldn’t speak Japanese and my host would mostly speak Japanese. Yet we had such an amazing time and we met every time we could cross paths in the past eight years. My hosts were a mother and son duo and I stayed over at theirs for a night. We went for a school cleaning event together and then to explore the old town of Kawagoe. We had some interesting exchange of thoughts and I learnt that language was no barrier. If both parties were keen enough, it could be done over body language and translators, with some effort. I got a chance to understand Japanese home school life. I also saw how important it was to shower at night and go to bed clean while visiting Japan for the first time.
I finally arrived at the birthplace of the very famous Toyota by the fastest bullet train that runs in Japan, the Nozomi while I was first time travelling to Japan. Again we were taught to observe the bowing of heads by the crew while entering or leaving the car, lining up to get into the train, airplane like food carts, extremely interesting shopping magazines with the latest technology and most of all the efficient cleaning process at the end of the journey. I loved how the train seats turned around depending on the direction on the train journey and you could do that if you had an entire group. We visited Toyota, Denso and some other companies too. I saw how hard they strived for perfection at work and meet customers demands.
And this was just the beginning of my fascination for Japan. I had learnt how technically advanced they were on this first trip to Japan, I had used my partial freedom to explore some parts but this was just my story of 9 days and there were 21 more amazing days to go. Stay tuned for my stories of the rest of my tryst with the land of the rising sun.