Angel and I spent the last week on a summer holiday, celebrating both of our birthdays in Tokyo! It was a first trip to Japan for the both of us, and before I write some more in-depth posts about our biggest adventures of the trip, I first wanted to do an overview, highlighting some of the things that surprised us along the way.
No matter how much research you do ahead of time, visiting a new country for the first time always brings a few surprises, because you never truly know what to expect when you haven't been there yet. And, it turns out, we always have our little preconceptions about a place, even if we try not to--and oftentimes those preconceptions are proven to be false when confronted by reality.
1. This looks like Godzilla. I completely did not expect to see him in Tokyo. This was quite a surprise, although perhaps it shouldn't have been. I mean, Tokyo is sort-of where he belongs, right?
2. I did not expect to see so many people wearing sensible shoes. I'm not sure why I had this idea, but I expected to see a lot more people walking around in highly fashionable, very impractical footwear. Maybe this impression came from the fact that I view Japan as a very fashion-forward country, and when we lived in ShenZhen, it was very normal to see people hiking trails, working out, and going to the beach in platforms, high heels, and ballet flats. So I was surprised by how few interesting shoes I saw in Tokyo. The vast majority of people were wearing sensible dress shoes or comfortable sneakers--like the sneakers I spent the whole trip in. Which Angel had to tie everyday because when I tie my own shoes they always come untied within 20 minutes....
3. I did not expect pets to be so expensive. I don't like pet stores, but Angel was magnetically drawn to one in Shibuya and I followed him in so as not to get lost. That man can't resist the charms of either a dog or a cat, in spite of being allergic to them. I don't understand Japanese well enough to know exactly which of those numbers is the the price, if any, but all of them are very, very large numbers, enough to make me think that there might be puppies in this world more valuable than my entire net worth, which is a thought I'd never considered before.
4. Payphones! They're everywhere! You guys, I was born in the 90s. I've never used a payphone, only have vague memories of seeing them in the USA when I was kid. But there were phone booths along a number of streets, and Angel actually attempted to use one to get in touch with the owner of our Airbnb apartment.
5. Flowers! This flower-lover was so impressed by all the beautiful and neatly-organized flowerbeds and gardens in all sorts of places. I'm used to the looks of Malaysia and the climate here--in dry season, everything dies, and even during the rainy season, our most beautiful green areas have more of a wild overgrown jungle beauty than that beauty of an orderly garden filled with exuberant flowers. I loved walking the flower-lined walkways in various parts of Tokyo.
6. So many people! Perhaps I was too arrogant. I thought--I've lived in a big city in China, I've traveled extensively in Hong Kong, I'm prepared for any kind of crowded areas that Tokyo can throw at me. Nope. Tokyo totally has Hong Kong and ShenZhen beat, that's for sure. Definitely some of the most crowded trains and streets I've been on in my life.
7. I liked the food!! I was surprised by this. I will admit that I'm a picky eater. I don't eat seafood at all, and all of my friends kept telling me that I had to eat sushi in Japan. This kind of put me in mind that I wouldn't like the food in Japan, so I was pleasantly surprised to find that I loved everything I ate (none of which was sushi). Bagels seemed widely available (it's really, really hard to find good bagels where we live, so that was a welcome and surprising treat!). We stopped at many bakeries to enjoy fresh, delicious baked treats. Nearly every convenience store had bags of salty popcorn (popcorn is just about my all-time favorite food). I also at plenty of ramen and had various dishes of rice and beef or dumplings, and everything was delicious.
8. Free ice water at restaurants and food courts. Coming from a land where you always have to buy a drink, or at least order it (some restaurants give you water for free if you order it, but at plenty of places, you will still pay a small charge for ice water, or else you have to buy bottled mineral water)--this was a very pleasant surprise. We kept thinking we'd have to order a drink, only to find a station at the mall food court with cups and a cold water tap, or else we'd go into a little ramen shop and the table would already have a pitcher of ice water on it. This ice-cold water tap was at DisneySea--even there you could just walk into a food court and grab a cool drink in the middle of a hot day.
9. Street performers! I was surprised by how many street performers we saw--it's been a while since I've traveled or lived anywhere that really had street performers. Hanger-Man was the most exciting, with his act that involved jumping into a wire hanger while balancing on a board that balanced on top of a pipe. He also jumped over baby dolls while riding a unicycle. A thrilling performance!
10. I did not expect to see so many women wearing yukata. Again, I think I was influenced by what you see in Malaysia--for example, here, in the Indian community, you see plenty of older women wearing saris on any sort of day, but you really only see young women wearing traditional clothing for special occasions, i.e. holidays, weddings, ceremonies. But I noticed many young women wearing beautiful yukata wherever we went. I know that there are services that allow foreign tourists to rent yukata and walk around dressed up for the day in Japan. That seems a bit weird to me. I didn't take any pictures of strangers wearing traditional dress, so I'm sharing this 4-year-old picture of the yukata I was given in high school instead. Although theirs looked much neater than mine, and had much more ornately tied obis.
We learn so many new things about the world around us when we travel--particularly not to rely so much on preconceived expectations! Do you have any stories of being surprised by something you came across on a trip?