Words and photos by Teva Explorer Tara Rock.
My sister Tami, her boyfriend Mike, and I decided to do something a little different over the Thanksgiving holiday and headed across the Pacific Ocean to Japan. The trip was a whirlwind. We walked more than ten miles a day, darted in and out of restaurants and cafes, visited more temples and shrines than I can count, and were swallowed by the crowds.
I’m half Japanese, but I couldn’t have felt like more of a foreigner while we were there. When you look at me you wouldn’t think I was Japanese (most people don’t), but so much of my upbringing and cultural quirks have been shaped by my grandparents’ Japanese influence. Going to Japan for the first time helped me to understand myself a little more. It also left me feeling really out of place.
“Going to Japan for the first time helped me to understand myself a little more. It also left me feeling really out of place.”
Our grandpa taught us basic Japanese traditions while we were growing up. He was one of the few Nisei (second-generation Japanese Americans) from Hawaiʻi who was taught fluent Japanese the “nihongo” way. He always made sure we greeted everyone in the room when we arrived at a family party, to say “itadakimasu” before every meal, to say thank you more than once when we were grateful, and to bring “omiyage” (a gift) wherever we visited.
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One of the purposes of my trip was to connect with extended family. I was pretty bummed when I found out most of our contacts were lost when my grandpa passed away. It made me a little sad to think that it was possible I was no longer connected to the place my family came from and I was turning into another modern-day millennial void of culture or tradition.
The culture in Japan is beautiful but humbling. They work by a certain set of rules but whatever it is that they’re doing, they have mastered it like an art. Rigid but beautiful, it was frustrating at times. I couldn’t tell you how many times I felt like I was doing something wrong— talking too loud, getting in the way, or being disrespectful.
“The culture is Japan is rigid but beautiful —frustrating at times. I couldn’t tell you how many times I felt like I was doing something wrong.”
Growing up, we were taught to be aware of everyone else around us. We weren’t allowed to inconvenience others or step out of the boundaries of respect. I thought I understood these standards well before I went to Japan, but while I was there I was frustrated by my lack of awareness. The last thing I wanted to be was another rude foreigner. But there are so many small details outsiders overlook — forgetting to use two hands when giving or taking money, forgetting to bow, forgetting taking off your shoes when you enter homes — that it made me uneasy at times.
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I forgot my phone at the bus station counter and freaked out when the bus driver wouldn’t stop. He wasn’t going to inconvenience everyone else on the bus just for me. But I didn’t need to worry it would be stolen, which says something about Japan’s culture (Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world). I found my phone neatly wrapped in a white paper package and sent on the next bus.
There is something to the Japanese way of life that is both admirable and unattainable. Their discipline and drive for perfection is humbling and mind-blowing. I mean, the culture made such an impact on Steve Jobs during his visits to Japan that it revolutionized the digital world and his own personal, minimalistic style, too!
I was scolded several times during our trip for taking photos at temples. At first, I got upset and a little entitled (I’m a real photographer after all, humf!) But after a little research I realized a lot of temples and shrines are starting to ban photography throughout Japan due to an influx of tourists pining to “get the shot.” I couldn’t tell you how many people were there with selfie sticks, tripods, and a total lack of awareness of other people.
As foreigners, we are fortunate enough to be allowed into these places of meditation and spiritual worship. If you go to a place where cameras haven’t been banned yet, like the Fushimi Inari Taisha, you’ll see the impact. There were so many people snapping away, getting in the way, then walking away. I wondered how many people actually experienced a space or just got a photo of it? I quickly curbed my entitlement and now understand their need to protect these sacred spaces.
If I can offer any advice as a well-traveled photographer, it would be this: Take time away from “getting the shot” and being on your phone. Simply enjoying where you are is an art.
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Japanese have mastered the art of minimalism, but contrary to this way of life, they also live in excess. In addition to being one of the largest consumers of seafood, Japan is big on single-use plastic products. Every time I bought something, cashiers tried to put it in a plastic bag. Musubis came wrapped in plastic cellophane. Cookies were individually packaged in plastic wrappers. This isn’t just a problem in Japan, this is a problem everywhere. I was overwhelmed by the number of sushi restaurants surrounding us, and I couldn’t help but wonder about the state of our ocean and everything living in it.
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The reason I am saying all this it to encourage others to think more about their consumption. I don’t expect everyone to be vegan, but if you participate in movements like Meatless Mondays, you’ll help reduce greenhouse gases and minimize water usage. Did you know that it takes approximately 1,850 gallons of water to produce a single pound of beef (versus 39 gallons for a pound of vegetables)?
I am not pointing a finger at Japan, but I am pointing a finger at all of us. Traveling has just opened my eyes to humanity’s ability to live beyond its means, and we need to start making changes.
On the bright side, we did have one opportunity to get off the beaten path, slow down, and live more sustainably. We spent a few short days in Tsumago, an Edo-period town nestled in the Kiso Valley (known as the Japanese Alps). We got to stay at Fujioto Inn, which provided locally-sourced, sustainable breakfast and dinner. We got to walk the historical Nakasendo Trail between Tsumago and Magome that once connected Kyoto and Tokyo during the Edo Period.
Along the way we saw people growing their own vegetables and harvesting them, some people even had their own little fish ponds. It was such an amazing, authentic experience. Everyone in the town was so friendly and inviting. I feel like we all need to slow down and get back to that sort of living.
Most photos of “geisha” or “meiko” you see probably aren’t real, but geisha still do exist and — like all Japanese traditions — they master the art of entertaining. While we were in the Gion district we saw a geisha rushing to work and it was like seeing a unicorn. Like most human beings on this earth, they don’t like a bunch of tourists taking photos of them on their way to work, so instead, we awkwardly stood on the corner of the street and gawked at her as she hurried by. She was beautiful.
I had my first real “onsen” experience in a town a few hours from Tokyo just outside a tourist populated town. It was nothing pretty to look at, but it cost me ¥300 (just under $3) to get in. I decided to go early, hoping it would be empty, but I should have known all the grandmas and aunties go early, too.
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If you’ve never been to an onsen, then you probably don’t know they are usually gender segregated and you bathe nude. It was crowded and there was no room for me to wash myself before getting into the bath. I was the only foreign patron, the only one under 50 years old, and definitely the only one with a bikini tan.
I waited for a spot to open as all the old timers chatted and scrubbed their bodies. I mean, they really scrubbed. My grandma used to bathe us when we were growing up and suddenly it all made sense to me — they make sure they are clean. When a seat finally opened I sat down and tried my best to scrub my whole body, side eyeing the ladies next to me to make sure I was doing it right.
Onsen isn’t just a tourist attraction, it is a way of life for a lot of people. Priests discovered and started using onsen as a means of healing around 1303 B.C. and according to history, powerful leaders like Takeda Shingen would bring his men to onsen after long battle to recover from fighting. I have a very different appreciation and respect for this special traditional after my authentic experience in that small Onsen.
BOWING. In Japan, people do not shake hands when they meet. Instead, they bow. It’s good to bow when you’re meeting someone for the first time and when you’re saying goodbye. Bowing is a very complex ritual and how low, how long, and how many times you bow really depends on the level of respect and status of a person. But as a tourist, you are not expected to know all the details. Either way, it is polite to make an effort.
EXCUSE ME, THANK YOU. Overuse “Sumimasen” and “arigatō gozaimasu.” Anytime you’re approaching someone to ask a question or apologizing, don’t forget to say both.
REMOVE YOUR SHOES. Anytime you go into a private home, temple, or traditional-style accommodation, you are expected to take your shoes off. There are usually little cubbies for your footwear. If not, always neatly point your shoes towards the door.
TABLE MANNERS. It’s always good to say “itadakimasu” and “gochisousama” before and after your meal. And it’s okay to slurp when you’re eating ramen (it’s considered a sign that the soup or noodles are hot and you are enjoying them). Never misuse your chopsticks, cross them, or leave them sticking straight up in your food. Never use them to signal waiters, point at someone, stab food, or as drum sticks. If you are grabbing food from a communal dish, use the opposite ends of your chopsticks, not the side you eat from.
RENT A POCKET WI-FI AT THE AIRPORT.This saved us while we were traveling around. It’s a little portable WiFi router that allows multiple devices to be connected at one time. I originally got a SIM card but the service was awful in major cities. Mike got a pocket WiFi and it was super dependable. You can get them at kiosks around the Narita Airport.
USE GOOGLE MAPS.We took a lot of trains and mass transit while we were there. Google narrows down the train/bus timetables to the minute (or you can look for future times) and will provide the platform numbers. It will even show different routes depending on the different train companies. It made traveling around so much more efficient and we were even able to plan ahead knowing different train routes and times.
GET THE JR PASS. If you are in Japan for more than seven days and will be going to multiple cities, this will save you a lot of time and money. The train system in Japan is a little complicated (especially within the major cities) because there are multiple privately-owned train lines. But JR owns the Shinkansen (or “bullet train”) that gets you from one major city to the next really fast. It ended up being a great value for us.
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DOWNLOAD GOOGLE AND MICROSOFT TRANSLATE.We got put into several situations where we needed translation, and badly. If it was a restaurant with a Japanese-only menu we would use the photo feature on Google Translate to decode foreign characters. If we needed to communicate with a non-English speaking person, we could talk into Microsoft Translate and it would translate our words into something that person could understand.
BRING YOUR TEVA EMBER MOCS. This is huge. You are constantly take your shoes off in Japan. The Ember Mocs were the absolute perfect shoes, so easy and comfortable throughout our trip. I couldn’t think of a better pair of shoes to wear while we were there.
BRING OMIYAGE (GIFTS). Always bring a little something from your home country (often times food) to give to people as a “thank you.” I gave Hawaiian Macadamia Nut chocolates to people I made friends with or those who made an impact on us while we traveled.