Three years ago from this week, I took my first overseas trip to Japan. July 5-17th. And despite my socially inept traveling partner, I had a pretty amazing time. I remember waking up early on July 4th morning for our car service to JFK airport and surprisingly got there with more than enough time to spare thanks to an amazing limo driver who completely said "Fuck You" to the security checkpoint traffic and took the service road straight in to the International departures terminal. (We tipped him an extra $20) Of course, that meant we now had 2 & 1/2 hrs to wait before boarding out 14 hour flight.
Touching down in Narita Airport was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. From what I could see from my middle seat, it was a far cry from the airport surroundings in America. Fields stretching for miles and nothing but mountains and green. The humidity was palpable the second we entered the terminal. A quick pass through customs, a stop at the cell phone rental place and two Airport bus tickets purchased to our home away from home for the next 2 weeks: Excel Hotel Tokyu Akasaka. An hour and a half on the highway, just taking everything in as the scenery rushed by.
And with Japanese flags waving high atop flag poles and buildings, it finally hit me that this was real and we were here. Japan - a place I had been dreaming about visiting for so many years; Plans had always been tossed around with friends to come here and never materialized into anything solid, so that year, tax refund check in hand, I decided it was time to stop waiting.
Our hotel was gorgeous and located in a great area. The staff was friendly and patient despite the language barrier. Our room was smaller than expected, but such is Japan. It was July, rainy season in Japan, something I hadn't factored in when booking the trip but we would make the most of it. With guidebook, 2 ¥1000 umbrellas and itinerary in hand, we set out to conquer the city... right after we conquered a shower and some jet lag.
This is how the first morning went: Oh hey, the sun's up - it must be pretty late, let's get a move on. WAIT - is this clock broken? 5 AM!? WTF!
The sun caused us to be out and about especially early most days, which I'm sure made us look like a bunch of crazy Gaijin walking the streets at 730 am while the rest of Japan is still preparing for their morning commutes. A street map of the various popular neighborhoods obtained in our hotel's lobby certainly made navigating the confusing and sometimes unnamed streets much more seamless. Our first stop was Roppongi, a nice 15 minute or so walk from our hotel, where we ventured to the top of the Mori tower and the Tokyo City View: a 360 degree view of the entire city, which was at least someone visible despite the thick haze hanging in the air.
The rest of our trip involved lots of walking, my ex complaining about sweaty balls, him taking numerous amounts of pictures of "JDM" cars (it's Japan, every car is JDM), watching my ex play video games in Akihabara after I'd exhausted my luck on all the dream catchers (with a pretty impressive amount of prizes at least), eating McDonald's or Japanese fast food because my ex has the palate of a 6 year old and passing out in our hotel around 6 PM each night due to a mix of jet lag and heat induced sleep comas. Luckily, I had found a guy on a car website to act as a guide/buffer for my ex's car obsession for some of the time, so that was able to keep him entertained and then he painstakingly let me subject him to a few museums and other cultural exhibits.
I just remember being so in awe of everything around me, of this big city with so many people and so much to see. Finding myself fascinated by the numerous vending machines, the efficiency of the transit system, the cleanliness of the streets, the hospitality of the citizens. I remember I saved every little scrap of paper, magazine, napkin I came across - saved everything all up to keep all these memories with me forever. Walking the streets alone at night around my hotel and the only thing I feared was the giant waterbug I almost stepped on. (Although I was harassed by a Nigerian in Akiba and found myself having to hide in an Anime shop to get away from him as he kept trying to pull my arm and talk to me, despite my pretending not to speak English and slapping his hand away from me.) It was just like this giant playground waiting for me to come explore everything.
From Odaiba and the Rainbow Bridge and watching Harry Potter in a Japanese movie theater to shopping in Shibuya 109 to experiencing my first aftershock from an Earthquake - followed by experiencing a Typhoon - to the Imperial Palace, Harajuku, Shibuya crossing, Ikebukuro, Ueno Park, the Yamanote line, to crazy foods and products, drunk salarymen getting on their knees begging us for train fare (or sleeping on the stoop when they missed last train), pigeon toed gyaru girls, guys with bleached hair, hello kitty everything, perfectly presented food, endless neon, cutesy characters on everything from garbage cans to toilets, prostitute brochures disguised as manga comics stuck to lightposts, temples, more combinis than you can shake a stick at, schoolgirls, beautiful old architecture, six story sex shops, cosplayers, seeing other white people and realizing they don't speak English, helpful police officers and cops on motorcycles that look like Power Rangers, Engrish and the obsession with American culture, taxi cabs with automatic doors - and expensive fares, fake food displays in front of restaurants, no tipping, polite bowing, ridiculous amounts of coins given as change, cheap electronics, girls in maid outfits, pastries shaped like animals, ninja magic shows...
Tokyo, I fell in love with you on first glance.
This trip was my first taste of Japan: there was still so much I wanted to do and see. I was thirsty for more. I vowed to come back... and I did, 3 years later.