In this episode: We do a lightning round on Tokyo hotels and head to Nikko for a nature experience (recorded 9/23/23 in Aizuwakamatsu, Japan)
Thank you three for a wonderful update on your travels. I love hearing your reactions to Japan - I felt the same sense of culture shock and extreme cultural cognitive dissonance the first time I went as a college exchange student in the 1980s. Years later, when I took my husband, he had the same reaction. Somehow Japan feels so utterly different in so many ways that it really makes you realize all the assumptions you have about yourself - things that you just take for granted - from something as simple as your posture and how you move in space, to how you eat, talk, think - those things that you think of as being “normal” are in fact not normal at all. It is an absolute gift, as you said, to experience that wonderful disorientation. Especially at first, it is easy to feel as though you are utterly different, that not knowing the unspoken and implicit rules of how to act (that everyone else seems to understand) somehow makes you slightly embarrassing. Ok, totally embarrassing. And yet. And yet…. Stick around a while, go back, spend more time, and as as Iden is doing, study some Japanese, get away from Roppongi (sorry) and spend time, as you are, away from the tourist centers of Tokyo and Kyoto and go to the tiny restaurants with no English menu. You may still stick out but you will find worlds open up and people who have much more in common with you than you might imagine.
Case in point: you asked about a time when we felt out of place? During my year in Japan, I cannot count the number of times - basically all year long. :) But one more recent experience stands out. About a dozen years ago, I took my husband, my 11-year-old son, and two friends who had never been to Japan on a whirlwind trip around the country. In Nara (which you should visit!), I had our hotel get us a reservation for a little oden restaurant that I had read about - the hotel staff looked at me like I was crazy. When we arrived, I found out why - it was a cramped, steamy place with about 12 seats around a counter and no English menu in sight. When we squeezed our hulking presences under the noren curtain and through the door, the room fell silent, like in an old Western when the stranger enters the saloon. It was too late to turn back, so we folded ourselves into the tiny seats at the counter. Thankfully the locals resumed their quiet conversations and tried to ignore us. It was then that I realized that I had never ordered oden before, and had no idea what anything was called, let alone what it was, exactly. And as the only sort-of Japanese speaker in my party, I was responsible for everyone. So I leaned into my inner “gaijin” and did a very un-Japanese thing - I bugged the young Japanese man sitting next to me. (A friend once told me that is why Japanese will move away from foreigners in the subways - because they are afraid you will speak to them in English and they will not know how to respond.) In my very rusty Japanese, I asked him what he and the two young women with him were having. He was very nice, despite the fact that I was intruding on his evening, and gave us a few suggestions. I think I ordered them a beer, and we ended up having a rudimentary conversation. I told him I was from Oregon. He was delighted by this - both because he loved the author Raymond Carver (one of my favorite authors too) and because he was in love with a tiny town in Oregon he had visited on Google Streetview, a technology I was as yet unfamiliar with. It turned out he was a designer and was into the mid-century-modern American design aesthetic, and had made T-shirts celebrating the Darimart in that little town in the middle of nowhere - a town that just happened to be where my great-grandmother had driven a model-T taxi service in the early 1900s and where my grandparents are buried. I mean, it is nowhere, and it is also where, in a sense, I am from. We were both shocked at the coincidence, sitting in this obscure watering hole in the ancient capital of Japan to find a shared connection to an obscure little town in rural Oregon. It was “fushigi” - a Japanese word meaning wonderful, marvelous, strange, miraculous. He later sent me one of those T-shirts and came to visit us in Oregon, and I took him to that Darimart. The locals there were utterly mystified by this strange Japanese man who found their plain little town utterly captivating, the essence of his idea of cool 1950s-era America. That’s how I feel about Japan - it is utterly captivating. For me, it will always be fushigi - wonderful, strange and utterly marvelous. But you have to be willing to be uncomfortable to find that wonder and strangeness. I guess that is what travel is really all about, isn’t it?
One last thought - please do not despair as vegans in Japan! There is more than the admittedly delicious convenience-store onigiri for you! When you are in Kyoto, you must try the famous vegan temple food, known as shojin ryori. (Perhaps you have already found this?) There is a gorgeous place we ate at 12 years ago called Kanga-an - expensive but so worth it. If you can, go at night, since the lighted approach to the temple building is stunning. The food was exquisite. There are many other places if you search online for shojin-ryori. Also Okutan is a famous old-style tofu restaurant near Kiyomizudera. Get reservations (I think only open for lunch) - ask your hotel to call for you. You never know who you might meet. ;)
Also - if you can make time - go for a one- or two-night temple stay up on Mount Koya outside of Osaka - you will also get amazing vegetarian temple food for breakfast and dinner. There are many places to stay, and the cemetery there is magical - go early in the morning or at dusk for optimal atmosphere. (We stayed Shojoshin-in booked through Japanese Guest Houses.) You can also attend the early-morning prayer service. It is a life experience!!!!
Have a wonderful rest of your trip!
Would love to contribute if you're still looking at places to visit in Japan!
Often my main goal when I travel is to feel out of place, in the sense that I travel to experience a world as different as possible from what I'm used to. But usually I find that exhilarating and no matter how great the differences, most people make me feel welcome so I don't really feel out of place. I interpret your question as "Have I ever felt uncomfortably out of place?". That was 4 days I spent in Sochi, Russia nearly 30 years ago. I was taking a break from 6 months of traveling while my girlfriend had to fly home for a few days, so I thought 4 days in a big old Soviet hotel on the beach in a place where Russians vacationed sounded interesting. The first afternoon I spent 30 minutes on the beach before it started raining. It poured nonstop for the next 3 days. Everyone else was there with friends or family and no one spoke English. I was down to one book so I had to ration it by reading one page and then taking a break, there were no English-language books or magazines to be found, and the only English on TV was a SkyTV headline news that repeated the same headlines every 10 minutes. I found a few ways to mildly entertain myself but I felt very out of place.
I felt out of place on the Bund in Shanghai on New Year's Eve. Not only did the blonde hair stick out, but at 5'3", in the huge heaving crowds, I saw only backs. The crowds pushed and shoved me to the point I had zero personal space and was almost crowd surfing. I definitely had that feeling of being a strange person in a strange land.