For the most part, students in North America tend to travel down south for spring break. It’s short, it’s cheap and it’s quick. But, what if you planned a trip to a completely different continent though? Wouldn’t it be nice to spend a week totally disconnected to what you’re used to? That’s what I [Mariam] did a couple of years ago. And let me tell you, this was the best idea.
Now, we are aware that we are posting this well ahead of time – because let’s face it, it’s not even winter yet. But hey, it feels good to think about spring now that the leaves are changing colours and the first snow fell 😢, right? Also, planning a spring break trip to another continent will take time, so we want to make sure you get the info early enough to decide if it’s worth it or not.
It’s important to note that this was my first trip to Japan. I had all kinds of high expectations because A) I love Japanese food, B) I love the culture, C) I am pretty sure that I was Japanese in a previous life, and D) I have very good friends who live in Tokyo. Yet, despite my extremely high expectations, I somehow even loved my trip more than anticipated. How is that possible? Let me tell you.
I think we’ve all heard that Japanese people are very hospitable. But I don’t think the word ‘hospitable’ gives remote justice to what I experienced. My week in Tokyo was filled with love and joy from every single person I met. It was phenomenal.
For one, I was fortunate enough to have friends who offered me their places to stay. And I have to tell you, I’ve never been treated with so much care and love ANYWHERE before [Henry: Heeeyyyyy…. What about me? 🤔] [Mariam: Okay, fine, they’re second to you, is that better? 😉] [Henry: Yes! 😁]
From delicious breakfast feasts waiting for me when I woke up, to warm baths waiting for me before I went to bed; I can say that this was the definition of being treated like a queen. The families with whom I stayed were highly sensitive about my needs, helped me understand the Japanese words I could not decipher, showered me with gifts and warmth, and simply engaged in the most fun and informative conversations I could imagine. I say it again, they were phenomenal.
Now the kindness does not stop just with the comfort of the homes of people you know. Even when stepping out you feel surrounded by people who genuinely care about you and who want to help. When you ask for directions, strangers literally take time to draw you a map. When you ask for advice, they stop and show you around. When you take a cab, the driver chats with you with beaming smiles and treats your luggage like it was his own firstborn.
I can go on and on, but it’d be easier to simply say that my impression of people in Tokyo was AMAZING. I can never be thankful enough for the kindness shown me by every stranger I encountered. [Henry: That… sounds too good to be even remotely true…] [Mariam: Oh Henry, stop being so cynical; not everyone is out to get you, you know 😛]
The Things to See
Obviously a week is not even close to being enough to visit the whole of Tokyo. Still, I managed to pack in a lot in that week (it helps to have local friends who know the city and the metro system by heart). The number of different activities you can try in Tokyo is endless. You can visit temples and castles, relax in parks and on mountains, saunter through malls and markets, and take in museums and music performances – there is truly something for everyone.
My top picks of things to do and see in and around Tokyo are (and this is already a very shortened list!):
- Sensō-ji Temple: The oldest Buddhist Temple in Tokyo.
- Odawara Castle and City: An area for hot spring resorts surrounded with trees.
- Hachikō Statue: The famous dog’s statue representing loyalty and fidelity.
- Hakone Area: A beautiful and ancient town in Kanagawa prefecture.
- Kamakura Area: A coastal city known for its ancient shrines.
- Enoshima: An offshore island where you can see old caves formed by waves.
The (Positive) Culture Shock
For me, nothing in Tokyo was familiar. And this is coming from a person who has visited over 100 cities in 4 continents. That’s how different Tokyo was for me. It was a good different though. For one, the city is highly populated, which meant small houses and apartments. Despite how small they were, it never felt crowded or messy. Everything is just where it’s supposed to be and every item of a house has 2 or 3 functions. For instance, the water used in the bath is eventually used to wash laundry. Also, what looks like a shelf during the day transforms itself into a bed at night. It was just amazing to see how in reality we don’t actually need that much space to be comfortable. This was a revelation for someone who like me has lived in Canada and the USA where everything is big. Scratch that: Extra big. Oddly enough, while the homes are small, the city is HUGE. So many people walking, talking, engaging. It was a positive change for me, given how empty streets feel in Montreal. Take a look:
Another difference is the transportation system. So many metro lines, so many busses, so many sky trains… Impossible to understand on my own (thank God my friends where with me the whole time). Also, Japanese drive on the other side of the road (and also stand on the other side of the escalator when they go up). Needless to say, my brain was confused when I had to cross the street or take the metro.
I am used to seeing churches everywhere I go. There’s an expression here that goes along the lines of “if you throw a stone in the air, there is a high chance it will land on the roof to a church”. How refreshing it was in Japan to see shrines and temples instead. And there were lots of them! I made a point to visit every single one I could find and thanked the Gods for trip I was on. Tokyo would not be Tokyo without all its ancient and gorgeous places of worship.
Wow! Wow! Wow! I mean… How is it possible that anywhere you go, at any time of the day, no matter what the food is, it’s just simply excellent. Ok, I am biased a bit because I love Japanese food and my friends knew this so there is a chance they took me to extra delicious spots. Still though, in one week (that’s 20 meals), everything was absolutely delightful. From the ramen to the shabushabu; from the okonomiyaki to the tempura dishes; from the nabe to the soba soups; and from green tea desserts to matcha tea; everything was mouth-watering. [Henry: I don’t think you understand how hungry you’re making me 😛. ] [Mariam: Oh, I think I do…]
Even the cake and cookies on the street were appetizing… Mostly because they were freshly made with great care. See for yourself:
So why should someone go to Tokyo for spring Break? Other than everything mentioned above?
- Because it is the best season to see cherry blossom;
- Because you will come back with lots of stories to share;
- Because the difference in culture, food, and scenery will be an amazing learning experience; and
- Because efficacy is probably Japan’s second name (I never realized how slow people in the rest of the world were until I was in Tokyo. Efficacy and speed at its best).
[Henry: Well, I’m sold! Question though: How come you didn’t visit the giant life-size Gundam statue?] [Mariam:… I literally have NO idea what you’re talking about.] [Henry: The Gundam statue is a life-size replica of one of Japan’s most popular science fiction robots! People get married underneath it sometimes… and I’ve lost you, haven’t I?] [Mariam: Yep. Remember how I only read fiction at gunpoint? 😛] [Henry: Well, when we go to Tokyo together, we need to check it out! It’s a Japanese cultural icon!] [Mariam: You’re on your own for that, dear… 😛]
With that, we hope you go and tell us your stories about Tokyo. And if you’ve already been, please share your thoughts.
Thank you Tokyo, Honshu, Japan, Asia, World!