For my first travel blog post I thought it made sense to write about my first, full day (~24 hours) in Japan – the place I’ve visited the most outside Australia. I’d finished high school about two month before and booked flights less than two weeks before, and it was my first big overseas trip. My mum and I are great friends – picture the Gilmore Girls but a bit more of an age gap. She joined me on this trip and fell in love with Japan just as I was going to.
[Note: this was my first trip and also first camera of my own, and it was definitely not a fancy high tech one!]
It was February 2008, 41 degrees (celsius) when we left Melbourne and only 4 degrees when we landed at Narita airport. It was still mid afternoon but it was dark already – something I hadn’t experienced before in Australia. We had to get to our hotel by bus – and I was told I could simply buy a ticket from the ticket machine. In theory, straightforward, but there was less English in Japan back then and I had next to no Japanese.
What seemed like a predicament quickly turned into my first experience of the amazing hospitality, kindness, and eagerness to help that is common among the Japanese. We couldn’t work out the machine but we could find our bus. I managed to explain to the bus driver what we were trying to do.
I expected he would tell me which button to push or something, but what I didn’t expected was for him get off the bus, come with me to the ticket machine, and show me carefully how to use it so that I would know for future. Not only that but he carried all our luggage to the bus for me, and made sure I had a seat and knew what to get off for my hotel.
At my stop another passenger noticed we looked a little unsure about which was to go from the stop to the hotel. He’d been on a two week business trip and was heading home to his family, but went out of his way to take me to my hotel, introduce me to the concierge and make sure I had everything I needed.
That night was a brilliant introduction to Japan and the following day only got better.
We were staying at a hotel near Narita-san temple, which we decided to visit the next morning after a simple, but beautifully presented, breakfast at our hotel.
Although the day was overcast, Narita-san temple and the surrounding area was gorgeous. Built on a small mountain, it has lovely gardens and ponds. But for me it was also very cold. Melbourne might have four seasons a day (minimum) but it never really gets properly cold. This day was cold enough that after an hour or so of wandering it started snowing! Well, probably sleet to begin with, but it was definitely snow by in the end, and also the first time I’d ever actually seen snow falling before.
To add to the excitement of the now, it turned out that that day, 3rd of February, was the annual Setsubun festival. Setsubun is celebrated on the 3rd or 4th of Feb every year (whichever lines up with lunar calendar start of Spring), and although the way it is celebrated has changed over the years, the current main event is the throwing of soybeans while essentially yelling “good luck in, bad luck out” – it’s not a perfect translation but the meaning is there.
Depending on where you go for Setsubun the people throwing the soybeans can vary from monks to geisha to celebrities. That day in Narita-san there was a mixture, including three yokozuna (sumo masters/champions).
Despite the huge crowd, and the humming excitement even in the cold and sleet/snow, I was able to catch some of the thrown soybeans! I’ve been told you’re supposed to eat the same number of soybeans as your age, plus one, so you have luck for the next year of your life. I didn’t do that this first Setsubun though, because I didn’t know, and I think I may actually have them tucked away in a box a treasures and souvenirs somewhere!
After the festival finished we suddenly realised we were soaked through and freezing (we hadn’t dressed for snow as we had been told it didn’t often snow properly in or near Tokyo. One of the great things about Japan, though, is that in the middle of winter there’s no shortage of delicious foods that are guaranteed to warm you up. Udon noodles with any toppings, but especially tempura, are one of my favourite cheap options (though I go for sukiyaki when I’m splashing out!) and make for an excellent early dinner to chase away the chill.
It was such an amazing day, and I’m pretty sure that everyone I experience and saw in that first 24 hours in Japan was the start of a slippery slope for me – something about Japan just caught hold of me and it only gripped more firmly with every day I spent there that trip. Since then I’ve returned three times for holidays, once to live, and then once I was lucky enough to go there on a conference! That’s six times, and I’m still dreaming, hoping, planing for my next trip.