Tokyo wasn’t a destination I always dreamed of going. Honestly, I’d never thought much about Japan at all. I love travel, and have a long list of places I can’t wait to see: Croatia, Cape Town, Thailand, Patagonia…the list goes on. But I know I’ll likely make it to those destinations in my lifetime. For my PARALLAXploration trip I wanted to choose somewhere that I probably wouldn’t otherwise visit. I saw this as an opportunity to experience something that doesn’t feel like “me.”
I couldn’t have chosen a better place to get outside my comfort zone. Below are the five most interesting/inspiring things I experienced in Japan:
- The shiny, loud, meticulously organized chaos. Stepping out of the train station in Tokyo, I was immediately overwhelmed by the flashing lights and crowds and bright billboards. At first it all felt incredibly foreign, but I quickly realized that behind all the madness of the city is exceptional order. The train systems are efficient and extremely easy to use—you can walk into a metro station in an artsy neighborhood on the outskirts of the city and be downtown among the suits and skyscrapers within minutes. The city felt safe, friendly, and remarkably obedient—pedestrians religiously obey the traffic signals and always remain on their side the yellow line down the middle of all sidewalks (basically the opposite of a city like NYC). At rush hour at the busy intersections and metro stations, it looked like a massive choreographed dance. (P.S. I also saw an actual choreographed dance at a place called the Robot Restaurant that was beyond crazy. See video here and more photos in the gallery below.)
- The food. Oh, the food. I ate sashimi at 6:30 a.m., slurped (and yes, “slurp” is the right word for it) ramen at a famous ramen restaurant in the Tokyo train station among Japanese businessmen, ate homemade udon at 1 a.m., cooked a crab at my table on a personal hibachi grill, and stood in line at 3 a.m. at Sushi Dai in the Tsukiji Fish Market (which didn’t open until 5 a.m) to eat the freshest, most delicious sushi I have ever tasted. As a lover of food, I was certainly inspired.
- The beautiful juxtaposition of tradition and trend. Tokyo is filled with beautiful temples and historic sites, but in among them is an obsession for what’s ultra-uber-hip and trendy. It seems like Tokyo-ites are in a race to out-style each other. I have never experienced fashion creativity quite like it (see here). But the entire city was a lesson in perfectly blending old and new. Yoyogi Park, for example, is home to the 100-year-old Meiji Shrine as well as the weekly Sunday gathering of hundreds of Harajuku fashionistas. Within seconds you can go from exploring a temple to watch giggling teenagers watch each other and older men in greaser attire performing golden oldies (I didn’t get great photos of it, but see this video).
- The crazy consumer culture. On a Saturday morning at about 5 a.m. I wandered the streets of Harajuku (thank you jet-lag), and saw 50 to 60 people in front of the Nike store. I asked a few teenagers at the front what they were waiting for. “Jordans,” they replied excitedly. The store didn’t open for another five hours. When asked why they wanted them, one girl explained, “They’re new!” And the Jordan-fans weren’t alone, there were dozens of equally long lines in front stores all over the neighborhood with people waiting for things like purses, jewelry, and even popcorn. As a marketer (and curious person), it got me interested in figuring out how these companies create the kind of mass demand we don’t see as much in the U.S. (except for the new iPhone and maybe a few others items). I’ll get back to you when I figure it out
- The beauty outside the city. On the third day of my trip I took the train a few hours north to a small village near Nagano called Shibu Onsen. The tiny village is home to nine traditional Japanese onsens (each with supposedly different healing properties—”chronic gout” anyone?). You must stay (or live) in the village to get a key to the onsens, and are given a kimono and wooden shoes to wear from pool to pool. After spending an evening soaking in the scorching pools, I woke up to experience the real reason I came to the area: Japanese Snow Monkeys. From Shibu Onsen, a beautiful trail leads through the forest and into the mountains nearby where a river flows through natural hot springs. At the end, dozens of monkeys and their newborn babies lounge and play around a hot spring, generally ignoring the few tourists snapping pictures of them. The hike itself was stunning; the monkeys were amazing. It was like living in a Planet Earth episode. And it was glorious. For more photos of Shibu Onsen and the monkeys, see my gallery.
But of all the things I saw and experienced, I was moved the most by the social good component of my trip. I chose to volunteer with Hands On Tokyo and Special Olympics Nippon helping with a beginner basketball practice for children with disabilities. By nature, I often avoid activities I’m not good at, and stick to things where I excel, which is why I figured this would be a prime opportunity to get outside my comfort zone: I’m terrible at basketball, I don’t speak Japanese, and I have little experience with people with disabilities.
At first, I thought I’d made a mistake by choosing that activity. I felt stupid for not being able to make basic conversation with the kids and I was embarrassed of my skills—or lack there of. I really considered leaving and finding somewhere else to volunteer. But I forced myself to push through my discomfort—that was why I was there, after all. And it ended up being fantastic. By the end, I was passing the ball to smiling kids, laughing, and high-fiving my team. It’s obviously a small, inconsequential victory in the grand scheme of things, but for me it was meaningful one. I realized how important it is to do things that make us uncomfortable. You’ll usually surprise yourself—and that’s so much more rewarding than excelling at something you already know we’re good at.
Japan ended up being the perfect choice for my trip. I returned feeling empowered to intentionally step outside the familiar in everything I do, knowing that in all likelihood it will work out. And if it doesn’t, that’s okay too.