Thursday, October 1, 2015

"I'm Home" - Travelogue, Part I

If you've ever thought about visiting Japan and decided not to solely because of the cost, I have the solution for you - off-season travel. February would normally have never been my first choice for a trip there (I'd probably rank cherry blossom time, Christmas, New Year's, Tanabata, release-of-the-annual-Detective-Conan-movie, early October, and late April above February, especially since the plum blossoms were suffering this year) but hey, when life hands you lemons - or a $745 round-trip, taxes-in ticket to Tokyo - you make lemonade in February. Or whenever Delta Airlines wants me to!

Net loss on the ticket for me was actually just $145. (!) Because I flew Delta the Easter before last and got bumped off the last flight of the night between Detroit and Toronto, I was handed a $600 voucher as compensation. Originally I thought "Great, Delta? When am I going to travel with them again?" - it had been my first Delta trip in years. I thought maybe I'd use it to go to Florida and see my adorable godson. (He still has parents, no thanks to Mount Fuji.) But a lucky coincidence saw prices to Tokyo drop below $800 for the first time in ages thanks to Air Canada and Delta competing to beat the other in the Detroit/Toronto market to Narita. One had a sale; the other matched it; the other undercut it; etc. So I thought this was an unbelievably lucky coincidence and ponied up $145 out of pocket to buy my ticket within a day. The last dates available were for February; I needed to kill off my debt and save enough to get me through, and thought I might be fortunate enough to catch the plum blossoms at Ishiyamadera. 

So February was go! And, I thought, accommodations would surely be cheap in the off-season, if I didn't feel like sleeping in a capsule hotel or a manga kissa every night. You see, I was going alone - and then my cousin got on board by nabbing a similar trip on AC for $800, three days later, from Detroit. Companionship!

As February approached, the itinerary from my previous post grew ever more complicated. Hokkaido! Kyushu! Shikoku? There was big deviation from my original "sleep every night in a train and wake up halfway across Japan" plan. But boy, did we ever have an adventure laid out for us.

I was really thrilled that the Japanese text said "Okaerinasai" - welcome back.

When the big day came, I woke up with crazy jitters, and remembering a botched flight to New York last year, got to the airport super early. Got to Detroit with no issues. (I love that DTW airport's signage is all bilingual Japanese/English!) Hit the first snag there - a flight to Hong Kong was cancelled, so all its passengers got rerouted onto our flight, killing the empty seat between me and the other lady in my row, and keeping us grounded for an extra 2 hours. Luckily, there was no one waiting for me on the other side of the trip. (What a thing to say, but it's true! I wanted my alone time in Japan, as with the exception of a few trips with Emily, I always travelled solo!) I could take my time picking up my rented wi-fi hotspot, browsing the shops, picking up dinner of omurice-onigiri and Kochakaden milk tea, and trading in the voucher for my Japan Rail Pass.

A Hobonichi Techo cover is an awesome passport/railpass holder.

Most travellers to Japan are familiar with the Rail Pass, but since they aren't available to residents, I had never had one before. (Let me assure you, it's far more convenient than the Seishun 18!) I wasn't sure whether it'd be worth it to get the 14-day pass, since I was starting with several days in Kansai, and the Rail Pass is totally useless if you're staying any length of time within Osaka or Kyoto. It's not accepted on any of the local private train lines or subways, and of course, I wanted to be in 〇〇 City for a stretch, staying local. Still, because we did want to go to Kyushu and Hokkaido (I would have flown, for just one) we decided to spring for the two-week pass, paying about $380 USD for it. I paid for the NEX and held onto my pass to activate the next day.

I was so excited, finally arriving in Tokyo for the first time in 5 years - it was surreal; like something out of a dream. Riding the NEX, I was so itchy to get off and get moving that I started packing up the moment that I saw that the Chiba landscape had slowly morphed into that of the Tokyo outskirts, and got my bags down (wow - such a tourist!) the second the station announcement came. Never mind that it was at least 5 minutes ride from there!

In truth, I remember little about the first night, even though it probably wasn't even 6 PM when I left the airport - which basically sums up most of the travelling I've done in Japan, since there's little sleep and much effort required for the journey itself. I don't even remember what I did with my luggage, just that I felt too much like a tourist in a city I once thought of as my home-away-from-home, so I got rid of it in a coin locker somewhere and came back for it later. I do recall that one of the first places I went was Shibuya, my favourite nighttime strolling spot. I went up Center Gai and visited the LOFT there to buy a Hobonichi Techo for the year. I bought the special EarthBound cover even though it only came with the Japanese version of the book rather than the English one. I went to Starbucks over the scramble crossing, though I didn't buy anything. I think I just wanted to soak it all in. Then I went to Yurakucho to set up for the evening.

Next year, the famed Tsukiji fish market will be moving to a new location, and it's one of the things I never made time to see - or rather, by the time I planned to see it, there was no time. I recall settling down to sleep in my favourite Shibuya net cafe (how many nights did I sleep there after spending an hour blogging about my travels in Odaiba? Kids, don't try this at home) back in June 2010 with the intention of going to the market the next morning, but it was closed on Mondays. So this year I checked the schedule long before, and I chose a manga kissa a few blocks from Tsukiji, and I don't recommend it because they had almost no flat rooms, had curtains for doors and the lighting was too bright to sleep and oh man, was I ever excited. I probably napped in the uncomfortable chair only two hours before I decided to head out. As it turns out, even 4:15 AM was too late to get access to the tuna auction, so instead I ate an absolutely delectable spread of tuna to make up for it. Otoro, Chutoro, Maguro...the perfect breakfast.

Oh yes.

After breakfast, I wasn't hanging around waiting for the auction to start anymore, so I did a little shopping in the market itself, chatted with the fishmongers. Too difficult to explain the circumstances when they ask "what do you do?" so I just replied that I was an English teacher from Osaka. Then around 5:30, I went for a little walk around the area and ended up at Hacchobori Station. From there, I returned to Shinagawa, fetched my luggage from wherever I'd left it (Tokyo Station, I think) and set out for Kansai. There was a lot more I wanted to do in Tokyo, but I was eager to get home-home.

I got to Kyoto somewhere around 9 AM and headed out on a local train line to meet Mari-sensei, a teacher and friend from 〇〇 High School. She is retired now - and busier than ever - but she was a tremendous help to me when I first came to Japan, and she certainly hasn't changed! She was kind enough to offer me space at her beautiful home during this visit, and since her house was just a block away from my old apartment, it was a great chance to reconnect with the neighbourhood. How I missed it! I guess I am easily impressed, but I was also really looking forward to having a bath in her fancy temperature-controlled bathroom, and I was not disappointed!

It was my first full day in the country, but I was booked solid - the whole day was reserved for meeting with students. I was barely at Mari-sensei's for an hour before I set off back to Kyoto to meet Mina-chan, one of the students from 〇〇 High School who made an extraordinary impact on me. She is definitely the student I've heard most from since leaving Japan, and I really appreciate her making that effort. (She even called me on my birthday, my first year home!) Currently she's studying abroad in the U.S., so I was lucky to catch her in Japan before she set out. We had a nice lunch at Ganko Sanjo, strolled around the shotengai for a few hours and visited a matcha cafe that had the most amazing matcha ice cream, matcha pancakes, and of all things, fresh hot matcha latte with marshmallows.

Matcha heaven

In the evening, I returned to 〇〇 City to meet with another set of students, Akari and Saki, who had been in my class as 11th and 12th-graders. They were in the same grade but the opposite class from Mina. I felt like I had gotten to know that group well because they had been in my class for two full years, while in the other class, other teachers had come and gone - the ALT previous to me; the NET who left seven months after I arrived; even the NET who replaced him only stayed a year. I liked to think that I was able to really make a good connection with the students who were in 10th and 11th grade when I arrived, because - especially for the 10th grade - they saw me every year, without fail, and I was right up there crying with the rest of the teachers on their graduation day! That was why I was doubly happy when these students offered to see me during my little trip to Japan. That they could take time to meet with a teacher they hadn't seen in 5 years spoke volumes. I was so touched. ;o; We ended up, of all places, in a little izakaya that I had gone to just once a long, long time ago with Emily, James-from-South-Africa and other JETs from the neighbouring city. It was really nostalgic, and we had a great conversation. I can't believe so many of "my kids" - just about all of them now - are graduating from university, marrying and having babies!

When I got back to Mari-sensei's house I was really looking forward to that bath, and then the following day, visiting 〇〇 High School itself. That'll be a story for the next part of the travelogue, however!