My mom often reminds me that I tend to overhype things. I talk about my favorite foods, places and people with such flowery descriptions and genuine hype that people come away with recommendations that they’re sure will blow their minds.
When I mentioned to a few co-workers on the ship that I had been to Japan previously, they asked for my recommendations. As I ticked sights off the list, I began to rave about how much I loved Japan – the excellent food, the friendly people, the ease of the subway system and playfulness of such a visual culture – I could go on and on.
Then I wondered if I had oversold Japan? I was hoping that I remembered Japan correctly. In 2004, when I touched down in Tokyo for the first time, it was the first foreign country I had visited outside of Canada and Greece. Was I really enchanted with Japan – the bright lights, the exotic foods, the friends I had made, my leisurely schedule as a student – or was my memory muddled by the experience that it was the first foreign country where I traveled alone? I had gone to Greece with my friends for spring break, and had shared a hotel room in Tokyo that summer with another friend who studied with me, but in Japan, I got to do things on my own for the first time without any help. I managed to make it from the airport to the hotel. I remember gazing out the windows (of a bus or maybe a taxi?) not wanting to miss a thing – the lights flashing in the dark, the signs that I couldn’t read, a city that was full of mystery, especially at night.
My day in Tokyo and Yokhama proved I was right about Japan all along. My memory hadn’t failed me. I was still smitten.
Our day in Tokyo started off with Cynthia, Shira and I walking in the dark to Tsukiji Fish Market where we missed the legendary tuna auction that occurs at 4:30am each morning. Undeterred, we explored a bit of the market before heading to Cynthia’s recommendation – Daiwa Sushi. Daiwa-san stood behind the counter and doled out our set menu. Each piece of sushi was perfectly flavored by Daiwa-san himself with the right amount of soy sauce and wasabi. I didn’t dare drag my sushi though a soy sauce bath, per usual. I had the absolute most incredible meal of my life. No exaggeration. A good meal calls for a good nap, and after catching up on some sleep, we headed to the subway.
The one area where my memory definitely lapsed was the ease of using the subway system. I have absolutely no recollection of having difficultly navigating my way anywhere in Japan. But when Shira, Cynthia, Sarah and I descended into the station near Tsjuki Fish Market, I found myself astounded. Tokyo has multiple rail systems, owned by different operators, requiring different tickets, and I found myself staring at the maps dumbfounded. I knew where I needed to go, and I could find my stop on the railway map, but I had no clue which machine to use to purchase the proper ticket on the correct line. Cynthia, who grew up in Hong Kong, helped navigate, but we parted ways during our fist ride when I went to explore my favorite neighborhood, Harajuku.
I promptly got lost leaving the station, but I hailed a cab, and my problem was quickly solved. My driver spoke no English, but I explained I wanted to be dropped off at the Harajuku station.
Harajuku was my favorite neighborhood back in 2004, although I’m not sure I could have articulated why back then. A few years later, I took a required class for my sociology minor on subcultures. I was dreading the class and didn’t want to study misfits or deviants, but the course turned out to be the highlight of my college career. I couldn’t read enough about the Amish, Mormons, overweight women in America or nerdy gamers. I find subcultures fascinating and Harajuku is the place to see youth subculture in action.
So, I browsed at shops where Lady Gaga has been spotted.
I ate a crepe while I people watched and managed to find the only Ben and Jerry’s in Tokyo (I have a talent for these things.
I stopped by Kiddieland, a 5-story toystore that captures and celebrates Japan’s love of kawaii (cute), and reminded me to be a little more lighthearted.
And ducked into a Shinto temple. Instead of praying to the Gods, I just wrote my dad a little note.
I headed back early to Yokohama, where our ship, the MV Explorer was docked, in order to visit the CupNoodles Museum.
This quirky museum wouldn’t be on most people’s to-do list, yet alone on their radar. But I have always, always enjoyed instant ramen. Growing up, my mom refused to purchase CupNoodles, the ramen in the Styrofoam cup, but when my dad took me to the grocery store, I could stock-up and fill the cart with as many as I wanted. I always liked the shrimp flavor, and my sister usually preferred chicken. Even when I packed my bags for college, I brought a stockpile of CupNoodles to my dorm, purchased at Sam’s Club with my dad. Being a ramen lover is my subculture, apparently.
I honestly had no clue what to expect when I jumped out of the cab at the museum. And at first glance I was surprised. The architecture was elegant and simple, bordering on sparse.
I went straight to my appointment to create my own CupNoodles creation. After purchasing an empty ramen container out of a vending machine (of course! It’s Japan after all.), I was ushered to a table to doodle and design my cup. Then I stood in a line, consisting of nearly all families with children in strollers, to package the noodles in my container and choose the broth and toppings, before it was sealed and shrink-wrapped as a souvenir.
Afterwards, I wandered around the museum, learning more about Momofuku Ando, the creator of instant ramen. Other visitors might come away with the sense that Momofuku funded the museum as a temple to himself and his brilliance, but I took away something else. I was inspired by the creativity of the museum. The learning stations were creative. The quotes on the walls were thought-provoking. And Momofuku’s six steps of creativity inspired me, as well as his life story. So much so, that I have already downloaded read a crazy memoir inspired by his life.
I boarded the ship in Yokohama with a smile on my face. Japan was every bit as charming as I remember. I was able to indulge in my favorite foods and neighborhoods – and they were as delightful as ever.
But even better, I was able to reminisce about my dad in an entirely new place. When my dad died, I had a fear that I would start to forget things about him – the little details like how he smelled, the color of his favorite jacket and the way he made hashbrowns. But being in Japan, a place that is so far removed from home – I know that I don’t need to worry. I can find, recall and celebrate memories of my dad wherever I go.
Now, Japan will always be that first foreign country where I made it on my own, and the country where I got to remember my dad, in an entirely new way. And those things can never be overhyped or oversold.