I love traveling even though I don’t get to do it often, especially going overseas to other countries. When you travel less with a mindset of a tourist and more with a mindset of an explorer, the experience simply opens you. It makes you invigorated and inspired, ready to see things both expected and surprising. Before March, 4 years has passed since my last overseas trip. After my March 2013 Japan trip, I pray that I will get to travel more often. You really miss out a great deal when you don’t travel and experience things. Trust me.

Amongst all countries in the world, I love Japan. Perhaps not as a country I choose to live in, but a country whose way of life, culture, and technology I admire so much. Before our March 2013 Japan trip, it had been 7 years since I first visited Japan. It was only 5 days, but since then I was patiently waiting for a chance to visit that amazing country, this time with the love of my life (you know who). As always, but maybe more so this time, he took gorgeous pictures that I am very excited to share with you.

Roughly two months before we embarked for our 11-day March 2013 Japan trip, we came across this Quora post about Japan’s best secrets. And since that moment, Makiko Itoh’s answer was stuck in my head for the trip planning, during our stay, and after. I really love Itoh-san’s answer, especially the first paragraph:

The best kept secret about Japan may be that it’s not what you think it is. Don’t fall into the trap of defining it by clichés, the way much of the overseas media does. If you think it is the land of high-tech and robots and automation everywhere, it is and it isn’t. If on the other hand you think it’s a mysterious land with the ‘spirit of the samurai’ and secret ninjas and such, it isn’t and it is. It is homogenous and it isn’t. It is both forward thinking and in some ways, very backwards. Some people assume from seeing some manga or anime that Japanese people are incredibly perverted, but most people are actually very prudish and conservative by Western standards. It is a nation filled with people who claim to not be religious, yet every town and village and road is dotted with small shrines with fresh flowers, and little stone deities dressed in handknitted caps and bibs. While it is part of Asia and parts of its culture were influenced by China and Korea, it is also distinct and unique. It’s a country with a long and complicated history, and it’s also a modern, messy democracy.



Writing notes at Heian Shrine, Kyoto

Itoh-san’s answer couldn’t summarize what I felt about our trip more accurately. With the limited time we had (11 days is such a short time to hit Tokyo, Haneda, Osaka, Kyoto, Nara, and Himeji), we explored, we observed, we enjoyed…as much as possible.

It’s a magnificent country with very advanced technology, and yet the majority doesn’t speak English. Beautiful landmarks connected with super-organized public transportation systems in Tokyo, yet in subway stations, people move so haphazardly the organization is forgotten. They express freely in the way they dress up/down, yet they speak with restrain and quietly.


A shopping alley at Shimokitazawa, Tokyo

The Tokyo fashion scene is very exciting. Regardless of gender or age or body shape, Japanese people have great sense of style and are very free in their experiment and self-expression. Colors, patterns, silhouettes, high-end, low-end, vintage, new, sub-cultures (Visual Kei, Shibuya Girl, Harajuku Mori-garu, etc)…..somehow they all look fantastic.

We were so ecstatic to be inspired with endless possibilities of outfits. And the shopping alleys around Shinjuku, Harajuku, and the “old Tokyo” Shimokitazawa are simply amazing. I couldn’t stop smiling when we were walking down the alleyways; I was really, really happy.


Pretty pretty at Ueno Park, Tokyo

I will do a post dedicated for my favorite shots of Japan fashion we came across. It’s all candid and we didn’t ask them to post or anything, so we caught them as naturally as possible. Pictured on the right is an example: a chic young woman who checked herself out. It was a beautiful day at Ueno Park where sakura trees were in full bloom.

Yes, we got to see sakura in full bloom. Spring came early as well in Japan, the trees were blooming two weeks earlier than previously expected. And the fact that we got to “catch” it one day before our departure only added  to our gratefulness in the experience. The sakura trees in full bloom were surreal, captivating, mystical, and calming at the same time. It was gorgeous.

While Tokyo was the city we spent our time the most in, we fell in love with Kyoto (and could not wait to go back again). The temples, shrines, and castles are the main attractions, sure, however the city’s alleys give you a glimpse of Japan’s old days. When we’re walking down Kyoto streets, we weaved our ways in and out of Kyoto alleys just to see more of the glimpse of how it was.

West Kyoto’s Arashiyama Bamboo Forest was one of our highlights. I would love to continue our journey further down towards the villages and maybe do some back-packing next time. While the bamboo forest was great, the main highlight of our Kyoto trip was the round-trip walking beneath the red torii gates of Fushimi Inari Shrine (in roughly 2 hours). There’s a reason whey this is a must-see destination. Even if you just want to take few steps up and back, you HAVE to go visit Fushimi Inari Shrine if you go to Kyoto. And after you’re done with Fushimi Inari, continue your journey to Nara where you will see the cute but aggressive deers at Nara Park.


Bamboo Forest at Arashiyama, West Kyoto


Fushimi Inari Taisha, Kyoto


Deer at Nara Park, Nara


Bike shop, Kyoto

While Japan is an amazing country (did I say I love Japan?), their reluctance (or fear?) to engage in even the shortest conversations in English is still astonishing. Aside from hotel receptionists and staff and a few store attendants, there’s still this big hindrance in non-japanese communications. Even Tokyo or Shinjuku station staff rarely speaks English despite those two stations being the major hubs in Tokyo area for business people and tourists from all over the world.

I happened to meet my friend there (we attended university together here in the US) and she confirmed that while Japanese people are educated in English, they are afraid to speak it, partly due to concern that they don’t do it well or they won’t get their points across. We were lucky that my limited but usable Japanese vocabularies came back to me after 8 hours of touchdown in Japan, otherwise we would be so miserable navigating our ways.


After the shops close at Dotonburi, Osaka

I thought this non-English communication is something only felt by foreigners’ observation and not something that’s shared with the Japanese, especially seeing they look perfectly content and relaxed going about in their daily life. That assumption held true for me until I saw an advertisement for a university (or a language school?) at Tokyo station. I only saw a glimpse and my kanji characters reading speed is rather slow due to years of non-practice, but it basically laments Japan as one developed country in which English is not commonly practiced. What do Japanese people feel when they see that ad, I wonder? I’m not quite sure, but there’s a healthy portion of Japanese people who share my sentiment as a foreigner. The desire for continuous progress, more forward-thinking initiatives (not that Japan is lacking), adjustments to modern landscape of open world is so strong that the importance of English communication cannot be set aside much longer.

Nevertheless, Japanese hospitality is excellent in its own unique humble and warm way. We found ourselves being helped over and again whenever we were at the slightest bit lost by people who are just ready to help above and beyond what are expected. Add that to the gorgeous sights that greet us everyday, it’s just a very fulfilling travel experience. Seeing sakura in full bloom at Ueno Park just moments before we concluded our March 2013 Japan trip wrapped the whole experience with the prettiest bow. Here’s one more sakura shot before I sign off :)

Sakura tree at Ueno Park, Tokyo

Sakura tree at Ueno Park, Tokyo

Thanks for reading; until next time,

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