The discussion about Japan started because my friend Heather was about to get a new job, and I had just lost my hours at IH/LC, and I had received an email alert in my inbox about round trip tickets to Tokyo from NYC for $450, an unbelievably low fare. I forwarded it to Heather with a casual remark along the lines of "if only you got your new job, we should go, but we'd have to go like next week." Heather took me seriously, but unfortunately, she didn't find out about the new job till about a week and a half later, at which point, the cheap tickets were gone... but were still not outrageously expensive, so when she finally did find out that she got the job, we restarted the conversation. Before we knew it, Monday afternoon we purchased the tickets and Friday morning we were on a plane! It was the most spur of the moment, spontaneous trip that either of us had ever taken, but we both decided that it was the best impulse buy we ever made.
I am fortunate to have family in Tokyo, my cousin and his wife live there with their two kids Kio and Aki, who are ridiculously cute, and they had a big, centrally located apartment in a neighborhood called Yotsuya with a guest bedroom and bath. Better than a hotel, for sure! We bought Japan Rail Passes which give you free rides on all JR trains for a week, so we decided to take a couple days to explore Kyoto and Nara as well.
A long post about what we did will probably never get finished, so I'll say this about Japan...
-People there are incredibly friendly, courteous, and nice. Americans might see this as being a bit phony, but honestly, I have to believe that most of them act this way because that is how they genuinely are. When on trains everyone would ask us where we were from and how we liked Japan. When we were looking at our maps and trying to figure out where we were, often times people would come over to us and ask if we needed any help, and more often than not would walk us to our destination. When I misplaced my camera while getting off a train from Nara to Kyoto, everyone on the car got up out of their seat to help me look for it, and the train security guard ran down the platform to give it to me as someone had found it and turned it in. Everywhere is very safe, bikes are unlocked, there is very very little crime. We were never sexually harassed or made to feel at risk. Apart from the language barrier, I felt really comfortable there.
-Getting by without Japanese was ok. While its true that it can be difficult to travel without knowing Japanese, in the main tourist cities (i.e. where we went), it was not a huge problem. Most people spoke a little English, and its amazing how far hand motions and a Japanese phrasebook will take you. We had very little misunderstandings and were able to figure things out. The most difficult thing was trying to find vegetarian food for Heather, and often times she ended up just getting udon soup with tofu. I usually did not know what the hell I was ordering and would just point at something on the menu and hope for the best! Usually everything I got was delicious.
-Japan is weird! The weirdest thing we did was we went to a neighborhood called Akihabara and went to a maid cafe... Akihabara is the "anime" neighborhood and guys there are really into girls who dress as maids. You come into the cafe and they say "welcome home master!" and do all sorts of weird stuff. You can read about them here. There was lots of other things that we perceived as weird, such as the toilets which were either super high tech with buttons and heated toilet seats and bidets and music to cover the sound of you doing your business, or they were "japanese style" holes in the ground which were essentially female urinals. Weird!
Anyways here's a little movie I took of our trip, it sums everything up pretty well. Enjoy!