After spending 18 days on the Pacific Ocean (save for the one day stop in Hawaii), waking up in Kobe, Japan was a dream come true. When I first left my cabin to join everyone on Lido deck as we pulled into port, the sight of a parking lot gave me that jumpy feeling in my chest that I get when I see an electric sunset. Dry land had become a distant memory after all those days at sea.
I started exploring Kobe with my friend Shanaea early in the morning. Our first goal was coffee. We found a local shop just outside of China Town and I swear, I have never had a better latte in my life. Maybe it had something to do with how the ship coffee tastes like they use gravel for coffee beans, but I have never appreciated a cup of caffeine so much. I had no idea how to communicate to the waitress, and when she tried to confirm that the item I pointed to on the menu was correct, I responded with si. Yes, I tried speaking Spanish to a Japanese barista, and I have never felt so ignorant in my life. It happened once more before we left, and I’m astonished that I didn’t throw in a gracias on the way out.
After coffee, Shanaea and I brought my horribly broken phone to a repair shop next door, and let me tell you, there’s nothing like having to ask for help from someone who has absolutely no idea what you’re saying. The experience showed me just how much I take general communication for granted, but we eventually succeeded with the help of Google Translate.
Next, we wandered to a massive department store filled with Gucci, Dolce and Gabbana, Prada, and other name-brand luxuries that make my wallet ache just by looking at them. We found a rooftop garden on the tenth floor that overlooked the entirety of downtown Kobe, and this is where the silence hit me. Here was a city that was so full of people and cars and tall buildings, and yet, it was so quiet. All I could hear was the dull hum of the train below. I appreciated a place that could behave this way and breathed in the sight until the stinging cold brought me back inside.
My field class in digital documentary photography took me to Osaka where my classmates and I spent hours wandering the streets taking photos of anything and everything. We went to the Dotonbori District along the river, which was incredibly vibrant and lively, filled with bright little restaurants and colorful thrift shops. Everyone – and I mean everyone – was incredibly well-dressed as if they had just left a department store photo-shoot. I was instantly taken with the city.
After six hours of photography, we ended the day at a restaurant that served okonomiyaki – a savory pancake filled with pork, vegetables, and other mysterious items (I prefer not knowing when it comes to meals like that). On the bus ride home, I tried to remember the last time my feet ached so much. It was a wonderful feeling.
Although I only spent half of the day in Osaka then, I returned for my last night in Japan (more on that later).
On day two, I took an early train to Kyoto with my friends Sophia, Willy, and Taylor. It was a beautiful city, even less noisy than Kobe, and we spent the day roaming around temple squares and admiring the quiet chaos of the place. We sampled octopus skewers from a street vendor in a very I’ll-try-it-if-you-try-it way. I’m not a seafood person, but I can honestly say that with a little salt, it wouldn’t have been half bad.
Later in the day, we took a bus to the monkey park in Iwatayama, which was definitely the highlight of Kyoto. The monkeys were absolutely hysterical, and the lookout over the entire city of Kyoto was gorgeous. I could’ve spent my entire day there and never tired of the sight. I tried to feed a peanut shell to one of the little guys, but I pissed him off and he swatted at my hands, just barely scratching my finger. If I end up getting rabies, at least I’ll be able to say I got them from a Japanese monkey and not by a lame stray dog or something like that.
I woke up the next morning to a view of snow-covered mountains through the window of my cozy hostel pod. Unfortunately for me, I did not pack for the weather, but I bared the freezing temperatures and headed for the station to catch the bullet train to Tokyo.
Everyone knows that Tokyo is a wildly chaotic city, but the reality of it is entirely different from what you see in photos. The moment we stepped out of the train station, we found ourselves at Shibuya Crossing, one of the largest crosswalks in the world. When the little green man appeared, hundreds of people hurried every which way beneath the massive neon commercials. I felt like I was surrounded by robots perfectly programmed to maneuver the insanity, and after weaving our way through the orderly disorder, I breathed a sigh of relief. Continuing down the streets to the massive shopping malls, my girls and I bought wigs for our night out on the town. One does not simply go to Tokyo without buying an outrageous wig.
My wigged women and I went to the Robot Restaurant that night, which was entirely different from the bar scene I had imagined. It was a full-on light show performance filled with gigantic robots and tribal drumming and staged battles performed by shrieking Japanese dressed in the most incredible metallic outfits. It was absolutely insane and absolutely wonderful.
After one too many vodka sodas, we left the restaurant and stumbled through the streets of Tokyo, occasionally posing with locals who were so excited to see us idiot Americans in our ridiculous get-ups, then made our way to the Womb.
The Womb is a nightclub that is famous to Semester at Sea students. Everyone knows about it and everyone must go if they really want to have the full SAS experience in Japan, so nine of my friends and I met there for a night of clubbing. To be honest, I think it was a bit overrated (I’m pretty sure the same song played for the entire night), but then again, I don’t remember much about the night. Sorry Mom.
A good old-fashioned McDonald’s breakfast made me slightly less corpse-like the next morning, and my group and I made one last Tokyo outing at the Digital Art Museum. This was my favorite part of the entire trip. I would have stayed in that building for weeks and never gotten tired of the incredible light shows and trippy projections on mirrored walls. It was incredible, and if you ever go to Tokyo, this is something you cannot skip.
My friends Julia, Piper, Riley, Cayla and I took the bullet train back to Osaka to stay in a ryokan – a traditional Japanese hotel complete with bed mats and kimonos. There we were served a six-course meal, but we had no idea what anything was because the menu was in Japanese. We stifled our laughter as the server brought us plates and plates of mystery fish, eggs, and God only knows what else.
I cried laughing as we shared the misery of having to eat a few bites of everything to avoid insulting the staff. I have never come so close to throwing up from a bad meal, but dear God this food was horrendous. After I took a shot of what I think was a raw quail egg, we called it quits and booked it out of there, our stomachs aching from the laughter and the meal.
We ended the night in the ryokan’s onsen – a Japanese “hot spring” which, in our circumstances, was basically a public bath. Respecting tradition, we all threw a middle finger to our insecurities and stripped down. Huddled in separate corners of the onsen, we were doing alright until two middle-aged women joined in, letting it all hang out. Liberating for them but scarring for us, we quickly succumbed to the awkwardness and returned to our rooms for much-needed sleep.
My final stop in Japan was Nara, a sacred town at the foot of the mountains outside of Osaka filled with beautiful temples, tidy shops, and herds of tame deer. I still have yet to discover why the deer are there, but they’ve been a tourist attraction since my mom’s SAS voyage in 1981. So strange yet so cool. We wandered through the streets, petting deer all along the way, until we came to the giant Buddah, which I witnessed in awe.
After all of these adventures, getting back to the ship was truly a relief. I had been walking seven to eight miles a day with an incredibly heavy backpack that was definitely not designed for long-distance travel, and I was excited to be back in my own bed. Nonetheless, I truly loved Japan and I will certainly be returning some day to explore all the places I missed like Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Until then, I’ll be getting a new backpack and avoiding seafood at all costs. See you next time in China!