I never imagined I’d go to Tokyo. I always said there was so much to see in the US that the thought of traveling overseas seemed so… foreign to me.
But, in the Fall of 2016 I found myself with the opportunity to travel to Japan with a group of 12 -14 year old female gymnasts, two of their coaches, a parent chaperone and my husband, the delegation leader, for an 8 day adventure.
We had an itinerary filled with a mix of tourist and insider opportunities, as one of the coaches was Japanese and returned to his home country multiple times a year, often with groups of gymnast in an on-going home-spun cultural exchange program. Being a tourist with an inside edge really appealed to me.
I’m a people person. I love watching people, making up their stories in my head and just watching them go about their business. The people watching in Tokyo was fascinating, but I felt like I was being watched as well.
The personal awareness of being a foreigner in someone else’s country stayed with me throughout our trip. From even before we departed the airport, when we were approached by a TV crew from “Why Did You Come to Japan?” to the gymnasiums where our girls worked out, even to the last moments at the posh, over-the-top Tokyo-American Club, I was very conscious of how I was being perceived and very curious as to how American culture translated in Japan. We went to McDonald’s and several Starbucks (the WiFi is free there too) and even ate Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, all in the name of research of course.
We covered a lot of ground on our trip – both in mileage and experiences. Our accommodations varied from a youth hostel on the campus of Tsukuba University, complete with tatami mat floors, futon beds and dormitory-style bathrooms, to a business class hotel in Tokyo’s Sugamo business district, to one night at an onsen (hot spring) resort in Hakone, culminating with a posh, over-the-top room at the Tokyo-American Club in the Roppongi district, known for its high-end shopping and dining.
We visited beautiful religious shrines throughout the city, hiked atop Mount Tsukuba, viewed the city from the top of the Tokyo Tower and took in the whiskey bar nightlife. We walked the streets, we took the subways, and we even took the Romance Train – the bullet train from Tokyo to Hakone.
Tokyo took us on a trip in time as well. Exploring the ancient temples next to skyscrapers, having miso soup and fish for breakfast, followed by a hamburger for lunch all highlighted how things that appear to be in stark contrast can truly co-exist.