일본에 갔어요 (I went to Japan)

“I went to Japan” from January 25th-31st and stayed with a friend in Tokyo! I’ll give some snippets from each day.


Sunday: Arrival, Shibuya, Senken-jaya

This trip to Japan came a great, but also not so great time. But after procrastinating and not getting tickets until only three weeks in advance, I was just happy I was still able to go, and for a reasonable price. Thank you Air Busan. Or Busan Air. I’m not quite sure what your name is, but I’ll give you at least one more well-deserved shout-out before this post is over.

I was very ready for a break from my host family and in dire need of some introvert alone time. To be clear, I love my homestay family. They are rowdy, rambunctious and sometimes a little too honest, but they laugh all the time and keep things in perspective. And I need perspectives other than my sometimes-a-little-too-reflective own. So while I was ready for a break, I was also tired, wondering if I could really do a week of travel, while running so low on energy.

True to their nature, after confirming I could go to the airport on my own, my entire host family decided to accompany me anyway. (Because one sister just felt like seeing the airport again. Riiiight.) We had coffee together at the airport Dunkin Donuts before they said goodbye and left.

After a brief flight, I landed in Tokyo, Narita Airport. After some confusion in the maze that is Tokyo’s public transportation system, I was excited to meet Katrina, a college friend that I’d be staying with. We re-energized with bread and Sakura flavored soy milk (yum) at her house and then set out. That evening we saw the Scramble in Shibuya, were overwhelmed by the manga floor of a bookstore, and ate at an izakaya (small hole-in-the-wall restaurant) in Senken-jaya – my first taste of real Japanese food (other than, you know, sushi).

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Monday: Kamakura and Ikebukuro

We got off to a late start (or looking at it differently, I gained some much needed hours of sleep) and set out for Kamakura. It’s a significant historical city about 50 km south of Tokyo, once Japan’s capital. One of Kamakura’s most famous sites is its giant Amida Buddha.


Next I misinterpreted a price of a rickshaw ride and said yes before realizing there was an extra zero. One US dollar is 1,000 Korean won, but 100 Japanese yen. I continued to mistakenly read prices as Korean won while in Japan, so 4,000 yen looked like $4 to me, although in actuality it was $40. Oops. But I realized it too late.



You can’t go to Japan and not try ramen, so we headed to a ramen restaurant in Ikebukuro for dinner. We then went to Sunshine City. It was massive, however we got there after everything was closed. That night we also stopped by an arcade, which may seem insignificant, but felt like a genuine snapshot of culture. Culture isn’t just museums and historical artifacts. There were tons of claw machines – I tried one and got a Doraemon snack – and games of all sorts, including a taiko drum game (like guitar hero for drums), and two floors of only photo booths. Interestingly, men aren’t allowed on these floors alone (without a woman). This is to protect against sexual assault, which could might easily go unnoticed on a floor with lots of noise and a maze-like arrangement of small booths. It was both disturbing and fascinating; the fact that it’s necessary is alarming but seeing one gender banned from anything other than a bathroom or locker room was a shock. Would this even be possible in the US?

Tuesday: Onsen at Hakone

One thing I definitely wanted to do in Japan was go to an onsen, or hot springs. Ours was indoors, and very similar to a jjimjilbang or mogyoktang. We stayed in a traditional hotel, wore yukata, and visited the onsen three times. This was probably my favorite part of Japan. Hakone was absolutely beautiful, and we were only there in the winter. I can only imagine spring or fall.


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In between onsen soaks, we ventured outside, walking a few paths and of course, eating.

Wednesday: Bye Hakone, Hello again Tokyo


That morning we woke up to snow, which I haven’t seen much of this year. After another dip in the onsen, we headed back toward the train station, where there was an abundance of small shops. I picked up gifts (bread) for my school’s two foreign-language-but-mostly-English offices, the principal and vice principal. On one hand, gifts (during the right time) are somewhat obligatory in Korea. On the other hand, it is nice to have an accepted time and space for little acts of kindness (and reciprocate the kindness that’s been shown to me in my school).

Wednesday might have been my most low-key day. Katrina had to work the afternoon/evening and I still needed alone time. I toured the area around her house alone and grabbed dinner at a nearby restaurant, which surprised me a.) with the number of people eating alone and b.) with how some of the flavors reminded me of my mom’s cooking.


Thursday: MOMAT, Sushi, Stationary and Shibuya

It’s too bad MOMAT doesn’t start with an S. The MOMAT (Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo) refreshed my artist soul. It feels like I’ve been away from any kind of art community for such a long time and my eyes were thirsty. Takamatsu Jiro and Narahara Ikko were the artists featured in special exhibits. Narahara is a photographer whose exhibit “Domains” featured people in solitude, but in two very different contexts: a monastery and a prison. But Takamatsu Jiro was the star – he’s a conceptual artist, in some ways, I suppose? (But I’m not taking art history anymore, so does it matter?) His work is very philosophical and ingrained with his other interests, some of those being mathematics and quantum physics. Talk about disparate. But the exhibit, “Mysteries,” lined out his thought process and artistic progression beautifully. I can’t stop thinking about curation choices after the BA Portfolio class with Deborah. Maybe I’ll do a more in-depth post on my art blog.

Anyway, I absolutely loved the exhibit, but questioned the accessibility of this kind of art. It falls exactly into line with what “formally trained” artists “should” be producing, but does it speak to people outside of those circles? Is it less meaningful to those outside of the art world? Or should artists only strive to excel in the art world and trust that the meaning/significance of their work will be taught (if they become famous enough)? Everyone accepts that Picasso is a great artist, but they are told this before getting to experience his work for themselves. Moving on…

The main exhibit began with works by Japanese artists that were very clearly influenced by European ideals. It was startling, and upon first glance, I wouldn’t have recognized these pieces as “Japanese”. Of course, this sparked a discussion between Katrina and I questioning what we can consider “Japanese” art, and how, under different circumstances, very similar actions or products are considered assimilation, appropriation or the destruction of culture.


Takamatsu Jiro, from his Shadow Lab, 1969

But later exhibits felts like pure gold to my eyes, powerful and moving, and well worth their fame. I had the chance to see selections from On Kawara’s date paintings and “I am still alive” series. I’ve started working in my sketchbook again, IW-style (you IB art folks know what I mean).

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Narahara Ikko, from Domains: Garden of Silence, 1958

For lunch we went to a restaurant with conveyor belt sushi and left stuffed. To do more souvenir shopping, we went to Village Vanguard and Tokyu Hands, both packed full of stationery, art supplies and knick-knacks. After Katrina left for work, I explored Shibuya, tried a vending machine style restaurant (where you order on a machine and give your ticket to the cook) and was amazed by the 6-floor Forever 21. After being touted around on tour after tour in Korea, I don’t mind more simple sightseeing. I don’t really know how traveling’s supposed to be done, but I liked experiencing the little differences.

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Friday: Kiddyland, Koenji, Golden Gai

To make up for missing the Ghibli Museum – the tickets were all sold out – we started off the day at Kiddyland in Harajuku. I have to admit, if I were to stay in Japan long enough, the child in me (and otaku, buried very, very deep) might come out. I’ve never seen so much cuteness in my life. One fascinating character is a little egg yolk creature. Although Katrina and I laughed about how awkward it was (it sleeps on a bed of toast and uses a slice of bacon as a blanket), I ended up getting a keychain from a toy vending machine – which are called gashapons. (Any chance this’ll be on the GRE?)

For lunch, we met Katrina’s awesome fashionista friend Brandon, who showed us around Koenji. (Apparently Harajuku’s old news. Koenji is where it’s at.) We got a glimpse of Japan’s quirky fashion subculture, met one of Brandon’s friends who owns a shop, visited a vintage toy store full of childhood, and stepped back in time to a shop with 90s and 80s clothing and decor. My eyes drank (it all in) until they were full.

I didn’t get good pictures, but half the shop is covered in distorted pages of Alice in Wonderland.


This was my final night in Tokyo, and Katrina’s roommate Vinnie insisted on going to Golden Gai. It’s a a really cool area absolutely filled with hole-in-the-wall places. There’s something so refreshing and authentic about places like this, in contrast to the towering, perfectly manicured department stores I’d been wandering around in earlier. Golden Gai isn’t a place you’d visit with a tour guide – it’s close to the red light district, the paths are narrow and it’s apparently one big fire hazard, but it feels like a treasure. Exploring and finding beauty in places like this takes me back to being a child and forming secret clubhouses inside half-tree, half-bush plants. Yes, this is a very specific memory, and it sounds strange to recount. But somehow my first best friend and I weaved our way into these tree-bushes and had secret meetings. We were poked and prodded with branches the entire time, but were ecstatic that our hideout even had two “rooms.” Somehow, Golden Gai feels like this, comforting and genuine.

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The year after I left my first elementary school, the tree-bush was cut down, barely a stump left. Golden Gai is set to be torn down for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

Saturday: Departure

I promised another shoutout to Busan Air, and here it is. Although I got confused about Tokyo transportation again, I made it to the airport with plenty of time. Unfortunately I didn’t realize that the boarding time and takeoff time were so close together. I got in line late, and my flight should have been taking off right when I got through immigration.

To my surprise and relief, a flight attendant from Busan Air was waiting for me. Together we ran to the gate – which was the VERY. LAST. ONE. – and I made my flight. Never again. Although this is apparently standard for Korean airlines, thank you Busan Air. And on the plane, instead of giving me dirty looks, one of the other passengers even helped me with my carry-on when we landed.


Contrary to what we’d agreed on, my host mom was waiting for me at the airport, wondering why my flight was late.

Suncheon and a Wedding

The first week of January I stayed in Suncheon with my second aunt’s family. It’s amazing how just the knowledge of being family can bond people together. I was reminded of how, in the middle of applying to study abroad in Korea a couple years ago, Luke in the study abroad office brushed off my concerns about not being able to communicate with my family. At the very least, we could stare into each other’s eyes, he joked. It’s silly that a remark like this stuck with me, but it’s not too far off the mark. We have enough Korean, English and body language between us to make conversation, but just being around family, even those I’ve never met, is somehow a comfort. Now the only family I haven’t met (beyond distant relatives) is my uncle’s (because he’s in India).

This was my first time meeting my aunt in Suncheon – Myeong-Hwa imo – and her family, with the exception of Borami, my dongap (or same age) cousin. I think I’m noticing that in Korea, being the same age as someone is kind of a big deal. It’s more comfortable, especially in Korean, to address that person because both parties can drop the honorifics. After a week of talking so much to Borami, I kept forgetting to use honorifics when talking to people older than me, like my host parents.


Together we visited famous sites in and near Suncheon, including the Naganeupseong Folk Village and Suncheon Bay Ecological Park. Unfortunately, almost the whole family caught colds on Monday (interestingly, I later found out that my host mom also became very sick that same Monday) and so I ended up taking lots of interesting cold remedies (on top of regular cold pills). One of them involved coating Q-tips in cabbage juice and sticking them up my nose. My aunt’s husband could stick them almost entirely up his nose, and I was freaked out by the whole affair. I ended up sneezing like crazy – which is what was supposed to happen. It cleared up my sinuses and lasted almost the entire next day…but still.



I spent the most time with my cousin and her boyfriend of two years, Doong-Wook. He ended up paying for almost everything we did, which is custom (whoever’s older pays), but I felt bad for him. He was really sweet and didn’t make me feel like a third wheel most of the time, but Borami used me to take plenty of couple photos for them. The three of us visited the green tea fields at Boseong at night, which was beautiful with all the lights. When we left, Doong-Wook only told me “green tea,” so I thought we were going to drink tea. I was pleasantly surprised by the green tea fields.



We have so many pictures.


If there’s one thing Borami’s really good at, it’s taking pictures. So SO many. I can also count on her to photoshop all of them, whether I want her to or not. Like many Korean girls I’ve met, she’s very conscious of how she looks in photos. Our personalities are very different. My cousin is much girlier than I am, and willing to spend A LOT more on clothes than me. But as I’ve done many times in Korea, I switched off my unimportant preferences and expectations, and, as it’s more popularly known, went with the flow. Usually everything was fine – except for the amount we both spent on outfits for our cousin’s wedding. This is someone who got her high school prom dress for $25…



That leads me to the second part of this post, which is my cousin Ye-Rim’s wedding! The following Sunday my aunt’s family and I went together to Busan to attend a wedding – the first among all of my Korean cousins. And my first Korean wedding. Surprisingly and sadly, Borami and I took hardly any photos. We’ll have to wear those dresses together again.


The wedding, as I’d been told it would be, was surprisingly short. The actually ceremony was probably 30 minutes. They didn’t play the typical wedding song when Ye-Rim walked down the aisle; I can’t even remember what they played. The parents of the bride and groom sat in the front, the mothers in traditional hanboks, the fathers in suits. All the aunts of each family also wore hanboks. The family all went with Aunt Myeong-Hwa to rent a hanbok the day before.


The wedding was held at a hotel, and afterwards, we ate at the buffet restaurant there. I don’t why, but I didn’t expect/realize that pretty much the whole family would be there. I was pleasantly surprised to see my aunts again (from Busan and Seoul) and my grandfather. (My grandmother couldn’t come because of her health.) Upon seeing me, my grandfather gave me a friendly greeting, grabbed my hand, and lead me over to some other old people and introduced me. They said to come over to their house and play sometime (this expression is common in Korean, but sounds silly in English), and I smiled and agreed. I’m still not entirely sure who they are, but I think they’re my grandfather or grandmother’s brother or sister’s family. So my great aunt or uncle and his or her wife. I’ve narrowed it down quite a bit, haven’t I?

From there it was time to say goodbye. Myeong-Hwa imo’s family graciously dropped me off at my host family’s apartment (right up to the elevator) before driving back to Suncheon. I wish I could just travel around Korea and see family all the time, but alas, I’m supposed to be a teacher.

But it’s still winter break for one more week, and tomorrow, I’m off to Japan!