April 2013 was when I found out that I would be travelling to Japan to study abroad in Kobe for 3 weeks in late July-August.
The first time I visited Japan, I knew I wanted to live there. It wasn’t that flickering “oh this place is really neat.” It was like I got hit with this overwhelming sensation that I had found home and that I really belonged.
July 2013 I departed from Canada with my mother on an international adventure, leaving Saskatchewan, stopping in Vancouver, then again in Seoul, and finally landing in Osaka around 9pm or so. Even at 9, it was incredibly humid and hot out. I don’t think I’d ever experienced anything like it. Thankfully, my mom had booked a hotel room at the airport so we could sleep before starting our adventure the next day. We both woke up fairly early (around 5am?) (yay, jet lag). And what an adventure it would be. Prior to this trip I had taken only two beginner level Japanese classes at my University, so my knowledge was limited to saying things like, “this is a pen,” “where is the train station,” “I like food.” Nothing super helpful when trying to figure out trains and schedules written primarily in Japanese. Every so often, a sign would have some English which I think is the only way we made it to our next hotel, only after I dumped my suitcase down an escalator.
Side note: Kansai (Kyoto, Osaka, Nara) people are incredibly kind. When I dropped my suitcase, about 4 people came rushing over and brought it up the escalator, asking if I was okay and if I needed any help.
Side, side note: I’ve spent 90% of my time in Kansai, so I’m probably biased.
Finally my mom and I got on the right train, and ended up at our train station. For those of you who haven’t been to Japan, train stations are often home to other businesses– like giant freaking department stores and malls. The colours, the sounds, the smells overwhelmed me as my mom and I had to walk through this train station/mall with our giant suitcases looking exactly like lost tourists as we tried to find the right exit for our hotel.
My feet were sore, it was hot, and my bags were heavy. We were very close to finding a taxi when we took our next exit and looked at all the high rise buildings and found the name of our hotel flashing fairly close to us. Our hotel was fairly nice, both my mom and I were ecstatic about the blue yukata pajama’s laid out on our beds. Starting the next day we had a tour guide who was going to show us around Osaka, Kyoto and then finally in Kobe where I would be spending the next 3 weeks. We started in Osaka, visiting shrines and temples, the Osaka castle, a historical museum where I tried on my first yukata and got to wander around ancient buildings. We even got to see the beginning of a local festival where students (high school) would play a taiko drum while carrying a giant, portable temple through the streets. All traffic lights became irrelevant as the temple bobbed through the intersection on the backs of teenagers.
We ended our day in Osaka by visiting the red light district where I got to meet a cross-dressing actor. This is an old form of theatre in Japan and you will often come across females portraying males and males, women. I also got to try plinko which is Japan’s version of gambling, without actually gambling (which is illegal in Japan). It’s a bit like pinball, but after you get a certain amount of points you take your receipt with your points to the next door building where you can trade your points for everyday items and food. See, not really gambling.
This is also where I first almost got kidnapped. Well, probably would have been kidnapped.
My mom and the tour guide were looking at a shop and I was just a few meters away looking at something else, when an old man (like, dinosaurs were still around when he was a teenager) came up behind me and put his arm around my shoulders while pulling me away from my mom and tour guide, repeating “kirei, kirei.” (It means, pretty). I was able to pull out from under his arm and my tour guide came running over, hitting him with her fan (legit straight out of an anime) and telling him no. I don’t think I was ever in any real danger, but considering all of my almost kidnapped stories happen in Japan, this one had to be included.
After leaving the red light district, it was time for our tour guide to return home. She had told us about a fireworks festival tonight, gave us directions, and then left us to enjoy the popular shopping area.
We went to the festival and experienced the famous train squishing, where guards would force as many people as possible onto the train. Surprisingly it wasn’t as awful as I’d thought it would be, since the train was well air conditioned and everyone was doing their best to keep their hands away from uncomfortable areas.
The fireworks were amazing, at least 3-400 people were crammed onto a tiny bridge, with another 6 or 7 bridges filled the same way and thousands of people lining the sides of the river. Bright, colourful boats floated down the river while fireworks lit up the sky with smiley faces and hearts. Unfortunately, jet lag had finally caught up with my mom and I, so we made our way back to our hotel on a nearly empty train.
And here I will leave you, with my trip to Kyoto for next time!