This blog is an exercise of exploration, both internal and external, of the pale blue dot and its inhabitants, through one pair of eyes amidst the many..

Japan Day 2 & 3: The Perfect Mix of Tradition and Modernity

It was Coming of Age Day -- a day of celebration for those turning 20 and entering adulthood. Most women celebrate by wearing furisode, a style of kimono.

Though I have only experienced Kyoto for a total of 4 days, it already holds a special place in my heart. Kyoto is a different beast compared to Tokyo. It shares some similarities, but gives a completely different vibe and atmosphere. Temples, both Shinto and Buddhist are scattered throughout the city in every nook and corner, blending into the fabric of Kyoto's modern infrastructure. It is the perfect balance of tradition and modernity. 


I rode the shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Kyoto. It cost me about 100 dollars but being able to reach Kyoto within 2 hours on a 200mph train as opposed to a 9 hour overnight bus ride, was worth it.

Most of everything in Japan is automated, but customer service is still as present and better than any other place I've ever seen. At every ticket gate in the train stations, there are attendants to help you. There were also information centers and the like. For the shinkansen tickets, there were several booths. I tried to use the machine, but could not read all the kanji and had no idea what to press to get the English menu so I decided to wait in line to talk to a person to purchase my ticket. 

The Customer Service Mask

There was a man in front of me talking to one of the customer service representatives. He looked like a standard businessman, donned with a suit. What he was talking about with the representative I wasn’t quite sure, but it sounded like a relatively calm conversation. But then all of the sudden, the man started to walk away from the counter. The attendant immediately raised his voice and called out to the man, but his cry was met with a shockingly angry and loud: “うるさい” urusai! or “Shut up!” The man in the suit didn't even turn around or flinch, and just continued to leave the area. The attendee looked flustered, but the grimace on his face disappeared within less than five seconds. As if by magic, the attendant looked calm again, smiled and raised his hand: “Hi! The next person in line please step forward. Thank you so much for waiting. How may I help you today?”

It was quite strange to see the abrupt change in tone. Even I was still slightly on edge after the man in the suit screamed out. But it was clear that the attendant would not let a small blip of negative interaction affect his work or attitude. Customer service was kept at a high consistent standard. I didn’t know what to make of it. In the United States, I could only imagine the attendant at this point would still be angry about the situation to the point where he would bring it up in conversation with the next person in line.

Customer Service Standard

The quality of customer service in the United States is usually dependent on the person. And with it, is the mandatory 15%+ tipping rule. In Japan, the quality of customer service is not dependent on the individual, and there is no tipping. There seems to be a standard or policy in place that is met without exception. This is probably reinforced by the notion that politeness is practically mandatory in Japan. Every single experience with any form of customer service has been the same for me here, from ticket booth attendants, clerks, servers to store greeters – they were all polite, calm, courteous, and always delivered their messages with a smile. They all say the same Japanese phrases, with the highest form of politeness.

As to whether or not this politeness is forced, conditioned, or genuine is hard to say—but it is definitely expected. I do think it can be at times excessive, but I have never had a single bad customer service experience here and that counts for something. 


The Dead Stare         

As I was waiting for the shinkansen, everyone was waiting in line, facing toward where the tracks were. I lugged my suitcase next to this girl who was on her smartphone and waited. Then she slightly turned her head, and gave me the strangest look. She continued to give me weird looks as I continued to wait. Did I... do something wrong? Is she curious because I have a large suitcase with me? Do I look like a foreigner? My thoughts ended as the shinkansen arrived. Everyone then abruptly faced toward me, forming a clear line where I was the first one in front. It turns out, I had unknowingly cut everyone in the line -- that's why the girl was giving me the nastiest look. Oops! I quickly proceeded to move to the back of the line. How embarrassing.

Shinkansen Experience

The shinkansen is spacious, clean, and has several toilets and washroom cubicles. It was quite a nice ride. I wasn’t sure where to put my suitcase when I boarded, but saw other suitcases at the very back row so I did the same. After looking up shinkansen etiquette rules on my smartphone, tt turns out this was incorrect, as the space was left there for when people turn their chairs around to form a group seating arrangement. Oops!

There were servers going down the aisle every half hour selling drinks, sandwiches and sweets. The seats came equipped with tray tables. The ride was also very smooth. 

AirBnB Stay

Best family ever. Dominik, Kazuga, and Killian (left to right).

dat negi and mochi cheezu okonomiyaki life

Remember when I said I fell asleep the night before? Because of that I had to book my AirBnB stay the morning of. Unfortunately the host I contacted did not confirm my booking or message me back. As there was only an hour left before I arrived in Kyoto, I made the decision to cancel my booking request and try to find another AirBnB host via the app, all while on the shinkansen. Within a few minutes time I was able to successfully book a place with a different host, Dominik. He quickly responded with such consideration and e-mailed me precise instructions on how to get to his house, with lots of pictures -- amazing!

Dominik, and his wife Kazuga were so kind to me. I had some hojicha (roasted green tea) with them and we talked for hours throughout the night, while their son Killian played with his toys in the same room. They asked if I had eaten dinner, and as soon as I said not yet, they invited me to eat out with them! We ended up going to a nearby okonomiyaki restaurant, and boy was it good! Soft, creamy, crunchy. Mmmm, I’m hungry already.


They also set up a bath for me. It was my first bath in Japan, and it was one of the most relaxing experiences I've ever had. They put in this bath salt that made it smell like an actual onsen (sulfur hot springs smell). Japanese tubs are much deeper than western ones, and generally come equipped with an electronic heating system that lets you control the exact temperature of the pouring water, and regulate the bath to stay at a specific temperature (with voice features that tell you when your bath is ready).

More on bathing culture in a future post.

Slept like a baby that night in their wonderful futon, in a tatami matted room.

Temples, Temples, Temples!

I woke up early the next day, ate breakfast with the family (rice and miso soup) and then proceeded to venture out to the nearby temples. I visited Kurodani Temple, Ginkakuji Temple (UNESCO World Heritage site), Honen-in, Anrakuji, Reikanji, Philosopher’s Path, Eikan-do, Zenrin-ji, and Nanzen-ji. I would say almost 10 hours of walking total. Phew, quite a route. Each temple was different, and each affected me in a different way. It's hard to put the experience into words and I don't want to botch it. Perhaps it's better that you just visit them for yourselves ;)

Zen Rock Gardens & Moss

One commonality is that they all had raked “zen gardens.” Each had different patterns, sometimes circles, sometimes waves. The patterns interacted with what was in the rock garden itself, whether it be patches of moss or carefully picked boulders. Dominik, my AirbnB host is actually a gardener and told me a lot about it. That term, gardener, holds a completely different meaning here in Japan as opposed to the “western” gardener stereotype. Caring for these gardens take precision and care, and holistic understanding of negative and positive space. He explained that there is more focus on negative space rather than positive space when determining where things would go. And the most important factor, is how the garden makes you feel. Shaping and pruning the bonsai trees so that they form the perfect shape… it's a year round maintenance job. There’s just something beautifully artistic about it... and that’s essentially what Dominik is – an artist. Just looking at these gardens made me feel calm and relaxed. I’m convinced that I need one of my own back in NYC or Ithaca. 

Meeting up with Obubu Interns

While exploring temples I came in contact, through Facebook, with the current Obubu interns, Leslie, Spencer and Fernando who happened to be going to the Suntory Whisky Museum in Kyoto. I don’t drink, so I declined the offer to join them, but we arranged to meet up after they were done with their tour. So after visiting all of those temples, I met up with them at a more modern and busier part of the city, near Nishiki market.

What an interesting bunch of people! We all hit off quite well. Leslie is from Texas, Spencer is from California, and Fernando from Spain. We talked about all sorts of things as we traversed the busy shops, but more on them later.

Nishiki Market

As per usual in Japan, big streets are filled with department stores, shops, and smaller stores. I particularly enjoyed Nishiki Market, an indoor-outdoor market with loads of stores inside the complex. It was a blend of traditional market atmosphere with modern aesthetics and infrastructure. 


Lots of interesting stores lined the street– too many for me to name. Among them I would say was B-Label, a small shop that sold only stickers. They were awesome stickers though, made by “local” artists. Here’s one I bought. It’s a giraffe that says “ha?” I cracked up when I saw it. Solid purchase, no?

I saw more than one store than sold only socks. Granted, they were some really nice affordable socks. I definitely feel that I need better socks now.

Winding Down

The interns headed back to Obubu to catch their last bus to Wazuka, and I walked back to Dominik's house, passing by the Gion district, which was famous for its Geishas. I didn’t see any though. In fact, it looked like everything was closed already at merely 8-9pm. Maybe I wasn’t on the right street. In any case, after arriving back "home," I winded down with a bath and went to bed. Tomorrow I finally head to Wazuka and the Obubu house to start my internship! HA?

Japan Day 1: A Splash of Temples, Animals, and City Views

Cityscape view from crossing the bridge to Asakusa.


Kazuko's breakfast of kings.

My eyes opened involuntarily at 6:00AM. My alarm had not rung yet, but I could not spare another moment slumbering when there was Tokyo to explore!

But then I remembered I was being served breakfast at 8:00AM, so I quietly stayed in my room responding to e-mails and further planning out my day instead of rushing out the door.

Once it hit 7:45AM I quickly went through my morning routine (shower and brushing my teeth) and was greeted with a full breakfast of eggs, side dishes, cereal, bread and jam. Yum!

After breakfast I went out for a walk and made some observations as I passed by several small and large streets.

Typical smaller street in Tokyo.

  • Compact
    Japan is compact. Main roads are large, but the smaller residential roads are tiny, only able to fit about one car. This reminded me of Indonesia in a sense. It was a combination of close tight-knit residential housing with larger more "city-like" roads. Everything in the house is made with space-efficiency in mind. Cars are small as well -- even mini-trucks and the like. I have always wanted a small car-- but my American friends have always scoffed at the notion and ridiculed the idea. Yet, here I am in a country where the mainstream is small. Perhaps it's not that Japanese cars are small, maybe western cars are just too big?
  • Vending Machines
    Well, not just green tea -- but hot and cold drink vending machines are just about on every corner with a selection of mainly coffee and tea. I don't have a picture, but that's what imaginations are for, right? In any case, what a fantastic idea. 100 yen are in coins which makes it easy to spend on these things. Though it's still caffeine intake, at the very least it's not soda. I have yet to see soda being sold anywhere. It's not on restaurant menus either. It just doesn't seem that popular. After all, who would want to drink soda when you can have delicious green tea instead? 
  • Quality over Quantity
    In the house I stayed in, though it was quite compact without much space, everything in the house was of good quality and was well taken care of. Most products in the house were made in Japan, and Japanese products were designed with compactness and durability in mind. Things generally transformed to "different" things and could be stored. I could not find one thing that "looked cheap." There was no notion of excess and it seemed that every "thing" had purpose.
  • Shops don't open until 11AM
    I wasn't used to seeing empty streets and closed shops when I walked out the door at 8AM. In NYC, everything seems to have opened by then, even in Queens. I was surprised to find out that most shops don't open until 10 or 11AM. Quite a late start I think. 
  • Punctuality
    Everything is on time. Trains come at the exact minute Google Maps says they will come. It's really great. I can plan an itinerary and stick to it without having to worry about transportation times. For example, I was able to tell my AirBnB host that I would be arriving at 8:40PM, and she picked me up at that exact time without having to wait. 

Sensouji Temple

It was a good thing the temple was open early morning at least. It was actually quite packed with Asian tourists. Sensouji (sensoji) is an ancient Buddhist temple, and Tokyo's oldest temple. There were lots of food vendors, shrines, statues, and the like -- but of course I took pictures of mostly food.

There were purification fountains all over where you are supposed to use the ladles to fill it with fresh water to rinse both hands. Then you are supposed to transfer water to a cupped hand, and rinse your mouth with the water and spit it out beside the fountain. No drinking. Instead of trying to participate in a ritual that I did not fully understand, I watched and took pictures of gleeful Caucasian tourists attempting it. I wonder if they knew what it was even for? 

There were also large incense burner pots and people fanned the smoke towards them. Apparently the smoke is thought to have healing properties. If your shoulder hurts, fan some smoke over it. No need to pay a doctor's fee.

Mikujis were scattered throughout the large temple grounds as well. Temple fortune stations basically. You donate 100 yen, shake a large box of sticks, take out one, read the number on the stick, and then proceed to take the fortune from a box labeled with that number. 

I got a pretty good one-- in fact, the best one. How do I know? The English translations were on the back of my sheet ;)

I don't know if it's bad luck or something to share your fortune or not, but oh well. Only the motivated or Japanese individual would be able to read the picture anyway.

Kappabashi Village

This guy was everywhere.

This was an interesting "village" (really a street) where I saw "kappas" everywhere. There were lots of small stores selling plates, knives, bowls, chopsticks, etc. Each shop specialized in one particular category, as opposed to just a big department store carrying everything. It made me happy to see so many small businesses. The street made me feel like I was walking through a real market-- something that's rare in NYC. 

There were also lots of shops that sold wax food samples, and oh boy did they look tasty!

Ueno Zoo

Inside Ueno Park there are numerous places to visit, from science museums to historical ones, to a zoo. I didn't plan on going to the zoo, but seeing as how it was so early in the morning, I decided why not. I ended up spending a couple of hours there, and discovered the beauty and wonderment of my zoom lens. Here's a gallery of some of the pictures I took there:

Note: Crows were taken in the park, not the zoo. In the middle of the gallery you'll see pictures of this "air" train. Rail train? I'm not sure what to call it but it was basically a small cart on a rail above the zoo. I rode it to get from one part of the zoo to another. It was a very short... 30 second ride?

I also ate lunch at a nice little "cafeteria" style cafe where I was able to read and order かれうどんセット (curry udon set; phonetically "kare udon setto").

Tokyo National Museum

In the Tokyo National Museum, which was also inside Ueno Park there were 5 different buildings. Rather I should say, 5 different museums comprise of the Tokyo National Museum. It was difficult for me to engage with any of the works there because there wasn't anything in English. I was pretty disappointed but I should have expected it. I can't expect the whole world to cater to the English language, and I was already surprised at how convenient it was for an English speaker to travel around in Tokyo. Most signs already have English translations.

In any case, because of this lack of Japanese on my part, I didn't feel comfortable taking pictures of random things I didn't know anything about. There was however an interactive educational section in one of the buildings that had nifty activities that I participated in. 

One of the stations introduced a Mongolian traditional fortune-telling game called shagai. It uses the ankle bones of sheep or goat (and this is a common use of these bones throughout Central Asia). As you can see from the picture below, depending on what side the ankle bone lands (they're all quite distinct), it represent a different animal. Each combination results in a different fortune.

I got 1 camel, 1 sheep, 2 goat. My fortune was "Be more careful." How ominous. I started to think about how reckless and impulsive I could be at times. Though I don't necessarily believe in "fortunes," it's always good to be more careful.

Further Exploration

So, I went to the Natural Science Museum as well. Didn't understand anything that was going on but got the general gist of things. Dinosaurs, evolution, etc. It hadn't occurred to me how important language was in museums. I started to think about how my mom might have experienced the MET and other NYC museums as someone who isn't too proficient in English. So much knowledge inaccessible due to language. 

Again, no pictures because I didn't feel comfortable taking pictures of random things I didn't really understand. A lack of language -> a lack of connection -> a lack of interest/empathy. Applying this to wars, perhaps an interesting look at how we can place different humans into the "other" category and treat them as entirely subhuman. 

In any case, by the time I was done with the museum, it was getting late. I had been walking for nearly 10 hours straight at this point, so I decided to take a taxi to Tokyo SkyTree. 

Tokyo SkyTree

The line to take the elevator up was quite long. I'd estimate about 45 minutes? They had English brochures but since I looked Japanese enough, I was given a Japanese one. "えとうーえいごのほのねがいします” ("umm... an english book please) I said. Little did I know this would be a recurring thing. 

Got to the elevator. Rode it up to... the 250th floor. Breathtaking view of the city. You could really see for miles. The structure itself is the tallest in Japan (634 meters). The observation deck went up to 350 meters. Believe me-- it was tall enough! The top section of the tower is used as a broadcasting station. There was a lot of people, so it was hard to enjoy the scenery. 

They had this really cool large screen displaying a panoramic view of what you would see out of the observation deck. You could touch the screen to zoom in on specific locations or even change the view from night to day, etc. High tech stuff. 

An expensive little cafe and restaurant was on the observation deck. I was starving, but I passed. I then tried to find food on the lower floors of the tower. There's a huge shopping complex at the base. Everything had long lines and was quite expensive though. I had myself some green tea ice cream, and a small snack and then decided to eat somewhere near my AirBnB stay.

Katakana is a Blessing

After going back to my AirBnB stay's general neighborhood, I was faced with a difficult challenge: finding a restaurant that had pictures, an english menu or a menu item in hiragana or katakana. I could not read any kanji, but everything was in kanji. I walked the blocked 2 times to find a place to eat but this was not a touristy part of town so there were no english menus, pictures in the menus, or anything like that.

Thankfully, the word ramen (ラーメん) is in katakana -- which is quite interesting. Apparently ramen is considered a "foreign" word as it originated from China.  I eventually found a seedy looking place where they sold ramen and I was able to read "ramen set" since it was full in katakana. Katakana is the phonetic alphabet for borrowed words. Most borrowed words are from the English language, so basically by being able to read katakana, you can understand it as well. 

For example: ラーメンセット is phonetically "raamen setto" which you could guess means ramen set.

Passing Out

Phew! What a day. I walked back "home" to my AirBnB stay, slipped into my room upstairs and started to plan my trip for tomorrow, but passed out (with the lights on). Good thing I had already changed to my sleeping clothes. 

Japan Day 0: To the Land of the Rising Sun

What a typical larger train station looks like.


My body was failing me. I could feel it. A burning sensation rippled from my throat to my extremities. My eyelids were drooping, my lips parched, and all I could think about was how this plane was going to crash at any moment. The seatbelt light turned on and the plane shook. I tightly gripped the uncomfortable seat handle as I took a deep breath, but even that was physically straining.


At first, it was an uncomfortable tingling sensation. A regular sore throat I thought; but alas, it was much worse. Within a few hours time, it hurt to swallow my own saliva -- and of course, this was all happening right before my flight to Narita Airport, Tokyo from JFK, New York City.

Internship @ Obubu Tea Farm

It was going to be an exciting trip I thought. Of course it was. Three months at a tea farm in rural Japan? Well, that might not sound so great to many, but to me it was practically the culmination of all of my dreams. A combination of a rural community, high-context cultural mannerisms, living in the countryside, farming, and drinking fresh tea everyday!? It couldn't get any better than this. The Obubu Tea Farm Ambassadors Program was truly the perfect internship for me.

As a small business venture, the internship would allow me to explore different areas of untapped potential; skillsets that I have that are not commonly used in my academic field. Working for a small business in rural Japan means more control over the creative direction and impact on the business, and consequently accountability for my actions. I would essentially be able to influence the success of this company in penetrating untapped international markets. All of those years wondering what my mediocre skill set but strong interests in design, photography, art, social media management, and powerpoint presentations basically was resolved. It was exciting--- 

---perhaps too exciting?

Traveler's best friend. 

Traveler's best friend. 

microfiber towel

Packing Essentials

That night I couldn't sleep. I kept packing and repacking my suitcase, editing its contents meticulously. After traveling and living in Gabon (in Central Africa) for two months, I learned what I needed and what I didn't to survive on my own in a foreign land. As it turns out, pots, pans, a chef's knife, and a vegetable peeler are essentials (long story short, I would have starved in Gabon had I not brought my kitchen set with me). A whole box of first aid kit supplies to cure every illness, was not. Neither were decorative stamp sets and different colored cardstock paper. I also made some small purchases to help with space efficiency -- packing cubes and a microfiber towel. As it turns out --- one of the best investments I've ever made. I had also purchased my very own suitcase (since I was borrowing my family members' suitcases before). My brother pointed out that I 'ought to get my own since I travel so much. He was right. I also wanted a four-wheel one for easy traveling. Another great investment as it turns out.

I cut down and made sure I brought the essentials: a week's supply of clothes, underwear, socks, undershirts, a tie just in case a special occasion calls for it, one pot, a few kitchen utensils, my camera bag (with camera and lenses) and that was it for the most part. My suitcase would have been half empty without my camera bag and pots. Lugging two suitcases around Japanese train stations and buses would be a horrible experience. I settled on one large suitcase and a small duffel bag to go on top. Perfect. I had extra room to bring back some souvenirs and gifts. Besides, I could probably buy more clothes in any of the city should I need them.

I decided not to bring my tripod with me because it was big and would take up too much space (diagonal positioning due to its size, disallowing compact packing. I hope that wasn't a mistake. We shall see.


Still here? Even after paragraphs on end about packing? Jeez, you must have nothing better to do.

Flight Sickness

In any case, I was to fly from NYC to Chicago to Tokyo on no sleep, and while developing a fever. Yum! My Chicago flight was delayed by half an hour which left me with only 15 minutes to transfer to my connecting flight to Tokyo. Stress. During my two hour flight to Chicago I could feel my health getting worse. Everything felt stuffy and swallowing became a chore. I reminded myself that I'm no longer at the age where I could pull all-nighters. It just gets me sick every time. Let's hope I remember that.

Luckily, my Tokyo flight was also delayed due to technical difficulties, so I was not left behind (unlike in Gabon, hah). The twelve hour flight to Tokyo was uncomfortable. I had to carefully balance how much I drank to try to soothe my throat while not bothering my "seat neighbors" too often by using the restroom. And then the hacking coughs came around, and I couldn't stop. I was afraid people thought I was going to give them the flu or... ebola or something.



I arrived in Tokyo an hour later than expected. The airport was big, but I managed to get around. I picked up my prepaid SIM card (data only plan for google maps and getting around) that I had shipped to the post office at the airport, exchanged some cash and headed off to the train station. I had signed up to stay with an AirBnB host for 2 night in Tokyo so I let her know that I was coming. Navigating through the railway system was a bit intimidating at first, but it was arguably easier than NYC's subway system. Every time we passed by a station, I practiced reading the names in hiragana. The whole experience reminded me of a cleaner, more efficient NYC subway experience. They had automatic ticket machines, cool card/ticket readers, and polite staff at every station. Oh yeah, no gum on the floors is always a plus. After an hour and a transfer at Aoto station I was in Tokyo, specifically at Kifune station, 10 minutes east of Tokyo SkyTree (like Tokyo Tower, but taller I believe). I was told to meet my AirBnB host at the west exit of the station. As I was about to take the elevator down, I heard the voice of an elderly woman. "Kebin-san?" I turned around and saw the old lady from the AirBnB profile. "Kazuko-san desu ka? Kebin to moshimasu." She immediately replied with "よかったーyokatta" a phrase that means thank goodness/I'm so glad. She repeated it a couple of times as we took the elevator down together.


cozy $20 room

Kazuko Residence

"Welcome home." Kazuko-san said aloud as she slowly opened the door to her tiny three floor apartment.  "ただいま (tadaima - I'm home)" I said back. I tried my best to use all of the Japanese phrases I knew. Kazuko-san showed me to my room as I lugged my suitcase up the flight of stairs. It was small, but had everything I needed -- a nice bed with multiple layers of blankets, a small wall shelf that acts as a table, and a shelf of towels and... what's this!? a bathrobe!


She showed me to the kitchen and offered me a drink. "おちゃをください (ocha wo kudasai - Japanese tea please)" I asked politely. Kazuko was delightfully surprised and quickly made what I assumed to be sencha. She asked me if I liked tea, and I responded by saying that I loved it. I looked around the kitchen. It was small but compact and outfitted with high-tech gear. A hanging drying shelf unit that pushes itself up to become a discreet shelf, an electric stove that had multiple buttons, and other things.

I signed a questionnaire and an agreement form-- all indicators that she has hosted many people before. Apparently I am limited to one shower a day (I, like most Indonesians, shower twice a day). But at least I get home-made breakfast every morning at 8AM.

Welp, better sleep so I don't miss that! Tomorrow: Asakusa, Ueno Park, Ueno Zoo, Museums, Tokyo SkyTree + more!