When you first visit a new place and your friends and family see you off, they’ll most likely send you away with light, cheesy, and sometimes outdated little “goals” they want you to fulfill. Your BFF might reply, “Have a bowl of spaghetti for me!” after you text her that you landed safely in Italy. As you line up to board your flight to Paris, your dad might shout, “Bring me back a beret and some cheese!” Since our expectations of a place are the summation of the things we have access to view, read, or listen to, your own thoughts and daydreams about your next tourist spot will be askew; if you’re not a native or a frequenter of a place, you won’t know it as well as others do, and this fact is obvious. All you may very well know about foreign destinations may be from skimming a news article about Greece’s disastrous economy; indulging in lengthy, canonized foreign films on the weekends; or reading a few descriptions of art school in Iran from a friend on Instagram. These tidbits of truths form opinions and ideas about new places, and might be why when you’re headed off, the cheese starts a-flowing.
The Tourist’s Checklist
My journey to Japan began with a checklist. It consisted of a few landmarks: Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree, and any big beautiful Buddha I could manage to visit; a few foods I thought were staples of a tourist’s diet: ramen, sushi, and deliciously crispy tempura; and a couple of activities I thought I would have the time and money to undertake: visiting Sanrio Puroland, stopping by a cat cafe, and glimpsing Fujisan. I did get to check off a few boxes on this list, including spontaneous additions that surprised me along the way. These typical “touristy” destinations and pursuits are deemed as such for a reason—they’re the meisho and meibutsu of Japan (名所 means famous places, and 名物 are characteristic things about such regions). However the more sights I took in throughout my travels in Japan, the more often I realized that these are highlighted only for their relative importance and historical backgrounds, but they aren’t the only shining stars of Japan; visiting and seeing these only skim the surface of experiencing Japan. I learned that appreciating what was part of the everyday, what made up the routine of my life abroad, became what I considered my own personal meisho and meibutsu.
The Ephemeral Everyday
I made it a point while in Japan to set aside time to view sakura; hanami (the tradition of viewing sakura) is something everybody says is a must if you visit Japan at the start of spring. But my planned experience seeing sakura along a bridge—a popular hanami spot in one area of Tokyo—was not as special as seeing the sakura just outside the grocery store near my dorm in the small, intimate neighborhood I walked through everyday. I was alone, walking home from a long day outside of Itabashi. Whether I was coming back from classes, or I was wrapping up a day of interning, I don’t remember. But what I remember clearly is the way the delicate, pale petals floated breezily down from the pink trees outside that grocery store. A woman walked down the pathway lined with the trees, holding her child’s hand, the cramped side-street a thick pink carpet of petals. That moment was one of many from my walks through the neighborhood, but it stood out more in my mind than the planned experience I thought would be the most memorable. Everyone remarks about the craziness of the sardine-can subway cars during Tokyo rush hours, but along with the sweaty experiences my friends and I had with packed subways comes the nostalgic thought of the mumbly train conductors’ voices, the memories of perfecting our recital of subway stops, and the ringing of the “doors are opening” sounds in my mind.
Don’t Miss This
When I think of my tourist checklist, I remember instead the smaller, everyday items that were never on that list to begin with. Every now and then I long for the sight of a glowing, steaming bowl of ramen from my favorite Itabashi shop, and I hear once again in the back of my mind the echoey chatter in hallways when I think of the high school I interned at. The best way to appreciate a trip abroad is to make your own important spots and to recognize that the majority of them might be disguised as the mundane, hidden inside everyday moments. Just make sure you take the time to stand still or sit quietly, and look around you.
This post also appears on EZKonnect.com, a company that provides “convenient and affordable telecommunications options that connect people with their extended families living around the world” (http://www.ezkonnect.com/about-us.html/). My post appeared on the site’s blog on August 18th, 2015. Check out EZKonnect’s blog to see this post at: https://www.ezkonnect.com/blog/what_not_to_miss_while_visiting_japan/