Lets start this off! Included are some items that we had to do before, and how we got there!
About four months before we departed on our journey to Japan, we had to go to the Canadian Passport Office to renew our passports. One of the things that Japan requires is that our passports are valid for the entire duration of our stay, and so we didn’t want to take any chances. There are many ways to get to Japan, but the way that we chose is by air, so we flew with Japan Air.We flew from Calgary to Tokyo directly, into the Narita Airport which hosts most of the international flights. It is about 60km outside of central Tokyo. There is also a local airport, Haneda airport, which is located more centrally than Narita, but it takes a lot of domestic flights. Entering the Tokyo Narita Airport, we were advised that we need to keep our passport on us at all times, by this wonderful, adorable old lady who we saw right outside of the airport in a traditional Kimono. Apparently Kimono’s are an outfit of celebration for the Japanese culture, and there are many different styles that they can come in. The reason that we have to keep our passports is because it apparently is a proof of residency in Japan, and if we don’t have it, we can be put in jail. Not something that we would necessarily enjoy doing on a vacation half way around the world. She advised us that we need to be in possession of a return airline ticket, proof of accommodation and proof of sufficient funds at all times. Kind of weird that we have to carry this around, in our opinion, but again, we don’t want to be put into jail. To reassure us that it’s not too bad with all of the rules, this wonderful old lady then invited us over to her house later that evening to have a traditional Japanese meal. Our first morning in Tokyo was wonderful. After we checked in at our hotel, we had some breakfast, and after we took a train to the Tokyo Imperial Palace. It was a very short walk to this ancient site from the station. The Imperial Palace is surrounded by massive walls and moats; it is situated where the Edo Castle once stood. The imperial family of Japan lives here today, who sometimes make public appearances on the emperor’s birthday, December 23rd. We also learned that the palace was destroyed in World War Two but a replica was rebuilt shortly after. Sadly the buildings and the inner garden are not open to public but just seeing it from the outside was amazing. After taking a few pictures around the plaza we went to see the Nijubashi, two beautiful stone bridges that connect the plaza to the inner palace grounds, this is known as the double bridge, and that is because there were previously two wooden bridges with two levels on here before.
We are lucky enough that Japan has a majority of their population fluent in English.. One fun fact that we learned early on, is that Japanese will automatically assume that you speak English until you prove otherwise. We found this out by walking down the street, and had multiple people ask us where we were from, in English! What a relief, because we learned that in Japan, they prefer speaking English. We were lucky enough to have looked on the website http://www.japan-guide.com which had this useful language guide, just in case we needed it. We like to call it Back to Basics: Japan Speaking 101.
Ohayou gozaimasu Good morning
Kon'nichiwa Good afternoon
Kon'banwa Good evening
Oyasumi nasai Good night
Sumimasen Excuse me
Gomen nasai I am sorry
Wakarimasen I don't understand
Arigatou Thank you
Next we made our way to the Rikugien Gardens. They were truly gorgeous, and not to mention, HUGE. The gardens were built and landscaped in the 1700’s by Yanagisawa Yoshiyasu. Cudos to him! They are amazing! Rikugien actually means “Six poems garden” and therefore tells stories of famous poems. There are 88 scenes from the poems that are reproduced in miniature versions here. It took us roughly an hour to see the entire network of gardens but it was very enjoyable. We stopped at one teahouse for a short break since Maddi’s shoes were hurting her feet but we were glad we did. We had some green tea while we observed the nature and birds. We continued our walk passing many forested areas and man-made hills. We also fed some ducks at the central pond before we went back to the metro station to catch a train to the Sunshine City! We traveled to Higashi-Ikebukuro Station to check out the Sunshine City. We were all excited because we heard so many great things about it; it is a huge shopping and entertainment area which houses the second highest building in Tokyo! As soon as we got off the train Emily started talking about how excited she was to visit the Sunshine City Aquarium so of course we had to stop there first. On our way to the aquarium we over heard a tour guide telling a group of European tourists that Sunshine City is actually Tokyo’s oldest city within a city. Apparently it was once occupied by the Sugamo Prison too. We actually all ended up loving the Sunshine International Aquarium and little did we know that it would be on the 10th floor! It is a very popular attraction so it was very crowded, even at 7pm which is when we got there; it is actually open until 10pm. We all loved seeing the sharks and stingrays, but were pleasantly surprised to see that they had penguins too! We heard an announcement that there would be a feeding time in an hour so we stuck around looking at the seals, sea otters, jellyfish and other sea life until 8pm. The line ups for the feedings were long and there were a lot of kids impatient for their turn however it was worth the wait. Maddi got to feed a huge tortoise, Erin and Emily fed the sting rays and Liz stood in the penguin line but sadly never got her turn since the line was the longest of all.
Afterwards we wondered off to do some shopping. Maddi and Liz stocked up on Manga and many other types of comics, and then our fun filled day was over. That could only mean that it was dinner time! The four of us went to Yumi-san’s home for dinner, and she taught us some Etiquette and traditional Japanese Customs. As we went into her lovely little home, she told us that we needed to take off our shoes, and then she gave us all house slippers. Not just any slippers. House slippers. End of story. Except when you go into the bathroom and you are to leave your house slippers outside of the bathroom. They apparently have Toilet slippers too. And we found out why. There are two styles of toilets in Japan, the Japanese Style, and the Western Style. Unfortunately, this house had the Japanese style. This is a toilet that is built into the floor, and when you use it, you have to face the front of the toilet, pull down your lower garments to your knees, then squat as close to the front of the toilet as you can, and then do your business. I’m glad that back home, we have western toilets. We were also advised on how to take a bath in Japan, in the event that we are in a public bathroom. The guests always get first priority when they are at a home. They must take a bath before every meal, and you’re supposed to rinse your body outside of the bath tub with a wash bowl, and then you can get into the bath tub, which is used for soaking only, no washing. You wash twice, and soak twice, and then you leave the bathwater for the next person to use it. We aren’t too sure what to think about this bath situation, but it’s good to know!
Yumi-San informed us that there is a seating order when you are visiting a home. The most important guests sits on the Kamiza, which is the honored seat, with is farthest from the entrance of the room. If there is a Tokonoma in the room, the guest should be seated in front of it, and the host or least important person is supposed to sit in the Shimoza seat, right by the door. Emily got to sit in the Kamiza seat. The seats aren’t traditional chairs, but they are cushions right on the Tatami Floor. We shared a bunch of dishes with this lovely old lady and her family, which included Miso Soup, which is a broth based soup with seaweed, and tofu bits in it, rice bowls, which are commonly served with every meal, and tempura, which is deep fried vegetables, and seafood. Most commonly, the Japanese share all of their dishes with everyone with them. In Japan, you say "itadakimasu" which means I gratefully receive before eating, and "gochisosama" Which means thank you for the meal when you are done the meal. We were all taught proper customs for chopsticks because Maddi had accidentally put her chopsticks right into the rice… We were soon told that it was something that was only done when you’re at a funeral with the rice that is put on the altar. Needless to say she apologized profusely after that! We all soon learned that we aren’t supposed to pass food with your chopsticks, or point, or wave them in the air, or play, or spear food, it’s considered to be quite rude if you were to do that. And if you have to share a plate, use the end that you haven’t eaten with to take new food. What a weird, but neat thing to know. When we were done our lovely meal, we went to shake the hands of Yumi-san, but she shook her head and bowed. When we asked her why she bowed, she said that it was a sign of respect, but we can also do a bow of our head to say thank you, and that handshakes are uncommon in Japan. So we bowed to her, showing that we were extremely grateful of what she had done for us this evening. We called her Yumi-san because it was a sign of respect, and there are different titles that you can call people. It’s definitely different here in Japan than in North America.
Here is a photo of the Imperial Palace!