I recently returned from a week-long trip to Tokyo, Japan where I served as a chaperone for a group of freshmen students learning about international commerce in Japan. Our schedule was pretty full, but the structure allowed us to visit 7 different companies, take a city tour and still see plenty of the city in just a week’s time. It was a great introduction to Japan and definitely piqued my interest in seeing more of Asia…
The following statement is obvious, but traveling with a group is quite different than traveling solo. Some of the benefits of group travel include built-in tour guides who ensure everyone is accounted for and all transportation needs are taken care of. Group travel also has the benefit of included meals and prearranged breakfast buffet vouchers, reducing the amount of time and stress necessary to track down and the process reimbursable receipts. One of the downsides is having to follow the same schedule as everyone else in your group. Traveling as a chaperone adds a whole other layer of responsibility and accountability. Luckily we had a great group and the entire experience was incredibly positive.
It was my first visit to Asia and my first time being so obviously a foreigner. In Europe (especially Germany) I’d often pass as a local, until I opened my mouth and tried to speak their language of course. In Mexico and Central America I didn’t necessarily fit the traditional look of the locals, but it was either assumed I had some passable Spanish or maybe people just didn’t care if I spoke Spanish or not and treated me as everyone else. I don’t know what it was about Japan. Maybe it’s that the Japanese people are so polite and conscientious they immediately assume you need an English menu so as not to cause you discomfort when you have not clue what a single Japanese character means? Whatever the case people went out of their way to help serve and elucidate me during the trip.
As I mentioned the week was packed with company visits and pre-arranged activities. We arrived in Tokyo late Sunday night and were up early Monday morning for a city tour. We drove through most of the city stopping first at Meiji Jingu, a beautiful park littered with shrines and temples. While we were there we witnessed a traditional Japanese wedding in progress. Next on the list was the Imperial Palace. There wasn’t much to see as the bridges to the palace are closed off all but two days a year (the Emperor’s birthday and New Years Day), but the water and bridges were perfect for pictures. Next up was Asakusa. A packed neighborhood with lots of options for shopping and dining. We had more time here to walk through the dominant temple overlooking the area and through the winding streets. Our final stop of the tour was Ginza, the trendy shopping district. We stopped here for lunch (most of the students indulged in sushi, but I had to stick with tempura due to preggo restrictions). I also spent a little time wandering through the 10 story Uniqlo and came away with a cute pair of lounging pants. The rest of the afternoon and evening were free. I did a lot of my sightseeing and dining with the other chaperone, Jen over the course of the week. We decided to venture into the quaint, if somewhat seedy, Golden Gai area where we had a fantastic Japanese/Korean dinner in a restaurant that seats max 6 people.
The next day led to our first company visit- Pasona, a progressive staffing agency with an emphasis on sustainability. The company is housed in an incredibly innovative and beautiful building that includes living walls and plants growing from all orifices. We spent the afternoon touring the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The company visits were (mostly) interesting, but the Edo Museum was much more up my alley. Our large group was broken into four smaller groups and we were able to spend 2 hours learning about the history of Tokyo. Our guide focused mostly on the Edo period and only briefly touched on the Meiji Restoration leading into the 20th century, but I found her tour and the museum fascinating. That night Jen and I visited Shibuya- known as the world’s busiest intersection and a place I heard described time and time again as the Times Square of Toyko. The street crossing is pretty impressive, but the scene was a little young (lots of high school age looking kids hanging out in the square and surrounding shops). We headed to Harajuku to check out the famed shops and found a nice little spot for dinner in that district.
Wednesday brought more company visits (Coca Cola and Dentsu) and a gorgeous dinner at a restaurant on the top floor of a building in the Ebisu area. A much calmer setting than the area immediately surrounding our hotel. Thursday continued with visits to Toyota and Rakuten, but that evening I convinced Jen to attend a local baseball game with me. We decided to stay local and ventured a few stops from our hotel to see the Tokyo Yakult Swallows play the Yokohama BayStars. I knew a little about Japanese baseball from our friend Sachi, but it was so entertaining to see a game in person. The fans are very dedicated. When we purchased our tickets the first thing they asked was home team or visitors? The stadium is divided by fans and the hardcore ones come ready to cheer (literally) all game long. There are drums, there are cheerleaders, there are special chants for each player. There is even a special song and dance (with coordinated umbrellas) that occurs every time a run is scored. Refreshments are bit different than those you find in the states- check out my photo of the hot dog mixed plate below, but the beer flows and they even have girls running up and down the aisles selling beer all game. Also- no one throws their trash on the ground. In fact they collect it in bags they bring from home and deposit it on their way out. A different experience, but definitely one worth checking out whether you’re a baseball fan or not.
Friday was our final day of visits. We saw Costco in the morning and Uniqlo in the afternoon. That night students presented their final presentations and we had a large, authentic Japanese dinner together as a group and then we went to the top floor of the Metropolitan Government Building to check out the nighttime view. It’s free to go up, but the building has quite a few lights reflecting off the windows- so not the best option for view and I only had one picture that came out alright, but you can’t beat free!
Saturday was completely free and I took advantage of the entire day off by traveling to two smaller cities outside Tokyo, Kamakura and Enoshima. Both are easily accessible via metro. In Kamakura Jen and I did a good amount of walking checking out a number of temples and shrines before making our way to the famous Great Buddah statue. Some of the spots we visited were calm and peaceful- a great escape from the bustling metropolis of Tokyo. The Great Buddah however was a crowd pleaser and covered in tourists- including many a monk decked out in orange robes with a selfie stick. From Kamakura we took another train out to Enoshima so I could put my toes in the other side of the Pacific and so that Jen could enjoy a heaping bowl of fresh seafood (note to self- go back to Japan when you aren’t pregnant so you can eat and drink all the food you missed out on this time around).
The week flew by and all the sudden it was Sunday. Our flight didn’t leave until the evening so after packing up and checking out I decided to spend my last few hours in Tokyo relaxing in one of the city’s many gardens. I picked up a few last minute souvenirs on the way, shelled out the ¥200 and spent the whole morning at Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden. The garden is beautiful and vast, but it’s impossible to escape the masses and find a quiet corner all to yourself. I decided to give into the people watching and even got to witness a proposal in one corner of the park…which wasn’t a hard spot. A huge group of twenty or so young people were holding hands running around in a circle. A girl in the middle had a go-pro and was filming them when one guy stepped into the middle of the circle and grabbed the hand of another girl, got on one knee and popped the question. LOTS of screeching and picture taking ensued. Someone even produced Mickey ears with a veil for some more festive shots. A fun last cultural encounter before I had to make my way home.
I’m so lucky I was selected to chaperone the trip to Tokyo. I got to travel with a great group, learned a ton about business in Japan, ate some amazing food (even if sushi was out of the question!) and was able to explore one of the great world capitals. I hope to visit Asia with Dave some day. I’d like to see some of those famous beaches in Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia. Maybe with Cara and Will heading to China later this year we can manage a trip to the far east not too far in the future:)