Friday, February 26, 2010

It was five years ago today...

On February 25th, 2005 I landed in Japan for the very first time. I had already been to Europe several times, and the offer of a free place to stay in a new country was too good to pass up. I had no particular interest in Japan at the time, I just loved to travel. I was, and still am, always looking for new horizons, new things to see and to new places to explore.

Getting off the plane at Narita airport, I doubt I knew just how much my life was about to be impacted. I followed the signs, obtained my three week JR pass, and headed into Tokyo. I remember looking with some trepidation at the map of the Tokyo train system, with the above ground JR lines and the two separate subway systems looking like the most confusing plate of spaghetti ever created. I never made it onto the transit in Tokyo that trip, it was simply too intimidating. I was alone, I was jetlagged, and despite success on the Paris Metro and the London Underground, I just knew I would get horrifically lost.

Luckily for me, I only spent one night and one day in Tokyo, because I was off to meet up with Zach in his Nagano apartment. I spent about a week with him, and I saw a lot. The high black walls of Matsumoto castle amazed me, though not as much as Himeji castle would a few weeks later. Together we went to the little town of Obuse, where famous wood block artist Hokusai spent the last few years of his life. We went to a small museum dedicated to him, as well as a tiny Chinese Art Museum, where the proprietor had to turn on the lights for us, as we were the first visitors that day!

I also visited my Aunt's old student in Hiroshima, spending a weekend in the warmer southern climes. We saw the A-bomb museum, went to a tower of okonomiyaki restaurants, and took the ferry out to Miyajima and the famous floating torii.

Every first time visitor to Japan must go to Kyoto, and so I did as well. I spent about a week there, traipsing from temple to temple. That was also my first trip to Fushimi Inari, and I loved it! I also made it to Zach's favorite place in Japan, the great temple complex at Nikko, where Tokugawa Ieyasu's ashes are interred.

In a far corner of the Nagano area is the Jigokudani hot springs, where the snow monkeys live. I took the train to the last stop, and was then supposed to take a bus, but it seemed that the bus wasn't running, so I walked instead. It was only a few kilometers, and the monkeys were totally worth the trip. While I was walking I ran into a police officer who was going the other way, and was understandably curious just why this foreigner was walking through the woods in the middle of winter. I told him I was going to see Jigokudani, and he expressed some shock that I was WALKING there. Then he said, "You are samurai!" On the trip back I ran into a construction worker on a snowmobile, who despite knowing no English offered me a ride back into town. I gratefully accepted and that marks the first and so far only trip I've done on a snowmobile.

Overall I spent three weeks exploring Japan on a rail pass and my feet, and had the time of my life. Getting off that first flight, I never expected that less than six months later I would be flying back to Japan to live and work nor that five years later I would be doing it all again. 僕は日本に帰ります。

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