Anyone who follows me knows I love to travel. Last month, I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to visit Asia for the second time.
The first time, I spent the trip in the southeast, in Thailand. This time, I wanted to go a little bit north and visit Japan, China and Hong Kong. I definitely wanted to do some exploring, but it was also an opportunity for some Zen after a very long, tough football season.
To be able to get away and be around that type of tranquility — I really enjoy and appreciate that time.
The first place I flew to was Tokyo, Japan. I stayed at the Mandarin Oriental, which was beautiful. The Mandarin Oriental is one of my favorite hotel groups period. My experience is always consistently excellent. I always seem to get unbelievable views of the city I’m in, as well as some peace and quiet.
The people in Tokyo were very hospitable. But I noticed early on that the Japanese don’t really talk about their past that much compared to other countries that I’ve visited. I was curious about their history, but I got the sense that people didn’t really like talking about it. I wonder if a large part of that has to do with World War II. I was really interested to see how that would be handled, especially with my tour guide, but it wasn’t mentioned once, and I didn’t bring it up. I didn’t want to be offensive or step on anyone’s toes.
The tour guide talked more about the present and the future, where Japan wants to go. There is a lot of focus on regaining their traction in the world economically, and regaining its strength as a globally dominant country.
In that sense, Japan is pretty westernized. They’re pretty aware of what’s going on in America and Western culture. One of the first things I noticed as I got into the city were the overwhelming numbers of buildings. With all the high rises and skyscrapers, it looks like the New York skyline times two or three.
I’ve never seen so many buildings on top of each other, and they continue to have construction on new buildings. Seeing some buildings under construction was pretty cool though, because I noticed that they use bamboo scaffolding along the walls of the building. Everything over there is very environmentally efficient like that.
The other thing that stuck out to me about the Tokyo downtown was that, despite all those buildings and having roughly 13 million people running around living day-to-day lives, the city is really quiet when you’re walking around.
When you think about that many people, you would think it would be just nonstop noise: cars, all that, just the regular day-to-day stuff that we hear living in the city. But you don’t really get much of that in Tokyo.
I would get out in the mornings to walk around and see if I could bump into some people, or just see the sights and the hustle and bustle of the day-to-day. But it was really elusive.
I was curious why that was the case. I came to find out that a lot of their train stations are right there in the buildings the people work in. So if you work at HSBC, you get off at that stop in your building. Because of that, people don’t have to walk outside, so streets are not as crowded and noisy as you’d expect in a city like that.
They do have a really cool almost hipster street culture in the shopping district. I really fell in love with that part of the city. They’re on top of their technology, and they’re really big into anime as well. A lot of the characters on the signage for the streets are anime drawings, to emphasize the different things you need to pay attention to. That was cool to see, especially for me, being in love with art. You see it everywhere. It’s pretty impressive.
I visited the oldest fish market in Tokyo, and was able to purchase a nice knife set for my chef from a seller that’s seven generations strong and has a nice business. I thought that was a unique way to bring a little bit of the history and the practice of the Japanese art back with me.
As far as dining goes, I didn’t get real adventurous about it until I got to China. In Japan, I stuck to what I knew: a lot of sushi.
I love sushi, especially fresh sushi. So to be able to have sushi in Japan was something I was looking forward to since I planned the trip, and I just ran with it.
I had so many different kinds and I don’t know the name of all of them, but to be able have fresh uni — sea urchin, which is a real delicacy there — as well as another one of my favorites, bluefin tuna, it was really worth the wait, and everything I thought it would be.
From Tokyo, I went and spent a day in Kyoto, Japan, where Mount Fuji is located.
Because it was winter, I couldn’t hike all the way to the top due to the snow. But I didn’t really need to. Once you get close enough and you’re near the base of the volcano, it’s really impressive. It’s one of those experiences, like with any great thing Mother Nature has made, where you can feel the strength and the power that’s contained inside. I really enjoyed just taking that in.
There are some beautiful views up there as well. It was pretty cold, probably in the teens, but the air was clean and crisp. And because it was the wintertime, it was really quiet, and very few people were even at the volcano. So I spent half the day there, just walking along different trails that I could walk along and taking in scenery, as well as practicing my photography.
That night, I stayed at a traditional Japanese home nearby. It was not the most comfortable experience and not the most luxurious place I’ve ever stayed, but definitely one that felt authentic. The place I stayed was like a small hut. If you watch any type of old Japanese movie, you’ll definitely see what I’m talking about. Inside, the floors are made out of some type of rice material. They were very delicate, and you had to take your shoes off inside.
When we sat down to eat, we had to sit with our legs crossed. We had a traditional dinner, which was a six-course meal. Throughout the meal, they continued to bring out small portions of different traditional Japanese food, which we would eat with chopsticks.
I wasn’t a fan of much of the food that was coming out from the earlier dynasties. Whenever it was like straight sashimi or a raw fish type thing, I ate that and I ate the rice. But everything else, I took a bite of it to be polite, to at least give myself a chance to try it and see if I liked it.
But truth be told, it was actually probably the worst dinner I had during the trip.
After we ate, they moved the table and rolled out a small mattress, put it on the floor, and gave me a sheet, a blanket and a pillow. Even the pillow had like some stuffings of rice. Needless to say, it was not a comfortable sleep.
Nonetheless, it was just an amazing experience. I felt like I was getting a true cultural experience, and I enjoyed it for one night before heading over to Beijing.
Next week, check out Part Two of Steven’s Travel Blog where he writes about his time in Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu, China.