Solo in Japan
By Carol Sue Gershman
Editors’ Note: One of our favorite Tomatoes is Carol Sue Gershman, an author, chanteuse and adventurer. She has traveled the world solo since she was in her 40s and this August, just 2 months shy of her 84th birthday, she went to Japan. While she travels solo, she is never alone. Her winning smile makes her friends everywhere. Enjoy her recap of Japan.
Our imaginations lead us to the truth. That is why travel is so important. ~ Carol Sue Gershman
A year ago, I awakened from a dream that told me to go to Japan… so I went! Here is my Japan travel story.
All of my life I heard about the wonderful small intimate Japanese tea houses. Since I am a tea drinker, I looked forward to being served wonderful flavored teas in hand painted little delicate cups poured out of a lovely tea pots by a beautiful geisha girl kneeling beside me in a peaceful setting.
So when it was tea time on my first day in Tokyo I set out to find my tea house. I walked and walked peaking inside doorways and shops but just didn’t seem to find my dream. The tea houses I found were larger than I had imagined, more modernized, few people, not so intimate so I walked on only to find:
The new Japanese tea house. STARBUCKS!
The country is crazed with them with seating for 140 people in some places. I was somewhat surprised and then thought why not? It offers great air conditioning, Wi Fi to perfection, comfortable spacious seats, yummy cold frapped whipped cream drinks made in seconds, teas and coffee. There are hundreds and hundreds of Starbucks, one on every turn and I too learned to cherish them. They appeared everywhere and always packed with people.
At the famous Tokyo Starbucks on the second floor overlooking the largest pedestrian crossing in the world Shabuya (our Times Square) I was able to look out at the neon electrically lit up city watching thousands of people cross the street while sipping my favorite cappuccino. I must admit I visited one at least 3 times a day and with no restrictions; I learned this is Japans newest tea house and so it became mine too.
I visited the sacred palaces of Kyoto, shrines, temples, gardens, saw geisha girls at breakfast, parks, Japanese gardens, zoos, bamboo forest, and then of course more palaces and then again, more palaces. They are usually perched high on a hill or steep walk upwards so walking 5-8 miles a day became my norm. Didn’t I deserve an iced cappuccino? My favorite the Golden Palace (Kinkakuji) as it took my breath away, I spent time at the frightening and educational museum park in Hiroshima and had the thrill of seeing Mt. Fuji from the little train with its wooden floor and couches.
The Japanese people love to shop and eat; however most clothes and gifts are out of my price range. I loved the tourists, who are mostly Japanese I might add, who rent authentic kimono attire as they tour around town feeling like a Japanese princess or prince. Yes, men too love to get dressed up.
There are thousands of hotels and restaurants, so I ate and slept well. I toured the country traveling from town to town on their 200 mile an hour train. The weather in mid to late August is hot mixed with warm welcomed rain.
The Japanese bath houses are unique, and I did come out extremely clean. They seem to replace swimming pools or any swimming as swimming is not popular in Japan. I learned how to correctly wash my feet watching one Japanese lady do her ritual by sitting on a stool and soaping and scrubbing her feet to perfection.
Who needs a bed? All of those layers we use; mattresses, box springs, mattress pads, sheets, coverlets, blankets, down and then more down, a pillow of every size and then the decorate ones all over the bed. I loved the ryokans and couldn’t wait to come back to my room to hit the floor. A mat, a thick futon, one sheet, one cover and one pillowcase and my back got great support. Instead of one small night table next to my bed, I now had the entire floor around me for a book, water, or lamp.
Those toilets! Can you imagine sitting on a toilet in any train, bus, public space without any preparation or having to be in a half squatting position? Not once was I disappointed by their cleanliness, their heated toilet seats, flush systems, some with so many buttons I had to call the attendant.
Speaking of train stations; they are gourmet delights! The food stations below the train tracks stretched for at least two blocks displaying sumptuous delicacies, hundreds of food choices, cakes, candies, fruits magnificently displayed and wrapped. There are restaurants as well at the train station. People do not stand in line; they sit in line on chairs and move up until you are next. There are fabulous shops as well. One could pick up a ring at Tiffany’s, a new purse at Gucci while heading to the track. For me my diamond was the green ice cream sugar cone or the matcha tea with a shot of coffee, foaming and ice.
The Japanese people are kind, soft spoken, (except for the giggling teen age girls who giggle within each sentence) The people are good natured, even tempered, patient, not greedy, mannerly and they are there to help you. One in particular, my darling Japanese girlfriend Komiko who I met in NYC and who taught me how to buy a subway ticket from a machine and who loved showing me her bustling city and her very own home. Another observation that I would estimate 10 out of 100 people wear masks when they are not feeling well so not to spread germs. Businessmen are called Salary Men and their apartments are called mansions.
The Japanese do not have it easy with the lost tourist such as me who cannot read a map or identify the street sign. Excuse me I would say,” Do you speak English? Can you please help me find where I am going?” While only few did speak English, they would alternatively read the address, take out their phones dropping their route, taking over mine sometimes delivering me right to my point of destination turning me over to the next person or right to my hotel. The country is run respectively and polite and on time. There is never a need to rush for a train or feel that you missed one; another will come along in minutes. Then there are sliding walls between the track and people so no matter your despair, you cannot jump onto the tracks or get pushed onto a track. Subways are a safe place to be, as a matter of fact I felt that all of Japan is a safe place to be as I was out with the people every day, watching observing, walking and living a small part of Japanese life.
If I learned anything it is to be more polite; I learned to take my own garbage with me and throw it away when I got home. There is no littering; god forbid, clean up after yourself; when eating bring your plate close to your mouth so you don’t drip your food, for goodness sakes don’t put your elbows on the table; please, please don’t ever point at anyone at any time. Yes, It is ok to slurp the noodles and even make a sound with a straw when you reached the bottom of the glass.
I noticed the abundance of help. Instead of one person behind the counter, there are three. The Japanese take their food service, any kind of service with great pride. They seem to love to serve you. Many good restaurants are counters where I would watch the chefs prepare the food in front of me and then put it on my plate. My favorite were cold thick noodles that I slurped down and tempura. There is no tipping; even if you offer, they do not accept.
On a personal note it was a great adventure as it is such a different culture that I loved. I now have a new picture of japan as my imagination was filled with different thoughts of the country. I thought it greener especially in Kyoto. I imagined green pastures with decorated women walking under an umbrella.