An Open Love Letter to Japan – Part 1

Wow… has it really been over two months since I’ve written last? Apparently so. I need to work on that, but I’m sure that’s something I’ve said before. Unfortunately, I’ve been really busy at the office (who isn’t?) since this year has started, averaging about 40 hours of overtime a month. It’s not as bad as it sounds, but between that, reading and studying, it puts a bit of a pinch on your free time.

In other news, we’re in the middle of Golden Week here in Japan. Typically, this is a week of vacation at the end of April/beginning of May, but it worked out to two extended weekends this year. I didn’t really have any particular plans (when the entire country is on vacation, everything’s pretty expensive), so even though I could go traveling, lay low and read, or do something super exciting, I decided I wanted to try something a little different this year.

You see, recently I’ve been backing up all my files (…again. I have about 4 backups of all my files, since I’d really hate to lose them) and was looking through all my old photos. I actually have a folder literally named “Old Photos.” And in that folder, I found 3 rolls of pictures that I took back in November 2004, when I made my first visit to Japan at the age of 18. It’s been about 8 and a half years since that time, but I still remember vividly all the excitement, how amazing it was to be abroad–in Japan, no less–for the first time. Anyone who knew me back then probably knows that since the age of 13, I was dreaming of going to Japan, so finally coming here was beyond amazing. Since I didn’t want to just watch my limited vacation disappear, I decided to go visit some of the same places and take new pictures, to talk about those impressions I had back before I knew I’d be living here.

So, let’s get started!

First stop — Asakusa

Asakusa is the is the traditional downtown part of Tokyo–the 下町 (shitamachi)–that feels like it got left beyond while the rest of Tokyo skyrocketed into a modern metropolis. Not that it’s a bad thing. It has many temples, a very down-to-earth feel, and is (oddly enough) popular among foreigners. It’s also were I first stayed in Japan for a week back in 2004. Honestly, I wish I could say that I knew all of this when I came, but I didn’t. In reality, I stayed there because it was cheap. I found a youth hostel that had rooms for $20 a night, and for a university student, the price is right. In total, I’ve stayed in Asakusa 5-6 times, and over 6 weeks in total, so I’m quite familiar with that part of town now. And I owe it all to…

Khaosan Tokyo

Khaosan entrance 2004

Khaosan entrance 2004

Khaosan Tokyo

Khaosan entrance 2013

Welcome to Khaosan Tokyo! In the interest of being honest, I’m going to admit that I was absolutely terrified when I first found this place. First off, there’s something about the word “hostel” that sounds so sinister. I think it sounds too much like “hostile.” Second, this place was down a few alleys next to a train station and all I had were a few crudely-drawn maps. Third, since I was on a budget, I was staying in a dorm-style room, with 3 other people. Honestly, not much has changed in 8 and a half years. Back then, it was run by a couple (I met the owners) and they had one or two more branches. Now they have over 10, and other cities across Japan. The amenities were lackluster, but it was in a good part of town, cheap, and they did provide PCs and a kitchen. Speaking of..!

PCs, 2004

PCs, 2004

PCs, 2013

PCs, 2013

Like all good youth hostels, you can see back in 2004 that they had a guitar left by someone who forgot to take it home years ago. They also had all sorts of books left behind (novels, travel books). Every Friday night (or so I hear, I was only there for one Friday) they had a movie night in that main room so all the “tenants” could get together. Honestly, I’m quite glad to have stayed there, since you had a chance to talk to all sorts of people and actually socialize, something you don’t usually get to do at a traditional hotel. The PCs weren’t much to talk about, but this was before I owned a laptop (I have two iPads, 2 laptops, a netbook, and a PC now) and wireless internet wasn’t everywhere. This is how I kept in touch with my family. Not sure about the modern PCs, but the last time I was there (in 2011), they were pretty decent.

Kitchen, 2004

Kitchen, 2004

Kitchen, 2013

Kitchen, 2013

They also had a kitchen! When you’re 18 and traveling on a budget, being able to shop at a supermarket and cook can do wonders. Living on convenience store sandwiches gets old. I was only there for a week, but I remember actually making a few dishes in the shared kitchen and watching early morning cartoons on tv (even though I understood nothing). As you can see here, it looks like the kitchen was totally remodeled, and is definitely much brighter than it used to be (trust me, it wasn’t just the camera.. the old kitchen was kinda creepy). On the center table, they also provide travel information around Tokyo (things to do, bus schedules, etc.) and other resources to get around.

I have some old pictures of the room and facilities, but no up-to-date photos, sadly (I’m half tempted to rent a room just to follow up).

Now that we’ve talked about where I stayed in Tokyo, next time we get to talk about what I did. We’ll continue with Asakusa (I spent a lot of time running around there) and work our way out.

I know this is all colored by nostalgia for me and are all of my memories of loving Japan at 18 years old, but hopefully the stories will at least be interesting for you or, even better, inspire someone else to travel abroad and come visit for themselves.

I’ll be posting part two shortly!

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