My passport now has its first stamp. Just the thought of it was making me giddy before the trip began. And the thought of it after the fact is no less satisfying. Japan was, in a word, amazing. I would happily go back again.
I will admit that it wasn't the easiest choice for a first trip abroad. Akin to being thrown into the deep end of the pool. But we learned and swam. The obvious first, and largest, obstacle was the language. Not only do we not speak more than a dozen words of Japanese, but very few of them speak English or know more than a dozen words themselves. Nevertheless, the population is very friendly and several comical exchanges were extraordinarily helpful here and there. The written language is an entirely different situation. Japanese kanji is all symbols and was entirely alien to us. It was impossible to guess what a sign might say unless it happened to have a picture alongside. There was a good amount of English sprinkled here and there, and more so in the tourist areas. But even google maps showed kanji and made attempting to get our bearings very difficult many times. Needless to say, there were plenty of wrong turns and quite a few stops in doorways to consult all the maps. Luckily we were never unduly lost. Generally just turned around and off by a wee bit. We mostly rolled with it, understanding that this was bound to happen, but there were a few moments of frustration. When it's dark in a small mountain town, the last bus out leaves in less than twenty minutes, it's another three hours by train to the evening accommodation, you've only *just* remembered to retrieve your luggage from the luggage service who was staying open for you, and you've missed your turn... well, it was a moment. (We did not miss the bus.)
I was jointly alarmed and comforted when our guidebook stated that even locals get lost in the Tokyo metro station labyrinths. They are relatively well signed and this is a place where there is enough English to get you by. But it took a few stations to figure out where to look and how to stop in the flow of people without creating a traffic jam. It took me nearly the entire trip to remember to walk on the left-hand side. And by then we were back in Tokyo where every third station or staircase had a sign telling you to walk on the right. Ack! At first I felt idiotic for ruining the traffic pattern, but realized by day three that even if you walk on the correct side you are just as likely to get bowled over by a local in a rush. I learned that you just have to move with purpose as if you know where you are headed. The "just keep walking" idea often got us to a right place (bus stop, metro station, large "you are here" map), which could get us to the right place. I planned the itinerary by evening accommodation only, so the days were open to explore whatever was interesting. And often if you just keep walking in Japan you will very soon find yourself at a temple gate or running across some seemingly random bit of beauty.
I planned the trip to be evenly divided between time in cities and time in the country. Though we could have easily spent more time everywhere we went. Between taking copious amounts of pictures and exploring every nook and cranny, we were far slower than most of the walking maps inferred. After just one day I recognized that we would only get to an exceedingly small portion of the many things to see. I also recognized that it would be like that on every trip I take, especially those abroad. You cannot explore a country or place in a couple of short weeks. And the majority of tourists we saw at the sights were Japanese. So even living there doesn't necessarily allow you the opportunity. We could have easily spent the entire two weeks in just Tokyo or Kyoto and been satisfied. And although we spent many hours on trains traveling between places, I am very glad we traveled around. If I never find the opportunity to return, I know I enjoyed a good variety of what Japan has to offer.
There is, of course, much more to share about the trip. And I will do so in a couple of days. I am heading out in an hour to visit family and eat my portion of the grand turkey massacre tomorrow. Pictures, stories, top fives are still to come. Meanwhile, I had my first post-clear follow-up PET scan yesterday morning. I won't get the results for three weeks (Dec 17), and I will let you all know as soon as I do. The plan is to proudly proclaim another clean report. In the interim I will attempt to distract myself and keep busy in order to stave off the scanxiety. Happy Thanksgiving!