It’s been a busy 10 days since I picked up my son Matthias from his Sister City experience in Hiratsuka. We visited Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, walked the streets of Yanaka with its many temples and old-fashioned atmosphere, shopped in Harajuku and Shibuya with hordes of other teenyboppers, marveled at Tokyo’s vastness from the 45th floor of Shinjuku’s Tokyo Metropolitan Government building, took in shows and thrill rides at DisneySea, and visited with friends.Leaving the metropolis behind us, we then traveled to Mt. Koya where we spent the night in a Buddhist temple, ate vegetarian cuisine, and arose at dawn to attend the morning service. Next was the island of Shikoku, where we visited Ritsurin Garden, climbed 785 steps to Kotohiragu Shrine, chatted with a 5th-generation bonsai grower, explored Matsuyama Castle, strolled through the picturesque district of Uchiko, and cycled our way over a great distance of the Shimanami Kaido, which links Shikoku and Honshu via a series of connecting bridges and islands. I’ll write about these places and experiences in blogs to come. Of course, because of my job, we also inspected restaurants, hotels, and Japanese inns along the way.
Through it all, Matthias seemed to take everything in stride and eat almost everything in sight. Here are some of his comments during our trip.
Matthias downing tempura and sashimi
About his arrival at Narita airport:
“When we arrived at the airport, we boarded a bus and one of the first things we saw was a construction site. None of the construction workers were Mexican! They were all Japanese!”
(Little did he know that because of Japan’s aging population and not enough working young people to support them, importing foreign workers is a current hot topic).
On driving in Japan:
“Everyone is such a good driver. The streets are so narrow and crowded but I haven’t seen any accidents. I even saw teenagers riding bicycles and text messaging at the same time.”
There’s almost no crime here. I see people leave bags by their bicycle. In America it would be gone in two seconds.”
On Japanese Toilets:
“I never tried one of those spray things. Toto sure has a monopoly.”
On Japanese television (which he insisted I videotape):
“Japanese television is hilarious. Of course I can’t understand it because it’s in Japanese, but it’s fun just to watch anyway. It doesn’t make any sense and you can’t tell what the commercials are selling.”
The Japanese work ethic:
“Everyone sure takes their job seriously. And they’re awfully nice.”
About the food:
“I didn’t consider anything I ate weird. It was just stuff I hadn’t eaten before. But the seaweed candy is disgusting.”
(And this from a kid who ate yakitori organs and raw chicken in Matsuyama)
About the inevitable trip to McDonald’s:
“The hamburgers are smaller, but everything tastes better. The breakfast sandwich tastes like it has a real egg in it.”
When asked about his favorite experience in Japan:
“Staying with a host family because I got to live with them, go to their school, see what they do. In all houses you take your shoes off and usually sleep on the floor. They had one bathroom for the whole house.”
(It was a family of six)
His favorite attraction: Matsuyama Castle
His favorite activity: Cycling the Shimanami Kaido
Cycling the Shimanami Kaido
His favorite purchases: Japanese pajamas (jinbei) and second-hand soccer jerseys
As I write this, we’re on the Shinkansen heading back to Tokyo, where we’ll spend one more day before flying back home. Trains usually lull Matthias to sleep, yet despite arising this morning at 6:30am for our all-day bike ride, he has been unusually contemplative, listening to his MP3 player and watching the water-filled paddies of the countryside give way to the density of the Kanto plain and then the darkness of night.
As for me, though I have been traveling through Japan for two decades, this is the first time I have had the opportunity to share my experiences with my son. Soon we will resume our busy, often separate lives, but our trip to Japan will stand out not only for what we did and saw but for the closer bond we feel because of it. They grow up so fast.
Already I feel sad our trip is coming to an end. Luckily, I have a second son. Some day it will be his turn.