My semester at sea: Kamakura, Tokyo and Kyoto

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Martha Bawn/Courtesy

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I’ll be visiting quite a few new countries this semester, but Japan was one of the places I was most excited to visit. The cultural personality and aesthetics are so distinctive and fascinating, and I can appreciate all of it so much more after spending just six days travelling around this beautiful group of islands. The most striking thing about my Japanese experience was how polar opposites can exist simultaneously. Japan is a mixture of traditional and futuristic, chaotic and serene, East and West. I had expected to find different areas where each of these was particularly salient, but I felt them all very strongly almost everywhere.

The ship was docked in Yokohama for the first couple of days, and then in Kobe. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time in either of those places, so I couldn’t explore as much as I would have liked. Even so, I feel as though I packed a lot of new experiences into my short time there. I spent a day in Kamakura visiting beautiful Zen Buddhist temples, participating in a traditional tea ceremony and learning about Zen meditation from a Buddhist monk. This was a great way to start the trip because it gave me a real sense of calm and an eye for the great detail the Japanese apply to every aspect of life.

Buddhist monk and the woman who did the tea ceremony in Kamakura.

A Buddhist monk and the woman who did the tea ceremony in Kamakura.

My next stop was the bright lights and skyscrapers of Tokyo. I stayed in the Shinjuku district, which was full of arcades, shopping malls, karaoke bars and restaurants that were all several stories high. It was a wonderful area because it had all the excitement of a giant city, but it was clean and everyone was ridiculously polite and helpful. I somehow managed to not be overwhelmed, though I could have been. We tried to experience as many new things as possible, from staying in a capsule hotel and eating huge amounts of sushi delivered to our table on a conveyor belt to visiting a cat cafe and rocking out in a private karaoke room. We also got up early to see the famous Tsukiji fish market, particularly the giant 500-pound tuna. Unfortunately, tourists aren’t allowed in before 9 a.m. We did get to see the some of the market, but only because we were lost and entered through the back. We also caught a ride with a friendly fisherman through the market. I learned two lessons from the fish market experience: Guidebooks can be extremely misleading, but sometimes it pays to get lost. Also, tofu-flavored soft serve ice cream is surprisingly delicious.

Tokyo's Shibuya crossing, the busiest intersection in the world.

Tokyo’s Shibuya crossing, the busiest intersection in the world.

My third major stop was in Kyoto, which was definitely my favorite and probably one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen. It had bright lights and tall buildings, so the city feeling was definitely there (though it was not as much as Tokyo). It seemed much more like an exotic, new place. The streets of the Gion district looked like they belonged in Spirited Away: Beautiful women in kimonos could be seen through the full-length windows in buildings along the river, and little shops sold beautiful handmade fabrics and paper goods. In addition to all of that, scattered throughout the city are spectacular Shinto and Buddhist shrines with full gardens that cover whole mountainsides.

Golden pavilion at Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto.

Golden pavilion at Kinkaku-ji temple in Kyoto.

The gardens were meticulously designed and manicured, yet still felt natural and organic. I imagine in spring and summer they are just breathtaking. I went to five of them, and I only got a little taste. My favorite was called Fushimi Inari Taisha where there are several miles of paths snaking around a mountain. The paths are lined with more than a thousand bright orange Torii gates, and small shrines are scattered along them. It’s a very surreal and unique experience to walk through them for such a long way. Afterwards, I was lucky enough to witness the start of the celebrations marking the arrival of spring. About 30 women in spectacular colorful kimonos threw bags of peanuts into a crowd, and there was a definite feeling of great excitement in the air. It was the perfect way to finish up my Japanese adventures.

Tori gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha.

Torii gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha.

All of these places would not have been as wonderful without the people I encountered. Nearly every time we stopped to look at our map or just looked somewhat lost or confused, someone would come up to us and offer their help in broken English. If they didn’t know the information we needed, they either found someone who did or looked it up on their phone. There wasn’t a single person we talked to who wasn’t entirely committed to helping us have a more pleasant experience. More than 90 percent of the population of Japan is ethnically Japanese, so a group of blonde Americans definitely stood out, but everywhere we went, we felt welcome. It’s a wonderful country, and I’m so glad I got to have such a positive experience there. I hope some day I can go back for an extended stay.