Tripper of the Week: Kenji H, Avid Traveler and Recent Tokyo Expat Ever traveled abroad and liked the destination so much you ended up staying for 3 years? Kenji, our Tripper of the Week has. He's just returned to California after 3 years in Tokyo and shares his (sometimes embarrassing) stories and tips for Tokyo travel....
Tell us a little about yourself.
I just recently moved back to the Bay Area
after living/working in Tokyo, Japan for the past 3 years. What initially started out as trip to celebrate my University graduation during the summer of 2009 turned into a new found long term love for Japanese culture. As any American who has traveled to Japan before, we have a limited 90-day maximum tourist visa and after my first week I knew that was nowhere long enough! So I decided right then and there that I was going to make this happen and there were 2 viable options every gaijin (japanese term foreigner) moving to Japan must face:
1.) Enroll in Japanese Language School, however I already spoke Japanese >.<
2.) Find a job that will sponsor a working visa.
(There was a 3rd option my Japanese friend joked “get married!” lol)
So a few days before having to depart I was checking out I had pretty much given up and figured I would go home regroup and prepare for a full on move in the future. But somehow the stars aligned and the traveler's hostel I was staying at was also looking for English staff to manage their English Website/Customer Service. The next year I was also hired on freelance as a Business English Teacher at Asahi, the famous beer company. So I stayed and carved out a pretty awesome life but am ready to start a new adventure rediscovering San Francisco.
You recently moved back to the U.S. from Tokyo. What was most challenging about being an expat in Tokyo?
At first, it was the language barrier. I am actually half Japanese but before moving there spoke about 1 semester’s worth at best. It really had an impact on my day to day life. For example not being able to read labels while I was grocery shopping or order food without pictures i could point to in restaurants. Actually I have a pretty embarrassing story...
On a cold day, I headed to my local convenient store to buy some delicious “Oden” which is a Japanese winter dish consisting of several ingredients such as boiled eggs, daikon radish, konnyaku, and processed fish cakes stewed in a light, soy-flavoured dashi broth. It's pretty cool since you get to choose an ingredient for about a dollar each to make your own to your liking. So I asked politely said “Chikobi Onegai shimasu” which to my horror translates to “nipple please." I meant to say “Chikuwabu” which are gluten tubes, not my finest moment. Sadly I also got “kowai” and “kawaii” mixed up a lot too and called a girl scary looking instead of cute.
While you were in Japan, you did a good amount of travel - what was your favorite place you discovered on your travels there?
My favorite place I visited was Hakone, specifically Ōwakudani (大涌谷 lit. "Great Boiling Valley"). It is a popular tourist site for its scenic views, volcanic activity, and especially, Kuro-tamago (黒玉子 lit. "black egg") — a local specialty of eggs hard-boiled in the hot springs. The boiled eggs turn black and smell slightly sulphuric; consuming the eggs is said to increase longevity. Eating one is said to add seven years to your life. You may eat up to two and a half for up to seventeen and a half years, but eating a whole third is said to be highly unadvised. I ate two!
If someone were traveling to Tokyo, where would you recommend they go?
Tokyo can be so modern that you lose Japanse feel in the hustle and bustle of Shibuya and Shinjuku. I highly recommend the Asakusa and Taito-ku prefecture which has a unique blend of old japan meets new.
Top 3 Things to Do there
1) Spend a day at the most popular temple “Asakusa sensoji”
2) Check out Sky Tree 東京スカイツリー, now officially the world’s tallest structure which is due to open to the public later this year.
3) Ameyoko Shopping Street in Ueno. Great place to get your shop on. Famous for its street food, souvenir snack shops and home to an abundance of cool sneaker shops.
Are there things you miss about Japan or things you notice about the U.S. that you didn't notice in the same way before living abroad?
I think what struck me most were the people themselves. The way Japanese people take so much pride in everything thing they do down to the simplest task has always amazed me. There is no such thing as gratuity or tipping yet service is always impeccable no matter where you go. It was a big adjustment coming back home to frequently disappointing service.
I miss 7-11! I know that sounds strange but convenient stores in Japan are the greatest things ever. Lots of [pre-made Japanese food to choose from along with pretty much anything you need 24 hours a day. I highly recommend the Tuna-Mayo Rice ball, was a constant staple in my diet.
You've also traveled extensively in the U.S. What has been your favorite U.S. destination so far?
Thats a tough one...but I am fortunate enough and unbiased to say the San Francisco Bay Area is where it's at. The NY Times actually ranked Oakland, California as the number 5 place to visit in 2012. I love that the local culture keeps changing and evolving but apparently while I was living abroad missed both the hyphy and hipster movement...which may be a good thing? Top notch food, great professional sports teams (go sharks!), awesome scenery and lovely people keep me coming back for more.
Would you live abroad again, and if so would you go back to Japan and try living in a new country?
Yes! Japan feels more like a second home to me now...so If I were able to do it again I would want to try somewhere completely new so I could feel that excitement of getting lost in another culture. At the moment Finland is at the top of the list, specifically Helsinki and Turku.
Interested in more tips on Tokyo? Swinging by the San Francisco Bay Area on your next trip? Connect with Kenji via his Tripping profile. And if you've got any good Finland tips, give him a shout. ;)