Japan: Nikko

My last day in Tokyo was filled with helping Mikka clean her home for a few hours, followed by a trip to the Tokyo Skytree (it holds the world record for the tallest broadcasting tower,) where Mikka and I looked out of the thirtieth story of a building right across from the Skytree (the Tree itself is expensive to go up into, while the thirtieth floor was free and good enough,) and then had some delicious Crepe’s. Mikka informed me there that her husband wanted to pay for dinner that night to thank me for my help cleaning house, so at eight, we met up with him. We went to a restaurant down the road from their house, it was similar to America’s Japanese Steak Houses, hibachi style, but in this restaurant, they brought us the meats, and we cooked it on at the table ourselves. Here was the meal I had been looking for! Multiple types of meat, one of which nearly melted in my mouth, and dipped in the most delicious terriyaki sauce, along with a lot of salad topped with what I only know as “Japanese sauce,” a very delicious, likely ginger type dressing, and a beer. I told the owners that this was the most delicious meal I had had on my trip, possibly ever, and they were so flattered that they brought out a piece of, small, but my friends informed me expensive, beef for each one of us, on the house. My favorite remained the type that nearly melted, but everything was absolutely amazing! The next morning, I helped clean a bit more, and then set off on my, very general, itinerary of area’s to visit in Japan that my friends had helped me create.

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My first stop was going to be in a kind of small town called Nikko in the Tochigi prefecture, about a hundred miles North-East of Tokyo, and ofcourse, I was at least going to attempt to hitch hike it. Mikka helped me make a sign, written in Japanese, that stated my destination, nationality (she thought it would help,) and that any distance helps for Nikko and my next destination; Kanazawa. I had no idea how incredible the Japanese people are before I came, and like many others, it is the people who are turning this country into one of my favorite, right up there with Nicaragua! I walked for about an hour in the morning until I got to the main highway that would go about fifty miles toward Nikko and then put up my sign and stood at a few traffic lights for a few minutes each. After about twenty minutes with my sign out, a small van pulled over. I was a bit confused at first, unsure if they were going to offer me a ride, because the back was like a pool of work quipment that filled up half of the area. The two men did not speak more than a few words of English, but waived me in, they moved some stuff around and created a flat spot on top of their piles of for me and I climbed in. I downloaded the Japanese language for use offline in the Google Translate app, so I was able to communicate to the two men at least a bit, but did not realize that for them to translate to me, my phone needed the Japanese letters. We ended up, unintentionally, playing games of cherades followed by my translations to guess if I was right and then to answer their questions. I am still unsure if I actually guessed anything right. We stopped not long after they picked me up and the men went into a convenience store, I decided I would just prefer to wait with my stuff, and soon were back with snacks and coffee for each of us. A bit after that, we stopped for lunch, had some delicious, juicy, friend chicken with soup and rice. When we were finished, I went to pay for my meal, but one of the men had already paid for all of us and I was told to keep my money. A lot of people tell me that I just have a lot of luck when I am traveling, that I must have great people skills, but these things happen often when hitch hiking or couch surfing, and that is a goal of my blog; to provide stories of kindness from around the world. We continued on until a intersection only about twenty miles away from Nikko where they dropped me off, I said “Oregato gozai mas” (Thank you very much,) we said goodbye, and I put up my sign again.

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About five minutes after standing at the traffic light, a man walked over to me from the convenience store and asked where I was going, I told him Nikko and he said “Okay, come on.” I only ever expect my rides to take me as far as they are going in my direction, nothing more, maybe less, but I never expect any strangers to go out of their way for me. Again, Japan surprised me. When the man’s wife emerged from the store (he had asked her if she would be comfortable giving me a ride already,) we set off, and he told me that he would drop his wife off at home and then take me the additional fifteen or so minutes further to Nikko, and asked where I wanted to be dropped off. This was the first time a ride had gone out of their way to take me where I wanted to be dropped off (excluding the rich man who gave me a ride more as a novelty than anything,) so I was extremely humbled by this new act of kindness. The man spoke a decent amount of English, his wife very little, but we had a great time talking during the ride. I decided I wanted to be dropped off at the Nikko Central Station so that I could get some maps, tourist information, and possibly use free Wifi, and he took me directly there. The trip to Nikko only took me about five hours, so I arrived around two in the afternoon. I knew beforehand that Nikko was going to be a bit colder than Tokyo, but I had no clue that I would be arriving to beautifully snow-capped mountains. It was a very pleasant surprise.

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Once we said our goodbyes, I got my bearings and decided I wanted to go to the World Heritage Temples and Shrines area to see some, well, temples and shrines. It was a short walk up to the area and I spent a few hours exploring. There were multiple colorful temples with stone statues of deities inside along with seperate shrines for other dedications. Along with these were unexpected pagoda’s, the most popular being five stories high, it claimed to be as tall as Tokyo’s Skytree that I had visited the night before with Mikka, but I do not believe it, it was tall though. I had always wanted to see one of these, so it was really great to stumble upon such a tall one.

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Once it was about dark, I headed up a road towards the mountains, along a river, for about an hour (why am I always going up where it’s colder?) I found a open area and short trail that led to the river and followed it, there was snow on the ground, but under a tree was a large area without snow where I set up camp. Mikka had given me hand/feet warming packs that lasted twelve hours, so after I made my peanut cream and chocolate cream sandwiches and reading my book for a bit, I got into my tent, put a warmer in my sock, my coat around my feet and cuccooned myself in my sleeping bag. I woke up to about two inches of new snow on the ground and on my tent, but despite this, the night was great, the warmer worked great for my feet (thank you Mikka!)

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Once packed up, I decided to head up to the Kirifuri waterfall and highlands (again, why do I do this?) I walked for about a half hour and then at a intersection, went to a stopped vehicle and pointed to the waterfall on the map to get directions, he showed me and I continued walking. About three minutes later, the man pulled up, stopped, and waved me in; again, the Japanese going out of their way to help. He took me the rest of the way, about five minutes or so, to the waterfall parking lot and then with a thank you, we said goodbye. I walked the short trail to the viewing area of the waterfall, I enjoyed the fact that it was still early and the park was officially closed, so I had it all to myself. It seems though, all of the waterfalls in Nikko are meant only to be viewed from afar, there was no easy trail, and especially no trail that I was meant to take, down to the waterfall. One closed side trail took me down to a lower viewing area, and it was possible to go further down, likely to the base of the waterfall, but I do not know for sure if anyone is supposed to go down; no one is going down at this time of year though.

After the waterfall, I made breakfast and decided to head up again towards the highlands, where I hoped to get at least some kind of nice view, and then on the way back down, I would hopefully come across some hot springs. On my way up, I put my thumb out as a vehicle came on this deserted road and to my surprise, the man stopped and took me up to the park. This is the only country I’ve had luck “thumbing it” in, any others have required a sign. There was no view to be seen though, it was way too foggy, and the snow was way too deep to try to go anywhere outside of the parking lot even if I wanted to; I had been told that I would need snowshoes if I wanted to enter the Nikko National park, and they were right! So, I turned around and headed back down, picking up big balls of snow/ice and throwing them down the hill off the side of the highway and watching them run into tree after tree, I felt like a little kid again. About fifteen minutes after walking, a small SUV came and I put out my thumb, it stopped and I climbed in. The man, Ito, spoke a little bit of English and asked where I was heading. I told him to central Nikko and when we got about two minutes away from the central train station, at the beginning of the central area, I told him here would be fine, I wanted to walk and explore the rest of the way, so I got out, and we waived bye as he left. As soon as he passed me though, I realized I was missing my cell phone, and ran after him waiving, but he did not notice. This was the cell phone my friend in Hong Kong had let me borrow, so I worried for a few minutes, but then relaxed knowing that I could just buy him a new one (he had wiped it before lending it to me so nothing would be lost) and I still had my cell phone and the tablet he let me borrow. I strolled slowly down the street. looking at the shops and checking out prices for lunch when Ito came pulling in, clumsily over the curb, to the restaurant parking lot I was walking out of; he had went to the central station and when he did not find me, came driving up towards where he dropped me off so that he could return the cell phone to me. He then told me that the restaurant we were at was expensive, most in Nikko are, so when I asked him where he recommended, he told me to get in. He took me to a little place called Bar de Nikko, there, a young man tended the bar. He spoke only a bit of English, but was very polite and a great cook; Ito ordered us rice with melted (by hand torch!) cheese and some other toppings, the result was yet another incredible Japanese meal.

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Ice cream at Bar de Nikko with Ito

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Towards the end of the meal, the tender had become so interested in my trip and everything I was doing that he invited me back for a drink on the house that night when another tender would be there who spoke nearly perfect English. Ito told me to put away my money, he would pay for the meal, and then asked what my plans were for the day. I did not really have any plans, so he helped me come up with some, and any that we did, became his. He took me to a beautiful lake surrounded my mountains, a waterfall called “Dragons Head” because the rocks form the image of a dragon with little imagination, and another waterfall, at nearly 100 meters, the tallest waterfall in Nikko, but it was too foggy to see. At one point, I mentioned that when I had been on the phone with my parent’s, they had asked if I knew where I was going to sleep, he perked up at this and asked where and when I told him I did not know, anywhere that showed up, he offered to let me stay in his home with him and his mother, to which, I was pleased to accept.

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His home was a nice house, two stories in a smaller area of the already small Nikko, on a one laned side road with a even tighter kind of drive way, forcing him to squeeze between two fences before getting to the open area that allowed him to pull into his homes parking space. It had three bedrooms, a toilet room, shower/wash room, kitchen, and den. We spent most of our time in the den, the table in the center was at the traditional, sit on the floor, height, but with the surprise that the floor under the table was deep, making the floor like chairs. Rather than a home heater, they had room heaters and a funnel with one end at the heater and the other under the table that brought warmth to our feet and was sealed in by blankets squished between the table and the floor. The shower/bath was in the traditional Japanese style as well; wash yourself outside of the bath before getting into the tub to relax, they did this to conserve water, the bath water does not get dirty and need replacing if the bathers wash before entering. The hot water reminded me that this is far from my trip to Central America, and it felt great. I was given one of the two rooms upstairs while Ito used the other, my own traditional Japanese bed, a futon, along with heated blankets and a pillow; great unexpected comforts!

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Later that night, around 9PM, Ito and I headed back to Bar de Nikko to get the free drink and meet the other bar tender. When we arrived, there were two girls sitting in the last two stools at the end of the bar (There are only about eight altogether,) and Nikko and I sat two down from them and politely said “Konichiwa.” The tender asked what I would like to drink and I told him whatever he recommended, so he brought me a glass of traditional Japanese sake (sah-kee) and a couple of pieces of tuna. A few minutes later, two girls came in the bar and everyone yelled happy birthday and started singing; I had no clue this was going to happen, but quickly caught on and joined in. The birthday girl was completely and utterly surprised and for the two hours I was there, she rarely did not look like she was going to cry out of happiness and must have said thank you to everyone at least a thousand times. She received gifts, flowers, and a great looking creation (a mixture of fruits, creams, and cookies, that was deliciously shared amongst the six of us) from her friends. I found out that each one was twenty-three and it was the birthday girls twenty third that day and the only time that I can imagine seeing anyone as happy as she was, was when someone had won the lottery, seen a loved one for the first time in many years, MAYBE during a wedding proposal, and other similar events, but even these did not last as long as this girls excitement and happiness. It can only be described as the result of pure joy, a kind rarely seen, and it was contagious, I could not stop smiling the whole time and was disappointed when Ito informed me it was 11:30 and we needed to leave. It was an incredible night. The people I have experienced here have made Nikko one of the few places that I want to spend more than a few days in; despite having already seen most of the sites. Everyone, if given the opportunity (and everyone should if they follow my blog and the tips I provide,) should visit Japan and these incredibly kind and joyous people; meet the locals and make new friends, they alone, are worth the trip!

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-The Travel Economist

First Two Days in Tokyo

I have only been in Tokyo for a couple of days, but it’s already been filled with a lot of new adventures, tastes, and people with ups and downs. When I arrived at the Narita Tokyo Airport, I decided to sleep there to get a early start hitch hiking to central Tokyo (it’s a huge city) in the morning. I went out of the airport and using Google Maps (could’ve used the free map provided at the airport,) found which roads led to central. I stood at the on ramp, because the only way to get there is by highway and there are signs that show it is illegal to walk on the highway, with my sign that said “TOKYO.” After about a half hour, a black SUV passed me and when I did not notice it stop, the driver got out and called to me. It felt great getting my first ride in Asia, and when I got in, the driver and the man sitting in the back asked where I wanted to go; this was a time I wish I had prepared a bit before coming. I decided I wanted to go to the Imperial Palace, I thought this would be a central spot with the popular area’s close by (I was wrong, it was in the boring business district with nothing around,) and to my surprise, they took me all the way there. The driver, who I originally thought was the son of the man sitting in the back, was actually the employed driver who did not speak English, so the man in the back and I talked off and on throughout the ride, and when we arrived, the man asked for a photo, which I always take anyways, but for the first time, I realized that this was likely more of a novelty for the wealthy man to show off to his friends than actually trying to help out a traveler. Although I realized this, we both got what we wanted, so I did not mind.

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I explored the Imperial Palace’s Eastern Garden and saw a woman trying to use a selfie stick to take her photo and offered my assistance. We started talking and since we were going the same direction, walked together for a while as we explored and later searched for a view of the actualy Palace (it was closed when I got there, so we could not see it.) I learned that Jackie Leila ( http://wildonfood.com) is actually an attorney turned amateur-chef-travel-food-blogger who was recently on the Food Networks reality show Chopped and will be on again on St. Patricks Day, she is also being interviewed for her own reality TV show. She was a really awesome person to spend time with, very down-to-earth, and although, self-admittedly a bit materialistic, through travel, has learned that things are not what is really important in life; it’s the experiences and memories that we create as we live our lives everyday.

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Later, after Jackie and I went our separate ways, I started walking to the popular Tsukiji Fish Market and on the way met a business man who was living in Tokyo, he told me that I shouldn’t have any trouble wild camping in Japan, cops do not really bother you if you are not from Japan and not to worry about crime; it is nearly nonexistent here due to the pretty extreme punishments – a minimum of 28 days in jail whether you actually did anything or not. With this information, I figured I could probably sleep anywhere, so after getting some ramen at a hole in the wall restaurant (I was going to play eenie-meenie-minee-moe until the man sitting next to me translated and informed me I was about to order plain noodles,) I set up camp behind a building where it seemed I would receive at least some privacy. After a few hours of sleep, at 1:30AM, my biggest worry when wild camping came true; I was woken and told by security to pack up and find somewhere else to sleep, and that I should ask the police for help finding a place. They were no help, but I found another spot and again, right after I got all set up and into my tent, was told to pack up. After 2 hours of trying to find a spot, at 3.30AM, I finally settled into a cramped spot under a foot bridge, barely large enough to lay in, on big, though somewhat smooth, rocks. I couldn’t pitch my tent, so the rain seeped through my rain cover and bug net to me. The temperature was 43°F, but felt like it was below freezing and there was a lot of traffic making noise, the night was very similar to my miserable night on the Volcano Tajulmulco in Guatemala last year, minus the noise, and I can not decide if it was the most or second most miserable night I have ever had!

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Cutting up a fish while searching for sushi

The following day turned out to be a much better day. In the morning I met a group outside the gate to the fish market, a couple of Japanese women, Michelle and Mika, and a couple of men from France, Audrick and Damien. We started talking and I told them about my trip and miserable night and almost immediately, Mika offered for me to stay at her house with her husband and the two men; the Japanese (despite not letting me sleep in peace) are very kind and helpful when they know you need help. I hung out with them all day, we walked around looking for sushi for lunch, and when we went into the restaurant, everyone ordered meals. I had already eaten and as not a big fan of fish, decided just to order a single cheap piece of fish to try, but soon my plate was full of different types of sushi, wraps, and soup because each one gave me a bit off of their plates. Yes, Japanese sushi is as good as its fame suggests. On top of that, when I tried to pay for my fish, Mika wouldn’t let me, and covered it.

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My fish before they filled my plate

Mika soon had to go home and rest, due to her pregnancy, so we agreed to meet her at 5PM for dinner. The remaining four of us went to explore the popular Shibuya area, you know the area in the movies where hundreds of people from every direction all enter the intersection at one time and becomes an incredible chaos that looks similar to Times Square.

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After exploring Shibuya, we went onto the Meiji Jingu shrine and did the traditional kind of prayer to the deities of the temple; throw some coins into the offering box, bow twice, clap your hands twice, and bow once again. The shrine was very impressive, it felt very traditional with everything you would imagine a Japanese shrine to have.

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After the shrine, we met Mika at the metro station near her home and she showed us the way to a delicious restaurant nearby. I had requested a terriyaki meal because having experienced terriyaki pork intestines in Las Vegas, possibly the best thing I had ever tasted, I wanted to find out if it even compared to the real Japanese terriyaki. I decided to order Mikas favorite, a slight variation of the most popular meal that had vegetables along with Chicken, rice, soup, and salad, along with the beloved terriyaki sauce. It was delicious, although I can not say it was as good as Las Vegas; the hunt continued! After the meal, I waited in line to pay, and when I got to the counter found out that no more was owed, Audrick had paid, so I tried to pay him and he wouldn’t accept it.

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Mika and her violin, process of cleaning her room

We went to Mika’s place and finished the night with a few games of UNO. It always amazes me how much kindness can be found from complete strangers. Not only did this group let me hang out with them, Mika let me stay in her home, the group paid for two meals, paid for a couple of subway rides, and showed me around the city, but Mika also extended her offer to let me stay in her home to when I return to Tokyo after traveling to other parts of the country. I was very happy when I started making my bed that she did not stop me and let me help her around the house for a few hours to show my appreciation (it is very difficult for her to maintain the home because of her pregancy.)

My goal of this blog is shifting; while I will still focus on extreme budget traveling and will write about travel hacking and everything that goes with it, I want this blog, this community, to be mainly focused on kindness and grace that we experience everyday. I want to invite my readers to share their stories and friends stories of random kindness and favor that they are shown by strangers or new friends while traveling, in their own state, country, or abroad. The world is full of people who want to help if you let them or ask, and it is our responsibility to show the world that there is kindness everywhere and the world is not some big and scary place!

Help me spread the word of these wonderful experiences!
-The Travel Economist