As I prepared to go on this trip, I didn’t know what to expect. My mom had shown me this really interesting two-and-a-half-week learning excursion to Japan that was being held by Smithsonian Student Travel earlier this year, and since I’ve wanted to go to Japan since I was at least 6, I said I’m absolutely down to do it. Fast forward to about two months ago, the big date was steadily approaching me. My mind could think of nothing else but “July 18th,” and I was super excited I’m not even gonna lie.
I stayed in LA for a few days with my family, since my flight was leaving from LAX. I talked to my friends over text as I waited to arrive at my terminal and when I got there I was greeted by a group of 18 other teens who were also going (more people than I knew were going). After I got introduced to my group and the people who were gonna be looking after us, we headed to our gate and hopped on the plane. The ride was long (as I expected) but not as bad as I thought it would be.
We landed at Haneda Airport and made our way through customs, finally reaching Tokyo after just a quick train ride. Instantly I could feel a different vibe from what I was used to. Everything was cleaner, and it wasn’t as loud as you would expect a big city to be. However, we didn’t stay in Tokyo for very long, as we took a flight to Hiroshima just about a day after we got to Japan.
When I heard that we were going to Hiroshima I wasn’t initially looking forward to it, since the only thing I knew about the city was the tragic bombing that happened in 1945, but the city surprised me. Hiroshima’s nightlife is surprisingly vibrant but not overwhelming, and It’s the perfect amount of fun and easily walkable. It was honestly fun just walking around with the group, chilling, and chopping it up.
However, the most impactful part of my time in Hiroshima was visiting the Peace Park and the museum that was there. Seeing art from that time, clothes from kids who died during the bombing, and reading about their stories was a saddening but important experience.
We were also lucky enough to be able to learn about the stories of people who were affected but survived and were discriminated against, due to the belief that nuclear poisoning was transmissible. We even got to hear personal stories from our lovely tour guide who told us a story about how her husband’s family was almost caught in the explosion, but they took a vacation to a nearby town just right before the bomb was dropped.
My biggest takeaway from this was that I left Hiroshima with a new understanding of how historical points of view matter, as I would have never known about all this stuff if I only learned about the American perspective of these events.
While we were still in Hiroshima, our counselors told us that we were visiting a temple on an island called Itsukushima. Itsukushima is a very interesting place. There’s a whole lot of deer just wandering around and eating random stuff, which was an experience I didn’t expect to have.
There’s also great seafood and cool scenery, which was just the cherry on top after having a deer give me the meanest side eye I’ve ever experienced.
After we got back from “Deer Island” (as I call it), we packed our stuff and headed to Kyoto via Shinkansen (bullet train). Once we got there I instantly noticed how much bigger the buildings were, and how much more “city” it felt than Hiroshima. However, Kyoto isn’t known as the cultural capital of Japan for no reason. The landscaping, art, and practices are still alive and are very reminiscent of Edo Period Japan. However, the feeling of modern Japan whether it be high tech, fashion, and pop culture being almost everywhere, or the modern city vibe of downtown Kyoto.
The first cultural place in Kyoto we visited was the Kinkaku-Ji Temple. Kinkaku-Ji was originally a villa that was bought by a man named Ashikaga Yoshimitsu after deciding to retire from his tenure as Shogun. It would later turn into (and remain) a Buddhist sanctuary because Ashikaga wanted to be closer to Buddha once he passed. It has a nice golden building that looked nice in person and had a great vibe surrounding it.
After Kinkaku-Ji, the second cultural site we visited in Kyoto was the Fushimi-Inari Shrine. Now with Fushimi-Inari, there are about three (if I remember correctly) shrines on the mountain. One at the top, one in the middle, and one at the bottom. I initially thought we were just going to the shrine that was at the very bottom of the mountain, but as we got there I realized that we were hiking up the mountain to see the one at the top. Now I’m not going to lie to you, I was super unprepared. I didn’t stretch a single muscle in my body before hiking nor did I wear the hiking shoes that I brought with me. It was a 55-minute hike and I was extra tired by the end of it. However, the view of Kyoto made it all worth it and it was a fun little workout too.
Although I had fun in Kyoto, it eventually came time for us to move on. We once again ended up taking the Shinkansen to a train station in Osaka and then after that, we caught a bus up through the countryside to Koyasan. Koyasan was pretty cool, it had a country vibe to it which was refreshing after being in major cities for the last week and it was very quiet and peaceful. The most interesting part about Koyasan however, is where we stayed. Koyasan Syukubo Kumagai, one of the (many) monk temples is where we stayed and it was dope. We got to eat with many of the elder monks and younger monks and try out traditional foods that many monks eat (which just turned out to be rice, veggies, and tea).
Another important part of Koyasan is the Okunoin Cemetery, which houses multiple samurai clans and Mongol soldiers, as well as local monks and citizens, and has been an essential part of Koyasan for at least 900 years. It was interesting learning about the history behind the cemetery and the superstitions surrounding it. As well as the fact that many Japanese companies reserve graveyards here for their important employees who passed (hence the Panasonic gravestone).
After leaving Koyasan, we caught a bus down to the local train station where we would then catch another bus to Fujinomiya. On the way to Fujinomiya, I was able to catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji which was kind of surreal considering that I had only seen pics of it. Fujinomiya was honestly such a fun town to visit, the view of Mt. Fuji was great at the hotel we stayed at and the amusement park nearby was fun. Overall, it was a fun experience!
Now, after visiting so many cool cities we were finally heading back to Tokyo, and man… We stayed deeper in the city this time (specifically near Akihabara) and it was amazing. Akihabara is a crazy place, it was born out of a massive fire in 1869 that destroyed a city passage (and multiple other buildings) and then was rebuilt into a shrine for fire safety. It wouldn’t turn into the town it is now until Akihabara Station was built in 1890, which brought a lot of traffic to the town. Ever since then, it has gone through a tech faze and is now a pop culture epicenter, and pop culture epicenter it indeed is. Arcades everywhere and anime/manga plus video game stores at every corner. It was crazy and a little bit overwhelming, but I would highly recommend going there.
While we were in Tokyo we did a few activities. The first one was at the Tokyo National Museum. The Tokyo National Museum was honestly pretty cool. The art was nice, and seeing the samurai gear in person was exciting. I was surprised by how small they were though. I thought the armor would be slightly taller than it actually was.
After that, we visited Tokyo Team Labs which was even better. Tokyo Team Labs surprised me. I didn’t know what it was at first but the exhibits were relaxing and very interactive. There were also so many beautiful art installations there. It was overall an unexpected peak in this trip.
The last thing we did in Tokyo was visit the Skytree. The Tokyo SkyTree was something I expected to like and it didn’t disappoint. The view was nice and I was able to catch the sunset. There was also a mall so I got some souvenirs and some good food so I left feeling pretty happy. However, the underlying feeling that this would be one of the last things I did in Japan for a while hung over me.
As time passed by, the morning of my departure day arrived. I was happy to get back home but I also didn’t wanna leave. I was conflicted, to say the least. But once I started my traveling journey from Haneda to LAX and then to Hartsfield-Jackson, I was satisfied and didn’t regret leaving. Overall, my Japanese experience was positive and I will remember it for a long time, along with the friends I made there.
Quick shoutout to my mom too, for telling me. Thank you, Mama!