A few months ago I flew to Japan to spend my Christmas vacation with my family in Tokyo. The trip had long been dreamed of, with my mother expressing her ambition to take me there for the past 18 years or so, but the dream did not fully materialize until the year 2014. Despite being only two weeks long, it was a trip that meant so much to me and my family, and I want to remember it as much as I can before it completely falls into the void of my (declining) memory stash, so here we are.
Day 1 was a morning of anxious nerves. The trip being my first time to fly out of the country alone was a factor, but it was mainly due to excitement to see my dream country. Much of it was spent trying to find definitive ways to kill time while being 38,000 feet off the ground and sour-graping that if I could handle four hours worth of travel time from my workplace to home – thanks to EDSA’s world-class traffic – then I could definitely handle another four hours of being in a plane. They were the most torturous and yet the most thrilling; time suddenly seemed to have gone by so fast when the captain finally announced that we had already entered Japan’s airspace and Fuji-san came into view.
I was greeted by a snowflake on my window, a cold yet pleasant welcome that was preemptive to the many pleasant surprises that were still waiting for me.
I landed at Narita by 12:05 pm, five minutes shy of my supposed landing time. By the time I reached the arrival lobby, I was literally freezing my ass off, but the cold was temporarily forgotten when I started to see the warm smiles of my family, huddled together and eagerly waiting for me.
I started tearing up out of joy the moment I hugged my mom and so did she. My stepdad hugged us along with my two sisters. We probably looked ridiculous in the near-empty Narita arrival lobby at the time but we couldn’t care less. Other people who were present in the area probably thought we were a family finally united after several years (and it was partly true) because I remember seeing a woman smile at us when mom asked me and my sisters to pose for a picture, the first memorabilia of my trip taken at land.
I spent the next hour admiring the view of the streets we passed by, the kanji on the signage of the nearby buildings were the constant reminder that yes, I am finally in Japan, as I found myself sometimes staring in disbelief. It took 20 years in the making – what was only yesterday’s dream was now happening in real life.
Our first stop was at Asakusa Shrine, a Shinto shrine in Tokyo and a common place for locales and tourists. The place first reminded me of Singapore’s Chinatown, but this one is more colorful and is busier, with several stalls lined up along the path to offer various Japanese souvenirs for tourists. The cold was no hindrance to the continuous bustling of activity in the area; tourists continue to flock the shrine while locales went with their business as usual.
It was a series of firsts. A first visit to a Japanese temple, a first immersion to the culture. A first try at amazake, a Japanese sweet drink made from fermented rice – a delightful treat in the freezing weather. A first attempt at calling my stepfather ‘Papa’ after several years of separation, offering him my own cup of amazake after noticing he only bought cups for me and my sisters. The relief of knowing that he welcomes the title entirely. It was long overdue anyway and he was probably waiting for it more than I was practicing to say it.
The day ended with my first proper Japanese meal for the trip: yakiniku, a personal favorite since I was a child. Maybe it was a coincidence, maybe it was the result of the same blood flowing in our veins, but Papa happily recalled that it was also yakiniku that mom first asked to eat when she started residing in Japan, remarking that there’s really no denying that mom and I are related.
Christmas was simply celebrated by decorating and eating cake, feasting on yakitori and salad, and exchanging toasts of pretend-wine. To any Japanese household, the Santa-adorned strawberry-cake is usually the highlight of the noche buena. However, in my case, what truly captured my heart was this baby below:
Prior to cooking this, Papa told me, “I’m going to serve you high-quality beef,” and he wasn’t lying. Wagyu beef is a term that I often see in food articles, and the mere mention of the name is usually equivalent to a rave review of the dish and now I know why. It was the show-stealer of the night; the soft meat almost melting in my mouth, the yakiniku sauce seeping through the meat generously, the richness of the flavor enveloping my taste buds all at once. Every bite was like a one-way ticket to food nirvana. The instant I took my first bite, I thought to myself, “This is the kind of meat that food writers rave about.” And here I am. I don’t even eat cooked fat, but the meat was too delicious and cooked really well that this meal had to be an exception.
Christmas in Japan was quieter and much simple than the extravagant and colorful celebration of Christmas in the PH, but definitely livelier than the dull celebration that I’m used to at home.
The day was spent taking in the beauty of a white blanket covering the mountain range of Hida, a short trip to Shirakawa-go, a small village famous for its traditional farmhouses built 200 years ago. It was my first time to see snow in the flesh, but it was my mom and sisters who were probably even more excited for the experience than I was. We were stuck on traffic when my mom went out to grab a handful of snow from nearby and placed some on my hand to let me feel it for the first time. My sisters, on the other hand, immediately took turns on throwing snow balls at me the moment we stepped out of the car and entered the village.
December 31-January 1
Takahatafudo, a place I used to only read about in history books due to my fascination with Hijikata Toshizo and Shinsengumi – now viewed from my own eyes. As 2014 gave way to the new year, the temperature drastically dropped, the first onset of snow in Tokyo heavily hovering in the air.
We were on our way to Takahatafudo when the snow really started to fall. The entire street leading to the complex was packed, but I was too busy being amazed by my first snowfall to pay any mind. Plus, crowds during winter were not much of an issue when all of us were seeking for more warmth anyway.
My mom dubbed it as a blessing since the weather did cooperate and let me experience snow during the remaining days of my stay. Here she is in the corner of the frame, frantically trying to take a video of me as commemoration for my first snowfall experience. An extremely cold yet fascinating welcome for 2015.
Japanese festivals are something that I’ve always been fond of, especially from glimpses that I’ve seen on anime. Characterized by a bustling crowd, numerous food stalls, and various forms of entertainment – it was something I’ve always wanted to experience first-hand. My mom warned me of the cold and the crowd, asked me several times if I really wanted to go, but I answered ‘yes’ every time. Our schedule for the day was initially limited to shopping, but I insisted on going to Takahatafudo again because I simply cannot miss out the core of the Japanese new year celebration – the Hatsumode, the first visit to a Shinto/Buddhist temple. It was extremely cold indeed but every second I spent out in the below zero weather was utterly worth it.
As my vacation came to its end, I spent my remaining hours in Japan admiring the country’s sunrise, the sky a beautiful gradient of dark blue transitioning into a rich orange. As the city continues to sleep, the backdrop of the city begins to show the signs of life for the day. Yet the dark does not fully give way to the day yet, but the beginning of the day continues to edge its way in. This tension gives way to the middle ground – to the transition of dark to light and vice-versa – and it perfectly defines that time frame when it is too early to get up yet but already too late to sleep, to that feeling when it is time for you to go but you still don’t want to leave.
Japan was a lot different from what I expected. Although not entirely, there was a great gap from the image I had formed in my head due to the representations I’ve watched from what I personally experienced, but the difference was not unpleasant at all. It’s just that Japan is more peaceful, more reserved, and definitely more beautiful.
Also, this trip, if anything, solidified my relationship with my loved ones and showed me the definition of a family that I may have always been secretly looking for. As Papa and mom accompanied me to the airport with Papa carrying my luggage, I felt like a kid all over again being sent to school by her parents. Except that I no longer was a kid and instead of going to school and going home to the company of my parents by the end of the day, I was leaving for another country – to my home country – and the next time that I would come back to the comfort of my parents is left uncertain. It may take years, months if I’m lucky.
As this dream eventually gets crossed off my bucket list, I find myself wondering, what now? Where to? When I told Papa how happy I was because Japan has always been my dream, he told me, “Dream bigger.” And this trip taught me just that – sometimes life just gives you the things you’ve been longing for, regardless of the wait, sometimes they do come. I would be waiting until the time I can finally come back, but until then I will be dreaming of bigger things until these bigger things also materialized for my next trip.