Japan is a small country with a deep-rooted culture. Aiyana Victoria Mathews first visited Japan as a 19-year old African-American student. After attending Benjamin E. May High School in Atlanta, she went on to pursue her undergraduate studies at Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and found a way to study abroad as a research scholar of rheology science at the Faculty of Engineering at Chiba University.
Over the next two decades, Mathews studied the Japanese language, learned its peculiar customs, participated in colorful festivals, understood the way to do business and created Gardner-Mathews, a travel consultancy that specializes in customized itineraries for cross-cultural training, corporate concierge, and project management.
Whether you are thinking of traveling to Japan or planning to go for another visit, here are some practical travel tips from someone who calls Japan her second home.
Understand Cultural Norms
“When I first arrived in Japan I did not know how to use chopsticks, what to eat beyond sushi, or what a karaoke jukebox was. But I made friends quickly, and they taught me everything,” says Mathews about her first few months living in Chiba, a university town near Tokyo. Her strong desire to learn the local culture made her experience of living in Japan positive. She says that many of our misconceptions stem from our limited views of the world.
One of the Japanese ladies who conducted an orientation warned Mathews and her classmates as soon as they arrived. She stressed the importance of respecting all people, no matter their socioeconomic situation, age, job description or rank. “Here we respect everyone as they all serve an important purpose in society,” is advise Mathews remembers to this day. “It made me realize that it’s a person’s responsibility to dictate how he/she will be treated,” she adds.
Be an Ambassador
Being a tall black person in a foreign country can make you stand out. However, Japanese people are genuinely friendly and interested in meeting people of other races. “Yes, I felt the stares, but they were more out of curiosity than animosity,” Mathews confesses.
“When someone came to know that I spoke fluent Japanese and had lived in Japan for a while and saw that I was respectful of their culture, they bent over backward to support me. In the U.S., I would have been written off as someone who was too young and inexperienced.” Mathews frequently takes delegations to Japan for business development and networking opportunities.
Venture Out of the City
Japan is a very small country but it has a lot to see and do, and chances are there will be something of interest to you. Most people who travel to Japan stay in the hustle and bustle of Tokyo captivated by skyscrapers, busy crossing, fish markets and neon-lit pachinko arcades. You’ll soon realize that Japan is a great place to explore art, architecture, fashion, culinary arts, spirituality, temples, and nature.
Mathews says, “One of my favorite things to do is take a sunrise hike to Mt Fuji. The sky is glorious and it is also physically gratifying to make the trek.”
Talk to the Locals
One of the things Mathews suggests doing is bar hopping and talking to people. She likes to visit upscale and intimate wine bars that serve snack foods. These are popular with Japanese people who are eager to learn about foreign culture, i.e. drinking wine, so you are guaranteed to find a few people who speak English. Once a dialogue is established, they will likely offer to show you around or give you more travel tips, and it is completely safe to accept.
Don’t Make Plans
As much as you want to plan your trip in advance, allow flexibility to wander around and get lost. There are a lot of events and festivals that take place in Japan that are not advertised. Walk between train stations through quiet neighborhoods in the metropolitan and you may run into a festival with street food, temple celebrations and incredible photo opportunities. It is also a great way to see the daily way of life.
Purchase Hyper-Local Souvenirs
Wondering what to buy in Japan? Each prefecture or district in Japan is known for a specific food due to its agricultural affinity and these make for great souvenirs. Most of these are cookies or sweets with a local ingredient and it is customary to give omiyage (or travel gifts) when meeting another Japanese friend. For example, you may purchase three cheese-filled tarts from Sapporo, mentaiko (spicy salted pollock fish roe) from Fukuoka, and chinsuko (shortbread cookies) from the islands of Okinawa.
When Mathews told her family that she was going to Japan, they warned her, “It is too far and unknown. You will feel out of place.”
But that was never the case. Mathews responds, “I had no idea what to expect but learned a lot about Japan that is not obvious in guidebooks. Tokyo has a large international community with French, German and African, so race is not an issue. There are also several clubs with DJs, music performances, and karaoke bars in Tokyo frequented by African-Americans. In her final thoughts, Matthews shares, “The people are very polite and have a healthy respect for time, nature and each other. I always feel at home in Japan.”