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Sending Your 21 Year Old to Japan for Six Weeks: Inspiriation and Idiocy…The Perfect Learning Experience!

My twenty-one year old son, Zack,  a Media Production major at University of Colorado, Boulder, with a minor in Japanese, just returned from spending six weeks in Japan.  It was definitely an experience that has changed him and his perspectives about himself, culture, cuisine, travel and the world.

It also was a roller coaster of incredible insight coupled with the follies of a pea-brain college kid doing what they do best.

You all know that my family has been raised traveling the world and, when doing so, assuring that our experiences are the most important things (rather than ticking off boxes – “Been There. Done That”).  It is, of course, also where one finds the most  fun…and Zack’s plan was to fully immerse himself. And that he did!

Childhood Obsession Turns to Inspiration

You may ask, “Why Japanese? Why Japan?”  Well, it started when Zack was maybe 4 or 5 years old with Pokémon television shows, toys, and cards (How much money was spent on this stuff?);  Sonic the Hedgehog (the Sega video games);  Yu-Gi-Oh cards and games (Oh, how I hated all those cards…and the money spent on them); Tamagochi (“Dad, we have to get home because I forgot my egg and its going to die if I don’t – electronically – feed it soon.)   Even, believe it or not, My Little Pony (Don’t ask!). Cartoon Network was (and maybe still is) filled with related shows. Believe it or not, all of these “children’s” things are, in fact, Anime.

And then it developed – not beyond, but more complexly – into adult Anime. And that led to media production. And, as Zack enters his senior year, the question is:   Where will it next lead to?

But wait:  What the heck is Anime? I will let Zack’s video (which he created and narrates) explain it better.  Trust me, this will give you a real understanding of Anime…and the heart behind this trip.
To the uninitiated Anime is basically a compilation of cartoons and comic book-like magazines (manga) that balance between fantasy and real life social interactions, soft porn and science fiction. For those truly invested in Anime it is almost a lifestyle…and a lifestyle that is wholly embraced in Japan far beyond the multi-billion dollar business it is here in the United States and now exceeds $18,000,000,000 in Japan.

The intended educational foundation of this adventure was Zack taking a six week Japanese course at Sophia University in Tokyo.  Zack did the research on the program, found an inexpensive Airbnb, figured out the Tokyo train system, saved what he thought would be enough money (you know there is a story coming about that!) and I took care of tuition and airfare…and his rescue cat, Niko.

Fortunately, a friend of Zack’s would be in Tokyo from time to time, so he would have both a friend and a karaoke partner for a bit.

The Education of Zack:
Not How You Think!
With all the excitement, nerves and anticipation that can be expected of a young adult heading to a truly foreign country that has little reliance on English to live and learn for six weeks, Zack boarded a United 787 Dreamliner with Dad putting him in Premium Economy in a coveted bulkhead seat.  He was thrilled…right up until the last minute boarding of a woman with two children and a crying infant who sat down next to him.  Welcome to international travel with the Goldrings!
Fortunately his bags arrived with him at Tokyo’s Haneda International Airport (remember this…somebody has to!) as did the car and driver I arranged to meet him and take him to his modest, but highly rated, accommodations. 
Zack entered his Airbnb room complete with a bed, small table and chairs, tiny kitchen and air conditioning; all in a good location.  And then…Zack started getting sick.  Was it something he caught on the plane?  Nope.  It was the disgusting room. His highly rated Airbnb room was a biohazard!  His bed was stained yellow (among other stains) and his air conditioner was filled – literally filled – with black mold.  It took Airbnb three days to agree to, and then to actually, relocate Zack to a nice room.  (Note:  Because Airbnb cancelled Zack’s original stay with no charge it was impossible for him to leave any negative feedback, so watch out for those glowing reviews!)
Then the Japanese course at Sophia University was not as promised.  Zack was put in Level 2, but it was hard to believe there was a Level 1 because nobody in that class spoke any Japanese and Zack – after three years of college Japanese – could converse.  After much negotiation and testing Zack Sophia University agreed Zack should be in Level 3.  But the Level 3 teacher didn’t.  After “You are in.  No you are not” over a three day period he was in…and then the teacher (sensei) engaged in what is a very normal Japanese technique:  Harass and Insult.  (“Are you a special needs student?” “Does University of Colorado give you extra help?”  Meanwhile Zack has a 3.3 GPA.)

And then reality set in:  Level 3 was filled with Chinese students with only four Americans, so it was more like Level 5…and the Chinese students were absolutely fine with eight hours of homework a night and on the weekends.  (Welcome to an international difference in educational approach.) This would leave Zack with no time to actually interact with Japan…not what was represented and totally unacceptable!  I could have insisted that Zack deal with the course, but the issue was not a few college credits, or the money spent on the course, but rather getting the most out of his six weeks in Japan.

It was, alas, time for Plan B.  If Zack was going to actually learn more Japanese and truly experience the country, a classroom at a disorganized and chaotic “university” wasn’t where that was going to happen.  Time to travel “Goldring Style”!  Time to dive in!

  • A giant Pokémon store
  • Karaoke…the drunker the better
  • Video Arcades doling out playing cards (adult versions of Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, etc. cards)
  • Local bars.
  • Ramen joints
  • Bubble Girls (don’t ask!)
  • Tokyo Tower
  • Jammed trains in the mornings
  • Cocktails at the local convenience store
  • Cheap sushi restaurants
  • Japanese steaks
  • Convenience store egg sandwiches
  • Rice balls

Zack dove right in and loved it all.  And, of course, I eventually got that phone call that every parent knows is coming:  “Dad, things are more expensive here than I anticipated.  Can you help me out?”

I have said for years that Zack has a better palate that I do.  It is fascinating and, of course, a source of pride.  I mean I can’t teach him how to recognize and enjoy flavors, but I guess I can genetically pass them on.  Zack spent a good bit of time(‘err um, money) experiencing Japanese beef.  I haven’t really figured out why, but it seems to be his culinary sweet spot.  But then again, he also likes Japanese pork.

He found Yaro-ramen Akihabara, which became his favorite ramen restaurant; a great place for tasty and relatively inexpensive food.

A highlight came by way of a telephone call (we use Viber for no cost international calling) when Zack found his culinary nirvana,  Shinagawatei in Shinjuku.  He walked into this small old restaurant with only a few seats and wooden menus hanging with no English spoken.  His choices:  Order off a menu or let the chef decide.  You know what option he went for…I mean he is my son!


Chef’s Choice…of course!

One thing Zack found out about  before departing is the Japanese Rail Pass, which is only available to purchase outside of Japan.  Rail travel in Japan is expensive, but this brings it into the “almost reasonable” range with a three week unlimited pass costing US$525.00 including all fees and taxes. 

With this Zack first traveled on the Shinkansen (bullet train) to Osaka to explore as, well, a twenty one year old on the loose would.  For me Osaka was OK.  Dotonburi Street is a bit of touristic culinary and cultural fun with Takoyaki, dough balls with a bit of octopus in the middle, the classic street food in Osaka.

After sampling some food, Zack found a bunch of Hawaiians and one Canadian (obviously present to apologize for the rest of the group!) who hit the local bars.

Zack got into his head that sleeping in one of those capsule hotels would be cool and a great way to save money over a regular hotel room.  For something like US$35 Zack stayed in what I consider to be a coffin.  Just thinking about it gets me nervous.

A Capsule Hotel
If you are claustrophobic,: YIKES!

While at the time (drunk and then hungover) he said it was kind of cool, in retrospect…and when faced with doing it a second time…Zack opined that if he wasn’t drunk he couldn’t do it again.  Just in case you want to try it!

It was then back to Tokyo for something Zack had planned for a very long time:  Getting a Tattoo.

Zack’s Japanese Tattoo

Apparently Zack’s chosen tattoo artist is in very high demand, so Zack made his appointment long before he left for Japan and the day…and it would be a full eight hour day…was nearly upon him.  He was nervous for days prior.  The design came in and it was truly a piece of Anime art.  But would it be what Zack wanted?  Would it come out like the design?  Heck, how bad would it hurt?

I was relegated, as a dad, to “There is nothing I can do about this.”  (Oh, there was.  Of course it was more expensive than Zack planned, so I could contribute funds!).   

In the end, for Zack it was well worth it and it is perfect.  What am I gunna say?  What I will say is that from my perspective (and leaving the whole tattoo issue aside), it was probably money far better spent than on the Anime figures and further reliving his childhood with buying more souvenirs.
After a day of recovery, Zack was off to Kyoto.  As his guide was my article from my 2015 visit there:  Goldring Travel Experiences Azamara Club Cruises in Asia – Is it Amazing? Part VIII (Doing It On Your Own – Part B – Kyoto – Why You Can’t Rely Only On Guidebooks or TripAdvisor!).  Zack arrived to heavy rains, which clearly put a damper on his first afternoon/evening, but he did venture out a bit.  I did spoil him a little, not forcing him into another capsule hotel, with a last minute US$100 rate room at the Crown Plaza ANA Kyoto. (Zack enjoyed having just a bit of alone time; away from his landlord and with a full size bed, shower, television, etc.)
The next day he went to the famous Shinto Shrine:  Fushimi Inari Taisha.  While he enjoyed it, and the bamboo forest located at its rear, the site was overwhelmed with Chinese tourists.
Zack was determined to then find Kamagawa Takashi, where I had dined in 2015.  It specializes in Ohmi beef (considered the Rolls Royce of Wagu and supposedly what was served to the Imperial family).  I had, I guess foolishly, told Zack that if he was short on time he could skip it.  I was strongly rebuked, with Zack later telling me that it was worth the trip to Kyoto just for this lunch.  Why?

As Zack explains it, he was the only patron at lunch, so he received personalized service.  In fact, because he speaks enough Japanese he had conversations with the chef, who basically spoke no English, and it created a once-in-a-lifetime experience!  As the chef prepared each dish they would chat.  The chef would try to say a few words in English and Zack would assist him.  Quite a nice bonding time.

And then there was the cuisine!  Remembering Zack’s tour of Japanese beef, and his general love for beef, he left emphatically declaring that Kamagawa Takashi’s Ohmi beef was the best beef he has ever eaten anywhere.  A culinary life experience for sure!

Afterward Zack headed to the Manga Museum loaded with these Japanese comic books filled with graphics; some focused on adults and others more appropriate for children.  It is considered a very important cultural art form.  It was then back to Tokyo for Zack’s last days.

Wait!  Where Did My Brain Go?  
(And I Was Doing So Well)

Zack’s last last days should remind us all, no matter what a fantastic traveler a twenty one year old may be; no matter how scholastically smart they are; no matter how responsible they have been over five weeks of independent living in Japan, they have pea-sized brain that will eventually take over! 

With three nights to go, Zack was in one of the video arcades drinking and playing games.  All seemed well until he realized that he lost his wallet.  You know the wallet with all of his money (his last yen for this trip), his ATM card, his driver’s license and even the key to his room at his apartment in Boulder, Colorado.  Don’t ask me why all of that was in his wallet while sitting in an arcade in Tokyo, but it was.

And he now found himself nowhere near where he lived, his train pass was without enough funds, he was broke and had no access to cash.  Oh, what to do?  Well, that is easy:  Call Dad!  (At least he hadn’t lost his phone and he still had his passport…which he needed to keep with him at all times.)  So at 2:00 AM Lake Tahoe time, Dad (that would be me!) wired him money via Western Union so he could get to his AirBnb and ride out the last two days.

Oh, but Zack wasn’t done!  Not by a long shot. 
Zack was flying on a mileage ticket, so his flights weren’t the best:  Tokyo Haneda to Osaka on ANA, then United to San Francisco and then on to Reno for a few days with me to recover and pick up Niko, his cat, before returning to Boulder, Colorado.  (For a Goldring that is pretty normal, though it can seem a bit much to the average traveler.)  Being a good dad, I upgraded him again to Premium Economy a bulkhead seat right next to Business Class, so there is virtually no chance of a repeat of the crying baby ordeal on the long flight over.
But then…I get a panicked call the night before he is leaving.  The cost of the Uber ride from the Airbnb to the airport is not going to be US$40 as planned, but US$230.  I mention that the private car I got him on arrival cost less than that, so he should recheck it.  He spoke with his landlord, who suggested taking the train, because it is less expensive and faster…but Zack spent all his Western Union cash (as Uber is hooked to his PayPal account). So I have to make another Lake Tahoe late night purchase, this time for two more days at this Airbnb so that the landlord can give Zack cash for his ride to the airport.  You following this???
At this point I am wondering if Zack will ever find his other brain or just stick with the pea-sized one.  So in his morning I am checking to be sure everything is packed up:  All chargers.  His passport.  His phone.  All cables.  His other brain.
He takes an Uber to the train and all seems OK.  I text him and he says he is about 15 minutes from Tokyo’s Narita Airport.  Narita!?  Zack is flying out of Haneda…the same airport his flew into.  You know the airport that is clearly written on his eTicket, the United app and the confirming emails…all sitting on his phone and computer.  (And it is an express train, so he can’t get off until he gets to Narita.)
Now we have two issues:  Getting him to Haneda to make his first flight, as there are no other options out of either airport to get him to Osaka in time to make his United flight; and, there are no efficient transfers from Narita to Haneda airports.  Solution:  Spend another US$240 for a one hour plus Uber ride to race him to Haneda.

Fortunately, he made it…just in time.  Glad I made him leave early for the airport…and Haneda is much smaller than Narita.  Fortunately there was no drama from there on in.

Now Zack is safely back in Boulder, Colorado with his new driver’s license, ATM card, key to his room, and a few bucks in is pocket…and is back at his part-time job.

What Does All This Mean?

Zack’s experience has made me think about a few things.  I know there are parents that believe television is evil and allowing children to obsess on this or that is a bad thing.  Heck, I admit cursing Pokemon and its brethren either after watching hours of it with Zack, dealing with crying when his “most important” card was damaged, stepping on one of those ^&(*% toys or realizing how much money was spent on those things.

But the reality is they were (and, I guess, remain) stepping stones and inspiration for Zack in his intellectual and emotional growth whether it be his appreciating and embracing other cultures, his understanding the complexity of the human psyche, his story telling abilities, or his Media Production.

And, of course, Zack is now officially an independent World Traveler!

Now, all he needs, entering his senior year of college is that brain that got him to Japan.  (I’m sure he’ll find it, if he hasn’t already.)

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Waves We’ve Made

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