When Corey Bodoh-Creed learned he'd won the "Experience Tokyo" contest, he looked forward to a fun vacation with his wife, Jessica. What he didn't anticipate was the breadth of the memories they'd bring back home.
The couple learned about the contest through their Los Angeles Times subscription. After submitting their entry and a paragraph about why they wanted to go to Tokyo, Corey and Jessica were thrilled to find out they'd won the grand prize — roundtrip tickets from Los Angeles to Japan, four nights at the Imperial Hotel Tokyo, tickets to a sumo match and a kyogen theater performance, and dinner at the Michelin-starred Totoya Uoshin.
Although both are seasoned travelers who met while studying abroad in West Africa, neither Corey nor Jessica had previously been to Asia.
"I work in the film industry and have spent a ton of time soaking up Japan and its culture through the silver screen, but I'd always heard that Tokyo was prohibitively expensive to visit," Corey says. "This trip provided the perfect opportunity, and to dispel that rumor — Tokyo is actually more affordable than Chicago or New York."
For Corey and Jessica, other surprises included the popularity of the Metro public transportation system, and the fact that communicating with locals was easier than they'd expected.
"I only speak three words of Japanese and am terrible at charades," Corey says with a laugh. "I wouldn't say that I could've had extensive conversations in English with most people, but if we were lost or needed help ordering food, communication was easy."
While Corey and Jessica agree that five days isn't nearly enough time to fully explore all Tokyo has to offer, they did their best to take in as much Japanese culture as they could. They singled out bathing in plumes of incense smoke at the Senso-ji Temple as one of their most memorable experiences.
"We were surrounded by people coming for a blessing in the New Year — women in kimonos and plenty of tourists," Jessica describes. "You can watch how others behave and clue into the rituals to be respectful, but also see people openly letting outsiders join in their beliefs. We bought an omamori charm for luck."
A VIP kyogen (traditional Japanese comedy) theater visit was another highlight, including an introduction in English before the performance and a private backstage tour afterward from performer Tokuro Miyake the Tenth. Interestingly, Miyake is the first female kyogen performer with the name Tokuro Miyake in her clan's 380-year history.
"The kyogen theater was one of my favorite things," Jessica says. "Ms. Miyake and her family were lovely. The performance was culturally illuminating, and they were so generous with their time answering all our questions and discussing their family's 21-generation history with kyogen. We sat next to people from the Japanese Office of Foreign Affairs, and some famous Japanese television actors were behind us!"
Dinner at Totoya Uoshin was another stand-out moment for Corey and Jessica.
"The food was delicious and beautifully crafted, and the importance placed on precision and visual presentation was amazing," Corey recalls. "The progression between courses, from hot to cold and sweet to savory, was fascinating and so tasty."
Corey and Jessica also returned home with a new appreciation for ramen, udon and Japanese curry, but what they treasure most about their trip is the people they met along the way.
"The people we encountered were so kind, friendly and generous," Corey says. "Any time we needed help, it was readily provided, and everyone was so patient with us. We met an art student in Ueno Park who asked if we'd sit for him so that he could practice drawing caricatures of us. As he drew, a crowd of elderly men gathered around to watch and advise his technique."
Corey and Jessica ran out of time to do everything they wanted, especially exploring the Imperial Palace and the Meiji Shrine, dining at Sukiyabashi Jiro, learning about Japanese sword culture and getting a glimpse of some Japanese snow monkeys. Is a return trip in order? Both say absolutely.
"I'd go back to Tokyo in a heartbeat," Corey says. "I would love to spend more time just absorbing the city's energy, and watch more sumo! Right now, the city is preparing for the 2020 Olympic games, and we'd love to be there. I'm an avid sports fanatic, so that would be a dream come true."
Corey advises first-time Tokyo visitors to research the city's various districts ahead of the trip.
"Each neighborhood offers something distinctly different from the next," he says. "Ginza is great for high-end shopping, while Harajuku is geared more toward hipsters and the seriously fashion-forward. And make sure you keep an ATM card handy. Tokyo is a very cash-first culture; credit cards are accepted at some places, but not many."
Jessica suggests purchasing a Tokyo Metro pass good for 24, 48 or 72 hours, or a Japan Rail Pass that also covers the Metro for train travel.
The sights, sounds and surprises of Tokyo are sure to leave a lasting impression on visitors. For more information on what to see and do in Tokyo, please visit Go Tokyo.