Our trip to Japan was so different than any other vacation we have taken. We were deeply immersed in the culture because we met a lot of people and made new friends. This was all thanks to Mr. George Nakajima, Secretary General of the Japan Multiple Sclerosis Society (JMSS).
Planning for Japan started a year in advance. I contacted JMSS in April 2016 because I needed help getting into the Tokyo Marathon. The race is highly impacted like London and New York City. You can enter via lottery, join a tour group, or fundraise for a charity. George contacted the marathon organizers and pled my case to pay for a guaranteed spot, but they would not budge. So I went with a charity and ran for the Japanese Para-Sports Association. I am glad we decided to run for a charity because it turns out that 321,459 people entered the lottery and there were only 26,370 spots available! The chances for Brian and me to both get into the marathon were slim to none.
During the year, George and I exchanged over 200 emails. He helped me immensely with the logistics of travelling in Japan, and he also orchestrated several meetings for me to present my story. I do get nervous when I speak in public, but I was a lot more anxious about Japan because I have zero knowledge of the language. My sweet coworker, Kinuko Kanda, coached me a bit before leaving for my trip: good morning, hello, thank you very much, and where is the bathroom. I was even more worried because my speeches started and ended with some Japanese pleasantries because I wanted to show respect, “Konnichiwa! Minasan ni oai dekite ureshii desu. Minasan ogenki desuka? Cheryl to moushimasu. Douka Yoroshiku onegaishimasu. Arigatou gozaimasu. Kyou wa ganbarimasu.” Kinuko spoke the phrases into my iPhone and I listen to it over and over on the 13 hour flight from LA to Tokyo.
Upon arriving at Narita International Airport, we were greeted by George and a huge welcome sign! At first I was not sure if I should bow to George, shake his hand or give him a hug. I did all three and so did Brian. George did not seem to mind. After all, we were already like old friends!
We checked into our hotel in the Shinjuku prefecture at 4:00PM and by 6:00PM, Mr. Hideki Saito from Nippon TV was there to interview me! We filmed inside our tiny 194 square foot hotel room. It was cramped with 5 adults, but we had fun. “Tokyo Marathon. Ganbarimasu!” My interview aired on Saturday afternoon, the day before the marathon.
In the days leading up to the marathon, we tried to acclimate and fight jetlag by keeping busy and touring as much as we could. We visited many shrines, temples, museums, shops, prefectures and Starbucks. Yes, Starbucks. Our friend Richard Brook collects Starbucks gift cards and he has really turned us on to collecting them, too. In Japan, you cannot just take the cards for free. You have to put 1,000 yen (about $10) on the card and you can only spend the money in Japan. So, we were highly caffeinated for the trip, which may or may not have helped with jetlag. It truly was a cultural experience. The stores have different designs and artwork; they have Japanese-specific specialty drinks; and the Japanese flock to the stores, from students to business men to women clad in kimonos!