After ending 2016 with an incredible trip to Southeast Asia, I had an itch to go back to Asia sooner than later. Not even five months later. Most of my recent trips, as you might know, had been to places of the world off the beaten path. Well, I thought it was time to go somewhere a bit more developed. Japan had always piqued my interest. Based on pop culture and the media, I envisioned Japan (especially Tokyo) as a fast-paced, electronic and tech hub with ancient traditions and serene landscapes.
For the first time in a while, I switched up my travel buddy, and booked a trip to Japan with my former co-worker Becca. We booked the necessities (lodging and flights), but because Japan is quite modern and easy to navigate, we didn’t put much more into planning. Lodging actually took more deliberation than usual – we had heard how small some of the hotel rooms and sleeping spaces can be (check out “capsule hotels”). These long legs were not meant to fit in many of Japan’s spaces! Literally the night before we departed, I did some quick and dirty research to have a wish list of sightseeing and landmarks prior to arriving. Also, for the first time in my international trips, I only brought a carry-on size piece of luggage, knowing that lugging a big piece of luggage around Japan would not be ideal nor easy. I’m just a tall guy trying to fit in, even if my body won’t!
April 7, 2017 – Trip to Asia, Take Two
The only thing I could think of prior to taking off was that the flight would not be as painful as the previous trip’s flight to Southeast Asia. Our flight left midday from O’Hare, headed toward Tokyo’s Narita airport. A total of 13 hours in the air, I caught up on the Academy Award-winning films that were available in-flight. The first movie I chose was “Lion,” an incredible film about an Indian kid getting lost as a child and making his way alone through India while struggling to locate help to find his home.
April 8, 2017 – Here’s a Map, Go for it!
We arrived at Narita the next day at 4 p.m. Upon arriving and going through immigration, we entered a completely new world full of character-lettered words and arrows pointing in a million directions. We wanted to take the train from Narita to Tokyo, which seemed like the most economical option. The train map looked somewhat similar to Chicago’s, with each line having a different color. We originally were in the wrong line to grab tickets and then were directed to the correct line. Inserting tickets into the turnstiles was something new I had not seen before. You are given two tickets and you insert both at the same time, and then the turnstile spits them out the other end. Every time I arrive in a new place I think, “Well, here goes nothing!” We boarded the clean, modern train and headed west on the Narita Express for about an hour. It was a dreary afternoon, but it was calming to see the Japanese countryside, full of green bushes and trees surrounding small, practical homes.
We arrived at the Ueno Park train station in northeast Tokyo, and before leaving the station, we purchased a transit card called PASMO, which would end up being our go-to for the majority of the trip. During any trip, after being on the train and coming up to ground level, you feel like a groundhog who pops up in a random place in the world. We walked toward a street full of tall buildings, where I was completely wowed with the anime/arcade ads with big Japanese-characters covering the sides of buildings. There were so many colors of lights and signs, quite different than what we see in the U.S. (outside of Times Square). After looking around a bit, we took the train to the station near our hotel, the Higashi-shinjuku station. Our hotel was quite nice, even if the room was only meant for half of me. After all, we’d spend most of our days out and about, so the room wasn’t a big deal.
One of the top things on my sightseeing list was cherry blossom trees. The trees only bloom for two to three weeks a year, usually in March and/or April. Boy, how lucky were we that we were in PRIME TIME cherry blossom season! What a great tree-t! On our way to find some dinner, we stopped and gazed at an alley full of cherry blossoms. Little did we know then that we would see countless cherry blossoms during our trip.
One thing you’ll notice in Japan is plastic fake food menus outside of restaurants. The dishes look so real, almost like the food was freshly cooked. This was extremely helpful, as we needed pictures in order to know what food we were ordering.
Shinjuku is an interesting area. It is the administrative and major commercial center of Tokyo, home to the busiest railway station in the world. It also is also home to quite the nightlife, again full of colorful signs, Japanese music and arcades. We went inside a few of the arcades to check out the types of games and unique prizes. Gave us a few chuckles, as it’s easy to get caught up in the fun.
We stopped at a delicious noodle shop called Kamukura. Most quick-eat sit-in places have a vending machine out front where you select your order, pay, and then get printed tickets to give to the chefs inside the restaurant. We had some tasty cabbage, broth and noodle soups – one of our favorite bites of the trip. On our way back to the hotel, we stumbled upon some not-as-important temples, just a small preview of what we’d see along the trip.
April 9, 2017 – Happy Birthday to Me (and the Cherry Blossoms)
It was another grey day in Tokyo, but it was my birthday! We started off the day grabbing some tea and pastries. Japan is known for its green tea matcha flavored drinks, foods and other goods. Becca loves matcha, so she got the special cherry blossom matcha latte.
Through a light drizzle, we took the train from Shinjuku to the Yoyogi stop. One thing you’ll notice in Japan is the use of clear umbrellas everywhere. It was quite rare to see a colored umbrella around the city, unless it was white. We were looking to get to Yoyogi Park and got lost, but getting lost wasn’t a bad thing, as we ran into some neat photo opps.
The north entrance to Yoyogi Park is adorned with a tall wooden gate (torii) that leads to a walkway under a tree canopy. Despite wet conditions, it was actually beautiful with the rain falling and trickling from tree to tree, lightly falling on the people below.
The walkway leads to Meiji Shrine, which is dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife Empress Shoken. The shrine itself is made from cypress wood and copper. Before entering the shrine, there’s a well to wash your hands. Inside the gates is a courtyard with a sanctuary and prayer wall. By this point, the rain was coming down pretty hard, so people were crowding under any roof they could find.
Through the southern gate entrance we saw a wall of sake barrels that were donated to the shrine. The barrels all have Japanese words on them and include some sort of design that’s familiar to Japanese culture.
Further south we ran into the Meiji Shrine Inner Garden, a huge area of precisely pruned bushes, trees and irises and also a tea house. There’s a small lake with lily pads that runs through the garden leading to Kiyomasa’s Well, a wishing well that is meant to bring positive energy. Not sure if it worked, but there was nothing to lose!
Exiting the park in the southeast corner, we entered Harajuku, a young, hip, neighborhood known for its colorful street art, fashion, funky vintage stores and high-end boutiques. We had heard of “Cat Street,” which is full of unique fashion retailers, and unfortunately has nothing to do with cats.
We were craving something other than noodles and broth, so we found this really neat barbecue joint called Smokehouse. I would say that it measured up quite nicely against American barbecue. I had a pulled pork sandwich with potato salad and some deviled eggs.
After lunch, we headed BACK to Yoyogi Park looking for some of the ever-so-popular cherry blossoms, and, boy, did we find them! The southern part of the park had so many cherry blossoms, and the rain had caused petals from the trees to cover the ground, so everything was layered in whitish-pink. There were quite a few family and friends out and about on the Sunday enjoying the fresh smell of rain and cherry blossoms.
Next, we visited an area south of Yoyogi Park called Shibuya. You might have heard of the “Shibuya Shuffle” at the Shibuya Crossing, which is a pedestrian crossing scramble, where pedestrians can walk through the entire intersection since all cars are stopped. The reason it’s so popular: it is located right near the Shibuya train station, it’s a common meeting place, and the crosswalk has become a tourist destination for its unique walking “freedom.” Becca and I took a crack at it, and it was kind of fun, but then had to scurry once the crosswalk time was ticking down!
The area of Shibuya is also identified for its large department stores. Floors and FLOORS of stores with no end in sight. Becca and I spent quite a bit of time looking around at the unique fashion trends. Japan (and Korea) are known for their beauty practices and products, so we bought a few small gifts at some beauty stores for our friends and co-workers. We also bought some facial masks for ourselves – I got a tea tree mask (I later used and felt incredible!).
A couple of unique places that are also unique to Japanese department stores: food courts and photo booths. In the U.S., eating at a department store might seem like you’re just grabbing some fast food, but the food in Japanese department stores is sought out, as there are SO many options and the food is delicious! So, back to photo booths. Yes, you’ve seen photo booths but none like the ones in Japan. It’s an experience. You walk into the booths (like walking into a dressing room), and take four snaps (mind you, with great lighting). The machine then “beautifies” your face by making your eyes sparkle and shaped like a teddy bear. Becca and I could not stop laughing once we saw the output of our photoshoot. We then customized our photos with many stickers and sayings (not sure what they meant). Overall, one of my favorite experiences (and laughs) from the trip!
Not sure if you forgot, but it was STILL my birthday. We found a Japanese restaurant nearby and had some sushi and sashimi. One unique thing about the restaurant was a button at the table to get the attention of the server. It was actually kind of nice to have the waiter come on your own terms! (hint: we should bring this to the U.S.) Overall, it was a great (agenda-packed) birthday, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way!
April 10, 2017 – All Fun & Games
The train was becoming pretty easy for us by this point. From our hotel, we traveled to Ueno Station to grab some “panda” coffees that we had read about online at Panda Cafe inside the train station. We also had a traditional breakfast for once – the Japanese don’t often eat the types of things we do (cereal, eggs, toast) for breakfast.
Across from Ueno Station we entered Ueno Park, Japan’s most popular city park. What did we find? MORE cherry blossoms! And lots of points of interest:
Kiyomizu-Kannon-do – Oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo
Yanaka Shichi Go San Shrine – building sits in the middle of Shinobazuno Pond
Pagoda of Kan’ei-ji
Ueno Tōshō-gū Shinto Shrine
After all the walking, we stopped at the Starbucks near the Tokyo National Museum and sat near the Ueno Park Fountain to people watch. One common piece of etiquette in Japan is to not eat or drink while walking. It is considered rude and low-class. With the amount of convenience and vending machines they have, you would think differently, but it’s a common practice that continues to make the Japanese and its visitors genuine to this day.
After spending a bulk of the day in Ueno Park, we headed on to Akihabara, Tokyo’s “Electric Town” where you can find an infinity of electronics, tech gadgets, gaming consoles, anime and arcades. THIS was one of the experiences I knew about Tokyo before coming that I wanted to live. Here you’ll see the giant, colorful advertisements on the sides of the skyscrapers, most of which include anime/gaming characters.
First, we checked out a popular toy vending machine store, where stacks on stacks of vending machines give visitors a lot to choose from. I found a popular cat game that my friend Robyn plays and got a cat toy from a vending machine. Becca chose another, and her gadget got stuck, so we had to ask for help to get the toy out!
I of course had to check out a McDonald’s nearby – surprisingly clean and efficient with several floors to sit and eat.
Next, we checked out one of the many anime stores – floors and floors filled with every anime character that exists and the ability to buy every trinket/book/souvenir that ever existed about said character. I even found a few anime characters that play volleyball, and there were keychains, books, and stickers galore! I ended up buying an anime volleyball keychain and a couple sport-related anime books. They are pretty neat to look through, read back-to-front of course.
It was time for the arcades – two 28-year-olds reliving their childhood one game at a time. The arcades, actually, were filled with grown-ups, most who look like they came right after work to dominate their favorite games. Becca ended up winning a stuffed koala, and just like gambling, we stopped playing once we won.
It was getting dark, so we headed back toward Shinjuku. The trains were pretty packed with locals. One thing you’ll notice in Japan is that everyone wears suits. Every guy wears a black suit with a white collared shirt. It’s almost like there’s a dress code, but everyone looks sharp!
Back in Shinjuku we ate at another vending machine order noodle shop, Tokyo Tonkotsu Noodle, a nice way to end a cool evening in the largest city in the world.
April 11, 2017 – On to Kyoto
Our first stint in Tokyo had come to a close, and we were excited to head outside the big city to Kyoto, the former Imperial capital of Japan and a place full of Buddhist temples, gardens, palaces, Shinto shrines and traditional wooden houses. We took the Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo Station. The language barrier was a bit difficult when purchasing tickets. We had to say words in the most Japanese way possible in order for the attendants to understand our slow American pronunciation of “Kyoto.” Also, Tokyo Station is insanely busy and overwhelming, but we made it to the right place to board. We bought some snacks for our 2.5 hour trip, most notably Becca’s matcha (green tea) potato chips.
Upon arriving in Kyoto, we went to our hotel prior to getting in some sightseeing. Kyoto is quite a bit smaller than Tokyo, but still pretty large in size compared to most cities. The train system is a bit simpler with two main lines (Karasuma and Tozai) and obviously less crowded. We took the train to Nijo Castle, built in 1603 as the official residence of the first shogun (military dictator) of Japan and later turned into an imperial palace. Upon entering the gate on the east, you cross a bridge over the moat that surrounds the grounds. A path then leads you to the main building of the grounds, the Ninomaru Palace.
It was again raining, so we took an inside tour of the palace. Before entering, we had to take off our shoes. We walked in our socks across the creaking wooden floors, where we could look into elevated rooms that the shogun welcomed visitors. There were incredible paintings of tigers and Japanese icons with sparkling gold. The architecture included the skinny wood panel aesthetic throughout the palace. We were not allowed to take photos of the inside.
Outside of Ninomaru Palace is the Ninomaru Garden.
Honmaru Palace, and more cherry blossoms.
We made our way back near our hotel and walked around the Nishiki Market, a five-block long market containing hundreds of shops ranging from food to clothing to souvenirs to sake. I had wanted to try some sake since it’s made from rice, so I bought a cherry blossom sake bottle, which ended up tasting incredible! Becca also got her fix of matcha at the market, with stores full of matcha teas, soaps, lotions, cleaning products, and other matcha flavored foods.
Around Nishiki market are some beautiful boutique shops. We found a beautiful place to eat called Omo Cafe, where we tested our taste buds with some adventure: octopus, prawns, quiche, and a few salads that we were unsure of the ingredients! We needed a sweet treat, so we stopped by a nearby grocery store to grab some of the crazy Japanese snacks: pocky sticks, Milky (milk-flavored hard candies), and some unknown egg-shaped candy with alien filling. It was nice to be in a more relaxed city for a change.
April 12, 2017 – The Japan Essentials: Zen, Temples, Bamboo, Geishas
Our first full day in Kyoto we spent outside of Kyoto in the far west part of the city near the Arashiyama Forest. We took the train to Arashiyama, got off, and walked through a cute village on our way to a pathway of Buddhist temples. Some were small enough to look like small homes with impeccable landscaping.
We entered the gardens and saw our first zen garden; perfectly combed and inexplicably soothing. Near the Tenryuji Temple is the Sogenchi Gardens, covered in fairytale-esque moss, bright purple and pink flowers, cherry blossoms and bonsai trees.
Next to the gardens is the famous Arashiyama bamboo forest, likely seen in your computer screensaver options or in a curated gallery of images. The height and strength of the skinny bamboo trees is quite amazing considering that they’re hollow. Through a crowded walkway, we tried many times to get the perfect photo but so was everyone else. At times I just put my phone away and enjoy the experience instead of the selfie.
After the bamboo forest we walked along a street of shops toward the Katsura River. Here we spotted a geisha sporting the elaborate kimono, white make-up and perfectly stylized hair. Mark it off the bucket list!
We did some hiking through the Iwatayama Monkey Park. It wasn’t a crazy steep hike but required a bit of our energy. At the top is a great view of Kyoto, but the main attraction is a group of about 150 wild (but somewhat tame) Japanese macaque monkeys. The monkeys will of course take food from visitors but can also turn quite nasty if bothered. It’s not advised to stare at the monkeys in the eyes, as they will feel threatened.
From the west, we headed to north Kyoto to one of my most anticipated wish list items: the Kinkaku-ji golden pavilion, a Zen-Buddhist temple that is completely covered in gold leaf. It sits nicely on a pond, surrounded by gardens and other temples.
From the golden pavilion, we walked south to the Ryoan-ji zen garden, but we didn’t make it in time before it closed. Well, then things got interesting. We waited for a bus, and then jumped on the wrong one heading west again. Then we got off, and walked toward what we thought would be a normal train. The train stop was near tracks that were overgrown with weeds, looking like an abandoned train yard from the early 1900’s. Soon enough, a clickity-clack caboose-type train rolled in. We hopped on and made it closer to home. At its last stop, we had to switch to a bus in rush hour. We weaseled our way into a jam-packed bus and found a spot in the back next to some school kids. Impressively enough, the middle-school aged kids were doing their math homework and checking their answers with each other.
We finally made it to our area, getting off at the Shijo Dori, the main commercial street of Kyoto. We walked around several places to find dinner, and we stopped in this no-shoes counter restaurant where we had delicious rice and chicken dishes with miso soup. I had no problems slurping up the soup, as a slurping sound is completely acceptable and means that you are really enjoying the dish!
April 13, 2017 – Bright Orange is the Color
Another day, another train. This time, we headed south to the famous orange torii gates called Fushimi Inari, the head shrine of the god Inari, the god of rice (which we know must be super important to the Japanese!). The shrine sits at the base of a mountain, and a path of orange gates leads you to the top of a mountain, with several shrines along the way.
The shrine itself is a bright orange with intricate woodwork. On the grounds of the shrine you’ll see wooden prayer ornaments that visitors have provided for good fortune.
The walk through the orange gates was quite crowded, and with people stopping to take pictures, it held up the flow of the walk. We walked up a bit further than most so that we could have some breathing room, which allowed us to get a decent picture of ourselves surrounded by the bright orange torii.
Next, we headed back north to Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple that sits atop the Otowa Waterfall and overlooks Kyoto. The walk up to the temple was beautiful, with several smaller temples leading the way. To the right of the pathway was a gigantic cemetery in a valley, with castle-like headstones on nearly all of the graves.
Most of the wooden Kiyomizu-dera temple was scaffolded, preparing to renovate before the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games. One tall and skinny bright orange pagoda caught my eye, again with beautiful woodwork and unique green and gold touches.
We had yet another temple on our list, this time Ginkakuji (silver pavilion), not to be confused with Kinkaku-ji, the golden temple we visited the day before. Ginkakuji, a Zen temple, is smaller in scale and grounds, but it felt more like a home tour of a house and gardens. An impeccably-combed zen garden sits near a pond at the entrance.
The garden again looked like a fairytale, with perfect moss, bonsai trees and ferns covering every square foot. Toward the end of the path, a group of Japanese school children (obviously on a field trip), asked to take a picture with me. Did they think I looked funny? Was it because of my height? Am I famous in Japan? I will never know.
We had been templed-out for the day, so we grabbed some matcha ice cream (go figure) on our way out. Right next to Ginkakuji is the Philosopher’s Path, a pedestrian walkway along a canal lined with cherry trees. With the cherry blossoms in full bloom, it was a good way to end our sightseeing in Kyoto. That evening, we switched up cuisine and had some Korean food, fondu-style.
April 14, 2017 – Tourist Trap to Local Fave
Our time in the serene, cultural and imperial city of Kyoto had ended, and we jumped back on the bullet train to Tokyo. It was a bright, sunny day for once, and on the train back, we were able to see snow-capped Mount Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan and an active volcano that last erupted in the 1700’s.
In Tokyo we switched up our hotel and stayed in Ginza, one of the upscale shopping districts of the city. Our hotel room was even smaller this time – Becca and I were stumbling over each other just to move around in the room! We dropped off our things and decided to walk around a bit. We crossed the Kachidoki Bridge over the Sumida River, where you can see the more corporate side of Tokyo – skyscrapers without the anime and arcade signs.
Instead of going to the Tokyo Skytree for an overlook view of Tokyo, we went to the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building which was free of charge and has a less crowded observation deck. From above, Tokyo looked never-ending and truly lived up to it’s no. 1 ranking in population.
Also inside the building, we saw an exhibit for the 2020 Olympic Games, a preview of what to expect in Tokyo in a few years. Based on our great experience getting around the city, we could only think how wonderful of a host city Tokyo would be.
As if we didn’t have enough time in Shinjuku earlier in the week, we returned for some bubble tea and some time to play in the arcades and for another photo booth shoot.
Before we left for Kyoto, we had made a reservation at the Robot Restaurant, a popular tourist trap in Shinjuku. It is a themed bar/restaurant featuring the wacky pop culture of Tokyo with robotic monsters, dancers and lasers. Before heading to the show, we got a drink in the lounge, where I ran into someone I knew but could not put a name to it. After a while, I realized it was the American rapper Eve and her husband Maximillion Cooper and his kids. Most people did not recognize her, but I got really excited about the celeb sighting.
The Robot Restaurant is lit up with bright lasers, lights, colors, TV’s and glitter. We headed down some stairs to the show floor and waited for the show to begin. We got a bento box meal with sushi to enjoy before the show. When the show started, crazy floats with monsters, dragons, cows?, dinosaurs and dancers came out. The creatures and floats are robotic with flashing eyeballs. I’ve never felt so confused what was going on. They were trying to create a plot line where the monster is destroyed and the protagonist wins. It was the oddest, strangest, most insane thing I’ve ever seen. When people ask, “Did you like it? Would you recommend it?”, I frankly say, “I honestly am not sure, as I’m not sure what I exactly witnessed.” If you’re open-minded, you can make a good time out of it. If not, I probably wouldn’t suggest it, since it costs a decent amount for tickets. After leaving the show with spots in my eyes, I looked to Becca and said, “What just happened?”
Next, we did something quite the opposite. There’s an area in Shinjuku comprised of six alleys called Golden Gai. It’s a part of Tokyo that has stood the test of time. The alleys are composed of taverns and counter-seated restaurants that will only fit about six people at a time. It’s one of those places where you feel like the owners prefer locals and try to avoid the tourist attention. Becca and I walked around and eased our way into a small bar where a man and his apprentice were scraping their utensils against a grill while making a chicken dish.
We took a seat on the stools and looked around. It’s the type of place where the entire operation is in sight: plates, bowls, glasses, fresh eggs, a calendar, and a bunch of paper menus (in Japanese) all jammed into the small quarters. Trying to be respectful, we did not snap pictures (however, after a while, I snuck a few just to capture the experience), and ordered some sake and chicken dishes. The sake was absolutely delicious as well as the food. Some of my favorite places look like they might have a health code violation, including this one! It was local, quaint and the opposite of the flashy, schizophrenic robot show we had just witnessed. It is one of my favorite memories from Tokyo. We even chatted with a few local businessmen who popped in and had some great laughs before leaving.
April 15, 2017 – Started a Little Fishy
Our final full day in Tokyo had arrived. Anxious to get out of our small living quarters, we went to the popular Tsukiji Fish Market, not too far from our hotel. It is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world. The market actually opens at 3 a.m., and tons of frozen tuna (and many other fish) are unloaded into the auction houses, where there is an auction around 5:30-6 a.m. The auction site has become a popular tourist destination.
Becca and I didn’t get up THAT early, but we got there early enough to see some of the packing process and to walk through the market. There are a few small eateries in the market, with lines and lines of people waiting to get in to eat the fresh seafood. I’m not a huge seafood person, but I wanted to test it out. It was a little early for me, but once we got into a shop to eat, I had worked up an appetite. I had some fresh white fish, cabbage salad, rice and miso soup to eat, while Becca had fresh prawns (eyes and everything!). I will admit that it tasted so fresh and had so much flavor.
We walked back to our hotel before setting out to see the Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest temple and popular for the small shops that lead the path to the Buddhist site. As expected, we were pretty “templed out” by this point, but we found some neat gifts in some of the shops to bring back with us.
Back to Ginza, where we browsed the high-end stores on a street that is completely open to pedestrians. One of my favorite stores was a stationary store that had everything imaginable in terms of notebooks, pens, organizing. Ginza was a nice segue back to the Magnificent Mile in Chicago.
April 16, 2017 – Sayonara, Japan!
The next day, we began our trip back to the U.S. This flight was not a direct flight, so we had to fly through Beijing before going back to Chicago. We got to Beijing, no problem, however, we sat in Beijing quite a while until able to fly due to pollution and low visibility. Many in-flight movies (and naps) later, we arrived back in Chicago safe and sound.
Japan is probably the most impressive place I’ve been. Tokyo, the biggest city in the world, is so well organized that it doesn’t feel overwhelming (at least to me). They have processes down to a t, as seen through what I’ve written above: world-class transit, vending machines for restaurants, great signage and informed citizens. As for the people of Japan, they are the most respectful, calm and quiet society I have witnessed. For the size of cities we visited and with the jam-packed trains, you’d expect people to be pushy, annoyed and loud at times, but I never saw that. The modern aesthetic to Japan might be second only to New York City, but it’s so impressive how much technology and engineering has gone into its city planning. (Oh and I forgot to mention the toilets. There are more remote control buttons on the toilet seat than on your TV remote!) In contrast to the high tech environment, I’m equally amazed by the preservation of culture on the island seen through Buddhism, Zen, temples, artwork, gardens and even the cherry blossoms.
Head to Japan. I know you’ll be impressed.