Why did I want to go to Japan exactly? I’m not totally sure. I’ve been a big fan of Japanese culture (books, design, music, movies, tv shows, whatever I could get my hands on), but I’m not sure how that translates into visiting the country. I guess I wanted to see it first hand what living there is like. But when I’ve built up this idea over decades of what Japan is only from media, I wondered if I’d experience Paris Syndrome (a real condition many Japanese experience after visiting Paris and becoming depressed because it’s not this magical place they’ve romanticized).
When it came to deciding where in Japan we wanted to visit, I initially thought more countryside and less big city but we decided to stay partly in Tokyo and partly in Kyoto. Big cities always confuse me because they seem like a great place for business and shopping but what else do you do? We usually visit the great outdoors and national parks on our vacations because in my head, there’s only so much shopping and expensive food I can take.
That said, Tokyo blew me away and I can’t wait to tell you more about it as you read along.
First Leg: Tokyo
Tokyo is busy. Like, real busy. Endless amounts of people flow in and out of the subways and streets like water in a stream and it’s easy for a tourist who doesn’t know where they’re going to end up a rock in that river. Unlike car traffic where there’s blinkers and horns, you have to just jump back into the stream of people the best you can to keep moving and hope you don’t step on anyone. Funnily enough, I never stepped on or bumped into anyone. Somehow it all just works, even with people staring at their phones and not paying total attention to what they’re doing.
Getting Around: The subway stations, while at first felt overwhelming, became fun to ride and navigate. In a place like Florida where public transportation only really exists in Disney, you come to love the convenience of being able to get anywhere you want reliably and quickly without a car. I wouldn’t know where you would even park if you did have a car. The city is meant to be walked because there are stores and restaurants around every corner.
Did I say walk? We walked. A lot. I learned the Japanese word for band-aid (bando eido). My pre-trip training of walking Ory everyday for an hour or so didn’t compare to what we would be walking in Tokyo. We crashed hard every night after whining about our feet and shoulders then repeated the process day after day. And it was great. I’m already missing it. Staying in motion like that is a real high especially when you work a desk job and rarely get to travel the entire year.
Best part of our trip: The highlight of the whole trip was meeting my Flickr friend Akiko and her family. They took an entire day in the middle of the week to show us all around—and I mean all around—Tokyo. We went to Sensō-ji temple where we learned what exactly to do when you visit a temple (praying, washing hands, incense, fortunes, etc.) and enjoyed seeing all of the different people visiting this beautifully huge shrine in Asakusa. We did kingyo sukui (that fair game where you try to scoop up goldfish with a paper net), ate kibi dango (another classic Japanese street snack I’d wanted to try), and ate nearly everything they had to offer at a small yakitori shop outside of Ikebukuro somewhere way out that we would have never found ourselves.
Akiko and her husband Jun love photography which is how we initially became friends on Flickr. We both photographed with the Pentax K100D and there were’t a lot of people using that camera at the time. She helped me a lot in learning how to take photos. But she’s also a full-time graphic designer like myself so we’ve always enjoyed sharing our work and talking despite small language gaps.
At the end of the day, they asked if we’d like to see the giant Unicorn Gundam statue in Odaiba (Diver City) the following Friday afternoon and it was such a terrific surprise. By car, we went over Rainbow Bridge, which I asked if it was like Rainbow Road on Mario Kart and I made her teenage son laugh a little. Jun and I bonded over movies and music and have committed to go karaoke the next time we visit. Akiko and her daughter taught Lucy how to fold origami swans and boxes during our first dinner and we all watched the Unicorn Gundam light show and the sunset looking over Rainbow Bridge and all of Tokyo in wonderful weather.
I was genuinely sad to say goodbye. We had such a great time meeting for the first time, it was like we had all been friends forever. It’s something you don’t always get to do when you visit another country—to share authentic experiences and spend time with people you truly like. I had told them forever that we’d visit one day and I’m just happy to have really done it except I wish they were closer so we could hang out more often now!
Food: Oh, the food! We weren’t even eating at Michelin star restaurants. The first night, we ate yakiniku (grilling meat over an open flame) by purchasing a ticket through a vending machine then cooking our own meat. We didn’t really quite know what we were ordering as the menu was in kanji but we managed the entire trip. Akiko and Jun shared takoyaki with us (fried balls with octopus inside, much better than it sounds to Western ears) and this delicious teppanyaki noodle dish mixed with okonamiyaki.
Next to our hotel was a little bakery we’d eat at in the mornings sometimes and I was really surprised at the amount of small bakeries on the entire trip. We also had milk ice cream (yes, I know all ice cream should be made from milk, but it wasn’t vanilla flavored like most ice cream I’ve eaten). Japanese dairy in general had a slightly different flavor than ours, a really good flavor.
And despite what sounds like a lot of eating, we lost weight on the trip. Whether it was the walking, stair climbing, and sweating our butts off or a better quality of food, we somehow dropped pounds. I was always thankful for the ever-present vending machines because we were drinking countless bottles of water during the day. (It would be nice to have public water refilling stations for reusable containers, though, like in Yellowstone. Too much plastic waste.)
People Watching: I couldn’t get enough of people watching. Not the wacky stuff in Shibuya but the everyday street styling of the people racing around the city. People looked so effortlessly elegant like out of a movie. A-line skirts and high-waisted cotton pants were everywhere. It wasn’t about the brands, either. It was the fit of the clothes, the patterns and colors, that made the style.
Now, some areas like Ginza, people were brand battling, but I didn’t notice it as heavily in the parts we were in. It was about looking good, something that you don’t see in Florida (maybe in South Florida, but nowhere up here). I could always spot tourists a mile away if I saw bare shoulders or shorts. Even in warmer temperatures, people still wore long-sleeved shirts, suits, and long pants. It was like living my favorite magazine, Tokyo Graffiti.
Our Temporary Residence: We stayed at the Hotel Sunroute Takadanobaba, a minute walk from the Takadanobaba Station and next to lots of stores and restaurants. As some of you might have read about the fiasco with our AirBnB reservations right before we left, we were happy to find this hotel that was in our price range and centrally located.
It’s a student-heavy area where several colleges and schools are located but it made the area feel lively and fun. I think in the states, I’d be slightly nervous in an area I’m describing but everyone is very polite and respectful. The students would hang out in this circle next to the station in the evenings and just stand around talking, drinking coffee and soda, looking at their phones. If it were America, I would be expecting a fight to break out any minute or someone to be acting out drunk.
The night we got to the hotel, we realized after a little bit that we had gotten put in the smoking floor but we were so exhausted after 28 or so hours of traveling without sleep that we said screw it and just stayed put. The room is smaller than what we normally get in the states but it didn’t bother me. The beds were plenty spacious and firm (again, I didn’t mind that at all) and we were supplied after-bath long pajama shirts. The bathroom had a tall step you had to take and while I fit into it without having to duck, I imagined my cousins hunched over trying to use the facilities. Oh, the tall step—the reason I mention it is if you wake up in the middle of the night, you will quickly remember that step up even if you had previously forgotten it. Plus, if your knees are in pain from the amount of stairs you’re walking up and down during the day, you feel that big step to get in there. It was slightly odd but memorable.
The hotel staff was very helpful and pleasant and for how long we were actually in the room each day, it was the perfect choice. I would totally stay there again.
QUICK AREA REVIEW
Shinjuku: Busy but lots of great shopping and people watching plus a free city lookout at the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building.
Asakusa: An older part of the city with lots of history and the must-see Senso-ji Shrine.
Ginza: Expensive, big streets, big brands but kind of soul-less.
Akihabara: Yodobashi-Akiba department store was fun to just play with every current camera and lens available that I would never otherwise get to see.
Ebisu: Hipster middle-aged vibe, lots of moms with babies and young families, beautiful boutiques and shops everywhere—very enjoyable place.
Yoyoji Park: A beautiful reprieve in the middle of the city’s bustle with so much to see, you could easily spend a day there alone.
Shibuya: Despite it being very busy and loud, great place for people watching and street photos.
Odaiba: Slightly touristy but the view of Tokyo Bay, the Rainbow Bridge, the Gundam statue, and more make you understand why it’s so visited by tourists.
Takadanobaba: This is where we stayed our whole trip, two stops from Shinjuku station. It’s a bit of a college-student area but I loved that we felt like we were in the middle of everything and only a minute away from the subway station. Plus, saying Takadanobaba is incredibly fun.
Second Leg: Kyoto & Nara
The old capital of Japan, about two hours and forty minutes by bullet train southwest of Tokyo, is one of the most visited areas in Japan because of it’s history and famous shrines. More cars, more motorcycles and scooters, and more conservative in style. Even though the city was large in its own way, it felt geared towards tourists more than locals. The slower side of Japan appeared in the moments we were lost and left the heavily tourist-visited places.
Getting Around: Coming from Tokyo where the subway was our best friend, Kyoto was easier traveled by bus. We bought day passes for $6 each so we could jump off and on wherever we were going. We got lost a few times because Google Maps doesn’t do a great job of leading you where the actual bus stops are. We stood in front of a house once with two other guys from Kansas waiting for the bus because that’s where Google Maps told us the stop was. We then found out it was up the road and across the street. We only used the subway to get to Kyoto Station where we used the JR line to get to Nara and back to Narita airport. Otherwise, it wasn’t nearly as convenient and unless you buy a day pass, it’s quite expensive.
Shrines, Temples, and more Shrines!
This is the reason most people are visiting Kyoto. I’ll be completely honest: I’m not big into touristy places. I live in the tourism capital of the US and you see how unauthentic a place can become when it serves mainly tourists. It breeds a lack of culture and one of service to its visitors. With all of that said, I get why people want to visit the temples here.
It was hot and humid every day we were in Kyoto so after burning out in the sun the first day, we tried to time our excursions to the temples early and then hit the museums and city later in the day.
I’ll just give a quick review of the temples and shrines we visited in order of our favorites:
- Kiyomizu Dera: We went early in the morning and walked up the tall streets that lead to the temple. You want to beat the tour busses that will come around 9 AM as you can’t quite experience the peacefulness of the temple and its grounds. Kiyomizu Dera is known best for its beautiful view of Kyoto. There’s several smaller trails around the temple where we saw huge bushes of hydrangeas and moss-covered grounds. Underneath the main hall, we drank from the Otowa river where it splits into three streams where each stream supposedly gives you good luck in either longevity, love, or knowledge. We both drank from the knowledge stream.
- Fushimi Inari Taisha: Again, early morning or late evening is key as it’s one of the busiest tourist destinations in Kyoto. I had heard about the thousand red torii (those beautiful vermillion gates) as it’s become a visual staple of Japan with photographers. If you wait too long to get there, the paths of these torii become filled with visitors and you will never get a clear shot of them without people obstructing the view. It really is something to behold in person. Now, the thing I didn’t know is that this is an uphill hike up a mountain. It can take quite a while to go up as the maps are slightly deceiving on site. I loved all of the fox (kitsune) statues in front of the gates, along side paths, and in other random places around Fushimi Inari.
- Tōdai-ji: I’m just lumping this one in here even though it’s in Nara and the rest are in Kyoto. The size of Great Buddha Hall at Tōdai-ji is fairly amazing. Akiko told me all the students visit there and we definitely saw lots of school groups getting their photos taken in front of the great hall. In the hall itself is this nearly 50-feet tall bronze Buddha statue, the largest of its kind. It’s spectacular seeing it in person. The bonus is that it’s next to Nara Park where all the deer hang out with the troves of tourists pouring into the heavily visited site.
- Ginkaku-ji: The Silver Pavilion, beats out The Golden Pavilion for me because of its more relaxing walking trail and garden. There’s also a popular place outside of it, The Philosopher’s Trail, that lots of people recommend but we didn’t have the chance to walk it.
- Kinkaku-ji: The Golden Pavilion, this is one of the more known temples in Kyoto because of it’s gold leaf-coated three-story pavilion. The zen garden surrounding it with its beautiful ponds are interesting but I’m not sure it ranks up in things I ever needed to see. Just being completely honest.
Food: The food we ate in Kyoto was as good, if not better, than what we had in Tokyo even though we had to search quite a bit sometimes for something that wasn’t either fast food or overly expensive.
The first thing I want to mention is that our hotel had a magazine in the lobby about all of the bakeries in Kyoto. I didn’t realize how many bakeries were going to be in both Tokyo and Kyoto and I wholly support them. The first day riding the bus, I had us turned around and we went way off the path and hopped off in front of this little boulangerie, Grandir. We had the best accidental breakfast there during the whole trip. I could have eaten everything in the place. I’ll be dreaming of it for years to come.
Another last minute find (we got there about 20 minutes before they closed for lunch), Tiger Gyoza Hall had some of the best gyoza we’d ever eaten and delicious yakisoba. It was filling food after a morning and afternoon of hardly eating anything. We went back a second time because we liked it so much.
Our Temporary Residence: Like in Tokyo, our AirBnB reservations were cancelled so I quickly found an affordable option near downtown Kyoto called Laon Inn Karasuma Ebisugawa. A much bigger room with a kitchenette, washing machine, and even a waterproof TV over the soaking tub, this place exceeded our expectations. I slept so well there the entire time and the facilities were great. The management always greeted us upon leaving in the mornings and helped with any questions before going out. Modern lock boxes for the keys and remotes for lights and the air conditioning were nice touches. I can’t say enough good things about it. It’s only a short walk from both the Marutamachi subway station and a few bus stops. Next door to it is a wagyu (Kobe) beef restaurant that we never found time to try but looked delicious. There’s also several convenience stores and a Kyoto Co Op grocery barely a block from it. I couldn’t recommend it enough. We really lucked out. (P.S. If you do book it or anything else on Booking.com, use this referral link to get $25 bucks off.)
Half-day Trip to Nara: If you’ve ever seen photos online of people feeding small deer who bow politely to ask for food, that’s probably in Nara. There are hundreds of these small wild deer roaming Nara Park where vendors sell stacks of crackers to feed them for $1.50. It looks so quaint and cute in the photos so I really wanted to go see them. What they don’t show is the deer trying to eat your clothing and items in your purses and backpacks like a bunch of goats. What they can’t show you is the smell of a petting zoo with deer scat all over baking in hot and humid June weather. I know it sounds like I’m not recommending it, but I did enjoy it. I just want to show both sides.
There were several young couples in their rented kimonos and geta (wooden shoes) walking around with the deer, tourists running away from them with crying children terrified of the friendly forest creatures, and groups of school kids dodging the deer pellets making their way to Tōdai-ji. Nara looked like it had much more to do but we were short on time and had to head back after several hours exploring the area around the park.
Museums & Shopping: When I booked our hotel, I noticed the Kyoto International Manga Museum was a block away from our place so I couldn’t not go, right? The museum is in a beautiful building, three stories high, stacked wall to wall with manga for visitors to read. Each floor had a few different exhibitions both in Japanese and English. One room had plaster casts of different manga artists hands holding their pens or pencils with a drawing of theirs next to it. It was weirdly interesting. I have to admit, though, I wish there were more interviews, original drawings and process documents. They had two exhibitions showing this kind of thing and it was the most interesting part—I just wanted more of it.
The first night in Kyoto, we walked to Gion from our hotel attempting to see a geisha as noted in every guide book even though it felt really odd to me. On the way through some smaller streets, we ran across a used book and print sale in a orangish modern building that ended up being The Museum of Kyoto. I originally wanted to go to some flea markets and thrift stores while there but hadn’t come across any so it was nice finally finding one.
Lastly, I just have to note how nice the bookstore Maruzen in the basement of BAL Kyoto. Basement makes it sound small but it’s bigger than most bookstores I’ve been to with an amazing selection of art and photo books I’ve hadn’t seen anywhere else on the trip. Maruzen is one of Kyoto’s oldest bookstores that had closed down a while back but came back with the help of BAL. It’s also a nice place to get out of the suffocating flow of tourists flooding the sidewalks down Kawaramachi Dori road.
As I’ve been writing, it’s dawned on me that it’ll take a while for me to fully process everything I’ve really taken from this trip. There’s a lot of things that I couldn’t really fit into the format that I wrote this so I wanted to just jot a few things that I wanted to note just to have it documented.
• I loooved speaking the little Japanese I know. The day we arrived, I was too timid to use any (plus there weren’t many opportunities to) but by the second day, I tried using it more and more. Spending time with Akiko and Jun helped so much, learning new words and understanding where you use certain words and if I was mispronouncing them.
• Renting the Fuji X100F instead of lugging my Canon 5D and lenses was the best choice for this fast-moving trip. I wrote up a little review if you’re interested!
• Walking Ory an hour or so a day for the past few months did not prepare me for how much we’d be walking on this trip. Buying good walking shoes was definitely worth the investment.
• Mustard and navy are totally in.
• I can eat melon-flavored anything. I need to figure out how to incorporate it more when I cook.
• Randomly hearing songs I knew in places was fun. At this yakitori restaurant we ate at with Akiko and Jun, this song “Innocent World” by Mr. Children came on and I nudged Lucy and was like, “Whoa, we know this song!” Then the following Friday, Jun put on a CD in the car that we both knew and I told them the next time we visited, we have to go karaoke.
• I can wear a shirt from Target and no one else will be wearing the same thing as me there. I could quickly spot all the people who shopped at Uniqlo.
• Getting the pocket wi-fi was definitely worth the price as Google Maps and looking up places on the go helped more than I can tell you.
…and a few more photos that didn’t quite fit into the rest of my post. Please comment if you actually read it and let me know what you think or if you have any requests for additional information on traveling to Japan for the first time. Thank you so much for reading!