After experiencing a cat café, David and I decided we had to experience an owl café. For about $20 you can spend an hour hanging out with a variety of owls. You can pet them – gently, on the head only – and hold them or set one on your shoulder. I held a little one, and put one of the big ones on my shoulder. It’s one of those (many) experiences I’ve found that can’t be captured in pictures, but I certainly tried!
David and I woke up early to see the Ghibli Museum, but it was closed! That’ll teach us to plan ahead. It’s closed every Tuesday (the day we went), and you have to buy advance tickets too. So we checked on tickets but they were sold out for the week. I was really bummed out as this was the one main thing that I wanted to see in Japan; the rest was just free exploration.
Walking back to the subway, David decided to look up Cat Cafés and there was one only a few blocks away featuring exotic cats. Let me just say that an afternoon with cats quickly erased any disappointment about the missed Museum visit.
I know that’s not the most profound statement, but it’s probably the most appropriate.
I’ve wanted to go to Japan since at least my teen years, but until recently it was a vague goal of mine — I’ll be there some day. With a new job in New York and a couple of interested friends (Chris and David), I was finally able to save for and plan a two-week trip to Japan.
I’m going to skip the beginning. Suffice it to say that it took a while to find currency and then transport to our hotel for the first night. Oh yeah, and I’m not even counting the first night in Japan… that was just bizarre channel surfing and passing out at 4am.
First full day
David and I checked out of the Metropolitan Hotel Tokyo at noon, left our luggage in the lobby, and began wandering Ikebukuro — the neighborhood. We had a few hours before the apartment we rented would be ready, so we walked in no particular direction, in search of no particular thing, and discovering everything. Literally everything is interesting, stimulating, and new to me. It’s so much that I don’t know where to begin.
A palpable air of etiquette weighs over me in every circumstance. Oddly enough, my best reference is that of visiting my grandparents. They were the sweetest, kindest people, but you definitely knew to be very polite and respectful. It’s the same in Japan. No one asks me to act a certain way, and there isn’t even a hint of an admonishing glance when I may be less than polite, but know very well to be on my best behavior. Buying some snacks at a 7-11 is an awkward exchange of bowing my head excessively, presenting my money, receiving change as though it’s a special gift, and saying ありがとう as I bow out.
For the first time in my life I am a distinct minority. It feels like the city is 99% ethnically Japanese. I notice one white person in a shop and she immediately stuck out. After using the bathroom and seeing myself in the mirror, I had this instant self judgement of “oh wow you are so white.” I have never felt that before and I’m immensely grateful to Japan for giving me this context and experience. In Spain for a year I felt just like another person, and in Costa Rica during a few months I did feel different, but not extremely so. While it’s clear that the physical differences are much more dramatic in this setting, I think the start cultural contrast is what heightens my awareness of this distinction. In other countries I’ve visited or lived, I knew the language (Spanish) and felt at least partially assimilated. Here, everything is different.
I think I’ve talked to all my friends about Japan before leaving and have heard plenty of their stories or stories of friends’ trips… so I have difficulty giving credit when due. Someone told me that you might notice how some foreigners come to New York City and take pictures of seemingly every little thing, despite finding that a bit amusing, you’ll soon be doing that yourself when you go to Japan. It’s so true! I have heard that the Japanese don’t particularly like it when you just walk around with your cellphone out the whole time, so I consciously keep it in my pocket, but sometimes I’ll stop to capture unique advertising, street signs, or anything uniquely Japanese. I’ll try to include a few examples below, but believe me, there’s more of this on Path, Instagram, Twitter, etc etc…
The AirBnB apartment that the three of us are splitting for our stint in Tokyo is located in the Shimokitazawa neighborhood. I posted some information about the area that I found during trip planning: here. The descriptions don’t do it justice. We are in an amazing location! Describing it as “hip” is a start, and comparing it to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg / hipster neighborhood is fair, but this place is a perfect concoction of cool. Everyone has different taste and values different types of space, but for me, this is perfection. It’s dense, but extremely clean, relatively quiet (read: chill) for a bustling Saturday night, and heavily sprinkled with the salt and pepper of restaurants and shopping that I love; the first being distinctively Japanese, small, low-lit, and – by appearances – delicious, while the latter is eclectic, normal/high-priced (comparing to NYC), and heavily infused with American fashion. Most people are my age (I guess) but you see a few grannies shuffle by as well. I wish I had pictures of the area and I will try to take some when I go out tonight, but I am even more conscious of being a photo-snapping tourist when I’m in such a cool neighborhood.
In short, New York has been good “training wheels” for Japan, and as the metaphor suggest, easily pales in comparison. Yes, if you want diversity, New York is the best, but given that Japanese is 100% different for me, Tokyo easily wins my heart.
It reminds me of how I felt moving back home from Barcelona after a year: nothing compares to European cities, so I guess New York is the next best I can find in the USA. After living in NYC for a few years, it now feels like home and much more than a city-substitute, but Japan has awoken that sense of comfort, quality, and ease. I don’t know why, but those are the words that come up when I think of how foreign cities make me feel. I think in some aspects they certainly do things “better” but I’m mystified how I can feel so comfortable in the unknown. I might take forever to deliberate a big purchase or make my next career move, but if a life abroad were offered to me, I’d have no qualms in packing it in and moving to wherever that may be. I have roots in New York now, so that wouldn’t happen, but if I had a job, money for an apartment, and if Mary could come, then I could probably go anywhere. No problem.
Back to the trip, sorry.
Chris will arrive late tonight and join us at the apartment. I plan on finding some dinner around town, and maybe late night exploring if someone is willing to come out with me. Tomorrow should be full of wandering and maybe some specific sight-seeing.
If you’re reading this and you know me (probably anyone reading this), I do have mobile wifi so you can reach me through iMessages, FaceTime, or snail mail – aka social media.
This might be something unique to see (out of endless uniqueness) in Japan. Pulled from an article, but follow the link at the end if you want to see all the pictures.
“The Maneki Neko, or “Beckoning Cat”, is one of Japan’s most iconic images. Thought to bring luck and prosperity to its owner, these cats are frequently found outside businesses and within homes. And in the neighborhood of Setagaya, we found the Gotoku-ji temple, where the Maneki Neko plays a starring role.”
My co-worker friend Will has provided me with a pretty extensive write-up of tips and takeaways from his recent trip to Japan. Putting this up to share with my travel mates and for easy access in the future.
Get a JR Rail Pass. You’ll need to do it in advance, and you have to pick it up the US before you head over.
In terms of navigating around, if you can pick up a pocket WiFi thing you can use Google Maps. (we picked up one of these: http://www.econnectjapan.com/products/wifi – really nice, they deliver it to your hotel and it includes packaging to ship it back before you leave the country).
If possible, I’d recommend you venture outside of the cities and see more of the countryside. We took a few day trips and spent one night in a mountain town, and even with that I wish we’d spent a lot more time outside of the city.
Tipping is not a thing in Japan. Taxis and restaurants don’t accept it, so whatever your bill is – that’s what you pay. If you leave a tip they’ll probably chase you down trying to return the money you forgot on the table.
People will not mess with your stuff. You’re basically safe leaving your things unattended (assuming they’re out of the way), and no one would even think about taking them. It’s just not something that happens.
More than language, you should try to study a bit of the etiquette before you go over there. Japanese behavior is very structured and therefore predictable, so after a while you’ll learn to read context clues and navigate social situations pretty easily. A few pro tips:
Don’t talk on the subway (unless you’re in Osaka)
Don’t eat/drink in public places, esp. while walking.
Be careful where/how you throw things away.
People are extremely polite and helpful, so you should have no trouble. I mean, the customer service at a 7-11 in Japan is on par with that of a 5-star hotel in the US. Speaking of…
This is your north star. Your safety net. Your mother’s milk.
In Japan, 7-11 is a utopia filled with amazing food and resources, and it was the only place where the ATMs would accept our cards. If all else fails, look for the green and orange banner.
Golden Gai, highly recommended, a few alleys filled with tiny bars
We stayed in two hotels. The first 2 nights were at the Cerulean Tower – it’s a massive business hotel right near Shibuya crossing, so it has a strong Lost in Translation vibe. The rooms were fine. The best part was the cocktail bar on the 47th floor with live jazz and a view of the Tokyo skyline.
After that we spent about 5 nights in a hotel I really liked called Claska. It’s quite small, the rooms are all unique, and it has a cafe, bar, design shop and dog grooming studio all within its walls. It’s a bit far out from the main area of Tokyo, but it’s actually near a good scene for design and fashion in this neighborhood called Nakameguro. I’d highly recommend it if you’re ok being a bit removed.
Ramen – you can’t go wrong with it. The best we had was at a place called Afuri. At most of them, you purchase a ticket via a vending machine outside and bring it to exchange it at the bar.
Izakaya – Lots of great izakayas. Our favorite was definitely this place.
Department stores – in Tokyo there are huuuge department stores, and on the bottom levels you’ll find hundreds upon hundreds of gourmet food stands. Many of them have free samples, so you can make an entire meal out walking around and trying lots of weird/delicious foods. The one we went to was called Mitsukoshi
246 Common – pretty cool outdoor food market, sort of like Smorgasburg but in Tokyo.
Golden Gai – Not a bar but a neighborhood. Highly recommend this area for drinking – it’s basically a few alleys filled with tiny bars (3-6 seats each), often stacked on top of each other. Our favorite one was called Albatross (make sure it’s the right one, there’s another bar nearby with the same name that was no good)
Buri – cool little sake bar with hundreds of little sake jars on the wall. Looks like this.
Tsukiji Fish Market – v. awesome, but make sure you go early. We made the mistake of going around noon and only caught the tail end of it.
Ghibli Museum – if you’re a fan of Miyazaki’s work, or creative things in general, this is a must. It’s amazing. A bit outside of town, so you’d need to allow half a day to make the trip. Also get tickets before you go.
Harajuku – crazy district famous for the Harajuku fashion scene. Not too many shops you’d actually want to spend money at, but it’s totally worth exploring.
Shibuya crossing – needs no explanation.
Pachinko – not much fun to play but worth checking out a parlor
Akihabara – the electronics/anime district. Hasn’t changed much since the 80s, so there isn’t anything mind-blowing in terms of the actual technology, but the shops themselves are amazing. Go to the Mandarake store and prepare to get weird.
Mori Art Museum – Tokyo’s main art museum, pretty great modern art, also super high up in the sky with an awesome observatory on the roof.
Dover Street Market (if you go, down the street there’s a bar called Bar High Five. Excellent cocktail bar, really friendly owner/bartender)
Kyoto is beautiful
We stayed at a ryokan, which is a traditional inn (tatami floors, breakfast, etc.). It was amazing, but very expensive. So if you can afford it, you should by all means experience it – even just for a night. Otherwise there are plenty of normal hotels around, or you could stay in a capsule hotel.
The Kyoto food market is incredible, and like the dept. stores in Tokyo you can subsist off of samples alone.
We heard about this chopstick maker further out in Kyoto, Ohashi Kobo. The man who runs the shop is considered the best in Japan, and if you go there he’ll help you find the perfect set of chopsticks, taking into account your height, arm length, shape of hand, etc. It’s like something out of Harry Potter.
SOU SOU – cool shop that modernizes classic Japanese workwear. Stuff like this.
Temples – there are many temples but I’d recommend picking out 2-3 that interest you and spending some time at each. They’re incredible, but honestly after a while they start to all look the same.
Gion District – Geisha territory. Great for wandering in the evening.
Kazu. One of my favorite bars in the world. It is extremely difficult to find. Like, you literally have to walk down a few back alleys, cross over a garden, go up a backstreet and then a few flights of stairs to reach the door. Go at night. More
We only got to spend 2 days in Osaka, but it was one of my favorite parts of the trip. Awesome nightlife, good (and cheap) food, just all around fun and a nice break from the quiet, reserved mindset of other areas in Japan. We stayed in Dojima hotel. It was nice.
The only recommendations I really have are to go to the Dotonbori part of town and explore the scene. ENDLESS restaurants, bars, shops, nightlife in general. Two of my favorite Japanese foods come from Osaka: Okonomiyaki and Takoyaki. Eat them both, ideally after a few drinks.
We got okonomiyaki at a place called Chibo. It was excellent and I’d recommend it.
Wow, that was some excellent advice! Thanks again, Will. If anyone has something to add or critique, please let me know in the comments.
My first stop to check for a place to stay is Airbnb. I might get a proper hotel for the first night in the city – just to have comfort in knowing that everything will be arranged and waiting for me. After that however, I’m sure the real experiences to be had are in Japanese homes.
Airbnb does a great job of highlighting the characteristics of each city neighborhood. They certainly do it well for New York, so I’m hoping this translates accurately to Japan too. The most appealing area at a glance is Shimokitazawa.
Swiftly rising as Tokyo’s trendiest, and quite possibly its friendliest, bohemian scene.
“Many travelers and locals alike choose to spend their time here because of the charm and energy of the town itself, without the huge crowds of the closeby metropolis.”
Slightly removed from the masses that gather in the center of the city. Chaotic in a charming way, Shimokitazawa is more organic than organized—its roads are sinewy and nearly too narrow for cars, its architecture endearingly haphazard, and its look meticulously inelegant.
If you have any recommendations, please leave a comment!