Japan, the Sunrise Land

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This past May I took a trip to Japan while living abroad in Shanghai, China. Japan had always held a significant interest for me, as Japanese culture was embedded in the DNA of Hawaii ever since they and other Asian countries started immigrating here to work the plantations before WW2. The two places have had a tumultuous relationship, but you cannot talk about Hawaii without talking about how Japan has made its way into our culture. Cartoons on Toonami, films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke, eating Japanese food, going to Marukai (a Japanese/Asian super market), the Okinawan Cultural Festival, going to Waikiki and seeing tourists and signs in English and Japanese. These sights, tastes, and experience were all engrained into my childhood.

Everything Japanese was all at once familiar and foreign; the fascination of seeing a land, a culture, a nation I only partly understood led me to put the Land of the Rising Sun on the very top of my travel list. I would go even as far as to say a big draw of living in China for me was its proximity to Japan, making my number 1 travel dream something I could realistically pull off in the year I was there.

Expectation and Excitement

I set a goal for myself last year, and that was to visit Japan by 2018. For a time, it didn’t seem like that was going to happen, as I didn’t really have the budget to go, so it was serendipitous that the opportunity to live abroad in Shanghai would present itself. Once I committed to going with a couple of friends from college, we started researching and planning for a two week stay in Japan.

A country with strong regional identities, you can have a plethora of experiences ranging from the ultra-modern to the traditional, depending on where you go. For this trip, we planned to stay between Tokyo and Kyoto- regions offering the extreme of both a world-class city in Tokyo and unique Japanese destinations and experiences in Kyoto.

Here’s a glimpse of the planning that we put into the trip:

planning Japan

TIP: I suggest for longer trips that you put in detailed planning, as you don’t have to do everything you plan, but having options makes your vacations more flexible and less stressful. On the other hand, I don’t recommend building an itinerary that dictates the order and time in which you have to do things because you might feel rushed and not get to truly explore and enjoy where you are if you think about where you have to go next.

There’s a metaphor for life somewhere in there but we’re moving on.

Tokyo Alone

The first two days were spent solo, as my friends would be arriving in Tokyo a little later than me. I had traveled alone before to Hong Kong, and I was excited I would be able to do so for a bit during this trip, as solo travel is something I would recommend to anyone looking to really absorb your surroundings and just get lost.

After coming from Haneda Airport (the closer of the two airports to the city center), I followed directions and took the metro to Shinagawa Station, then found a quiet, dimly-lit shopping street away from the bustling shopping area around the station. Sandwiched in between two izakaya-style bars was my hostel, The Guest House Shinagawa-shuku Tokyo. While my first experience in a hostel had been a clinically boring and bare bones affair, the Guest House was warm and inviting, with an all wood interior and the employees there were very hospitable, even giving me food and shopping recommendations for the street I was on. After dropping off my bags, I headed out to the ramen shop that the girl working the night shift had referred me to. At the end of the alley and through a cloth curtain entrance was some of the best ramen I’ve ever had. After figuring out how to work the machine used to order, I sat myself down to a bowl of rich broth and nicely done noodles. The piece of chashu pork was tender and large, and it was the perfect way to cap off a day of travel.

The next day I headed into Ebisu in the morning to practice some yoga in a small neighborhood. Ebisu reminded me a lot of San Francisco, with hills, craft coffee shops, and boutique clothing stores lining the streets. After making my way to quiet neighborhood, I found the small studio where I had my first practice in English/Japanese. It was interesting as up until that point, I had been practicing in classes that used English/Chinese, so it was not too different the way the class dictated instructions, but since I was practicing under a new teacher, what she chose to focus on was a little different from my usual teacher.

After class, I went to the Asakura family house (Kyu Asakura Kejutaku), which is a “century-old two-story wooden Japanese house on a large picturesque property in Sarugakucho, which is part of the stylish Daikanyama district of Tokyo” according to www.japanvisitor.com, and the former home of someone who was very influential in the early 1900’s.

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Lunch followed, at Shake Shack. Usually, when traveling I try to eat at places that offer unique experiences, but I hadn’t had Shake Shack in a couple years so I indulged myself. It’s vacation after all.

The next day, I had my only Japanese bathhouse experience. Public bathhouses are very popular in Japan, and I had been wanting to try the ‘onsen’ experience. After showering yourself off, you get into a large hot bathtub. Sounds great right? Except there’s an order to everything, and there’s also a lot of other people around so for me, it was quite embarrassing since I’m not used to being naked around strangers. Private onsens exist, and I think that’ll be what I try next. I wish that I had more time to spend in Shinagawa, as it seemed like a slower, quieter area of Tokyo that had a lot waiting to be discovered, but I enjoyed the time I had there. Besides, we had a lot of ground to cover these next eight days.

 

Later that night, I met up with my friends at Shinagawa Station for food and drinks, then set out to Kyoto the next day.

Kyoto and Nara

For those who’ve never taken big city metro, Tokyo’s rail and metro system can be very confusing at first glance. For everyone else, it’s only confusing at first glance. There are multiple rail companies and you need to get separate tickets depending on where you want to go. Long story short, we found the bullet train to Kyoto, took it, and got there starving. After finding lunch (some of the best katsu I’ve ever had, and that’s saying a lot), we headed towards the Tenryu-ji Temple and the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest.

Our first contact with the more traditional side of Japan, you could absolutely get a sense of how history and religion tied together in the temple. The forest itself was large, crowded, and impressive in its own way, but I felt that if you’re looking for dense bamboo forests, you can find better elsewhere. For dinner, we made our way to a popular riverside dining street. It was there I first tried horse meat! Served raw and cold (sashimi style), it tasted identical to beef prepared the same way. I always look for new foods to try and to push my boundaries a little further so that I can experience more of a food culture, and I definitely did that in Kyoto.

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The next day, we went early on a tour of Kyoto’s traditional sights- the Kiyomizu Temple and the Kinkakujicho (or Golden Pavilion). The Kiyomizu temple was a gigantic buddhist temple that had large pagodas, incense burning and fortunes, water offerings, and a tourist shopping street that sold many types of Japanese trinkets, food, and souvenirs. While the main building was under renovation, it was still interesting to see, as it was a testament to the role Buddhism played in ancient Japanese culture. The Kinkakujicho is probably one of the most famous buildings in all of Japan, and while I recognized it as something super touristy, it was still cool to see a large golden pavilion in the center of traditional Japanese garden. The visual contrast of nature and the building made for a sight worth seeing.

With the giant attractions of Kyoto out of the way, we hopped on a train for the closeby city of Nara, famous for its deer park. Nara’s deer park is home to a large population of deer that are very endearing to tourists. After buying a pack of biscuits from vendors in the park, you present the biscuit and bow- in turn the deer will bow their heads before eating the biscuit out of your hands. Deer that behave with ‘Japanese mannerisms’ like bowing was a very unique and fun experience. Be warned; if you just give them the biscuit they’ll still eat it. You have to bow first.

Ooooosaka- Osaka Aquarium, Dotonbori, okonomiyaki

Next stop, Ōsaka! The next day we took the Shinkansen down to the once-capital of Japan. Second only to Tokyo in its urban magnificence, Osaka is a modern city boasting many things to see and do that we couldn’t possibly fit into one day, so we focused on the Osaka Aquarium, the Osaka Castle, and Dotonbori. Osaka Aquarium is a massive aquarium by the bay that features many floors of aquatic creatures in simulated habitats, with a large tank in the middle full of a mixture of fish, sharks, rays, and even a few large whale sharks! As a kid, I had an extreme interest in marine biology, and even now, when I see all the weird and cool things that live in the other 80% of our planet, I get excited.

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Making our way to Osaka Castle via metro, we arrived at what was probably the most imposing structure I saw on this trip. This 15 acre historical site is a major source of tourism today, but back in the 16th century, it played a major role in the unification of Japan. For such a grand purpose, a grand building makes sense. You can almost imagine how large scale battles were waged on those ancient grounds. After making our way through thick-walled outer gates that were decorated with gardens, we came to the main grounds where the main tower stood. In the main tower there were many exhibits detailing the bloody and proud history of the castle’s battles through different eras, even throughout WWII (Which I found particularly interesting since we happened to be on the other side in that war). At the top of the tower was a sweeping view of the city. The tower itself was adorned with golden fish with dragon heads that were exceptionally aesthetic and helped compensate for the long wait we had to get up there.

Dotonbori is a shopping and eating street, famous for street food alongside a canal that runs through the city. After spending some time wandering, we hit most of Osaka’s specialties, namely takoyaki (grilled octopus inside piping hot batter-filled balls) and okonomiyaki (often called Japanese pancakes, a mish mash of ingredients that you fry on a griddle and eat). Dotonbori was crowded, energetic, noisy, and alive.

Osaka was a charming city that offered a lot in the way of food, culture, and entertainment, and it’s a place that I could see myself spending a lot of time in. While we didn’t get to stay for more than a day, it’s someplace that definitely deserves repeat visits.

 

The morning after, we left Kyoto for Tokyo, but not before stopping by the legendary Fushimi Inari shrine. Home of the Japanese god Inari, this temple is a world heritage site that draws millions of visitors every year. Famous for its mountain trail housing seemingly endless torii gates donated by local Japanese businesses, these gates leave you speechless; the red and black contrasting sharply with the natural green surrounding it.

 

Yokohama- Sushi – Tokyo-Hakone-Tokyo- Day trip to Hakone, Kobe beef, baseball, Asakusa shrine, bar/sushi in akasaka, Shibuya crossing, shopping, Shinjuku Gyoen, my hotels, random thoughts

On our way back to Tokyo, we made a pitstop in Yokohama. Yokohama is an ocean side city that’s the second largest in Japan (After Tokyo), and known as the birthplace of Japan’s modern culture, due to so many different cultures passing through the port city. However, me and my friends were only staying there for a few hours, so we went to the one of the most important place in Yokohama (for us)- The Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum.

Ramen is one of the first things that come to mind when thinking about Japanese culture, especially in terms of food, however, the dish itself was brought over from China in the late 19th century (as are about every other noodle dish in the world), and were made popular in post-World War II Japan. Today ramen can be found everywhere, from the deepest parts of the Midwest United States to the beaches of Thailand. Ramen has had a global impact on food cultures around the world, and the Ramen Museum celebrated the birth and growth of the dish. Inside the museum was a gift shop complete with everything you’d need to make your own ramen, and underground was an enclave of ramen shops featuring different varieties of ramen found throughout Japan. The square was like a set on play; building fashioned after post-war architecture, and curtained doors leading to the different ramen shops. It really sought to immerse the visitor in the times and to focus on the bowl in front you. I had the Ryu Shanghai Honten, or Shanghai style ramen (appropriate given my country of residence at the time). Super spicy, savory, and served with a thick broth, it was a bowl of ramen worth coming to Yokohama for.

Oh, we also had sushi:

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For those visiting Yokohama, there’s also the Cup Noodle museum, which focuses exclusively on the brand of instant noodles. You can even build your own cup noodle choosing from a variety of soup bases and dehydrated goodies!

 

After a morning of figuring out trains and traveling, we arrived in Hakone. One of the biggest mistakes of the trip was not planning to stay here longer, because for me, Hakone was probably the most beautiful place I visited on this trip. High up the mountains, Hakone sits in a crater with a large lake. Fresh, cold air permeated my lungs as we visited the Hakone Shrine, a famous Torii gate that’s actually in the lake. After a lunch of soba and tempura in a small restaurant, we enjoyed views of the pristine waters, quiet ambling of a pirate ship that took tourists from end to end of the large lake, and even a view of Mount Fuji in the distance!

There’s a lot to do in Hakone, but they’re most known for their hot springs, and it’s a travesty I wasn’t able to stay in a traditional ryokan to experience it. The next time I come to Japan, I’m definitely making it at least an overnight stay (and you should too).

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We took the journey back to Tokyo in time to see the neon lights of Akibahara. Akibahara is the mecca for anime and a lot of nerd culture. I was fairly excited to see what kind of place it was, but I was actually a little disappointed because it was mainly an area that sold a lot of merchandise, magazines, manga, and electronics. Maybe it was my coming from Shanghai, but the neon lights were beautiful nonetheless.

For dinner, we went to one of the most famous (if not the most famous) place in all of Japan- Shibuya crossing. Shibuya is a large area in Tokyo filled with many tourist-friendly attractions and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it’s at the epicenter of activity in Tokyo. Here, everything converges; people going to and from work, Japanese and foreign tourists, people moving about in throngs so thick that you can literally get lost in the crowd. At every red light, people hurry to get their IG shot in the crossing while others mosey around them, going into one of several alleys filled with small restaurants and shops or large shopping malls. It was down one of these alleys that we found dinner- an extravagant yakiniku (Japanese bbq) place specializing in wagyu beef. Wagyu beef is a melt-in-your-mouth type of marbled meat that you’ll have dreams about for the rest of your life. Or maybe that’s just me. But it was great.

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In the morning, I took some time to myself to explore Shinjuku Gyoen National Park. A far cry from the bustling city around, the park is an expanse of many types of gardens, each holding their own unique charm. Whether it was a greenhouse of diverse tropical and subtropical flowers, a French, Chinese, or English garden, there was a lot of different natural landscapes for me to enjoy. Additionally, there was a traditional tea shop in the center of the park, serving matcha green tea and mochi in a quiet setting. The whole morning was a really nice mental reset since I had been moving around the past week, and it was good to just slow down, even for a few hours.

Next up was the famed Ueno Zoo. Featuring Pandas from Chengdu (more of which I would later see), the Ueno Zoo was a large and spacious zoo that had wildlife from many different climates and regions. It had been years since I had gone to a zoo, and infamous conditions at which some of the zoos keep their animals definitely kept me away, but there were open spaces for a lot of the animals, and they seemed decently taken care of, which was nice.

After lunch and snacks at a farmer’s market outside Ueno Zoo, one of my friends left us to catch her flight, and the remaining two of us checked into our hotel in the Akasaka area. Primarily a business district, we found some of the best sushi I had that trip for really reasonable prices. As it was a business district, there were a lot of outdoor bars that made for a chill night, where we did a lot of people watching in a lively restaurant and bar street. It definitely felt like somewhere that was a little off the beaten path for tourists, and I sensed that a lot of the foreigners there were expats living in Tokyo.

The next day, we went to Asakusa, a district in Tokyo famous for the Asakusa Shrine, a massive Buddhist temple with many street food and souvenir shops lining the walkway to a gigantic bright red temple. One of the most popular tourist attractions in Tokyo, here you can buy many different foods, souvenirs, and even buy Buddhist charms with special meanings (such as good fortune, health, or business/love success). It was unique mix of the old and the new, which I think describes Tokyo perfectly.

On the last day of the trip, we watched a professional baseball game. The game was the Tokyo Yakult Swallows versus the Yokohama BayStars. I had never been to a baseball game and I admit I’m not even the least bit interested in it, but man was I blown away. The energy in the arena, food and drink options and prices, and high action of the game itself made for a really fun experience. Every time the home team scored (and there were a lot of runs this game), the crowd would erupt and open small umbrellas to swing around to the beat of their fight song. The game was probably one of the best experiences I’ve had this trip, yet it was something that we chose to do spontaneously. This ties back to what I said about planning your own trips; be flexible make room for spontaneity and adventure and you’ll have experiences that you could never have imagined and will never forget.

Summarizing Thoughts

When you build up a lot of anticipation and expectations for something, you might find yourself let down with the reality of the thing. However, for me, touring through Japan was not only what I expected, but much, much more. This trip helped to cement a love for travel and Japan that I doubt will ever leave me. I never had a bad meal on this trip, and most were excellent food experiences that showed care for ingredients and flavor. It was probably the least surprising part of the trip because I have always loved Japanese cuisine, and knew exactly what I was getting myself into. For me, the highlights of the trip were times spent in nature and exploring the religious and cultural symbols of Japan. Being in Buddhist temples, thick forests, or cold mountains allowed me to view into Japan’s past, while traversing the vibrant cityscapes of Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto gave insight into today’s Japan. Like my time in China, I can say that I’ve barely even scratched the surface, but damn was it a good surface to scratch.

 

End Note

I plan to visit again as soon as possible, but I’m also considering spending a longer period of time living there. From my time in Shanghai, I realized that living abroad is not only a great way to gain deeper understandings of a society, but also a way to put yourself in extreme situations that demand that you change the way you think and act. Living abroad was a great opportunity for me to grow personally, and if the right circumstances allow, Japan would be the next place I’d want to live.

 

またね- See you later,

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