Day 1 (9/14)
We fly out of JFK at 10:30 PM on Thursday, September 13 and land in L.A. around 1:30 AM on September 14. We decide to find a bar where we can waste a few hours, but everything in L.A. closes at 2 AM. We end up at a hukkah bar near LAX, where we hang out until 4 AM. Then we go to a diner and get some food, even though all of us are barely awake. We head back to the airport around 6 AM and doze off for an hour or so until security opens and we can gather for our flight. We agree it would have been prudent to rent a hotel during our layover. We take off at 10 AM. I spend the flight falling in and out of sleep, only waking up when the stewardesses deliver me food, drinks or a snack. Singapore Airlines is a great airline.
Day 2 (9/15)
We arrive in Tokyo around 12 PM Saturday local time, losing about 13 hours. Once we get out of the airport we use our JRail passes to head into the city. Narita airport is about an hour and a half outside the city by train. Once we arrive at Tokyo Station we walk to another subway line nearby, which we take to our hotel in Roppongi. The hotel is a Ritz Carlton, courtesy of Ty’s parents. The room is large and luxurious. We wash up then head out to explore the neighborhood. Roppongi is known as one of the more westernized parts of Tokyo, and is full of restaurants and bars. We check out the Tokyo Tower (which looks exactly like the Eiffel Tower) then go to Abbey Road, a bar where an all-Japanese cover band called The Parrots performs Beatles classics. The band sounds shockingly similar to The Beatles, but we suspect there might be some lip syncing involved. We then find a restaurant called Joumon Roppongi, where we enjoy a traditional Japanese meal of skewered meats and vegetables. I recall the beef being as soft as butter. After dinner we attempt to go out for the evening, but our lack of sleep forces us to retire early.
Day 3 (9/16)
We all wake up feeling the best we have in two days, so we decide to use the hotel gym. Afterwards we eat a delicious complimentary breakfast and then take the subway to the Mori Digital Art Museum. The Mori Digital Art Museum is essentially a maze of dark rooms with mounted projectors and lights that cast wild images on walls. It’s sort of like a house of mirrors on acid. There are dozens of exhibits, some of which require participation (like jungle gyms and trampolines). After the museum we take an Uber to a neighborhood in the northern part of the city called Akihabara. This neighborhood is known as “Electric City,” because it is the video game/manga/comic book capital of Tokyo. There are dozens of shops along a main road selling old video games, action figures and used electronics. Lee and Ty both buy Pokemon Green for Gameboy, the only original Pokemon game not released in the US. We grab lunch at a delicious ramen place called Kyushu Jangata. I eat a udon noodle ramen in a tomato-based broth. From Akihabara we continue to walk north until we reach Ueno Park. A large portion of the park is a shallow swamp covered in lotus flowers. There is also a zoo and pagoda. From the park we wind our way through residential streets until we reach Sensoji Temple, an ancient Buddhist temple and one of the oldest in Tokyo. After taking some pictures, we head back to the hotel, wash up, then go to dinner at Gonpachi, a restaurant in Minato where the climactic fight scene from Kill Bill was filmed. We dine on Japanese tapas, and are joined by a friend of Lee’s girlfriend named Sophia. She takes us out to the bars and clubs in Shibuya afterwards, and we eventually make it home at 3:30 AM.
Day 4 (9/17)
We all sleep very late. At around 1 pm we grab brunch at a french toast spot near our hotel. Afterwards we check out and take the JRail bullet train to Kyoto. The ride takes about four hours, in part because we accidentally boarded the local train, and had to transfer at Nagoya. We get into Kyoto around 8 PM and find our Ryokan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese hostel, featuring beds tucked into the walls like cubbies and nothing but a curtain for privacy. The accommodations are actually quite comfortable, if not a little cramped. There are shared bathrooms, so we wash up and take a recommendation from one of the people who works at the Ryokan to check Chojiro, a sushi chain downtown. We run up a fairly large tab ordering lots of different kinds of sushi plus beers, and end up staying so long we close down the restaurant.
Day 5 (9/18)
Today we wake up bright and early and take the train out to Fushimi Inari, a mountainside Shinto shrine dating from 711 A.D. We hike up the mountain, passing under thousands of red gates as we go. The top of the mountain offers a great view of Kyoto. When we complete the hike we head back to the hotel to shower, then walk through Nishiki Market, where we build up an appetite looking at all the fresh food. We end up having lunch at Katsukura, a pork restaurant where patrons are asked to crush up the sesame seeds used in the sauce for their dish. It is quite delicious. After lunch we head to Shinkakuji, a golden temple that is highly photogenic. Afterwards we take advantage of Japan’s lax open container laws to drink beers as we walk through Kyoto neighborhoods. We eventually end up down by the Kamo River, which runs through the entire city. As the sun sets on the river, I’m struck by how close to home I feel on the other side of the world. I think it has something to do with how familiar everything looks to the United States. Sure, words are in another language, but the buildings and greenery would look not out of place in, say, New Jersey. The fact that the Japanese are extremely friendly and polite also helps me feel at ease.
Day 6 (9/19)
Again we wake up very early and take a long bus ride to Arashiyama, a district on the outskirts of the city that boasts some of Kyoto’s best outdoor activities. We first take stroll through the bamboo forest before deciding to hike along the Kamo River to a buddhist sanctuary up in the hills. We catch our breath there and take in views of the city. Then we hike up another mountain to the Iwatayama Monkey Park, where macaque monkeys roam free and visitors feed them peanuts and apples. The monkeys look adorable, but they all smell really bad, and they steal food from each other. After playing with monkeys we visit Otsuka, a steakhouse located in a garage in a residential Arashiyama neighborhood that allegedly serves the best Wagyu beef in the world. The restaurant lives up to expectations, as the beef simply melts in your mouth. We apparently got very lucky, as many people reportedly line up first thing in the morning, trying to get a seat (we arrived at the end of the day and were seated immediately). Following lunch we rest at the hostel, then head to Nishiki Market to do some shopping. I buy gifts for friends and also some cloths from a boutique store. Japan has lots of great men’s shops. We have another ramen dinner in Gion, this time at a place that makes a thick and hardy broth. Then we head to L’EscaMoteur, a French magic-themed bar where the bartenders do cool tricks with your order and the bathroom is located behind a trap door. We finish up the night at a beer hall packed with travelers from around the world.
Day 7 (9/20)
We sleep late, check out of the Ryokan, and take local trains to Nara, a smaller city located 30 minutes south of Kyoto. It’s a rainy day, the first of the trip. It takes until late afternoon before we are settled into our hotel. We head to Nara Park and gaze upon the hundreds of deer roaming freely about the grounds. Most of the deer ignore you unless you feed them treats, in which case they follow you around, hoping for more. We take in some of the shrines in Nara Park, including Kasuga Taisha and Nigatsudo. Todaiji, the largest wooden structure in the world, is closed by the time we arrive. We walk to a Thai dinner and retire early, all of us still tired from the previous night.
Day 8 (9/21)
We rise early and use the morning to visit Todaiji and a local botanical garden. We get lunch at a food festival, then grab our luggage and catch the train back to Tokyo. We get into town around 5 PM and drop our stuff off at our hostel in Karaguzawa. We then head back into Rippongi, as we had signed up to do a bar crawl in the neighborhood. Before the bar crawl we meet Ty’s friend Nima at an Okonomiyaki joint. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese savory pancake containing a variety of ingredients. Mine tasted like a loaded baked potato. The bar crawl took us to a lot of tourist bars in the neighborhood, but was fun regardless.
Day 9 (9/22)
We get a late jump on the day and decide to check out Shinjuku. Shinjuku is probably Tokyo’s busiest neighborhood, with lots of shops and restaurants. We get udon noodles for lunch, which I found to be underwhelming (too many rules for how you have to eat them). From Shinjuku we walk south to Yoyogi Park, which has many tall trees, giving it the appearance of a forest in the middle of the city. From there we walk into Harajuku. Tokyo has many shopping areas, but I’ve never seen so many big box retailers, high-end designers and boutique clothing stores crammed into one place as I did in Harajuku. We end the afternoon by walking through Shibuya Crossing, then go back to the hotel to get changed for the evening. Dinner is at a Shabu-shabu restaurant in Shinjuku, where we each dip thinly sliced pieces of beef and vegetables into a hotpot and eat them with different sauces. This was easily the second best meal of the trip behind Otsuka. After dinner we head to the Robot Restaurant, which is like kabuki theater fifty years in the future. After dinner we visit Golden Gai, a street of tiny bars in Shinjuku. Then we head out to the bars and clubs in the neighborhood.
Day 10 (9/23)
We sleep even later today than we did the day before. Around lunchtime we head out. Tired of Japanese food, I grab a burger at an “American”-style restaurant near our hostel (they didn’t serve fries!). From there we head towards Ginza to visit the Imperial Gardens and palace. The gardens are large and spacious, but most of them are inaccessible behind a moat. On the other side of the moat is the Imperial Palace, which is only open to the public once a year on January 2. We walk from the Imperial Gardens to Liberty Bell Park, where there is an actual replica of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. We stumble upon a K-Pop concert, then hit the main drag in Ginza, which is another shopping district modeled after Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue. At night, the lights from all the shops hanging over the street make for a beautiful sight. All of us still tired from the night before, we head back to the hostel early, then grab a late dinner at an Indian restaurant (all of us needed a break from Japanese food) in Kuragazawa, which was surprisingly delicious.
Day 11 (9/24)
Today we wake up early and catch the JRail to Hakone, a suburban region near Mount Fuji, about an hour outside Tokyo. We hire a cab driver to take us up to Lake Ashinoko, which is a crater lake surrounded by mountains on all sides. To the north of the lake is Mount Fuji, which, on a clear day, should be visible. Sadly, it was cloudy on the day we visited, and we could barely make out any of it. Nonetheless, the resort we stayed in was extremely accommodating. It featured on onsen, which is a Japanese hot spring that you must be completely naked to enter (you also have to cover up any tattoos). We spent the afternoon taking a ferry tour around the lake, then rode the Hakone Ropewalk up to the top of one of the mountains, where we could take in amazing views of the region. I spent the afternoon in the onsen while Lee, Ty and Nima got massages. It was a much needed rest day for all of us.
Day 12 (9/25)
On our last full day of the trip, we wake up early and take the JRail from Hakone back to Tokyo. We check in to a new hostel in Ginza, then take the subway back to Harajuku, where we intend to do some shopping for friends and family. First we grab ramen at Ichiran Ramen, a very popular local spot that makes a fairly spicy dish. I’d say it was the second best ramen we had on the trip (behind Akihabara, but ahead of a ramen meal we had in Kyoto). We spend more time checking out the shops in Harajuku, then take the subway back to Akihabara. We visit a cafe in the neighborhood that provides hedgehogs to play with. There are also several owls on display. Akihabara features tons of interesting and niche shops like this. On our visit we also saw a wig shop, cat cafe, fetish-y “adult” store and tons of retro video game shops. One of the best is “Mr. Potato,” which features thousands of old video games and memorabilia. We grab dinner at an Italian restaurant in Ginza, then close down a nearby whiskey bar, where we make friends with several locals.
Day 13 (9/26)
Despite the late night, we wake up early because we had signed up for a tour of Tsukjiki Fish Market, the largest fish market in the world. After getting a full tour, our guides help us buy a fish, then take us to a nearby kitchen to show us how sushi is prepared. We then get to roll our own sushi, which I was unsurprisingly not very good at. The tour exceeded expectations, and is a great bowtie on the trip. After the tour, we gather our belongings and head for the airport, bound for home.
Because Japan is very modern, the way it looks and feels and sounds is not all that different from the United States. I felt closer to home traveling around the country than I ever have traveling around Europe.
At the same time, the culture is very different. Japanese people are very polite and considerate, but also very reserved. There are lots of things Japanese people simply do not do, such as litter, jaywalk or walk around talking on their phones. Everybody keeps to themselves for the most part, but will go out of their way to help you if needed. The only Japanese who approached us and wanted to talk were little kids and drunk people.
For the most part, nobody speaks English. However, many things are written in English (like store names and street signs).
Navigating Japan isn’t difficult as long as you have an app like Google Maps. To get anywhere in Tokyo takes 30+ minutes because the city is so massive (kind of like LA).
I was surprised by how food-intensive our trip was. This is a testament to all the wonderful types of food available in Japan, and almost none of it is prepared using dairy.
Tokyo is full of non-Japanese. I was surprised by how many other types of people we met. I’d say the split is 60% Japanese and 40% non-Japanese.
Japan is light years ahead of us in terms of toilets. Even the toilets in fast-food restaurants have a bidet and heated seats.
Japan was my first trip to Asia, and I think it was a good introduction to the continent because it is so modern, clean and welcoming. I could certainly see myself living there, and I’d recommend anyone visit!