It turns out Uber is a lot cheaper at 3 AM, for some reason. It was about 10 dollars to get to the airport from Emory. My Uber driver was named Andrew, and on the way there we talked about religion. Neither the Air Canada agents nor the TSA agents were there until 5 AM, but I sat around because I didn’t want to sleep through my departure at 6:15. The airport PA system played a Nujabes song around 4 AM, which was pretty good for elevator music. I’d imagine the guy in charge of the music decisions gets more courageous in the middle of the night.
I slept pretty fitfully on the flights, and had two Ice Capps in the layover in Toronto. The flight from Atlanta to Toronto left at 6:15 AM and arrived at 8:15. The flight from Toronto to Tokyo left at 1:45 PM and arrived at 2:30 PM, after adjusting for the time zone change; that meant 1:30 AM Atlanta time.
Landing in Japan after flying almost dead even with the sun for twelve hours left me with a weird mix of exhaustion and euphoria. It reinforced the dream-like feeling that you get from arriving in a new country for the first time.
In contrast with Canada and Cuba, I speak absolutely nothing of the local language, and I’m completely on my own for the time being. I felt pretty foolish buying a phone adaptor and a premade meal from 7/11 as the cashier just talked at me without me comprehending at all. I think this trip will probably involve a lot of looking and not so much talking.
Riding the train from the airport also felt a little off. It was filled with businessmen in suits on their laptops. No one said anything to anyone else - even when the train got packed it was like there was a taboo against talking. In the subway, I’m usually close to the tallest person, and the doors and slippers in my AirBnb are a few sizes too small.
All around, though, I definitely had a positive first impression. I walked for a few miles along Konaki River and saw a lot of people biking and walking their kids. When I was trying to find my way around the trains, on multiple occasions, attendents noticed me looking clueless and pointed me in the right direction. People don’t stare much, although I’m basically the only non-Japanese person around. There’s a feeling of homogeneity, but not a pressing one.
It turned out I was really jetlagged, because I woke up before 6 AM after my first night in Tokyo. I spent the first two hours of my day studying hiragana and waiting for some food places to open. I started talking to two of the other people who were staying in my AirBnb, Ben and Vivian, and they very kindly let me tag along with them to get food. They were college students from Singapore, and were traveling to Japan for Vivian’s graduation trip.
We took the subway to the Tsukiji Fish Market, where we got coffee and tried some pretty delicious oysters fried in soy sauce. We got more filling food from a sushi restauraunt, too. Ben and Vivian told me a lot about Singapore and their experience so far in Japan - they’d been here for two weeks already, and were planning to leave tomorrow. They were very helpful with figuring out the subway, and after we ate they pointed me in the right direction to get over to Tokyo Station.
By that time it was around noon and I figured I’d head to my next destination, Nikko. It took quite a long time to figure out where to redeem my JR pass, but once I did I realized how awesome of a deal it is. I can use it an unlimited number of times each day, for 6 days out of the next 14 (that I choose). To get to Nikko, I first took the train to Utsonomia, which required that I reserve a seat beforehand. I then took the smaller Nikko train from Utsonomia.
Once I got to Nikko, I walked and ran around the woods for about an hour to try to relieve the jetlag. It didn’t work super well, but at least I didn’t get lost. I walked over to the supermarket and got food to eat, which was really good and pretty reasonably priced. Around dusk, I walked about 30 minutes down to one of the main shrines, a world heritage site. There are few things in my life that have made me feel as uneasy and spiritual as walking through the graves and shrines here while no one is around after the sun has just set.
My AirBnb in Nikko was shared with a former Swiss Banker, who says that Japan is very well organized, as a country. He was spending his vacation biking around different parts, and stopped in Nikko because it’s such a beautiful area. There’s an ultramarathon here, which seems like it would be pretty cool to run.
I woke up pretty early again the next day, and had the kiwis and milk tea I bought for breakfast. I took the bus up to the area with most of the shrines, which would have been a 30 minute walk. I walked for a long time through the woods. There were lots of random shrines to the side of the path, and a bunch of people had stacked rocks, like how climbers do in America, although I wasn’t sure if there was a religious reason for doing that here.
I got food from a convenience store and tried my first beer in Japan, a Kirin beer. There are four main brewing companies in Japan: Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory. I’d had Sapporo before, but I’d never heard of the other three. The one I tried seemed like a pretty standard pale lager, the kind that would keep well for mass production and be generally unobjectionable to most people, but it didn’t strike me as anything fantastic.
I took the train back though Utsonomia and up to Sendai, which is a fairly large city about four hours north of Tokyo. I stayed in the Sendai Keyaki guesthouse. It turns out the guesthouse was right across from a number of love hotels. There were guys wearing neon green vests, one of whom guessed I was staying at the guesthouse and pointed me in the right direction. I was later informed that those guys were basically pimps; they seemed friendly to me, but I guess it makes sense that they would be.
There were way fewer non-Japanese in Sendai than there had been in Tokyo or Nikko, but it was still relatively easy to get around. Having a smartphone with Project Fi has been really helpful. After I dropped my stuff off at the guesthouse I went for a walk around Sendai. I skipped rocks for a bit, and went over to the main shopping area, which looked a lot like a mall in America, except that it was open-air and most of the people shopping there were middle-aged rather than hip young teens.
There was a parade of some sort walking though the mall. The people in it looked to be mostly high schoolers, and a lot of them were dressed up in costumes. They were chanting something in unison. I had no idea what was going on. An interviewer and cameraman came up to me to see if I had thoughts on the matter; I had a lot of thoughts, but when they realized I didn’t speak Japanese they moved to someone else. If only I’d spoken Japanese, I might have been on a Sendai TV channel!
I also checked out the library, the Sendai Mediatheque, which was pretty amazing. A lot of its architecture was devoted to the 3.11 earthquake. I found out later that Japan has earthquakes almost every week, but that one was particularly destructive.
I went back to the guesthouse and spent a lot of time talking to the other people there. Two of them were from France, two were from Australia, one was from Switzerland and one was from the US, in addition to the Japanese woman who ran the guesthouse, a Japanese businessman who liked drinking with foreigners and another Japanese woman who was there with her baby. The Swiss guy had worked at a startup for some time and had some interesting thoughts on tech, and told me a lot about Geneva (basically, he thinks it’s a lot less beautiful than movies would have you believe). The French guys raved for a long time about Japanese marijuana, which apparently is extremely powerful. Japan is fairly opposed to drug use, so it was apparently pretty hard to find, but worth the effort.
The room I stayed in had ten beds, each with a curtain but otherwise no sound insulation. The guy next to my bed snored really loudly all night, and I hadn’t had the foresight to bring earplugs, so I slept really poorly, flickering in and out of consciousness. At one point I dreamed that I was studying for finals and needed to find somewhere quiet in the library to work. Everywhere I went was filled by the sound of snoring, until I eventually realized the snoring was coming from a shoe in my backpack. I woke up and realized it was just the really loud guy. I got earplugs the next morning.
I got up around 9, had some instant coffee at the guesthouse, and headed over Sendai Station to catch a train up to the Sapporo. I stopped to look at a bunch of the shops so I didn’t catch the train until after noon. The train ride was pretty long, stopping in Hakodate to transfer, but it was worth taking. It went right along the coast of Hokkaido, so on one side we passed rice pads and farms and on the other side was the ocean stretching out to the horizon.
I’d arranged to eat dinner in Sapporo with Kodai, a friend who I met at ISCAS last year. He showed me his lab in the University of Hokkaido, then we and two other graduate students went to eat ramen. Kodai told me a lot about Japan, and the ramen was very good. Kodai helped me get on the train over to the guesthouse where I stayed, called Waya. I checked in around 10:30, and I was pretty tired so I just went to bed (the earplugs turned out to be very useful).
The next morning, I talked to two other guests, Kris and Blake, who were planning to rent a car to go to the zoo in Asahikawa, and I joined in. The zoo was about a two hours drive away, and we stopped at another ramen shop in Asahikawa. The toll turned out to be really expensive (about 25 yen per kilometer, which turned out to be around 30 dollars). The zoo was really cool though, and we got to catch the tail end of the cherry blossoms.
After we got back from the zoo, we went to eat at a sushi place that had been recommended by Koki, one of the guys that ran the guesthouse. When we went back to the guesthouse, things were in full swing; a number of people had come over to hang out. One of the people in the guesthouse was dressed up as a maid with rabbit ears, and everyone collectively “blessed” each drink by making a heart and saying something in Japanese. It was pretty funny. I went with Koki, Kris, Blake and two other people out to an izakaya, which is a kind of Japanese bar. Japanese bar food consisted of raw salmon, mochi, some eel doused heavily in wasabi, and a number of other interesting foods that went surprisingly well with a draft. We also played darts at a restauraunt next door; me and Koki won. All around, I felt like I learned a lot about what being a young adult in Japan is like by talking to Kodai and Koki.
I woke up really early (around 6:30) to catch the train down to Tokyo, because Wei Wei was flying in at 3:45. I had more instant coffee and walked over to the subway. It may have just been early in the morning, but it seemed like Sapporo had a lot fewer English-language resources for booking tickets (the ticket I got was in Japanese and I had to pattern-match the characters). The train ride between Sapporo and Tokyo is very beautiful, but pretty long - I didn’t get to Tokyo until 5. I met Wei Wei in Tokyo Station, and almost immediately got back on the train to take the three hour ride down to Kyoto.
In Kyoto we stayed with Junki, a student at Kyoto University, although we never actually saw him. We stayed two nights in his room, but both nights he stayed somewhere else, so we only met him through email. His room was a studio apartment in the north part of Kyoto, in a kind of suburb, but it was near a train station that let us get around without too much difficulty.
We realized in retrospect that train tickets can run pretty expensive, and it might have been worth getting a pass. The JR pass doesn’t work for local trains (since most of the local lines are not associated with the JR company). A typical train or bus ride in Kyoto costs 2 to 6 dollars, and we rode the train a lot. This is kind of the same in most cities, but most of the attractions we were interested in visiting were distributed pretty widely around the city.
After the first full day in Kyoto, we ate ramen at a local ramen shop, and made our way over to downtown Kyoto, Kawaramachi. Parts of Kyoto definitely look very international, and Kawaramachi is one of them. We stopped by a arcade where Wei Wei played a crane machine to try to win a stuffed bear (they guy working the booth told us the trick, which is to try to push it into the drop hole instead of lifting it up). We somehow ended up in an adult part of Kawaramachi, and passed a few host clubs, people that looked like pimps, and an “otaku bar” which we regrettably didn’t go in. We ended up in an izakaya where we got pretty decent-sized glasses of sake, some tofu and some strange fries that tasted like sweet potatoes, with honey and sugar on them.
After that, we both slept for a pretty long time. When we woke up we took the train north for 40 minutes to an onsen, which is a Japanese hotspring. It was basically a public hot tub with enforced nudity where you had to shower before and after and couldn’t fart, talk or move too much. Something about this combination made it a very relaxing experience. It costed us each 10 dollars, and we stayed in it for 30 or 40 minutes until we started feeling woozy from the heat.
It turns out that there are commuter trains between Kyoto and Osaka that only cost about 5 dollars to ride, which made the JR pass seem a lot less valuable. We left Junki’s around 7 PM and took the hour and a half ride over to Osaka on the “Elegant Saloon 8000 Series”. Our apartment in Osaka was similar to Junki’s, but no one else was living there. Many Japanese houses seem to be very small, but they use the space efficiently. For example, the shower is a complete, sealed room, with a dual-purpose shower head / sink. There’s no dryer here for clothes, either.
Our first full day in Osaka was also Wei Wei’s 21st birthday. We got breakfast at a pretty good breakfast place that reminded me a lot of a diner in the US, except that they served the sausages with soy sauce and the eggs are eaten over rice. We then went to the Osaka Art Museum, which had an arrangement up by Ryan Gander, some British artist. Next, we searched for the Pokemon Gym, but first went to the wrong one (which was in a mall in Osaka). The actual gym was a 40 minute train ride north of the city. It turned out to be pretty underwhelming, basically a nostalgic version of Chuck-E-Cheese, in the middle of an expo. We did get to go to a Muji store, which was pretty strange; it was a bunch of regular junk that you’d buy at a 7-11, but with the Muji brand, which made it seem “minimalist” and “good value”. I got some pens to take home, though, because apparently the pens are pretty nice.
We took the train back into town and got food at a restauraunt called Ajinoya, which serves Okonomiyaki, a type of pancake that Osaka is known for. It was really good, with enough vegitables to prevent it from being too heavy. After we left, we happened upon an idol group next to a river which was performing for a huge crowd of people. The group was called “Kamen Joshi”. It was pretty hilarious to watch everyone going so crazy for them. We watched them for a while, then walked around to look at the shops, which were pretty much the same as shops elsewhere, apart from having more anime figurines. When it started to get dark, we went over to the Tempozan Ferris Wheel, which had an amazing view of the city from 100 meters up in the air. 8 of the gondolas were entirely clear, so you could see everything, although we had to wait in line for about 15 minutes to be able to sit in one of them.
While we were staying in Osaka, we took an hour and a half trip on the Shinkansen down to Hiroshima for a day. The city is defined by the atomic blast, so when we visited historical sites, although they looked like they’d been standing since the 17th century, there were usually photos from before and immediately after the bombing showing the original version and how it was completely obliterated. There is one building left standing in ruins in the middle of the city called the A-bomb Dome, which is only standing because the bomb was dropped almost directly overhead, so it didn’t experience much lateral force. We visited the Hiroshima Castle and learned about the history of the city, which has a lot to do with the unification of Japan and the Meiji restoration. We also visited Shukkei-en, a garden which was built by a warlord in the sixteen hundreds. The garden had a huge pond with a ton of koi, and we got some food to feed them. Both the garden and the castle were completely destroyed by the bomb; only one tree in the garden was left standing, and its leaves have since been sent out across the world as a symbol against nuclear proliferation.
Our last full day in Osaka we tried to avoid walking around so much. We went to a park, got ice cream and walked around in the sun. It was a revelation to be able to walk around in a T-shirt and sweat, after mostly cool weather in Kyoto and north of Tokyo. We didn’t go up the Tsutenkaku (a really big tower near where we were staying) but we looked up at it, and it was in fact quite tall. We got more breakfast-type food around noon, then stopped by the fine art museum (which was different from the regular art museum). We took the train over to Universal City because someone had recommended the Takoyaki (octopus ball) museum, although it turned out to just be a couple different shops selling Takoyaki. There were a ton of people there for Universal, though.
At night, we went to something like an Izakaya, except most of the clients were older business people. We got two glasses of Asahi and ordered some different types of meats on sticks. We started talking to two Japanese women sitting next to us, although the conversation was pretty broken because neither of us speak Japanese, and many Japanese people only learn English in schools, like how students in the United States learn Spanish. They were really friendly, though. Afterwards, we walked over to Dotonburi, the downtown area in Osaka, and took in the sights.
We got up pretty early to check out of our AirBnb by 10, and hopped on the Shinkansen to Tokyo. I stopped in Nagoya for a bit, while Wei Wei went straight there. Nagoya seemed pretty similar to Osaka, although they had a pretty huge science museum. I was nervous about going in, because it seemed like a place where understanding Japanese would be important, so I went to the art museum instead, and walked through an exhibit detailing the evolution of photography in Manchoukuo. Between that exhibit and Hiroshima, it made me a lot more aware how prominent World War II seems to be in the Japanese consciousness, even today. I got Nagoya-style ramen, which tasted pretty similar to Osaka-style ramen; my favorite so far is still the ramen in Sapporo.
In Tokyo, we dropped our stuff off in our AirBnb and went over to Shibuya, which is a trendy downtown area perhaps best known for a really crowded intersection. We got sushi form a pretty good resturaunt called Genki Sushi, which was a chain resturaunt but had good prices. You would place an order, and a tray would slide over to your seat with your food - it was very efficient. We then went over to a video arcade to play some games. The top floor, four floors up, was completely devoted to VR games. Most of the games were in Japanese, but we stumbled our way through the instructions. Several people we saw playing before us were very, very skilled, like you might see in a viral YouTube video of someone playing Guitar Hero.
We took the advise of our AirBnB host and decided to check out Sanja Matsuri, a festival in Asakusa. We spent pretty much the entire day there, but it was totally worth it.
I am a pretty big fan of a Japanese hip hop artist called Nujabes. Nujabes unfortunately died in a car accident in 2010 at the age of 36, but not before leaving behind some dope music. Tokyo is home to Usagi Ramen, run by Nujabes’ younger brother Nao, a bit outside the main shopping area in Shibuya. Eating ridiculously delicious ramen with Nujabes songs playing in the background was unforgettable.
After that, we walked over to the National Art Center Tokyo, which was featuring an exhibit on the collected life works of Yayoi Kusama (she’s still alive, but she’s been painting for over fifty years, so it was a pretty impressive collection). Today turned out to be the last day they were hosting it, so it was pretty crowded, which was unusual for an art museum. The first room had about 130 paintings all along the walls, most from 2013 to 2015. The adjoining rooms had some of her earlier works, which showed how she developed as an artist, the period of depression she went through, and all the different types of mediums she experimented with.
Afterwards, we searched out a resturaunt where we could eat Shabu Shabu, which is basically Japanese hot pot. The resturaunt we ended up stumbling into was in a financial district in downtown Tokyo - in other words, with me dressed in a hoodie and soccer shorts and Wei Wei dressed in a jumper, we were not their target clientele. It turns out you can spend a lot of money on Shabu Shabu, and it scales with the quality of the meat. It would be a good place to take clients you were trying to impress. Sixty dollars at Zakuro Nihonbashi got us four pieces of thinly-sliced beef (about two bites each), along with a full multi-course meal for both of us and the waitress’ help figuring out how to eat it. With most of my beef experience being of the hamburger variety, this beef tasted very, very good.
We woke up pretty late, and went to get food in Ueno, a district in Tokyo. We’ve been going to a lot of museums, although we’d been avoiding going to any science museums for fear of not being able to understand anything. We took a chance on the National Museum of Nature and Science, which was definitely worthwhile. While a lot of stuff didn’t have an English translation, there were some pretty interesting pieces, like a huge rock collection, a room full of taxidermied animals, and some scales that Commodore Perry had gifted the shogun when he came to open Japan to the West.
While we were in Akihabara, we went to eat at a McDonalds, since we’d heard that McDonalds was different in Japan from how it was in the United States. I ordered a Teriyaki Burger with fries and a coke, and Wei Wei ordered some kind of Chicken burger. The food was still pretty greasy here, although a different flavor of greasy. It would seem that hamburgers have universal appeal. The portions seemed smaller here than in America; too small for how hungry we were, so afterwards we got Takoyaki elsewhere.
Nippon Professional Baseball, or NPB, officially began in 1934 when Matsutaro Shoriki, founder of Japan’s first commercial television station, drafted a professional team to go barnstorm in the United States (in other words, play against second-tier teams for entertainment purposes). It grew in popularity until in 1949 it was reorganized into the NPB, with two leagues, the Central and Pacific leagues. Today, each league consists of six teams, although there isn’t a clear geographical boundary between the two leagues. Although the NPB is considered less competitive than the MLB, baseball remains an extremely popular sport throught Japan.
We took a 40 minute train down to Yokohama to watch the Yokohama DeNA BayStars take on the Chunichi Dragons, from Nagoya, in the open-air Yokohama Stadium. We got there around 2:00, but the game didn’t start until 6:00, so we whiled away the four hours in the Yokohama Chinatown at an all-you-can-eat resturaunt called 中国飯店フカ eating shrimp and mapo doufu. We got nosebleed tickets for 1900 yen each, and shuffled our way through the crowd of people standing on the very top row of the stadium to find a spot.
Both the home and away fans were pretty wild, and very well-coordinated. It seemed like they picked up on cheers really quickly, although it probably helps if you actually understand them. The Dragons scored two early on, answered right away by the BayStars, then the Dragons got two more. In the bottom of the 9th, the BayStars got runners on first and second, and Tsutsugoh stepped up to the plate; unfortunately, he didn’t connect well enough and sent it straight to the center outfielder. It was a pretty exciting match, though, and definitely a cool experience.
It turned out today was the third and final day of the Blue Light Series, which meant that after the game helpers laid down mats and started setting off fireworks in the middle of the field. Definitely couldn’t have that back in the US!
As the old adage goes,
We’d planned to visit the Ghibli Museum, which was about an hour north of where we were staying, but unfortunately once we got there we found out that it was closed for maintenance this week, without any notice online. So it was a good day waisted! We took the opportunity to go visit Harajuku, since the weather forecast was looking poor for the day we had planned to visit. Harajuku has lots of very expensive food and fashion shops, and a lot of very cool-looking people, so it was good that we visited before the rain started. We visited a shop selling condoms and sex toys, a shop selling way overpriced coffee, and a second-hand store selling pretty cool clothes (I got a hat which Wei Wei thinks is really ugly). We also ate Mitsumame at a cafe. We went back over to Shibuya for dinner and to play some arcade games. All around, we spent a lot of the day traveling - if you don’t get on the express train, or take the wrong branch, travel time can increase a lot. It might have been worth it to drive.
After getting brunch at Usagi Ramen again, we spent my last full day in Japan in Shibuya, perusing Tower Records, a 10 story record shop with all kinds of CDs. I saw the Nujabes section, which included the entire Luv Sic hexology, but unfortunately I don’t own a CD player so it would have been useless to buy one. I think record shops, which mostly transitioned to CDs once CD players became popular, will probably go by the wayside as music shifts to being sold on the internet, but it was neat to visit while it was still a popular hub for Japanese musicians to show off their new releases.
We also visited a miscellaneous shop and got some stationary, then visited a movie theater, but the only movie that was playing when we got there was completely in Japanese, so we didn’t watch it. We went to a craft brewery and tried some Japanese craft beer, which was actually pretty good. Apparently the Japanese craft brewing scene got started in 1994, when the government drastically lowered the legal requirement for how much beer one has to brew in order to be able to sell it, so that the major companies (Sapporo, Asahi and the others) no longer had a stranglehold on the market. Unfortunately, most people still choose to drink those beers, although according to the shop we visited there is a burgeoning interest in craft breweries around the country. The beers we ordered were pretty good, although the IPA was pretty mild compared to American versions (in that it was still drinkable and tasted good, which completely ruins the reason I would drink an IPA).
Afterwards, we went to an Izakaya on the outskirts of Shibuya, which didn’t have any English options at all. We had to use the Optical Character Recognition feature on the Google Translate app to figure out how to order things. It was pretty cool, though - the shop was in the middle of a bunch of love hotels, so it was pretty seedy, which was basically what I was interested in seeing.
Our Airbnb host gave us some of the chowder he made with the fish he and his wife caught from Tokyo Bay. It was delicious! We packed up the room, said our goodbyes, and went out to a waterfront to eat bento boxes and hang out for two hours before I left for the airport. Narita Airport is a pretty long train ride from Tokyo, so I had to leave pretty early.
I was very pleasently surprised by how diverse the country is, in terms of the types of things I was able to experience in each location. Just in Tokyo, there was a huge variety of people and places, but outside Tokyo, in particular Hokkaido, there were more things that challenged my preconceptions about the country. Some bullet points:
There are also some things I was really glad to have been able to do, and hopefully other people visiting Japan can take inspiration. In no particular order: