The Essence of Japan
After getting off the plane, I was in hyper survival mode trying to navigate my way from the airport to my hotel. Luckily, I only needed to backtrack once on the way. It’s not too bad at all as there’s English on many of the signs and the people here are very friendly and respectful so I had no problems with asking around. The process was basically go through customs, pick up my portable wifi at the post office, get to the train station, get a ticket for the Kensei line and google maps did the rest! I also picked up a PASMO card, which is just like a metroline card and put about 7000 yen in.
After walking out onto the street from the subway, I stood in awe at the streets, took it all in and realized – holy shit, I’m in Tokyo.
Back at the hotel, it was time to relax and go to the public bathhouse where I learned the Japanese have no shame with nudity. Embrace the culture I say! I stripped down and got in the hot tub with a few other naked dudes… After dipping in the cold bath, I hopped into the sauna where I found a big 50 inch TV and watched some silly Japanese prank show with a few naked dudes. Ah, what wholesome fun.
Woke up at 5AM and got ready for the day. Jetlag? Psh, a little breakfast n’ blog time and I’m ready to go. First stop – Tokyo SkyTree. Incredible 360 views of the entirety of Tokyo, with views of a snowy Mount Fuji to top it off. Speaking with a few locals, I found out I was lucky to have that view as usually there’s a vail of fog surrounding the mountain, especially in the winter time.
Next stop, one of Tokyo’s most popular shrines – Senso-Ji. It’s moments like these where I’d rather stick to my philosophy of going off the beaten path as this was a total tourist trap. Yeah it looked cool and all, but I just wasn’t feeling the vibe that a shrine is supposed to project, which is feelings of Zen-like calmness maybe? Idk, maybe I’m just annoyed over the bad fortune telling I picked out.
Wandering the streets, I considered getting a samurai sword… No, don’t do it George! A chef knife, maybe. This debate continued on in my head until I got to the National Museum of Western Art and Tokyo National Museum. They were alright, idk, history just doesn’t really do it for me. Saw some cool art that I enjoyed though. Feet began to fail me but I’m not one to quit just yet – a stroll through Rikugien Gardens must be had!
Cravings of a nap are screaming in the back of my mind, time to go back to the hostel.
Woken up about 2 hours later by some people arriving into the hostel, I croked hello, and got myself ready for the night. After chatting for a bit they invited me for a drink downstairs. Welp, there goes my plan for expanding my skill in street night photography. I suppose making friends is a good trade-off.
The decision for Korean BBQ was made and off we went into the night. A taxi here, a cab there, and we find ourselves in the Shinjuku Ward, where nightlife seems to ooze out of the city even on a Monday night. After expressing my adoration and inspiration from Anthony Bourdain, the suggestion for bar Albatross was suggested as that was one of his favorite spots in Tokyo. The dark red vibe with as many tiny chandeliers that could be fit on the ceiling, it’s surprisingly easy to feel comfortable in such a tiny area. We practically had to crawl to get to the outdoor ceiling to enjoy a few drinks. Making our way through the claustrophobic streets, we ended up at a club where cheap red-bull vodkas flowed and memories became progressively hazier until I woke up with a splitting headache and feelings of regret. Ah, isn’t alcohol great.
I take an advil, have a coffee with breakfast, and convince myself that everything’s fine; I’m good to go for the day. TeamLabs Interactive Art experience is in store for me today and there’s no way I was missing that. To sum it up, it’s a giant warehouse with projectors covering every wall with trippy visualizations. As headache inducing as it could’ve been, I had a pretty good time; highly recommended if it you’re in Tokyo. That, along with the long commute took up a good portion of the morning, after which my hangover drove me to back to the hostel for a nap.
Feeling a bit better, I set out for a sushi experience by the chef Yasuhiro Fujimori. My understanding was that Michelin stars were involved but website I booked through was misleading. Oh well, in my eyes it could’ve been Michelin starred as the whole of the experience was incredible. One sushi chef, his wife, and just 7 seats made the whole experience feel like you’re at home. Only thing missing was a common language, meh, gestures and smiles work. The couple next to me were great fun, even though I could hardly understand what they were saying. Google translate to the rescue!
Okay now, if you know me at all, you’ll know sea food is not my favorite.. like, at all. I kept an open mind though, as I do enjoy sushi. Well.. the food here was maybe like 40% sashimi, which was really good. Especially knowing the fact that the sushi master was using exactly 82 grains of rice per each roll, according to the couple next to me. The rest, however, was funky sea food that I was trying really hard to like, but eventually just had to straight up say no after one bite of some dishes. Sorry! Chef Fujimori was a good sport about it.
After pictures were taken and goodbyes *ahem* I mean Arigatos were said, I strolled through the streets of Rappongi and took the subway back to the hostel to finally rid myself of the lingering hangover that was not made much better with the sea food, might I add.
Feeling much better, I think I’m able to stomach some more seafood, so I make my to the Tsukiji Fish Outer Markets. Most of the market was re-located to Toyosu but that didn’t interest me as it seemed very modern, almost like a mall. No, I’m here for the raw authenticity only dozens of years of history could provide, built up grease and all.
My pallet wasn’t feeling as adventurous after last night’s escapades so I kept it simple and went for the grilled meat skewer. Nope that was definitely fish, oh right, we’re at a fish market, duh. Ooh strawberry chocolate moshi, I could do that. Hmm, let’s get out of the cold and have a sashimi roll – not bad, but nothing like last night.
Filled up, I made my way to Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden for a stroll to enjoy the scenery, try my hand at garden photography, and have a think.
Afterwards, I made my way over to Shinjuku to check out the giant Japanese camera stores. Maybe there will be good deals? Nope, the gear here is probably about 20% more expensive. Oh well, back to the hostel for nap time!
Time to go to Shibuya crossing to visit one of the main inspirations for coming here – Need for Speed: Tokyo Drift, where Han had his fateful accident. Damn it Han, you were one of the good ones. Anyway, yeah it was definitely a calm night relative to some of the time-lapses I’ve seen.
I then went to Ichiran Ramen for some… well, ramen. Here you just use a vending machine to choose what you want, pay, then sit down at a single booth with walls to segregate yourself. When your food is ready the wall in front of you slides up and your bowl of ramen is handed to you. Want more? Just fill out a form, click a button, and hand it to the mysterious hand. Man, the Japanese have the country really nailed down as an introverts paradise.
Checked out a four story arcade which included a virtual reality floor, then walked around the neon lit streets for a while before heading back to the hostel.
Travel day – went to the JR station to activate my JR pass. Boy oh boy, I should’ve done it yesterday. From what I’ve read, this is the worst time to travel due to the holidays so there was a lot of waiting in line. Also, there was no seat reservations available. Whatever, I didn’t want a window seat to look at Mt Fuji and the countryside while traveling at a blistering 200 mph.
After traversing 300 miles in just 2 hours, I made it to Kyoto where I was meeting up with my roommate Michael. We had decided to stay at this comic capsule hotel, where the capsules were lined with shelves of… yup, you guessed it – comics!
We were both tired from travel so the night was kept low-key. The comics were in Japanese so uh, couldn’t really read them, but flipping through the pictures was fun.
Time to explore a new city! First stop, the most touristy location in town – Fushimi Inari. You know what I’m talking about, I know you’ve seen it on your Instagram feed. Well to get those shots is nearly impossible! There are so many people, and we got there relatively early in the off-season.
Well, due to our natural affinity of conquering mountaintops, we decided to take the loop around to get to the peak, and hopefully find some peace away from the sea of humans. Anyone else think population control is necessary? Never mind. Well, as you can see there were split moments with no-one in the shot so mission accomplished! Others were attempting the same thing so it was funny seeing other’s disappointment as we accidentally got in their shot. Another interesting thing was all the high school girls in Geisha outfits? Not sure what that was about but Michael just had to get a shot with them.
Next up, Nijo Castle. This beautiful work of art, built in the 1600’s, was the residence of some emperor. Not sure who, but I’m glad they made it because the architecture and gardens and whatnot were quite lovely.
Back to the hostel for more naps. Traveling is exhausting okay!
Grabbing some drinks at the hostel, we look outside to see snow. First snowfall of the season in Kyoto, how cozy. With some liquid warmth in us, we venture out into the snowfall for dinner in Gion, the old traditional part of town. Huge snowflakes started to come down and introduced a certain indescribable vibe to the scene. We got lucky.
We didn’t do our research though as we realized all the restaurants in this area were very high-end and required reservations at over $200 a plate. No thanks. Eventually we found ourselves a dinky little spot with a TV at the table, and a child playing with a sword in the corner. Just our type of spot. One thing that was cool was the fact that the table was heated so your food was kept warm. Neat.
Made our way through the wintery wonderland back to the hostel for a night-cap.
First order of business, Macaque park! A 20 minute hike, and you get to see where they live. It’s more of a natural zoo, really. These guys were chill, however, Michael did have an intense encounter in which he stared into ones eyes until it started to widen its eyes with furiosity. The sign specifically says not to stare Michael!!
The effects of travel is taking a toll on Michael, so we decide to take it easy for the night.
Today we make our way to Osaka, the city of the people. One bullet-train ride later and we’re checking in at our hostel. Beds not ready so we get lunch, go to the top of some skyscraper, visit an M.C. Escher exhibit, shop around and go back to the hostel for a mid-day nap.
Woken up by the sound of our door lock opening, we meet a man and a woman at our door… while we were in our beds. Ah, it seems the front desk messed up. Well they pretty damn cool about it, so cool in fact that they came back with a couple of beers for us. Now that I’m wide awake I see that the man has a tiger jacket, yellow sweatpants, orange hat, steely eyed look and a well-groomed mustache. I realize that this is no typical person, and that an interesting night has just been initiated.
Turns out his names Fritz and he’s a naval F-18 pilot for the U.S.S Nimitz stationed in Tokyo. His girlfriend, Dionne, is a freelance makeup artist vagabonding the world. A couple of the more interesting humans I’ve met during my travels, this awesome couple took us out on quite the debaucherous adventure through town.
We made our way snacking and drinking through multiple various tiny little local spots that we’d never go to alone. Meeting the locals along the way, they gratuitously poured drinks down our gullets and we got a good a sense for how much soul these people have. Eventually, Fritz led us to Osaka’s “red light district” where the girls were showcased in open stalls, where you can, ehm, you know.
As we did not have to pay for anyone’s company but our own, we continued on, never stopping for more than a couple drinks at any one spot: a restaurant where you catch your own fish, a racing simulation, a maid bar, then on to an outdoor spot where we highjacked a table with a few friendly Japanese guys. The hosts brought Kimonos as it was cold and in return we hooped and hollered through the night. Ah alcohol, you really bring out the charm in people. With the night blurring, luckily I remember to keep the pictures flowing. Last stop was eel racing or something like that, I don’t think any of us figured out what was going on but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Yakuza was involved.
Oh boy, we weren’t supposed to drink too hard before New Years but we did it anyway. Oh well, we’re young men and this is how your 20’s is supposed to be, right?
Ibuprofen, coffee, breakfast, rinse repeat.
New year’s happens to coincide with Michael’s birthday and so for dinner, we needed to get us some meat sweats. We were served various parts of raw Kobe beef to cook ourselves. What makes this beef so special is the perfect marbling of fat that just melts the meat in your mouth.
On to Namba we went, not before stopping for a drink at a tiny local Karaoke spot. We sang with men that had tear drop tattoos and looked like gang members, but were incredibly nice. So nice in fact, that they paid for our drinks in exchange for “Leonardo DiCaprio’s singing.”
We eventually found our way to some random club recommended by the barmaid (she couldn’t go as she had to go to temple). Japan doesn’t do fireworks on new years so we figured why not spend the night getting overpriced drinks and our ear-drums damaged. Said hello to a guy in the smoking section and his response was to try to kiss me, how nice.
Tired from the previous night’s escapades, it was time to call it. Partying during new years isn’t huge in Japan anyway so I don’t think we missed much.
Another travel day, it took us the entire day to get there. Mostly due to the fact that we missed our stop and had a wait two hours for the next bullet train back. I mean can you blame us? They are so efficient that before us bumbling American’s got out of our seats, the train was moving again. Got to be at the door, ready to go.
The journey was certainly worth it however, as we fell entranced by the beauty of walking through the tiny, snowy village of Nozawa Onsen. The dim lights, the steamy narrow roads cleaned of snow from natural hot spring water flowing through the sewers, the traditional Japanese architecture, how can you not fall in love with this place.
We were able to find our traditional Ryokan and were greeted by a lovely, energetic woman. Through a mix of hand signals and English, we were instructed to take off our shoes and then shuffled into a waiting room with hot tea ready for us. Paperwork done, she guided us to our room and were blown away by just how “traditional” it was. – the straw floor, kimono robes, sliding doors, paper lights, tiny dining table, window with a view of the snowy outdoors.
She then showed us the “Onsen”, which is Japanese for hot spring. They plumbed the natural flowing water through the building to create an indoor and outdoor spa that was just beautiful.
Tired from our Journey, we went to the local market for snacks/beer, ate, then chilled in the outdoor onsen for a bit while a light snow fell.
We had a wake-up call for 8 AM breakfast but had no idea what was in store for us. The lady led us to a small dining room for just the two us with a full spread of traditional Japanese breakfast plates laid out on a hand carved table that was just stunning. The food itself was… kind of funky, but I tried my best to be respectful and stomach it.
Filled up on fish and rice, we were ready to do what we came to do – to SHRED THAT POW! The snow over the last few days had been absolutely piling up and didn’t seem to be stopping. We walked to get our rentals, geared up, and got on a gondola that took us to 5,400 ft. Michael wasn’t very experienced in the art of shredding, so we just had to split up. As they say, there are no friends on a powder day.
The morning was filled with groomers as I got familiar with the mountain. But after a lunch at the top, I found my way to the backcountry area. Ah, the pow, at last we meet. Boy was it fluffy – knee deep, I cruised my way through the snow-laden trees, shouting out a “yew” every so often as prescribed for shredding such gnarly pow. What a day.
Back at the Ryokan, we enjoyed our Apres-Ski, with a couple Sapporo’s, chocolate, and our oh so comfortable kimonos. Another onsen session, this time the snow was falling much heavier, and brought such a cozy vibe as we reflected on our day in the naturally warm water.
Another breakfast similar to yesterdays, and we were ready to sadly pack up and check-out. A three hour bullet train ride later and were back in one of the most populous cities in the world – Tokyo. Our last night together, so we had lunch and napped in preparation for a night out in Shinjuku.
A few street crossings here and there, our hunger leading the way, we end up in a spiral staircase up to a thai food restaurant. We ordered a small plate to keep us from starving and continued on to search for something more Japanese. Ending up in a small restaurant, we see Japanese meats, so we figured why not. Upon ordering we find out it’s horse meat, okay why not, but upon receiving said horse meat, we find it to be raw. Um okay, we cook it ourselves, right? Nope. When in Rome… or Japan, I guess. Honestly it wasn’t to bad, if you can get past the fact that there might be deadly bacteria in it.
Moving on we went to another point of inspiration, the Park Hyatt Hotel, the one Bill Murray stayed at in the movie “Lost in Translation.” A $20 cover charge later and we were sitting right next to the table he sat at. The lady in red wasn’t singing but there was a live singer. Ah, to be a part of the upper echelon of society.
Awesome views of the city were had and we moved on to “Golden Gai.” A block of narrow streets filled with tiny little bars that could seat just a few people. We made our way from bar to bar, meeting and singing with the friendly bartenders and patrons as we went. With our voices tired from Karaoke, we kept the night fairly tame, and made our way back to the hostel as I had a flight to catch in the morning.