We only had two days in Osaka, but based on what little we got to see, Osaka reeked of second city. I don’t necessarily mean that in a negative way, as I love places like Chicago and Montreal, but compared to Tokyo, Osaka definitely felt grittier, smaller, and not as sleek.Our hotel, the enormous City Plaza Hotel, was such a stark contrast to the two intimate ryokans we had stayed at in Kyoto and Nara. In fact, both ryokans could have fit into our hotel’s lobby alone. Our room was filled with light and had a great view of the city.
For our first night, we walked to Dotonbori, a major tourist destination that runs along the Dotonbori canal. Originally a theater district, it is now an eccentric shopping and entertainment area characterized by restaurants and nightlife. At night, the area is quite beautiful, with small footbridges, lanterns lining the canal, and bright lights reflecting on the water. However, with all the tourist crowds and neon billboards, I couldn’t help but think of the Las Vegas strip.
What Dotonbori does have that Las Vegas doesn’t is tons of great street food options. We tried one of Osaka’s specialties, takoyaki, which are wheat flour balls cooked in a molded pan, filled with bits of octopus, pickled ginger, and green onion, then brushed with takoyaki sauce and mayonnaise, and sprinkled with dried bonito shavings. Pretty much every other vendor in Dotonbori sells takoyaki, and a song about takoyaki is even blasted into the streets from various restaurants. We also had okonomiyaki, another Osaka specialty, from one of the restaurants in Dotonbori, which was wonderful. Okonomiyaki are savory pancakes made of flour, grated yam, eggs, shredded cabbage, and a variety of other ingredients, such as seafood or bacon. It is then pan-fried on both sides and often topped with thick okonomiyaki sauce, bonito flakes, pickled ginger, and mayonnaise. I make okonomiyaki at home, but the one we had in Osaka was even better.
My favorite thing at Dotonbori was the Glico store. The Ezaki Glico Company started in 1922, but it wasn’t until 1966 that they released a new product into their family — a chocolate-coated pretzel-like cookie stick. Inspired by the Japanese onomatopoeia for the snapping sound made while eating these crispy sticks, they named their new product “Pocky.” In the beginning, these sticks were each hand-dipped in chocolate, leaving one end of the stick bare. Pocky sticks come in compact and easy-to-carry packaging that made it a perfect on-the-go snack. They can now be found everywhere, and apparently there’s even a Pocky truck that hands out free Pocky around the world. (Why have I not seen this in New York yet??)
The next morning was rainy (and we had left our clear umbrellas in Kyoto), so we hung out at our hotel for a couple of hours and tried our hotel’s natural foot bath. Located outside in front of the lobby, it’s open to the public, which is impressive and notably un-American. We watched one man as he wiped down his wet feet after sitting in the foot bath, put his napkins in a small trash bag (he came prepared!), and suited back up to go to work. I sure wouldn’t mind having a foot bath every morning on my way to work!The rain eventually stopped, so we made our way to Shinsekai, which felt like a less crowded version of Dotonbori. Apparently Shinsekai’s northern half was modeled after Paris’ Montmartre, but we must have only spent time in the southern half, which was modeled after New York’s Coney Island. It was daytime so we didn’t see the neon billboards, but the streets were lined with colorful advertisements, quirky statues, and more restaurants selling the same things. Until pretty recently, Shinsekai had a dangerous reputation owing to its homeless population and criminal activity that existed before the ’90s. However, it felt no different from Coney Island, which I guess is pretty seedy itself.We tried another Osaka specialty, kushikatsu, at one of the many restaurants in Shinsekai. I wasn’t excited too excited for fried food, but I changed my mind as soon as I bit one of the skewers. These deep-fried meat and veggies on sticks are dipped into katsu sauce, which can be found in a tub on each table. A sign on our table said, “Please do not double-dip.” Kushikatsu is the epitome of fried food — light, crispy, and full of flavor. It sure put America’s onion rings and corn dogs to shame.After slumming it in Shinsekai, we decided to do a 180 and walk to Namba Parks, a luxury office and shopping complex with a rooftop garden and amphitheater for live shows. Osaka lacks outdoor parks, so Namba Parks was conceived as a way to add visible green to the city. The structure had a cool canyon design, and the bathrooms were impeccable, but I hope that Osaka continues to build actual parks throughout the city instead of spending money on lavish rooftop ones inside malls.There’s a common saying that in Kyoto, you spend your money on clothes, and in Osaka, you spend your money on food. I have to disagree. While we did see a lot of gorgeous kimonos worn throughout Kyoto, I certainly preferred our kaiseki meals there to the fried food in Osaka. Plus, my favorite Japanese foods (sushi and ramen) are actually specialties of Tokyo, not Osaka. For cheap street food, however, Osaka does win. Perhaps the saying should be changed: “In Kyoto, you spend your money on food and clothes, and in Osaka, you spend just a little money on street food.” I guess that doesn’t have the same ring to it.
Two days was too short to give Osaka the time it deserved, and I think I would have appreciated the city more if we had had a local guide instead of depending on travel books telling us where all the touristy hot spots are. I also think I would have been more impressed by neighborhoods like Dotonbori and Shinsekai if I wasn’t a New Yorker, and if I didn’t think they resembled Las Vegas (the tackiest place in the United States).
I had such a wonderful time in Japan that it would have been nice to return to my favorite city of Tokyo to feel complete before leaving, but it was time for us to head to the next country on our honeymoon: the Philippines, land of our people. Kamusta, Los Baños!Tips for future travelers:
If you liked Tokyo, you’re probably not going to like Osaka as much — and vice versa. Plan your trip (and prepare your heart) accordingly.
After Kyoto, we spent the next couple of days in four different towns. The first town was Arashiyama, a beautiful district an hour west of Kyoto. I highly recommend visiting Arashiyama, even just to walk around for a bit, especially if you’ve spent most of your trip in urban cities like Tokyo and Kyoto. You can take river boat tours, bike through bamboo forests, or ride a scenic railway that runs along the Oi River.
We walked past the postcard-perfect mountains and rivers to visit Arashiyama Monkey Park Iwatayama. After purchasing cheap tickets from the entrance, we had a fifteen-minute uphill hike. It should have been simple, but that day was extremely humid, and we were drenched in sweat in no time. Fortunately, along the trail were huge fans that sprayed mist at us. Once we got to the top, we were greeted with frozen towelettes and an air-conditioned hut. What service! The monkeys are native to Japan and called macaque, or “snow monkey”. The monkeys are free to roam the forest, while humans must be inside the hut to feed them. We bought some nuts and fruits from a vendor and fed the playful monkeys through a wire fence. If you recall from my Tokyo post, I had learned that I was terrified of owls, but these monkeys were too adorable to scare me. As soon as I’d give them a nut to eat, they’d put it in their mouth and then place their hand out for more. Just like spoiled children.
Fushimi, just a five-minute train ride from Kyoto, was our next stop. Anyone who’s been to Kyoto has to visit Fushimi Inari, perhaps the most famous shrine in the world. The Shinto shrine was dedicated to the god of rice and sake in the 8th century and sits at the base of a mountain. The shrine includes over 5,000 vibrant orange torii gates that wind up a mountain. It’s breathtaking to walk through, even with the crowds of tourists.After Fushimi, we made our way to Nara, which was the capital of Japan from 710 to 794. We stayed at another ryokan in Nara, but it was very different from the traditional ryokan we stayed at in Kyoto. The ryokan was called Seikanso, and it’s a great alternative if you’re on a limited budget. For about a third of the price of our Kyoto ryokan, Seikanso gave us a much larger tatami bedroom with a balcony view of the immense courtyard below, as well as kaiseki breakfasts every morning, unlimited tea, and access to an onsen. The reason Seikanso was so much cheaper than Kikokuso was that it’s nontraditional. Seikanso had more than twice as many guest rooms, didn’t offer dinners, and felt much less personal than Kikokuso. The dining rooms were not private, so for breakfast, we had to eat in the same room as another guest (gasp!). It was nice to have both experiences of a traditional ryokan and a more mass-produced ryokan. However, if you only have the chance to do one, definitely splurge a little and go with a traditional ryokan.
There are tons of things to do in Nara, but most people come to see the spotted deer that wander around town. According to legend, a god named Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the capital. Since then, the deer have been regarded as sacred animals. We walked from our convenient ryokan to Nara Park, the best place to see hundreds of deer. Multiple vendors throughout the park sold senbei (Japanese rice crackers) for visitors to feed the deer. We bought a couple of packs, and as soon as the deer heard us unwrap them, they ran toward us. It was intimidating! I had read that if you bow to the deer, they’ll bow back to you, but it didn’t seem to work for me. Anthony loved feeding them so much that he ended up buying five packs of senbei.
We only spent one night in Nara, and the next day we continued our journey and stopped at the Himeji Castle. For those of you who don’t know my husband, he builds intricate Metal Earth 3-D models on his free time. He gets really into them, using tweezers and magnifying glasses, and then hogging counter space in our cramped Brooklyn apartment for his growing collection. He built a model of the Himeji Castle, so of course we had to do a side-trip to the city of Himeji.
Himeji Castle is considered to be Japan’s most beautiful surviving feudal castle and is designated as both a national treasure and a UNESCO world heritage site. It is the largest castle in Japan and has 400 years of history. The graceful white hilltop complex resembles a white heron taking flight, which is why its nickname is the “white heron castle”. It comprises 83 buildings with advanced feudal defensive systems.
As soon as we exited the station, we could see the castle looming in the distance. It was another hot day when we were there, so we greatly appreciated the mist fans scattered outside. It took us a couple of hours to walk through, and we even skipped some sections. We found thousands of loopholes throughout the castle, which allowed warriors armed with archers to fire on attackers without exposing themselves. When we entered the castle, we had to take off our shoes and walk around barefoot. Coincidentally, Anthony was wearing his Himeji Castle socks.
We could tell how well Himeji Castle was designed because the entire structure was filled with natural light and felt cool without air conditioning. It’s a stark difference from the clumsy construction of European castles. After steep staircases, we were rewarded with a gorgeous view of the entire city.
The castle was stunning, but my favorite part of Himeji was our lunch. We were starving, and after a quick Google search, I found us an udon restaurant called Menme. Normally not a huge fan of udon (I’m more of a soba girl), my mind was quickly changed as soon as we entered. I knew the udon would be good because it was a tiny, family-run restaurant that’s been dedicated to making fresh udon for 30 years, and we could watch the two chefs hand-make everything from the open kitchen. Hole-in-the-wall places like these are exactly why I travel.
Stuffed with unbelievable udon (fortunately, it didn’t make me cry like the sashimi in Kyoto), we walked back to the train station and headed to our final stop in Japan. Konnichiwa, Osaka!
Tips for future travelers:
Wear comfortable clothes when going to the monkey park. While it’s a short hike, it is a jungle. You will get sweaty and dirty, and it’s not completely paved.
Try to get to Fushimi Inari as early as possible. When we went, it was completely packed, and we had to wait a few minutes to get decent shots of the shrine.
Drink everything matcha you can find. The matcha trend has been huge in New York lately, but of course it’s still nothing like Japan. I had the most amazing matcha milkshake outside of the Fushimi Inari shrine, as well as an iced matcha from a vending machine in Himeji. Both items would have been four times the price in New York.
I knew I was going to love Kyoto as soon as I booked our ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn) months before. It was pouring when Anthony and I arrived at Kyoto Station. The station opened in 1997 and commemorated Kyoto’s 1,200th anniversary (yes, the city is that old). After a few minutes of hoping the rain would die down, we gave up and purchased an umbrella — one of those cute transparent umbrellas that you can find all over Japan. Huddled under the umbrella, we comically ran through the streets and along an overpass for about ten minutes until we reached our ryokan, Kikokuso.
Kikokuso was everything I had hoped our ryokan would be. There are only four guest rooms, and a charming little family runs everything. We were given a tour of the ryokan, during which we learned about Japan’s intricate shoe customs. We used three different slippers — one pair for the lobby; another pair for the dining room and upstairs; and a third pair for the bathroom.
We were led over a small bridge past a lovely courtyard with a koi pond, then taken upstairs to our room. A sliding door opened up to a large tatami mat room, with a low table set up in the middle. As soon as we settled in, we were given oshibori and served two types of tea (chilled and hot) and azuki sweets that were ornately wrapped like little origami purses. A large sliding door opened up to a balcony with a table and chairs, overlooking the courtyard below. It was perfect.
The best part about staying at a ryokan is the meals you’ll have there. All ryokans provide breakfast, and most also offer dinner. Since I knew the meals would be fantastic at Kikokuso, I scheduled us to eat all our breakfasts and dinners there. The telephone in our room rang when we could come down to the dining room for dinner. Our first dinner was an elaborate kaiseki meal. What a treat to be served an 8-course dinner in our own private dining room! During our first course, which included the most amazing sashimi I’ve ever had, I started crying! Yes, the sashimi made me cry. Some things make you so grateful to be alive, as well as depressed because you know you’ll eventually have to leave. I knew I’d cry in Kyoto, but I really thought it’d be on our last day — not within our first hour. Fortunately, Anthony is used to me being emotional about food.
Crab, shrimp, green bean, soup jelly, mochi, and some other things I don’t know
Shrimp, taro potato, eggplant, miso mackerel, and ginger that you nibble on to get the cleansing ginger juices out
Tempura fish, lotus root, eggplant, and peppers, with a side of unagi coleslaw
When we returned to our room after dinner, we noticed that our hosts had put away the table in the middle of our room, set up mattresses on the tatami floor, and refilled our hot water and tea leaves. We were telephoned again when our onsen (hot spring bath) was ready. We changed into the dark blue yukata robes hanging in the closet. A yukata is a summer kimono, which should be wrapped with the left side over the right side (apparently doing the reverse is for funerals) and secured with an obi sash.
Down in the onsen, we first washed our bodies thoroughly using a hand-held shower head, tiny stools, and wooden buckets. It’s crucial to be completely soap-free before entering an onsen, otherwise you’ll contaminate it. Anthony and I slowly entered the bath, which was designed with rock walls on two sides, and sat in the hot water for about half an hour. It wasn’t as relaxing as we wanted it to be (Anthony hates hot tubs, and I only like hot tubs because of the jets, which don’t exist in the onsen), but we appreciated the custom.
The next morning, we were too excited, as usual, and woke up before our scheduled breakfast at 8 am. Fortunately, our tea was still hot from last night and we still had some azuki cakes from Tokyo, so we lounged on the balcony and planned out our day.
We were called down to breakfast in a different private dining room, with a view of the garden. The kaiseki breakfast consisted of tamagoyaki (egg omelette), tofu, pickled vegetables, rice, miso soup, and lots of tea.
I could have spent our entire time in Kyoto at our ryokan, but eventually it was time to head out and do some exploring. It was still raining, so the ryokan called a cab that took us to Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion. This Zen Buddhist Temple was originally a retirement villa of a powerful shogun (military dictator). Kinkaku-ji was burned down numerous times throughout its history — twice during the Onin War in the 1400s and once in 1950 when it was set on fire by a suicidal monk. The present structure was rebuilt in 1955. The name “kinkaku” is derived from the gold leaf that covers the pavilion. Kinkaku-ji is set in a lush strolling garden and extends over a pond that reflects the building. The main reason we went to Kinkaku-ji was because Anthony had built a Metal Earth model of the pavilion and needed a photo with it, but the the setting was so stunning that I was just as excited to be there. It was still raining, but the rain somehow made everything feel even more sacred.
After Kinkaku-ji, we took another cab to Kiyomizu, a Buddhist temple and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The temple juts out over the hillside and offers stunning views of the city. From above, Kyoto is a lot like Florence — a traditional, culturally-significant city surrounded by mountains. The popular expression “to jump off the stage at Kiyomizu” is the Japanese equivalent of the English expression “to take the plunge.” This refers to an old tradition that if one survives the 13 m jump off the cliff, one’s wish will be granted. 234 jumps were recorded and, of those, 85.4% survived. The practice is now prohibited.
Below the temple is the historic Higashiyama District, my favorite area in Kyoto. We noticed dozens of Japanese women renting kimonos from nearby shops and taking photo shoots at different landmarks. It’s surprising that this trend hasn’t caught on in America yet.
Throughout the neighborhood, touristy shops line the major streets, while side streets have quaint roads, wooden homes, and soothing streams. It’s impossible to walk through without being tempted by all the soft serve vendors and mochi samples. One store offered samples for every single product they sold. We rewarded their generous sample policy by buying a box of mochi strips.
When we felt overwhelmed by all the shops, we stepped into a calm tea house and spontaneously ordered an afternoon tea. We’ve had afternoon teas in quite a few places now — New York, London, Toronto, Honolulu — so I was grateful that this afternoon tea was unique, offering Japanese tea-centric pastries.
On our way back to Kikokuso, we decided to stop by Kyoto Tower for a view of the city. While observatory decks in New York are expensive and usually require advanced tickets, the view from the top of Kyoto Tower was cheap and easily accessible last-minute. The tower is the tallest in the city, which isn’t saying much, considering the rest of Kyoto is fairly short. It was built in the ’60s and is supposed to look like a candle. The tower can withstand earthquakes and typhoons. After buying a few more snacks from a nearby shop, we made our way home, just in time for dinner!
Dinner that night was shabu-shabu, a Japanese hot pot dish of thinly sliced meat and vegetables boiled in water, cooked at the table by the diner. The term is an onomatopoeia, based on the sound emitted when the ingredients are stirred in the cooking pot. Our host cooked the first batch for us, showing us how to properly create the dashi (broth) using kelp, and in what order to add each ingredient. She mixed in tofu, cabbage, seaweed, and three different types of mushrooms. We were able to try two different dipping sauces: ponzu and sesame seed. It was the best shabu-shabu I’ve had!
After another onsen and wonderful night on our tatami floor mattresses, our last meal at the ryokan was a kaiseki breakfast the next morning, this time with grilled salmon and hard-boiled eggs. When it was time to leave, I had a hard time saying good-bye to our hosts and leaving the dreamlike world of Kikokuso. After such personalized, lavish, multi-course meals served with such care, eating in restaurants with actual menus, surrounded by random strangers felt so pedestrian. I’m not sure why Paris and Venice are known as honeymoon cities; when it comes to intimacy and romance, staying in a ryokan in Kyoto takes the (mochi) cake! Next stop: Nara!
Tips for future travelers:
Before your trip, look online to see what your ryokan looks like. Japanese addresses are pretty tricky, so you want to have a good idea of what to look out for.
Staying at a ryokan (a good one, at least) will be pricey. Just suck it up and pay. These places are the equivalents of five-star hotels, plus they will include some of the best meals of your life.
Don’t forget to eat Kyoto’s specialties: tea, kaiseki, and tofu.
Since meals at ryokans are scheduled, always have snacks handy, just in case you get hungry before your scheduled breakfast.
Rent a kimono and take photos at temples or shrines, especially if the weather is nice. The only reason I didn’t rent one and force Anthony to be my fashion photographer was because it was pretty hot when we were there and I didn’t want to sweat all over it. But it sure would have been nice to have those photos.
Some cities make me feel at home immediately, as if I could move to them next year and be completely content. I felt that way the first time I visited New York many years ago, as well as when I visited Milan last summer. I felt that same way when Anthony and I arrived in Tokyo, the first stop on our honeymoon around Asia.
After landing at Narita, we exchanged our vouchers for 7-day Japan Rail passes, which are a must for anyone planning to visit multiple cities in Japan. The passes were created to boost tourism in the country, so only international tourists are allowed to buy these. In fact, when we visited some family friends in Tokyo, they excitedly asked to see what our JR passes looked like since they’ve never been able to purchase them. After receiving our passes, Anthony and I hopped onto the next Narita Express train (N’EX, for short) and enjoyed the comfortable one-hour ride into Tokyo.
We got off at Shinjuku Station, the world’s busiest transportation hub, servicing 3.6 million commuters a day. The clean, spacious station has 36 platforms, elegant shops, and 12 different train lines. We tried not to compare it to New York’s drab Penn Station, with its fast-food chains and homeless people sleeping in every corner.
Our hotel, Shinjuku Granbell Hotel, was a leisurely walk from the station. My goal is to always find hotels that match whatever city I’m visiting, so this sleek boutique hotel, located in the heart of a vibrant neighborhood of neon lights, was perfect for Tokyo. Our room was small — as we expected (and even hoped for) — but was designed efficiently so that the size didn’t bother us.
One of my favorite things about our hotel was that the front desk provided an entire shelf of their personal neighborhood recommendations. Since ramen is a Tokyo specialty, we vowed to eat ramen every night we were there. For our first dinner, we walked a few blocks to Mensho Taketora Honten, a small ramen shop known for its tsukemen (dipping noodles). You know we’re New Yorkers because when we got there, the line outside didn’t phase us at all; in fact, if a restaurant has no wait at prime dinner time, it can’t be that good, right? So, we waited, and it turned out that the line moved quickly, and the restaurant handed out menus and took orders from waiting customers so that our meal would be ready just shortly after being seated. Japanese efficiency!
We were pleased when we were led to bar seats at a counter, where we could watch the ramen being made by hand. The proper way to eat ramen is to eat it as quickly as possible, since noodles only last for a few minutes after they’re added to the hot broth before becoming overcooked and mushy. If you’re a slow eater like me, the best thing you can do is order tsukemen so that the noodles are served separately from the soup. I ordered the ura tsukemen and dipped my fresh noodles into a bowl of thick, spicy broth with roast pork. Before our meal, we were given an oshibori (a hot, damp cloth towel used to wipe hands before and during the meal), which is customary in restaurants around Japan and China. The restaurant also served us complimentary deep-fried noodles before our ramen arrived. These were delicious!
The next morning was pleasant and cool, so we roamed around our neighborhood for breakfast and stumbled into Matsuya, a cheap Japanese chain established in the ’60s, with over 833 restaurants scattered throughout the country. Once you are familiar with Matsuya’s bright circle logo, you’ll notice Matsuyas everywhere. There’s no need to talk to a single person inside, as vending machines flank the entrances. Just choose the pictures of food you want and pay at the vending machine, then sit down at the counter and put your ticket order on the table. A few minutes later, your meal will be placed in front of you. This place is perfect for tourists who can’t speak Japanese! Compared to the grilled salmon, refreshing tofu, and pickled vegetables that Japanese workers can eat at Matsuya, the greasy breakfast foods that American workers gorge on before they rush off to work seem so pitiful.
We continued our walk to Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shōken. On the way, we noticed that almost all businessmen wear white shirts (reminiscent of Paris, where everyone wears only neutral colors — no bright colors allowed!), and there are designated smoking areas around Tokyo. These smoking areas are brilliant! New York needs these desperately, so all those smokers can huddle around and get lung cancer together without affecting my life. Meiji Jingu was first built in 1915 and is located in a 170-acre evergreen forest. The 120,000 trees were donated by people from all parts of Japan when the shrine was established.
We left the serene shrine for Shibuya Crossing, located in a popular shopping district. Shibuya Crossing is often compared to Times Square and is one of the most iconic spots in Tokyo. However, considering it’s “the most crowded intersection in the world,” it didn’t feel much worse than midtown Manhattan on a weekday. (Thanks, New York, for making the rest of world feel kind of underwhelming.) In fact, I’m certain that the only reason Shibuya Crossing is technically more crowded than New York’s intersections is because people in Tokyo don’t jaywalk. In such an efficient, fast-paced city full of pedestrians, it was surprising to us that they don’t jaywalk like New Yorkers (come on, Tokyo, you have my permission!). We went to the famous Starbucks right in the middle of the crossing for the best view. As someone who normally opposes Starbucks, I have to admit that in Japan and the Philippines, this sugary-drink corporation sure has a monopoly on good views.
Most of Shibuya was a bit too commercial for me, but soon we stumbled into Harajuku, still part of Shibuya but filled with smaller, more independent boutiques. Some streets were quaint, with surf shops and quirky cafes, while other streets were wide with designer stores and reminded me of Kalakaua Avenue in Waikiki. Appropriately, we found an Island Vintage (my favorite coffee shop in Hawaii) and an Eggs ‘n Things (a breakfast eatery from Waikiki)! Throughout our time in Japan, we couldn’t help but notice how much Japan seriously loves Hawaii — specifically, Honolulu. Japanese tourists have always been a crucial part of my childhood, so it was fun to see their obsession with my city even in their own country.
On the way back to our hotel, we caught the subway for the first time, and that’s when I once again realized how utterly disappointing America is. Tokyo’s subways are spotless and so easy to use. Signs on the platform say what the previous and the next stations are. Each station is numbered, and so is each exit as you leave the station — this is very convenient for tourists who can’t read Japanese. There are lines painted in the stations, urging pedestrians to walk to their left, and more lines are painted on the platforms, urging commuters to stand in line to enter the train while leaving enough room for commuters exiting the train. On the train, multilingual electronic signs tell you what car you’re in. It must be so frustrating for Japanese tourists who are used to Tokyo’s subway system to come to the U.S. and have to deal with New York’s convoluted one.
We met my dad’s friend Takahiro and his young daughter Asuka at our hotel before going to his home in Nerima, just a 20-minute train ride from us. It was lovely to walk through his neighborhood, filled with quiet streets and groups of schoolchildren, wearing adorable uniforms that almost made me miss my 13 years of embarrassing Sailor Moon outfits. Takahiro’s wife Reiko welcomed us when we arrived at their house. I have so many memories of Takahiro and Reiko visiting my family in Hawaii throughout my life; it was really nice to see them in Japan for a change.
Reiko and Takahiro treated us to a feast for lunch. We started with a sausage plate, moved on to a sushi (we got to make so many hand rolls!), continued to some Osaka-style okonomiyaki, and concluded with chilled azuki jelly and green tea. That sushi bar was one of my favorite experiences in Tokyo. We’d place a large sheet of nori in our left palm, fill it with a small scoop of rice, place a slab of sashimi in top, and roll everything into a cone before dipping it into our wasabi-shoyu mixture. I got very good at putting in the right ratios and carefully rolling everything. I think my new goal in life should be to have monthly sushi parties with my friends.
Anthony’s favorite neighborhood was Asakusa, which started out as an entertainment district for rice traders with disposable income who could enjoy theaters and geisha houses. Asakusa really reminded me of Montmartre in Paris, not only because Asakusa’s geisha past is equivalent to Montmartre’s cabaret past, but because both neighborhoods are now extremely touristy due to their historic charm. We visited the architecturally- stunning Asakusa Tourism & Culture Center, an 8-story building designed to look like a stack of small houses with sloping roofs rising horizontally. The top floor has a small cafe and free observation deck, offering a panoramic view of the city. Then we went to Nakamise Dori, a long shopping street that leads to Sensoji Temple and contains tons of shops selling local snacks and souvenirs. Many of these shops have been run by the same family for generations.
We woke up early the next morning, but not early enough to watch the 5 am fish auction at Tsukiji Fish Market. Regardless, we got there before the huge crowds did and were able to leisurely wander around, trying not to eat everything in sight. Sushi for breakfast at Tsukiji is a must. There are a bunch of restaurant options, and any of them will have better sushi than anything you’ve had in the U.S. — even if you’ve grown up in Honolulu, and even if you’ve been to some of the fanciest sushi restaurants in New York.
Most Americans don’t eat sushi properly. Just like with ramen, the only place you should be eating sushi is at the sushi bar, right in front of the chef. The quality of the fish declines exponentially the longer it sits on your plate, so you want to minimize the amount of time between the sushi chef and your mouth. Use your hands to pick up your sushi, not chopsticks; chopsticks will ruin the perfect form of your sushi made by the chef. At the very best sushi restaurants, the chef will have already put whatever shoyu or wasabi is appropriate on each piece, so you shouldn’t be dipping anything yourself. However, at mid-range places, you might still have to add your own shoyu and wasabi; when this is the case, do not dip your sushi rice side-down because it will fall apart and leave bits of rice in your little sauce bowl. Tilt it, fish side-down, and dip only enough to put a hint of sauce on it. Place it fish side-down on your tongue as well, so you taste the full flavor of the fish. Eat the sushi piece in one bite; breaking it is very rude to the chef, who spent time making the perfect piece for you. Don’t forget to eat ginger between each sushi piece to cleanse your palette.
After stuffing ourselves with as much sushi as possible, we made our way to Akihabara, the electronics and anime neighborhood of Tokyo. The electronics shops are west of the Akihabara Station, while most of the anime shops and maid cafes are to the north. We started with the electronics side and ended up at Yodobashi, an impressive chain store with everything from rice cookers to shoes to food courts. Yodobashi even has a theme song: a lively cover of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. The best part was Yodobashi’s massage chair area. There were about twenty massage chairs just waiting to be tried, and these were the most elaborate massage chairs I’d ever seen. A staff member walked around to make sure no one stayed too long, but we were able to spend about half an hour there — it was like getting a free couple’s massage!
Eventually we felt guilty and had to move on to other things. We left Yodobashi and walked toward the anime section of Akihabara. It was a stark contrast. In this part of town, cosplayers lined the streets, handed out advertisements, and posed for photos. We found refuge in a honey toast cafe and explored quirky shops that sell those crazy Japanese inventions like umbrellas that you can strap onto your shoulder and inflatable phone holders for the bath tub.
Animal cafes are huge in Tokyo, especially since pets are not always possible in such tight living spaces with strict rental agreements. Americans get excited over cat cafes, but Japan has had much more interesting ones for years — hedgehog cafes, rabbit cafes, snake cafes (yikes!), etc. The hedgehog cafe was booked, and a rabbit cafe didn’t sound that intriguing since I used to own a rabbit, so we agreed on an owl cafe called Ikefukuro, in the bustling neighborhood of Ikebukuro. (Yes, the cafe’s name is a play on words since “fukuro” means owl.) The neighborhood of Ikebukuro reminds me of Greenwich Village — previously home to struggling artists but now a hot spot for shopping and dining. We had to make an appointment, and for less than 20 bucks we got to spend an hour interacting with a bunch of owls stationed around the cafe. Some owls were “in training,” which means they are still acclimating to humans and are not ready to be handled yet. Others were able to perch on our fingers or shoulders (depending on their size), and one was even free to roam around the cafe. Anthony was brave enough to handle a couple of owls, but I turned out to be terrified by them! I tried, but every time I got too close to one, I freaked out. Must be the sharp beaks. Maybe the rabbit cafe would have been more my speed.
For our last dinner in Tokyo, we made sure to have ramen again — this time from a restaurant known for its shrimp broth — and finished the evening at our hotel’s rooftop bar, where we toasted the night with Japanese whiskey and sparkling sake.
We had one last day in Tokyo before we needed to catch the shinkansen to Kyoto, so we ventured to Roppongi, a neighborhood known for its night club scene, expat residents, and expensive high-rise complexes called Roppongi Hills. The extravagant but sterile environment really reminded me of Singapore. We went to the Mori Art Museum, a contemporary art museum located on the 53rd floor of the Roppongi Hills complex. We saw a huge installation of paraphernalia from Studio Ghibli, the animation film studio best known for Miyazaki’s films. Eight of Studio Ghibli’s films are among the 15 highest-grossing anime films made in Japan, such as Spirited Away. After the museum, we went up to the Tokyo City View observation deck for stunning 360-degree views of the city.
It’s funny to see Tokyo from above. You can tell Japan peaked in the ’80s because most of the buildings still seem to be from that era. However dated, I was in love with the city. Tokyo is like a large Honolulu, a dignified New York, and snippets of Paris, all in one. I could easily see myself living in some of the neighborhoods we had explored (e.g., Harajuku, Ikebukuro), and yet there were still so many that we had left untouched. We’ll be back, Tokyo. Until then, konnichiwa, Kyoto!
Tips for future travelers:
When in doubt, bow. In Japan, people bow when saying hello and goodbye, when starting and ending a meeting, when thanking and apologizing… The list goes on. To be safe, we just bowed whenever we were greeted at every restaurant, store, and hotel. I’m sure we didn’t follow all the strict rules of this intricate cultural gesture, but since we reeked of American tourist anyway, I think most locals appreciated that we attempted to be as respectful as we could.
My only complaint with Tokyo’s subway system is that it’s divided into two companies: the Tokyo Metro and the Toei Subway. If you don’t want to deal with the headache of figuring out which subway line is owned by which company before each ride, just purchase a ticket that covers both. Here’s a very useful site on how to use the metro.
In Japan, a public restroom may have a high-tech, electronic Toto toilet in one stall, and then a simple squat toilet in the very next stall — what a juxtaposition, right? If you don’t want to use the squat toilet, check the other stalls; it’s very possible there will be a Toto toilet in one of them.
If you’re going to multiple cities in Japan, Tokyo is a great city to start your trip. Almost everyone we met in Tokyo was fluent in English. Not all cities are as English-friendly, so start in Tokyo to get your bearings and practice your Japanese at leisure before heading to the other cities.