Notes from the inbox: Japan

I’m experimenting with this radical concept of “getting paid for writing,” truly a new adventure in capitalism. It turns out that this takes approximately five forevers in between all the email exchanges and follow-ups and invoicing and in the meantime, your clip file slowly withers away.

And while our trip provided me with plenty of story ideas, it also means that every time my friends go somewhere, I get to write a new email of trip advice. This is great because I love both talking about traveling and telling people what to do, and now extra great because since I’ve already written something ostensibly for free, it gets to go on the blog without me wondering who would have paid me for it.

It’s an experiment, at least. We’ll see how it pans out, but in the meantime, have some of my thoughts on Japan.

This is also really more “what we did” than “what you should do,” because really, only you know whether you will enjoy a castle tour or how many shrines you want to see or what have you. So much has been written about visiting Japan that I’m just going to skip the easy stuff. You will have a great time regardless of what you do, Japan is easily in my top five countries that we went to on our trip.

Things you should do right now

– Order a JR pass, it’s seriously the best, the shinkansen is speedy and beautiful and goes nearly everywhere.
– Book tickets to the Ghibli museum if you have any interest in that at all. It sells out so far in advance and you can only do it online if you’re out of the country, if you wait until you’re in-country it will probably already have sold out and you have to go use a somewhat confusing kiosk at a convenience store to buy (or not buy) tickets.

Our itinerary

Tokyo – 7 nights
– Tokyo is Tokyo. It is as giant and glittery and neon as you think it is and you will almost certainly feel completely overwhelmed. This is okay. You just have to absorb it for a little bit.
– There is so much to do in Tokyo. It has its own Lonely Planet guidebook. I cannot tell you what you need to do because it honestly just depends on what sort of thing you are interested in. Tourist attractions we went to: Shibuya crossing, Tsukiji fish market, Senso-ji shrine, Meiji-jingu shrine, Harajuku, Cat Street (nice walk, highly recommend), an owl cafe, the base of but not up the Tokyo Tower, Shinjuku Golden Gai, the Robot Restaurant, Ueno Park, Roppongi Hills, Akihabara (though mostly just walked around here), the National Museum
– The Mori museum is probably one of my top 10 museums I have ever been to, especially if they’re still doing their space exhibit, which I loved intensely. And it’s a nice manageable size, unlike the National Museum, which will eat you.
– If you do Tsukiji, which may have moved already, I’m not sure, you really do have to go at like 3 a.m. When they let you into the tiny room to wait, they don’t let you leave again, so get a spot by the wall so you can lean on it and settle in. There is no food until after the auction so show up well-fed and/or with snacks in your bag.
– We didn’t go to Ryokogu, the sumo district, but I hear it was very cool and I think David is still sad we missed this.
– I truly loved the Robot Restaurant despite how touristy it was. It is better with more people, especially people who can be relied on to provide unbridled childlike enthusiasm. You need to commit to being delighted and overstimulated. Buy as many of the sake jars as you need to achieve this, then go out in the Golden Gai afterward and make even more friends.

Nikko – 1 night
– We did this as an overnight. I honestly don’t think I’d do that again since we didn’t actually have enough time to do two days worth of stuff and we could have just done a day trip for the shrine. Book a day tour through your hostel in Tokyo or just go out on your own for the day, the train is easy enough. It is a nice shrine. If you are very lucky you will be there during the hour a day that their resident lucky horse is there.

Kawaguchi-ko – 2 nights
– Small town in the Fuji lakes because I refused to leave Japan without at least seeing Mount Fuji. It is a very lovely lake, but you don’t have enough time for me to recommend this, we had to take I think five trains to get out there.

Nagoya – 2 nights
– We didn’t actually spend a ton of time in Nagoya itself, we got there lateish the first day, spent the next full day going out to a town called Tsumago to walk part of the Nakasendo, an old Japanese highway that in this section runs between two small historic villages, and then left the day after. It’s probably a little tricky to squish in a tight itinerary but I really enjoyed it, the trail is beautiful and it’s nice not to spend your entire time in cities. Nagoya does have a really good Italian restaurant owned by an older Sicilian man who will get very excited if you tell him you’ve been to Sicily, but you definitely won’t be as desperate for pasta as I was at this point so it would be less exciting for you. Also decent shopping.

Takayama – 2 nights
– If I had to pick one smaller place to stop in, it’s probably a tie between here and the Nakasendo. Takayama is very cute and known for being full of sake distilleries and has an excellent market along the river. And a teddy bear museum, which I went to, and a supposedly very nice heritage village museum, which I did not because it was raining.

Kanazawa – 2 nights
– Stopped here mainly for their gardens. The gardens are beautiful and we saw a very cool glass competition exhibit, but again, you have less time, so maybe skip this one. We did discover the world’s second-best melonpan here, so it will always have a special place in my heart.

Osaka – 3 nights
– My second favorite city after Tokyo. It’s much smaller and feels more manageable and you can eat takoyaki everywhere and the main drag downtown is covered in giant food models on the signs. I didn’t get to ride the giant ferris wheel but I really wanted to.
– We did Nara as a day trip from Osaka. You can do it from Kyoto too, but either way, definitely recommend. The giant Buddha shrine is worth seeing, as are the smaller ones further into the woods, and you can feed the deer (though they are very aggressive. One of them bit me. I’m a were-deer now. It’s terribly inconvenient.)
– Also did a stopover at Himeji castle between Osaka and Hiroshima and just got to Hiroshima late. All the train stations have lockers so it’s pretty easy to do this sort of thing. Only you can know if castles are something that entices you, but if they do, this is a good one to go to.

Hiroshima – 4 nights

– We stayed here for so long because we used it as our base for exploring the Inland Sea islands, which I very strongly recommend. We went to Miyajima, home of the floating gate that you see on all the guidebooks, and Okunoshima, aka bunny island. Do you want to have adorable bunnies come running at the sound of a crinkling bag? Of course you do. Though I recently read this might be bad for them so now I feel a little conflicted about it. Miyajima is also great, there is a shrine on the water and one up in the woods that are both really lovely and they have delicious little leaf-shaped cakes and apparently the world’s largest rice paddle.
– Hiroshima itself is smaller and very pleasant. Go the Atomic Dome memorial, walk around the Peace Park, watch the visiting schoolchildren sing songs at the Children’s Memorial full of paper cranes, cry in public, go to the museum, cry more, despair of humanity.

Naoshima – 1
– We didn’t actually stay on the island unfortunately, there’s one hostel and it books up really far in advance. We stayed in Okayama and had to train from the ferry. Tiring and we missed dinner and I ended up eating 7-11 crescent rolls and prepackaged cheese for dinner. Worth it, but I’m also a sucker for large-scale contemporary art. Might be logistically complicated for you, but it is a very cool and slightly more out of the way destination (though certainly not secret, there are many other tourists). They have a giant Yayoi Kusama gourd! And a bunch of houses that are turned into art!

Kyoto – 5 nights
– Very lovely. Also very, very touristy and crowded.
– Tourist attractions we went to: Kiyomizu-dera, Arashiyama bamboo grove and Okochi sanso, Fushimi Inari shrine, Shoren-in temple, Kurama-dera shrine and onsen, the Philosopher’s Path (do this during the day, we did it at night and that was nice enough but I do not think the ideal conditions), Kinkaku-ji
– I’m not sure if they’ll be doing the temple illumination while you’re there or not, it’s only during fall foliage and cherry blossom season, but if they are, that’s definitely worth seeing. We went to Shoren-in at night and it is honestly otherworldly.
– Arashiyama bamboo grove is worth it, though I would guess also worth getting up early for. We did not, and the crowds do throw off your tranquility a bit. Go to the Okochi sanso house at the end of the path.
– Fushimi Inari is also worth it. This is the one you’ve seen everyone Instagram with all the rows of gates up the mountain. Wear good shoes.
– Things here are farther apart than you think they are. If you plan to do multiple big attractions in one day, Google map them first to make sure that’s actually feasible.
– Kurama shrine and onsen are also quite nice though a bit farther out of the city. Fun fact, this is where we were on election day and I made some Japanese women very uncomfortable by crying in the onsen. Try not to do that.

Things you should eat, because I am at least 70% food motivated

– Sushi, all of the sushi, just eat every sushi. Do one of the combo sets at least once to see what you like, but to my slight shame, I still ended up liking the tuna and salmon the best. Maybe I’m just a basic American, who knows, but if it makes you happy, I really can’t overstate the joy of getting an entire board of tuna nigiri.
– Also eat every okonomiyaki. It’s better in the Osaka/Hiroshima area but still pretty good everywhere else.
– Taiyaki. They’re these little fish-shaped pastries with sort of a pancake-y texture filled with stuff – usually cream or red bean paste but it varies. Usually sold as street food. If you’re me, you can also eat them for breakfast. I do not think that’s what they’re for but I’ve never let that stop me.
– They do these set menus in Kyoto (and probably other places but I feel like they were the best in Kyoto and easier to find) that come with tempura (sometimes just veggie, sometimes plus shrimp) and a little cauldron of tofu and pickles and rice that are amazing.
– MELONPAN. Specifically the “second best melonpan in the world” if you can find it, they have a truck in Osaka and a storefront in Kanazawa which I assume means they are a chain. It’s a magical sweet slightly crusty bread that sometimes is also used as an ice cream sandwich. The first best melonpan in the world is allegedly in Asakusa in Tokyo, go track that down and tell me how it is.
– Omurice, which is like a football of rice wrapped in egg and then covered in sauce.
– Curry. Japanese curry is different from Indian curry and best with fried pork cutlet. You will probably feel like you ate a bowling ball afterward. Do it anyway it’s so good.
– The green tea Kit Kats.
– A million small things from different vendors in a department store basement food court
– It’s not my favorite exactly, but the 7-11 rice balls are really pretty good and very reliable in a pinch once you learn which characters mean “tuna” or “salmon.” You’ll have a much better time with rice ball roulette if you eat meat.
– 7-11 also sells this mysterious candy bar that is sometimes shelved with the energy bars despite definitely being chocolate, but it’s called Black Thunder and it tastes like a crispy chocolate bar full of Oreos. I was weirdly obsessed with these. Really just go into 7-11 and buy every snack food that strikes your fancy. (Also, I’ve now googled this, it’s definitely candy.)
– Ramen is notably not on my favorites list but you’re going to end up eating it anyway. I’m just not a ramen person. David was really into it as a carnivore but my pescatarian digestion is too frail. I did like the zaru ramen though, which is separated so you dip the noodles in the broth. And the novelty of the button restaurants is worth trying.

General notes

– The train station people are so smart and helpful. They know everything. Some of the stations even have premade slips where they will fill in the blanks with what trains you need to take and what time your transfers will be. Just ask them if you get lost or need help.
– I felt like a large ungainly troll-alien for our first few days especially until I got desensitized. Japanese women especially in Tokyo always seemed generally very stylish and put-together and I had been living out of a backpack without buying any new clothes for four months. Also if the advertising is any indication, neither David nor I matched any kind of standard of attractiveness. It was a little disorienting for us coming from the Mediterranean where everyone looked like us, if you’re susceptible to that sort of thing. There’s probably a “representation matters” body image thinkpiece in this but I am not the person to write that.
– Accommodation books up quickly. Japan is apparently a nation of planners. Especially if you are going to be somewhere on a Saturday. Generally I value spontaneity in my travels but unfortunately your sleeping arrangements really need to be booked in advance. We never stayed anywhere terrible (which is, I think, more a testament to the cleanliness of Japanese lodgings than to our booking ability) but we definitely ended up farther from stuff than we would have preferred or scrounging for AirBnBs.
– A lot of the historical attractions will offer free tours. Take them! Most of them are done by old men who will almost definitely make a joke about being tour guides because their wives won’t let them lie around the house. It’s like taking a tour with your friend’s kindly grandpa.
– You know how people in Murakami novels are always sitting sadly in diners at 3 in the morning and you don’t understand why they’re in a diner instead of just going home? Turns out it’s because the trains have all stopped running and it’s $100 to take a cab. There is a whole industry that exists around catering to people who missed the last train but don’t want to keep partying. Diners, ramen, manga cafes, love hotels. If you can get a group together I recommend trying it at least once.
– Also try an onsen at least once. Ideally early so that if you love it you can go to more. Note they are full nudity (gender-segregated, obviously) and you have to remember to shower before you get in.
– “Lol everyone in Japan speaks English” is bullshit this was the hardest country for us language-wise. The people in your hostel will speak English and probably the people at the train station (or they will easily find another employee for you who does). That is all that you can rely on. Many restaurants do, but not all. We had to leave restaurants in some small towns because they didn’t have pictures on the menu. I should have just learned how to say “please bring me your most popular/best item” in Japanese despite dietary restrictions. If you need to ask someone something complicated, ask your hostel person to write it in Japanese for you, I carried a piece of paper around in my wallet that said “does this have meat in it” for two weeks because even when I learned how to say it my pronunciation was bad enough that sometimes people did not understand me. Learn some basic vocabulary and people will like you more.
– Almost everyone will probably be exceedingly polite to you. Coming from NYC, this may be discomfiting. Just enjoy it.
– Take and hand things to people with both hands. Even if it’s your credit card. Especially if it’s your credit card. Maybe bow a little bit while you do it. If there is a small tray to put money in instead of handing it to someone, do that.

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