Hey everyone! A few days ago I got back from my biggest adventure yet - a two week trip to Japan! This was my first time ever leaving the US (besides going to Canada) so it was a really big step forward for me. It was honestly one of the best experiences of my life. I made so many great new memories and even made a few new friends... all in a country where I can't even speak the native language.
I kept a journal of everything that happened while I was there. I also literally took over 1000 photos and nearly 200 videos. I tried to condense it all down a bit for this blog, but it's still a pretty massive post. Feel free to skim it all and just look at the pictures if you'd like!
(I also took a photo of nearly every meal that I ate. I'm going to toss those all in one gallery down at the bottom).
Day 01: (9/17/2018)
Got dropped off at Cleveland airport. I got through security way faster than usual (there was hardly any line!). I got to the gate early and mostly just sat and looked up stuff about Haneda airport. When I got to MIN airport, boarding already started for the second flight and it was at a gate on the other side of the airport, so I pretty much had to run. When I got there I realized I was finally heading into Japan territory as lots of people there were speaking Japanese. The guy at the gate asked me a bunch of questions (what my job was, how much money I was bringing, why I would want to go to Japan without knowing anyone).
This flight was pretty good (despite being 12 hours long). They had so much free food and drinks! Also they gave out warm towels before the meals and even included free alcohol throughout the flight so I tried a few Japanese beers. They also had a pretty good selection of in-flight movies (like Thor Ragnarok).
Once I got to Haneda, everything went pretty smoothly. Stopped in the bathroom and saw the fancy toilets (as well as one of those ones on the ground that I decided not to use). Went through quarantine, customs, bag check, etc. It was all pretty easy, though they took a fingerprint. Next I went to the currency exchange to get some yen. Then I followed my printout to pick up my wi-fi router. It was easy to find and the router worked great. Saw a bunch of Gacha machines in the airport (including some Pokemon ones!) but they all seemed kinda expensive and not that good, so I figured I’d wait til Akihabara to find better ones.
Went to the train station next. Bought a Pasmo card and put 10,000 Yen on it. Got on the Shinagawa line and headed towards Shimboshi. I accidentally got off a stop too early at Mito (they said Ginza connections should get off but apparently not for my particular stop). I only had to wait like 5 mins for the next train though, so it wasn’t a big deal. At Shimboshi I connected to Ginza line and took it pretty much right to where the hotel is.
Checked in at the hotel and it was really nice (thought the room is definitely small and designed for one person). Took forever to figure out how to turn the air conditioning on and had to use Google translate. Room is on the 18th floor and I have a really nice view right next to my bed. I turned on the TV and saw some Persona looking variety show. There’s also lots of anime (like Lupin) on pretty much all hours of the day. The hotel was really generous with stuff (tea, shampoos, all sorts of bathroom products) and in the lobby they also have a cool machine that dispenses free beer until 9pm. Should definitely take advantage of that!
Even though it was raining, I decided to go out for a bit. I walked across the street to the 7-11 and got to use my first Japanese (it was just arigatou gozimasu but it still felt weird saying it). The guy bowed to me when he gave me my bag and seemed very polite. I bought a beef onigiri (it was okay), some melon bread ( really good!), and a Strong Zero Bitter Apple (also really good and didn’t even taste like alcohol).
I decided to keep going towards the scramble since it was only drizzling, but after a few blocks the rain picked up and I started getting really wet. Stopped at a Family Mart to buy an umbrella (and a Weekly Jump). Seems like everyone around here uses umbrellas so I thought I’d fit in. It was really helpful and I’m glad I got it (though my backpack still got wet somehow and the Jump pages got wet :/). Saw a weird concert happening along the way that I got a short video of. Everyone seemed really happy even though it was raining.
I made it to the Scramble and took some pictures. Was kinda hard to do with an umbrella in one hand. Also saw Hachiko and got a (very bad) picture of that. Might have to go back later to get a better one. It was cool but didn’t seem as crazy as I expected. Maybe I’ve seen too many pictures of it already. Only spent about 5 mins there and headed back. At one point I saw some gangster looking kids crouched down in front of the train station smoking like punks always do in anime. I tried to sneak a picture but they got up before I could get it. On my way back I saw some flashing traffic cones which was kinda cool. And that’s about it for the day. Hopefully I’ll have time for a lot more stuff tomorrow!
Day 02: (9/18/2018)
Started the day off with a few things in Shibuya that I didn’t get to last night. I headed towards Takeshita St first but decided to take the long way through a residential neighborhood. It has very narrow streets and a lot of really cool buildings. I even came across a random shrine in the middle of the small neighborhood.
Takeshita St itself was pretty busy. I didn’t see as many cosplayers as I expected (there was a Spiderman and a few girls in wigs but that was about it). There were a bunch of shops selling trinkets and clothes, but nothing that I felt compelled to go inside and check out. After some debate I decided to buy a kiwi crepe and some white grape aloe juice. Ordering was a bit difficult because I couldn’t understand anything the woman was saying. I also learned that you’re supposed to put money in the little dish thing that they have on the counter. Found a spot to sit and eat the crepe (which was really good! It has ice cream in it).
Headed to Yoyogi Park next. I tried to set up my tripod to take a picture of the front gate, but a policeman came up and yelled at me. Apparently they don’t let you use tripods there. Day 2 and I’m already getting in trouble with the law! Not sure how widespread this rule is but I have a feeling I’ll be taking a lot more selfies than I planned to. Oh well, less to carry around if I leave the tripod in the hotel.
Yoyogi Park itself was really cool! It’s a big forest in the middle of the city. There are two “sidewalks” with a big stone path in the middle, so the path feels very wide and open. Saw some interestingly painted sake drums and a little gift shop where the guy sweeping outside bowed to me on the way out. People here are so polite!
I checked out the main shrine. Outside there’s a little fountain where you’re supposed to take the cup-on-a-stick and wash both hands, then drink the water with your hand. I tried it and I think I did it correctly. At the shrine proper there were people doing some kind of clapping thing while police stood watching. I didn’t want to do it wrong so I didn’t try it, but I did get a video of some people doing the ritual. Kept on walking towards the Treasure Museum & Dojo.
As I crossed a bridge, this older Japanese man approached me and started talking to me in English. He asked where I was from and then started ranting about American politics. He said his name is Asano and he’s a writer. He’s also a homeless guy who lives in the park. He doesn’t like living in Japan (he actually got arrested for his writing in the past) and wants to move to Africa. He said living in Japan is like being in a zoo where the police have too much power. If you get arrested, there’s a 99% chance you will get convicted. I gave him a few coins and he took down my email address and promised to send me PDFs of some of his books. Pretty cool guy!
After that 20+ minute unexpected conversation, I found the Treasure Museum (which was closed) and the Dojo (which was off limits). Since I was a bit behind schedule at this point I decided to leave for Akihabara. That place is just as overwhelmingly cool as I imagined!
First thing I noticed… there are UFO catchers and claw machines everywhere! I went into a Sega arcade and played a few games there. Fate seems super popular but I didn’t play it. I did however play this really cool game where you play as a human personifcation of a boat. The game prints out a collectible card of your character and you can stick it in any machine later to load up your stats. The cabinet itself has a ship wheel that you steer with and a gear shifter that controls how fast you go. Of the dozen or so games that I played, it was definitely my favorite.
I played some magic pen game called Wonderland Wars. The menu selections were cool because you could feel the tip of the pen vibrating, but I selected something wrong and the game ate my 100 Yen coin without actually letting me play. So I moved onto some rhythm games like jubeat (the sound was a bit too quiet) and some weird one where you control 3 girls running down a path together. Decided to play some Initial D on the way out just for another chance to sit down. I went into like 10 arcades during this time period so I don’t remember which was which. I got sooo turned around in Akihabara that I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was going, I was just going from cool building to cool building.
I also played a weird Pokemon game that had you flicking a Pokeball joystick. I thought it was gonna print me a card for the stuff I caught in the game, but I think you needed to put more money in for that. I got some Dragon Ball Heroes cards from a gacha machine. Went into a cool little souvenir shop where I bought a crystal with a hologram in it.
As it started getting late, the maid girls started coming out and advertising their cafes. There were so many of them on every street corner! I even saw one of them with an owl on her shoulder. As I was walking down the street, I spotted some Super Famicom games sitting next to a speaker playing Zelda music. I followed the path into a hidden little basement shop selling lots of old video games. I bought SMT2 and Chrono Trigger there and held off buying anything else because I wanted to save money for Super Potato. (I saw Pokemon Green there but it was pretty expensive).
Next, something pretty crazy happened. As I was walking up and down the street looking for retro game shops, this guy came running around the corner. A shopkeeper came chasing after him, screaming something at him. He caught up to the shoplifter and tackled him less than 10 feet away from where I was standing. He grabbed him by the arm and dragged him off, everyone surprisingly calm at that point. It felt like I was witnessing something out of a movie, almost as if it were a scene being performed just for me. Very strange turn of events.
Finally, I ended my Akihabara shopping trip with a visit to Super Potato. This place had so many cool retro games! And a huge section dedicated to Super Famicom. It took a while to look through everything since the games were lined up book-shelf-style with Japanese labels, but I found a huge haul of stuff that I wanted. Got Dragon Quest VI, Romancing Saga 3, Secret of Mana, Wonder Project, and some Chunsoft adventure game all for under $20. Lastly, I got to try out a Virtual Boy that they had on display. It wasn’t as bad as I expected!
As I left Super Potato, it was pouring rain so I waited in the little brick hallway as I looked up food places within running distance. I settled on a small place called Yaro Ramen where you place your order at a machine and give them a ticket. I had a really hard time since the machine was all in Japanese. One of the workers came over to help because she could tell I was struggling with it. I just ended up pointing at something that looked good and she helped me order it. It was some kind of ramen with slabs of pork on top. I was starving so I ordered a large but that was probably a mistake. It was soooo much food. I didn’t want to offend them so I ate it all anyways and was super stuffed afterwards.
I made my way back to the train station and back to the hotel, grabbed a free beer from the hotel lobby, and went back to my room to rest.
Day 03: (9/19/2018)
Nakano day! After waking up and getting ready, I took the train straight for Nakano Broadway. When I first arrived I was greeted with a long outdoor strip market. After walking the whole stretch, it was pretty cool but I had somewhat of a feeling of “this is it? Why is this place hyped up so much?” ...then I discovered the inside. This place is like the Pacific Mall in Toronto, except 5x as big!
Before anything else I decided I should get something to eat. In the basement of the building I came across a bubble tea place that also had chicken kebabs. Sounded like a good meal, but I got a big confused trying to order. You had to order your food from a machine which prints out a ticket that you hand the guy. I didn’t realize you had to put the money in first, so it wasn’t doing anything and the guy came over to help me. Unfortunately it didn’t accept larger bills, so I only had enough change on me for the bubble tea.
After finishing my banana bubble tea, I wandered around inside for a bit. I walked into an arcade and found a bunch of Dragon Ball Heroes machines! It printed me out a Piccolo card that you place on the screen and move around to move the character on screen. The game wasn’t all that complex, but I’m glad I got the chance to play it. Before doing any shopping, I wanted to get some real food since all I had up to that point was bubble tea. I found a nice little bakery called Bonjour Bon. When you walk in you pick up a little tray and tongs, and then pile up whatever you want to buy. I got some kind of powdered sugar bun and a ham, egg & cheese sandwich. That sando was sooo good!
After eating, it was time to shop! I spent hours wandering around this mall. Every single corner seemed to have a shop with some kind of cool anime stuff. It honestly took all my willpower not to buy everything! One of the main stores here was Mandrake and they had multiple specialized shops on every floor (manga, figures, robots, dolls, retro toys, etc). I came across a bunch of cool DBZ small toys! Most things were pretty reasonably priced compared to Akihabara, and the selection in Nakano was a lot better too.
Around 5pm I had to pull myself away from the shopping to go make my appointment at Robot Restaurant in Shinjuku. The train stations are much different at rush hour! Nakano station was overflowing with people. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that many people walking in every direction. Luckily I managed to squeeze my way onto my train and headed to Shinjuku. Upon arriving there I was greeted with neon lights, huge billboards, and a lot of hustle and bustle. When you think of futuristic, cyberpunk Tokyo, this is definitely the place that you imagine. This place makes Las Vegas look tiny!
I was a bit early so I wandered the streets a bit. The Nigerians were out in full force around this town, and they were extremely pushy and annoying. A couple even tried to put their hand on my shoulder. I was very adamant about being not interested though because if you even show the slightest bit of interest in what they’re saying, they’ll never leave you alone.
After wandering around Shinjuku for a bit, I finally went into the Robot Restaurant. The first thing I noticed is that… hey, people here speak English! It’s very much a tourist targeted show, so there was a huge amount of foreigners around. They had us wait in a fancy gold plated waiting room while a guy in a Daft Punk looking outfit played the piano. After a few minutes of waiting in the lobby, we went downstairs to the show.
The guy I was sitting next to was from San Francisco, and we talked a bit about our experiences in Japan so far. It was kind of nice to be able to just sit and speak English with somebody since it’s been pretty rare so far. The show itself was just as insane as I imagined. Big Power Rangers style battles, lots of smoke and pyro-technics, and a whole lot of neon lights. Overall I found it to be a pretty entertaining experience. People like to talk about how bad this show is, but I found it pretty comparable to a Las Vegas show. And honestly, it was half the price that I paid to see Blue Man Group. So I was pretty satisfied with what it was.
After the show I wandered around Shinjuku a bit more, debating what I wanted to eat. I came across this weird little hot dog shop and bought a sweet rice dog. It was pretty much a deep fried stick of sweet rice that I put ketchup, onion powder, and parmesan cheese on. It was surely super unhealthy, but it tasted pretty good. I briefly considered checking out some of the bars in Shinjuku, but by that point I was pretty exhausted so I headed back to the hotel with my heavy bag full of souvenirs. Day complete!
Day 04: (9/20/2018)
I woke up to cloudy skies and a looming storm. As a good majority of my intended plans for the day involved being outside, I had to get a bit creative with how to structure things. The weather forecast listed the late afternoon as a 90% of rain. ...Not a good day to go to a baseball game.
One place that I really wanted to check out (that is 100% outside) was an old neighborhood in NE Tokyo called Nezu. When I got there, it was certainly as advertised. Where most of Tokyo proper looks modern bordering on futuristic, Nezu definitely felt like it was built in the 1950s. Old buildings, old people... it was an interesting change of pace from the neon jungles of Shinjuku and Shibuya.
Unfortunately, as cool as the neighborhood looked, there really wasn't all that much to do there. I checked out the Nezu shrine, which was pretty similar to the one at Yoyogi. One cool thing about Nezu Shrine is that it has a long row of red torii gates, similar to the infamous Fushimi Inari. As opposed to Fushimi Inari though, this place was pretty much empty so I was able to easily snap a few pictures and videos of the arches without anyone around to get in the way.
After that I decided to get some lunch at Coco Ichibiyana, a highly recommended curry place. I always thought that I didn't like curry, but this place sure proved me wrong - it was delicious! I guess I've only ever really had Indian curry, but this was in a league of its own. As is tradition, I had a hard time communicating with the server. I ordered beef cutlet by pointing at the picture in the menu, but she kept flipping the page and pointing at something else. I think she was trying to warn me that there was also pork in the curry? Either way, whatever they brought me was amazing!
After stuffing my face, I headed west towards the Tokyo Metropolitan Building. Luckily the rain held off while I rode to the 45th floor of the government building so I was able to snap a bunch of really cool pictures.
After leaving the Metropolitan Building, it started to rain. Finally I had a reason to use the umbrella I had been annoyingly carrying around all day! As outdoor activities were out at this point, I decided to check out the Edo-Tokyo Museum. It was only 600 yen to enter and it ended up taking me a few hours to see the whole thing. It definitely felt worth it! There were a bunch of really cool mini village re-creations that had tons of little figures walking around. I always love models with people going about their daily lives, so I was really into that.
The Edo section had lots of cool live size model rooms as well (and a few interactive displays like carriages to sit in and heavy poles to lift). I started to get a bit disinterested towards the end of the Edo section, but then I realized they had another whole half of the museum dedicated to Edo's tranformation into Tokyo and the rise of Tokyo into the modern city that it is today. I found this section to be packed full of really interesting history. From the Great Kanto Earthquake (they had to rebuild most of Tokyo in the 1920s just as they had finished building it up a few decades earlier!) to all of the air strikes during WW2, it's amazing just how battered and bruised this city has been. A really interesting (and tragic) thing that I learned about the Kanto Earthquake is that when it happened, newspapers were pretty much the only way that information was spread... except the earthquake took out all of the newspaper HQs! So misinformation was spreading like crazy, and a lot of the disasters were falsely blamed on the Koreans (who were a colony of Japan at the time). Not sure how a bunch of oppressed Koreans could cause an earthquake, but it caused a lot of chaos at the time and actually led to the rise of the radio broadcast.
There was also a lot of displays about the occupation of Japan by the Americans after WW2. It was a pretty somber section, but it highlighted how the blend of American culture with traditional Japanese values is what lead to Japan's crazy fast rise to becoming a major world power. As an American, it's interesting to see an outside perspective of history. I think I would really enjoy all of the WW2 museums in Hiroshima as well, so I might have to make that a destination if I ever come back to Japan (who am I kidding? WHEN I come back to Japan!). Just as I was getting to the really interesting modern section, I had to get going. Had I known they would have went all the way to present day, I probably wouldn't have spent so much time in the Edo portion. But either way, I still managed to make it through the whole museum, even if I rushed through the last 15 minutes.
And it turns out I rushed for nothing. With no end in sight to the downpour, it was no surprise that the Yakult Swallows game got rained out. I still went to the stadium anyways just to confirm it, but luckily it was right around the corner from my hotel so it wasn't really out of the way.
I was pretty wiped out at this point so I decided to head back to the hotel and chill out for a while. I considered going out for food, but honestly I was still pretty full from lunch. Not sure why but I haven't had a huge appetite on this trip. I want to try more foods but I feel like I just haven't felt the need to eat a lot of big meals (maybe I'm just subconciously trying to avoid more awkward encounters with waitresses who don't speak English!). Either way, that wraps up the first portion of my trip to Tokyo. Tomorrow I head out West!
Day 05: (9/21/2018)
Another wet, rainy day. I woke up earlier than I expected today, so I decided to grab some breakfast (and a poncho) from the Family Mart down the road. I got a salad, some kind of cream donut, and another one of those ham, egg, and cheese sandwiches. After that I checked out of the hotel and made my way to Shinjuku Station. Apparently it's the biggest train station in the world and trying to navigate through there, boy did it feel like it. As my plan was to take the RomanceCar (a long distance train with rows of loveseats, somewhat like an airplane but with more leg-space), this was my first trip not using the standard Tokyo lines. It was a bit confusing finding the right place to go, and I was slightly unsure if I was buying the right thing when I bought my tickets from the machine (I usually just use Pasmo so I don't have to worry about fares). But it all worked out in the end! I had a relaxing hour and a half train ride through the Japanese country-side.
It was pretty neat to get outside of Tokyo. Lots of rice fields (with scarecrows in them!) and river canals. Once I got to Hakone, I had to take a bus to my ryokan (kind of like a bed & breakfast). Some of the roads that the bus drove through were crazy! It frequently had to stop when oncoming cars came by because it was so narrow that we both wouldn't have fit. As there was no end in sight to the rain, I nixed any plans to wander around Hakone and instead I just checked into the ryokan and took a bunch of photos of my room.
This was the first place I've been so far that requires you to take off your shoes. When you get in the building, you change into a pair of slippers that they provide. (Oddly enough they also have a separate pair of sandals to wear in the garden and another pair of slippers you're supposed to wear in the bathroom). Well little did I know that you're not supposed to wear any of the slippers when you get inside your actual room, so I messed up and stepped on the tatami mat with the slippers (to the horror of the woman showing me to my room). I quickly corrected my mistake though and she came into the room and sat next to me at the table to explain everything about food, the onsen, etc. Very personal, dedicated staff so that was a pretty cool difference from a typical hotel.
The room also came with a yukata for us to wear around the ryokan. It took a while for me to figure out how to tie the sash, but it's actually pretty comfortable. Of course I had to take a bunch of photos (and since I was in my own private room, I could actually bring out the tripod without worry!). I still had ah hour or so until dinner, so I decided to take a dip in the hot spring.
Let's just say... being naked outside with other people is a very strange experience. Not sure why, but I had two separate people ask me questions while I was out there (one about where to put the towels and another about where you were supposed to wash off). I guess I looked like I knew what I was doing, but I was just as uncertain about all of the customs as they were. There was only one other guy in the hot spring while I was in there, but even just having one other person in there felt pretty awkward. Aside from the weirdness of the whole thing though, it was actually pretty relaxing.
I found out that in the evenings, you can reserve the hot spring all to yourself for a half hour block. So after getting out, I immediately went to the front desk to book a slot. After that, it was time for dinner. Another woman came to my room with a whole slew of dishes. I politely sat on the cushion at the table while she laid everything out in a very deliberate placement. This meal was huge! It had 8 different courses. Some of it was pretty good, other parts not so much. But I didn't want to offend the chef, so I tried to eat all of it. (I couldn't make it through the shrimp that was looking at me with eyeballs... I think I may have forever lost my appetite for shrimp after that one!). There was also a lot of fish that was pretty tough for me to get through, but some of it wasn't as bad as I expected. I think my favorite parts though were the pheasant, the sweet potatoes, and the miso soup. The pheasant came in a pot with a leaf in it that the server put over a flame and told me to let cook for 5 minutes. After the five minutes I stupidly touched the handles on the pot and burnt my fingers (still kinda stings!). But it tasted good so it was worth it.
After dinner, I headed to the onsen for a private night time outdoor bath. Having the whole place to myself was much more relaxing. Without having to avert my eyes, I could just kick back and enjoy the nice hot water on a cool late summer evening. It felt so good that the 30 minutes flew by in a flash. I'm hoping to wake up early enough to see the sunrise tomorrow (it's at 5:30 AM so ha! Fat chance!). But it would be nice to see it rise over the mountains, so we'll see how it goes. For now, it's time to drift off to sleep in my nice comfy futon!
Day 06: (9/22/2018)
Well I woke up at 5:30, glanced out the window and saw it was pretty cloudy, then immediately went back to bed. I slept for another hour or two before waking up and planning out my day. Good thing I woke up early because a guy came to my room a good 20 mins before breakfast to clean up the futon for me. Afterwards, the woman from dinner came back with another giant feast of a breakfast. I think I enjoyed dinner a bit more, but breakfast had a few decent things as well. The vegetable plate, the tofu, and anything with egg in it was pretty good. There was also some tasty round thing that I asked the server what it was called, but she didn't know the English name. She punched something into her phone and showed me that it was called "the warehouse." ...Probably not the most accurate translation.
Before leaving Hakone I wanted to have one more dip in the bath, so I tried out the indoor hot spring this time. Luckily I came early enough that I didn't have to share it with anyone. As I was leaving to board the bus, one of my favorite memories from the entire trip happened. I stood outside waiting for my bus for about 15 minutes and once the bus arrived and I began boarding, the well-dressed older gentleman from the ryokan came rushing out the door to send me off on my way. The smile on his face and his kind voice ("ariiiigaaaaatooooo gooooziiiimaaaaaasu") as he waved goodbye still warms my heart thinking about it. The inn was such a nice, welcoming place and I would definitely recommend it to other people visiting Japan.
Next came my first experience with the Shinkansen (bullet train). Before heading on the train, I bought a few snacks from a bakery (some kind of bacon bread and another melonpan) and went to the platform. Now for the embarrassing part... The tickets I bought were for non-reserved seats, meaning that I didn't have an assigned seat. Certain cars are reserved and others are non-reserved, but I had no idea how to tell which would be where. I made an educated guess and lined up near car 15, but when the train arrived I realized it was a reserved one. Not wanting to miss boarding by running down the platform, I just hopped in at car 15 and figured I'd sort it out once on board. Of course, the non-reserved cars on this particular train were 1-5, so I had to walk all the way down the train (with my huge heavy luggage) to get to car 5. This was pretty unpleasant and embarrassing as I bumped my way through everyone (got to really try out my "sumimasens" here). Took about 20 mins until I found a seat, but I eventually found one and had a pretty uneventful ride into Osaka.
I got to Osaka in the late afternoon, and after checking into my hotel I decided to check out Nipponbashi (the "Den Den" electric town). It seemed a bit small at first glance after witnessing Akihabara and Nakano, but there were actually some pretty cool retro game shops and figure stores here. I bought a few more Super Famicom games, then it was off to downtown Osaka to meet up with some folks I met on Reddit - a guy and a girl from Denver. We went into a small ramen joint and bought our meals using the ticket system. I got a cold ramen that was a bit spicy but really tasty. We all got beers and shared our stories of our travels so far. After that, we decided to go to a few more bars and explore the nightlife. We went into an Irish pub and the woman there was really surprised when I spoke Japanese ("Why are you speaking Japanese? You can speak English here").
After that we made our way to a small, cozy bar with couches and stuffed animals all over the place. Met some pretty cool people there (a local from Osaka, a guy from North Africa, and even an expat from Brazil). We stayed here for a while, then decided to roam around with our new group. We went into another small bar that had a karaoke machine. Got a few drinks there and sang karaoke for a while. Next, we went to a small local place on the second floor above the first bar. They clearly didn't get many non-Japanese patrons and all of the other people in the bar were super interested in talking to us. The bar tender hit one of the patrons on the head and told him to give up his seat for us. Then the random patrons of the bar started taking our order while talking to us. It was a very weird experience with everyone watching us, but it was a fun place.
We eventually went our separate ways and I headed back to my hotel. Since it was like 3am by this point, the trains had stopped running and I had to walk back. No big deal I thought, only a 20 minute walk... but somehow I got a bit lost and it took me a solid hour and a half to find my way back. I got back to the hotel as the sun was rising and I only had 3% battery left, but it was a really fun experience so it was all worth it.
Day 07: (9/23/2018)
After that big party night, it was no surprise that I slept in pretty late the following day. I don't think I actually got out and about until after 2pm. I decided to check out what Osaka Bay had to offer. I heard there was a nice little food market there that had a good variety of choices.
Down near the big ferris wheel, there was a lot of hustle and bustle. It seemed like a ton of families were in the area with their small children (must have been because it was Sunday). With all these families around, I found that everyone moved much slower and didn't seem as polite or concerned with walking on the correct side of the road.
Outside the aquarium there was some kind of police orchestra playing music. They were really good so I stuck around for a while to listen. Inside the big mall area, I got some okonomiyaki from a small little mom'n'pop restaurant. The portion was pretty huge! They didn't cut it up that much so I'm not really sure the proper way to eat it (I kinda chopped it up with my chopsticks but that seemed wrong). They put these weird fishy flake things on top of it that wave around on their own (I think triggered by the heat). It was super weird. Overall, the dish was only okay. The sauce was a bit too overwhelming for me, but I'm glad I tried it.
I went upstairs and got a snack from a popcorn shop that specialized in having over 30 flavors of popcorn. I got the sweet potato kind but there were a lot of other weird ones too. After that I decided to pop open Pokemon Go only to discover that there was a Mewtwo raid happening right outside the aquarium. I followed the map to a raid happening a few hundred feet away at a nearby park. Over there I found a TON of people all playing at once. It was pretty cool to be able to go to a random place and find a bunch of people all playing Pokemon Go together.
For dinner, I decided to head to Dotonbori night market. That place was super packed! I walked up and down the street a few times and snapped some photos of all the cool signs. I ended up getting some takoyaki from a small little food stall. It was... decent. Chewy squid inside a deepfried ball, covered in that same overwhelming sauce as the okoyonmaki. Takoyaki was one of the main foods I wanted to try in Japan, so it was a bit of a letdown. As that was just a snack, I also decided to head inside a wagyu beef place for a more proper meal. This place was on the second floor of a building and I was definitely the only non-Japanese person in there. I got a hamburg with corn and a skewer with 2 pieces of wagyu beef on it. Both things were really delicious! That was some of the best beef I've ever eaten in my life. Also, eating corn with chopsticks is kind of a challenge since you have to pick up each kernel individually. I managed to handle it really well though and felt really proud of my chopstick skills at that moment.
Before calling it a night, I did a bit more exploring of Nipponbashi to see some of the stores that I had missed. I bought some Gameboy games (Pokemon Green and For the Frog the Bell Tolls!) as well as a Japanese Super Gameboy. I also found the best anime figure shop from my entire trip! They had two rooms full of glass containers, each one jam packed with decently priced figures. They had an interesting system where each glass box had a label on it and each figure had a number, so you filled out a little card with the figures you wanted and took it up to the counter. Pretty good idea! After all that I went back to my hotel and called it a night.
Day 08: (9/24/2018)
After checking out of my hotel in Osaka, it was off to Kyoto! This was only about an hour train trip, so I still had a decent amount of time to do stuff once I got there (though I'm glad I didn't have to make that journey every day like I originally planned!). I checked into the Monterey Hotel in Kyoto and it was really nice! They gave free bottled water and even included a free cell phone that I could take with me to make phone calls and look up maps! After checking in, my first order of business was getting some lunch. I found a nice little dumpling place called Tiger Gyoza Hall. I got some pan-fried pork gyoza and got a little bit adventurous with some spicy black meat dumplings. Luckily they weren't too spicy and the meal ended up being super delicious!
With a full belly I walked down the street to the Kyoto International Museum of Manga. It was 800 yen to get in and it was a really neat little place. It was originally a grade school built in the 1800s, but it had to shut down in the early 2000s due to a declining population of kids in Kyoto. The headmaster of the school was a big fan of manga and had a really big personal collection, so he decided to turn the school into a museum. They had a huge library of manga and all of it was free to read. It was really cool to see people of all ages sitting around out in the schoolyard reading manga. They even had a few things in English and other languages. There was also an interesting room that went from the dawn of manga in the 1950s all the way up to present day, telling interesting facts about it along the way. I spent a lot of time at this place and really enjoyed the exhibit.
Once I left the museum I decided to check out some temples. I went East to walk around a bit in Maruyama Park. There were supposed to be some old temples and cool things to see there, so it seemed like a good place to just wander around and get lost. Unfortunately by the time I got there, the temples were all closed so I couldn't actually go inside. But I got some nice pictures of the outside area. Also a cool video of a guy playing a flute while his dog wandered around collecting tips. I grabbed some strawberry ice cream from a vending machine and headed over towards Gion. This was a pretty neat part of town known for being the Geisha District. I spotted one very briefly and kinda got a video of her, but I guess they're pretty shy and don't like walking around in public much. I was meeting up for dinner with people later, so I killed some time in Gion playing Pokemon Go. I tried another Mewtwo raid... and actually caught one this time! I was so excited to be able to leave Japan with this "souvenir."
After this intense Pokemon battle, it was time for dinner. I met up with two guys from the LINE tourist group. We wandered around Gion for a while trying to find something good to eat. A lot of the places we checked out seemed to be full, with really long waits. We finally settled on a small teppanyaki place similar to the places in the US where the chefs do tricks at your table. My main meal was pork and some kind of soft potatoes. Because we had to wait a while, the chef also brought out some free edamame (and showed me the right way to eat it. Apparently you’re not supposed to eat the outside skin, which is probably why I never liked it before!).
After dinner, we went to a nearby Family Mart and picked up a few Strong Zeroes. We found a nice little spot alongside the river and sat there, drinking and chatting about our travels. It was a really nice, relaxing night and probably one of the best memories of the trip. Overall it was a really fun first night in Kyoto.
Day 09: (9/25/2018)
Woke up a little bit late after the long night (around noon or so). I made plans with the others to head to Fushimi Inari around 4, so I wanted to squeeze one little trip in before that. Grabbed a BLT from Lawson's, then I decided to check out the Toei Kyoto Studio Park that had been recommended to me. It was actually a bit of a journey to get there, since it was way out in West Kyoto. I had to do a decent bit of walking through a small neighborhood after getting off at the train stop (and at one point accidentally ended up on someone's front porch). Once I got there, I realized that tickets were a bit more expensive than I expected (2200 yen if I remember correctly). Considering most of the attractions cost money on top of that, I'm not so sure the park was worth the cost of admission. But I got a bunch of good photos there so I'm still pretty happy that I went.
The outside of the park was pretty interesting. It is a recreation of an old Edo style town that movie studios frequently use for filming samurai films. They were actually filming while I was there, so there were certain parts that were off limits and you had to keep your voice down when you got near them. Some of the attractions sounded fun (ninja house, shuriken throwing games, and mazes) but I didn't want to pay more than I already did so I just walked past. There were a bunch of cool ninja statues to take dumb photos with (and even an animatronic one that climbed over the city on a wire). There were also a few indoor attractions that ended up being pretty neat, including a super sentai exhibit (most known in the West from the 90s Power Rangers series). They had a timeline of the genre tracing its roots all the way back to the Godzilla movies of the 1950s. Most surprising to me though was that "Power Rangers" has basically existed since the 70s and the one that I grew up with as a kid was actually like the 10th iteration of the series! I had no idea it had been going on for so long before then! They had a ton of the suits on display, and of course I had to get a photo with the Red Ranger that I obsessed over so much as a kid. I think I got some of my favorite photos in this little exhibit so I'm glad I noticed it before heading out.
After that, it was off to Fushimi Inari. I made the long 45 minute trek that way and met up with my new friends. I got there a little bit before anyone else so I walked into town and got a tayaki (tasty little fish-shaped pastry filled with bean paste). Met up with the others and walked around the shrine area and the infamous red arches. It was just as crowded and hard to get pictures as I imagined. We eventually came upon an area that was somewhat blocked off but seemed to lead up to the main part of the mountain. It was a little bit muddy but definitely still walkable. We climbed up the mountain for a good 45 mins or so, getting lots of good photos on the way up. We also saw a bunch of stray cats.
Once we made it to the top, we were greeted with a great view of Kyoto. We got there right at sunset so it was a really beautiful sight to take in. We got some great photos and celebrated our victory... only to discover that this wasn't actually the top. It was only station #6 of 14, and there was another estimated 45 minutes to go if we wanted to reach the true top of the mountain! Well it was starting to get dark at that point and we were pretty exhausted, so we decided to pretend we made it to the top and call it a day there. We walked back down to the shrine at the foot of the mountain made our way over towards Gion to grab some food.
It took us a while but we eventually settled on a place that seemed to have a pretty big variety of choices. Upon ordering though, it seemed to have a lot of different courses in small portions, kind of like my meal in Hakone. I ordered some mushrooms since I liked the ones from the night before so much. Unfortunately these were served cold and tasted kind of gross. I also got beef sukiyaki which was a sort of beef soup that came with a raw egg. Considering this was my most expensive meal up to that point, I was kind of disappointed in it. Afterwards we went back to the really nice spot on the river and had another relaxing night taking in the sights. After that, we called it an early night to get ready for the early morning adventure that awaited us the next day.
Day 10: (9/26/2018)
This super long day started with waking up at 6:45 AM, the earliest I got up in all of the trip. Since it was my last day in Kyoto, I had to check out of the hotel at 11 AM. I still wanted to see the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove before leaving though, so some of the others and I planned to meet up there at 7:30.
Once the others arrived, we entered the bamboo forest. It was a pretty cool place with all of the trees planted very close together. All of the fences in the forest were also made from bamboo which was pretty neat. The bamboo was very sturdy too. I knocked on a piece of it and it felt like a pipe. Shows just how powerful that typhoon was because there were a good bit of fallen bamboo stalks in the area that were completely demolished and splintered into pieces. We made our way to a little garden area that cost 500 yen to get in. It had some really nice views with lots of plants and a little pond full of koi fish. I imagine the place would look beautiful in the fall.
After a bit more walking around, we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. I checked out of my hotel and then it was off to Kyoto Station to catch the Shinkansen back to Tokyo! This time I boarded the train in the correct car and found a seat easily. It was a pretty uneventful ride with a bit of napping on the way. I had a prime window seat on the correct side of the train to see Mt Fuji as we went past, but unfortunately it was too cloudy so I couldn't really see it. Still got some cool train-riding videos along the way.
Next I checked into my final hotel - the Prince Park Tower in Minato. This place was a giant building surrounded by a little park and located right beside the Tokyo Tower. Walking into this fancy lobby full of guys in suits, wearing my shorts and sandals, I was clearly out of place. The workers were very friendly and two ladies came up to my room with me to carry my heavy suitcase and give me a tour of the room. The room was honestly pretty crazy. When you walked into the bathroom there was a motion sensor that automatically lifts the toilet seat cover for you! I definitely felt like I was living in the future now! Another weird thing about this hotel was just how polite the workers were. As I walked down the hall I passed by a janitor in the middle of polishing something. He literally stopped what he was doing, turned to face me, and bowed to me as I walked by. To be honest, it made me a bit uncomfortable.
Anyways, now that I was back in Tokyo it was time to start doing stuff! Having arrived too late to go to the Tokyo Tower, I headed to the Shonen Jump 50th Anniversary art exhibit in Roppongi. It started to rain pretty hard on my way there so luckily I had my trusty umbrella from the first day.
When I got to the art gallery, they had a ton of strict rules. No photos except in certain areas, and even in those areas you could only use cameras on your phone. Also for some reason they made me wear my backpack on my stomach. On the way in, the woman at the ticket counter seemed surprised to see a non-Japanese person who was familiar with Jump. They had a lot of cool displays with tons of original manga drawings from late 90s Shonen Jump all the way up through present day. I was familiar with roughly 90% of the series, but I did discover a few new ones so that was cool. I think One Piece, Hunter x Hunter, and Death Note seemed like the most popular rooms. Overall the exhibit wasn't much more than some manga pages with descriptions next to them, but it was cool to see all of this manga celebrated in a legitimate art museum.
Afterwards, I headed off towards Shinjuku to meet up with my Denver friends who had also recently made their way from Kansai to Tokyo. We wandered around for a little bit before quickly deciding on a nice cook-your-own Wagyu beef place. This was easily the most expensive meal of my trip (over 5,000 yen!) but it was also possibly the most delicious. There was a good variety of meats and vegetables and we took turns being the "grill master." By the time we left, it was pouring rain. We quickly ran to shelter at a weird little cave bar. The outside was made of rock and you literally had to duck down to enter the door. Once inside, you head down a flight of stairs into a homely little place in the basement. It was a fun place to hang out (even if it was mostly empty) and it was a nice place to hide from the rain.
Ended the night by playing some card games in their hotel room, then walked back to my own hotel for some well deserved sleep.
Day 11: (9/27/2018)
With it being my last full day in Japan, I woke up looking to make the most of it. First stop on the agenda was the One Piece exhibit at Tokyo Tower! I used my umbrella for the walk over, but as it was going to clear up in the evening I tossed it in a corner of the Tokyo Tower fully realizing someone would probably take it (they did). I bought my ticket and headed into the 3 floor One Piece attraction!
The first thing you're greeted with is an awesome 360-degree video with all of the Strawhat pirates introducing the concept of the place (it's supposed to be a newly discovered island). After that, you're set free to walk around the exhibit area. The first room has big life-size statues of the Strawhats drinking and being merry with voice overs playing on the PA system. As someone who has been really into One Piece since before high school, seeing something like this in person seriously sent chills down my spine. Next I went up to the second floor where they have all of the games and attractions.
I played a sword swinging motion-control game, a slingshot game where you hurl rubber balls at wooden figures, walked through a haunted house, and visited a life-size recreation of the Thousand Sunny (the crew's pirate ship). Next on the agenda was an elaborate scavenger hunt with Nico Robin. They give you a Den Den Mushi (giant snail phone) to carry around the exhibit to find all of the hidden messages before the 30 minute timer runs out. It took me a good 15 mins before I even found my first hidden symbol, but once I got that one I managed to find quite a few more before time ran out. I ended up with a Rookie rank (4th highest of 6). Before moving onto the final floor, I tried out Nami's casino which was a big game show style group event. Everyone sits at a table that has 4 different colored buttons. You bet on 3 events which are all games of chance (races and guessing games). Anyone who managed to get over a certain amount of points got a prize, but most of us ended the game with 0 points.
Lastly, I went up to the 3rd floor where they had a bunch of artwork displayed on the wall. They also had Luffy's attraction here which was a 25 minute long tour through the world of One Piece. They had some cool 3D recreations of scenes from the series, and it all ended with a cool 10 minute animation short about Luffy fighting Law. It was on a curved super wide screen and different events in the animation triggered things like light flashes and fog & water to be shot at the crowd. Afterwards I found a Persona 5 shop downstairs. I bought a cheap poster for 500 yen then made my way to Odaiba for the TeamLab Bordless Art Exhibit.
When I got to Odaiba I wandered through a weird futuristic car exhibit before finding my way to the TeamLab entrance. Luckily it was open late so I had a solid 2.5 hours to check it out. I have to say, this place was absolutely incredible! There are no maps or intended viewing order, they just want you to wander around and get lost in the audio visual overload. I walked through a butterfly garden that had projections of butterflies on the walls, the ceiling, the floor, everywhere. This room eventually changed projections too so at one point it's a forest, the next the floor turns into a flowing river. Very cool way to encourage people to go back to the same rooms later.
There was a room full of mirrors and crystal planks. Another was a "cave" that messes with your sense of space by changing perspectives. The second floor had the "Athletic Forest" which was a giant room with lizard and frog projections everywhere. This room had a big slide that left rainbow streaks behind as you slid down it. There was also a huge trampoline floor that visually responded to your bouncing (I just had to give that one a try!) There was an area with giant glowing balloons that everyone threw at each other. My favorite of all though was this little room with a mirror floor and laser emitters on every wall and ceiling. There was a crazy light show happening in there set to music. You know those crazy abstract MP3 visualizers (like Winamp or Windows Media Player) that display weird patterns along with your music? It seriously felt like I was inside one of those. Very trippy and enchanting. So much so that I returned here at the end and watched every single one of their songs before I left.
By the time I left the Digital Art Museum, it was already dark. Before leaving Odaiba, I had to make one last detour at the giant Gundam statue. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to get any good photos of it since it was so dark out... little did I know, the thing was even better at night! I got some cool pictures of it all lit up, then sat on the nearby steps to figure out my dinner plans. Then all of a sudden, an episode of Gundam Unicorn started playing on a giant projection screen on the building behind the Gundam. The mech statue then started transforming in line with the animation! Parts started popping out of the arms and legs, all sorts of things on the robot lit up, and most impressive of all, a giant unicorn horn emerged from the top of the head! There were so many people gathered around watching it, in a trance as they all frantically tried to film the crazy sequence on their phones. It was really cool.
After that, I caught a train to Ginza where I planned to get something to eat. Throughout the trip I hadn't eaten any tempura so I figured that would be a good last dinner. I found a place on the map with great reviews so I headed that way... only to realize that it was on the second floor of a dark building and the door seemed to be locked. It was getting late and I was running out of options, so I finally settled on a more fast food style tempura place nearby. It was cheap, gave you a lot of food, and tasted better than expected. I got some kind of combo platter (their most expensive thing, but was still only like $11) that included fried chicken, shrimp, and veggies with a side of rice and noodles. I even ordered some sake which I expected to be a little glass... instead it was a whole bottle! It was way too intense for me and I only drank half of it. Not wanting them to realize I had wasted sake, I sneakily poured the rest into the leftover broth from my noodle soup (even though you could TOTALLY smell the alcohol in the soup now, so much for being sneaky).
It was a nice filling last dinner in Japan, even if it wasn't exactly what I had planned. By that point I was exhausted and ready to just pack my bags, so I went back to my hotel to rest.
Day 12: (9/28/2018)
Not much to write about for my last day. Typhoon Tamil was on its way, but luckily from Tokyo you couldn't even tell. Not a cloud in the sky! After leaving the hotel, I lugged my heavy bag down the street and decided to repeat my favorite meal for lunch... CoCo Ichibanya! Got some pork cutlet with my curry this time and enjoyed a delicious last meal in Tokyo.
Went straight to the airport after that. Not sure what caused it, but I also experienced my first big train delay (luckily there was still like 5 hours til my flight so I was in no rush). Got to the airport, dropped my pocket wi-fi in the mailbox, exchanged my yen for USD (as much as they would take at least), and tried to dump the rest of my coins into a vending machine. I bought a few interesting drinks with my big stash of 10 yen coins and stuffed them into my suitcase. Went through security (it was very quick and not that crowded!), boarded my plane, and settled in for the long 12 hour flight.
There was a lot of turbulence (probably due to the looming typhoon) but we got there almost an hour early so I wasn't gonna complain. Watched more movies on the plane, had a bunch of good food again, slept for a bit, and eventually made it back home safely. What a journey! This was easily one of the best experiences of my life and I am so glad that I had the opportunity to make this dream trip into a reality. Here's hoping I get the chance to go back again some day!
Here is a collection of the many meals I ate on my trip.
(I'll add the names of everything later!)