My very first Shinkansen ride brought me to Kyoto just about 2 weeks ago. The ride was incredible and Kyoto held many wonders. The Kyoto central train station is truly something to behold.
Day 1 (first full day)
We woke up early and headed to Nara and the famed Tōdai-ji temple. The deer, long believed to be divine messengers have free run of the area around the many temples and are nothing short of the cutest thing ever. We fed a few and I pet a few and I got several snouts and antlers shoved up my butt, but we all know I love that hot antler action. The temple was crowded, but the crowds were overshadowed by the enormity and history behind Tōdai-ji. Truly a wonder to behold. Dragonflies danced in the air as we walked around.
Let us not speak of Universal Studios. The trauma is still too recent, the feelings too raw. No, there were certainly wonders to behold there and we ended the day watching a spectacular One Piece live show, but I struggled with the heat and the crowds and the consumerism.
We stayed in Kyoto for our third day and visited Nijō Castle. The floors inside were built to squeak to warn of intruders. The ancient wood massaged my feet as we walked around looking at amazing gold leaf murals. I saw a monster snake swimming in one of the garden’s ponds and relaxed to the ever-present sounds of cicadas all around me. After a good deal of time at the castle we took the subway back down to Nishiki Market – a narrow walkway in the heart of the city that runs several blocks. It is filled with wonderful little gifts and homemade local foods. And just a block over from that is another walkway with more shopping and arcades and restaurants.
On our fourth day in Kyoto my friend and I endeavored to get away from the crowds and headed to Ohara. It worked. The bus drops you off across the street from a bamboo forest. The path turns narrow very quickly and winds along a little creek on one side and quaint shops on the other. I really found bliss here walking the curved pathway and looking at the locals and their wares. The Sanzen-in temple was so gorgeous, but the gardens and forests around it really inspire. We spent a great deal of time wandering mossy pathways and taking in sights I can’t even begin to describe. It is almost as though I didn’t know what green was until I beheld Sanzen-in. While there we also enjoyed some special tea made with seaweed, nettles, seasalt and gold leaf. On the walk back to our bus I bought and ate the world’s greatest pickle. No joke. The best pickle of my life. We also encountered two of the cutest middle school boys who needed our help with their summer break homework. This day could not have been better.
On day 5 we met my true love, Osaka. I’m not really sure how to even describe the feelings I had there, but I felt welcomed and at home. Sometimes a city’s energy will speak to you immediately and this was the case with Osaka. The place had a grittier feel than any other place I have experienced in Japan. It also was the first place in which I saw many people with tattoos and a funkier style. I enjoyed shopping there and the coffee. It was like each store I went into was more welcoming and more amazing than the last.
On day 6 I got to see my dear friend weep tears of joy as we took in Hemeji castle. She had been dreaming of visiting for many years and once you see the place you can understand being overcome with emotion. As we started the long walk through town to Hemeji Castle my thoughts were we would be able to explore the grounds outside and take some breath-taking photos, but I was not prepared to be allowed to go inside, and not just go inside, but explore every floor, all the way to the top. The history here is a bit overwhelming and inspiring at the same time. I wish that I wasn’t focused so much on the hole in my sock, but it gives me a chuckle now to think about walking around inside a beautiful piece of history and cursing my sock and feeling that everyone is looking at me and judging it, but…look – at least I’m honest.
I get a bit confused remembering everything that we experienced and when because I feel we crammed quite a bit in 3 weeks, but one night we sat on the river in Kyoto with many locals and looked at fireworks and caught Pokémon and walked a glorious alley filled with lively people and restaurants and dodged bats.
We saw the golden and silver temples in Kyoto and I was a sweaty sardine on a bus and a woman crammed her umbrella into my left testicle so hard that I saw stars. But then my friend took me back to Osaka and I forgot all about it because Osaka.
I think there was a day 8 too and I got mixed up. Where am I? So, on the 8th or 9th day we headed back to Tokyo on the Shinkansen and I saw the hottest cop in the whole world. (Japanese men with muscles make my head spin around)
We had three more days in Tokyo and got to hit most of our favorite spots, but the beauty was – we were back in Shinjuku and both feeling a little more comfortable with the area, with the language, (me just a tiny bit) and feeling a lot at home. Our hotel was beautiful, and we were on the top floor of the Hotel Century Southern Tower. Our view was spectacular and the staff was phenomenal. Words can’t even describe the glory of the all you can eat buffet in the lobby restaurant either. I would write a song about it if I could write songs. We got to visit our friend Maiko and her nee bundle of joy, Skye… And we come to the end, to the return to the United States and louder, ruder people, to streets NOT filled with anime ads, to misbehaving children and coffee that is good, but not perfect. Look, I get that it is annoying to hear about this stuff when you’re my friend and American, but once you fall in love with Japan and its people, there is no going back. My friend told her co-workers of her love and loss regarding Japan: “It’s like you only get to see your spouse every 8 months” – but he still sees other people. Sometimes people you know even go and hook up with him and you have to see it on social media and you aren’t hurt. You understand and know that you’ll be reunited soon.
It seems as though I will be returning to Japan each year with my college friend Kelly. I am currently smack dab in the middle of our second trip and this time we are squeezing much more in and staying a bit longer.
Day one was a half day, (if that) but we managed to settle in and head straight out to Shibuya and our beloved arcades. We also snagged some Om-Rice. Rice omlettes are one of my favorite things and I never get them at home. Day two found us heading to Ikibukuro to check out an Ace (One Piece) Popup shop in the P Parco shopping mall. Kelly also snagged some goods at the Evangelian shop while I walked around drooling over sweatshorts of all things. My hiking and recent workouts have gifted me with better legs and I may have only packed shorts and also picked up several new pairs while here. Seriously, there are shorts everywhere in our hotel room.
Next, we headed to Roppongi (my first time there as last time we sort of avoided the potential for fellow American sightings) and to the Studio Ghibli exhibit. It was gorgeous, but very, very jam packed with people. After a look around we headed up to the roof for a glorious 360 degree skyline view that I never thought I’d have the chance to take in and to top it off, no one else was there!
We followed this up with a pile of suck in the form of hedgehogs. I was told hedgehogs were cute and not porcupine rats. I pricked my finger, got a rash and my friend got bit, all while following the hedgehog holding rules. The little buggers are well taken care of, but their nocturnal nature combined with being over-stimlated might have worked against us. We high-tailed it out of there in 15 minutes and ten of those were spent frantically washing our arms.
Day three became another glorious day spent exhalting that which brought us closer together and part of why we come to Japan – One Piece! We went to The Tokyo One Piece Tower theme park and played some games, watched an updated live show and pigged out on campy, but amazing themed food! I had a sugar headache, but it was worth it.
Following a full day at the tower and after a brief rest – MIDNIGHT PREMIERE SHOWING OF THE ONE PIECE FILM GOLD MOVIE!! We watched without English subtitles, but fully understood and loved it the same. Also, experiencing a movie with a full theater with mostly only Japanese people is the best thing you could do for yourself. You see, they are there to watch the film and want to respect it and pay attention to it and want to respect your enjoyment of it as well. Imagine!
Day 4 found us rushing off to Harajuku for giggly pancakes after two friends on social media demanded that I go. They were amazing. Amazing. And pancakes aren’t really my thing. We chatted up some cute gay boys next to us and headed out for more shopping.
Cafe Gram’s specialty pancakes delight the senses.
After a full day spent mostly shopping and eating I went for a run around the goverment buildings in Shinjuku. I wasn’t entriely sure that I was allowed to be there, so I tread carefully and even ran slowly by some security guards, but they were unfazed. The early evening colors and the light rain had me on cloud nine and just as I was about to head home a large group of runners waved for me to join them. I was exhausted, but it felt cool, so I kept up with them for a bit before heading home with the biggest, dopiest grin on my face.
Day 5 – off to Odaiba! Kelly heard tell of a new Jump Shop as well as a One Piece attraction at Summer Festival, and we found both. Kelly got me a Sanji shirt and herself and her friends some awesome treats before we headed over to the Summer Festival. The One Piece stuff was cool, but the DMM Planets exhibit by TeamLab was incredible! You take your shoes off to enter and are given a waterproof pouch for your phone. At this point I had no idea what to expect, but was already so hype. We walked through some water to cleanse our feet before jumping into a black room with a bean bag-like floor. Immediately people were laughing and hopping around and it was like being a little kid again. After the black room came a room with mirrored floors and walls and thousands upon thousands of fiber optic light strands. They surround you and pulse with light to the beats of beautiful, almost other-worldly music and sounds. We enjoyed this for quite some time before heading through more dark hallways and to helpful staff ensuring that our pants are rolled up enough as we entered milky, knee-deep waters alive with colorful light koi that burst into flowers when you touch them. Like, What? Insane and beautiful. At this point I thought this must be the finalé so I lingered because I didn’t want it to end, but no! There was one more room! Another mirrored floor sits below a mirrored dome alive with falling plants and flower petals. The room seems to spin as I Iie on the floor against a kidney shaped bean bag. I’ve reached Nirvana.
At this point I get a little fuzzy. I know that I convinced Kelly to get off at the WRONG Shibuya stop and her gps is telling us conflicting things, but we find our way through a really cool Shibuya neighborhood that is much more quaint than the Shibuya I know, but it’s awesome and I like being lost. I also know that we went to see One Piece Film Gold again and met an awesome French girl, but it had subtitles and the Chinese and American audience was much louder. We went to Penguin park and to a Toy Fair on our last day and got to see all kinds of toys that will be released in the coming year. Honestly both of us lost our minds over some of the reveals, but I’ll spare you those details and leave you with images of my favorites.
That’s all for now. Part II will talk about Kyoto and Osaka and Part III will focus on my final days back in Tokyo.
It was already evening when my friend Kelly and I arrived in Japan so we stayed close to the hotel and explored the immediate area of Hatagaya. I loaded up on Japanese snacks at the 7-11 and even got an anime toy and then we went for Ramen, but settled on pizza. It was actually quite incredible.
For my first morning my friend and I headed to Nakano and the Sun Mall for a little shopping and arcade action. I loved the train station – wide open and gorgeous. After we finished several hours of shopping we headed to Akihabara and to the owl cafe. Nothing will ever compare. Like 20 kinds of owls and we got to pet and hold them and everyone there was so nice.
The Akihabara stop is also amazing. Soon after 5 it clears out quite a bit and I was able to stand on the skywalk alone to relax and take pictures. This area is also filled with arcades and anime stores and I went a little nuts.
We finished a little early and went to the famed scramble crossing in Shibuya. It is the most people I have ever been around in my life, but I never felt overwhelmed or crowded in. No one bumped into me and I didn’t feel in the way. It was being part of one, huge being. We liked it so much we crossed 3 times.
The following day we went to a traditional Kabuki performance based on One Piece, the anime we both love. Words cannot even begin to describe it. The costumes, the story, the energy in the room, the effects. Glorious. I cried more than I have in years.
Honest to goodness huge Buddhist temples on the following day. A huge incense pit smokes in your face as you receive blessings. You throw a hundred yen coin into these grates in front of the caged golden statues and ask for more blessings. I asked for one for my friend I was with and one for my love, Jeff. I felt diZzy both times so I think it worked!
Also went back to scramble crossing to meet Maiko and she took us to lunch. She was so nice and wonderful and I fell in love. Kelly and I stopped into the Mugiwara store to stock up on some much needed One Piece merch. Kelly did anyway. I mostly just ogled the ridiculously hot Zoro statue.
I saw a man pushing a cart full of Persian cats and some of the coolest clothes ever.And also had Thanksgiving at this place, Pompompurin – this cartoon dog cafe that is yellow. Like, yellow everywhere and all the food is cute. It’s cool that you can be a grown man eating there and no one cares.
Though I am such a nature freak I did not want really want to leave the city. I mean, it’s clean and orderly and doesn’t feel at all as crowded as it is and it is filled with kind people, anime toys and videos playing on huge screens, so why leave? But Kelly insisted we do my nature thing, so we took a 2 hour bullet train to Nikko. The train went through farm lands and snow covered mountains began to come into view an hour into the trip. I had no idea that we would be heading into those very mountains. After a quick transfer to a much more rustic train we arrived in Nikko. We boarded a bus and were told to get off at the 26th stop. After stop 19 the bus climbed straight up the mountain and Kelly became pretty ill and nervous. The switchbacks were no joke. She likened the road to cooked spaghetti. Waterfalls and snow covered peaks surrounded us. After 45 minutes of torture for her, excitement for me we were dropped off at snowy, icy Lake Chūzenji. We were there in search of an ancient temple with a huge carving of Kannon inside. The wind was blowing icy snow into our faces with such force that it felt like hundreds of needles jabbing our skin. We found the temple after a half an hour, in frozen pain, but laughing the whole time. We were the only ones there and were treated to an amazing tour of the enormous space and the statute – it had been carved out of an ancient tree all the way into the root system. The trees there are all connected and considered divine so people rub them and pray to them. The temple sits right on the shore of the glorious alpine lake and the winds were whipping the waves 20 feet onto the shore. (I got to witness a group of Chinese tourists drenched with a rogue wave just as we were leaving) The walk back to the bus was far more pleasant as the wind was at our backs. At the bus stop an Australian man had touched the bus schedule to his lips and it froze there and ripped off a huge chunk of his lower lip so we smiled and tried to not act disgusted. There was a lot of blood.
We got off the bus a little early and explored more temples, one of which is the oldest in the country. It was closed early that day, but is under construction anyway, so we didn’t feel we missed out. I made Kelly walk all the way back to the train station because it seemed close. It was miles.
We were not able to take a bullet train home so the train ride was closer to 3 and a half hours, but I found these consummé punch potato chips, so those made me so happy that I barely noticed the time as I ate them slowly. I didn’t actually eat them slowly, I inhaled them and Kelly yelled at me for not buying more.
Somehow when we returned after a long day of travel we still had the energy to go out to an arcade and I won a toy that I have wanted for months on the 2nd try in one of those UFO catcher machines because, you know – I haven’t purchased enough toys already.
Yesterday we got up and explored Yoyogi Park, next to Harajuku. Inside is the Meji Shrine and we got to see a beautiful wedding processional.
Afterwards we ate a “70s themed American diner” with Japanese food and hamburgers. I ate curry rice wih chicken, what I almost always crave. Everyone was Japanese though and chain smoking. 80s music was playing. Harajuku is strange and wonderful. Also in Harajuku they have shirts with American expressions but they are off just a bit. One had a bulldog on a skateboard and it said “must be learning skateboard to be cool” Another said “after midnight party” and was woven into a sweater. They’re all so wonderful. I bought a shirt with lots of images of Ariel the little mermaid and Alice, but with goth style and tatted up and it says “lov bitch, I lov e”
I found it so strange that though it’s MORE crowded than New York, it is also so much cleaner and more organized and no one ever bumps into you. Ever. I think it’s because people are generally less self-involved, but more self aware than we Americans are.
After that awesome morning in the park and Harajuku we set out for the neighborhood with all the anime museums and toys and arcades. I bought Kelly a toy that is normally $250 for $20 because she had been lusting after it days before. And then we just happened to run into this anime toy expo where they were unveiling next years toys! My friend and I both had small panic attacks due to the glory, the awesomeness.
Our penultimate day there was spent in Odaiba where we enjoyed time with friends, dinner at the Baratie and a ride on one of the world’s largest Ferris Wheels, Daikanrasha. At the top we could see Mt Fuji in the distance. Such a magical feeling seeing the enormous, gorgeous city with the majestic mountain in the distance. The top of the Ferris wheel was also a little painful for me because of a heart breaking moment in Plastic Memories, one of my favorite shows. I cried a little.
And I cried much more a day and a half later when I boarded the bus to the airport to leave Japan. In fact most of the plane ride home was tear-filled. There is good news though, there is hope. My friend and I are returning for a much, much longer visit in late July through mid August.