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.