Tokyo, Japan!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


We've been back from Japan for more than a week now, but it feels like much longer. So much has hit us hard in our world and the greater world that the trip, and beautiful, surreal Japan, feel too good to have been true. I kept telling Brian, and Japanese people we met (the few that understood English!) didn't oppose it, that Japan feels like a utopia to me — it's unbelievably safe, clean, cultured, sophisticated, beautiful. To no surprise, I didn't want to leave. 

For years now, B and I have talked about how much we wanted to visit Japan, but we thought it had to remain a dream. We were brainstorming trips this past spring when our friends Jessica and Johnny said they were going to Tokyo and Kyoto. We told them how badly we hoped to go one day, and they told us how they found super decently priced tickets. We searched and found the same (thanks J&J!!!)! So we booked it, and I'm so glad we did.

But as soon as we booked, I started to get a bit nervous! I've been far from home before (doesn't get much further than Australia!) and have been to Asia once (Singapore!), but the idea of being so far away in such a bustling, busy city like Tokyo intimidated me. I thought I prefer quaint cafes on cobblestone streets. I knew I'd have to go out of my comfort zone a bit (one friend likened Japan to "visiting a different planet" and I can definitely see that), but I'm so glad I did. Japan exceeded all of my expectations, and we had such an incredible time. Here's a glimpse of some of the things we learned, our favorite moments and what we would have done differently :)







I've left out photos of our first Airbnb and the night we got there, but as I mentioned on my Instagram, we got there to find no bed (or bedroom) and a strange shower situation (a bathtub with no drain, the water drained to the bathroom floor...). We ended up making it work (technically it wasn't the listing's fault...), sleeping on couch cushions (but there was no couch!) in the open space between the kitchen and bathroom. At the end of the day, it makes for yet another funny travel story ;)

Our first stop the next day was Harajuku, the center of Japanese youth culture and fashion, which I've been obsessed with since Gwen Stefani had Harajuku girls as backup dancers (which, can you believe, was in 2004?!?!?). In Japan, there's a term that's a prominent aspect of Japanese culture, it's called "kawaii" — it basically means cute or adorable. Kawaii is part of everything (even the garbage trucks in Japan were so, so cute), and Harajuku is the kawaii capital of the country. It's basically what my dreams are made of.

We started our day at an owl cafe, where we played with and fed lots of big and little owls. They were so cute and gentle! We wanted to go to a hedgehog cafe, too, but we ran out of time ;(



I love Japanese food I've tried in the States (sushi, ramen, tempura, etc.), but I was worried I'd go hungry in Japan since English is limited and I can be a picky eater. But, not only was all the Japanese food out of this world, they also did so many things you wouldn't expect (like crepes!) better than so many other places.



I mean look at this cotton candy!!! I belong in Harajuku, guys! I left part of me on Takeshita Street <3



It was pouring nonstop the first day, so we hid out and hung our rain jackets to dry at this tiny ramen spot. It was the perfect cozy lunch and the best ramen we've ever had.




We tried to go to the Meiji Shrine (the most popular Shinto shrine in Tokyo), which is dedicated to the emperor who opened Japan to the West, but it was under renovation. Still, it was so wonderfully serene (not colorful or flashy like the other shrines we went to, and much less of a tourist trap then Senso-ji, the big Buddhist temple we went to a few days later). My favorite part of every shrine was the cleansing station where you dip into a communal water tank and purify your hands and mouth before going in to pray. So peaceful. And this shrine had beautiful sake barrels from centuries ago.



I'm a breakfast person and rely on my morning meal and coffee to get me started for the day and learned the hard way on our first few mornings in Japan that breakfast options are pretty minimal. Unless you'd like to eat ramen or curry for breakfast, you're kind of out of luck. Or you can be the biggest tourist and find the best donut chain there is ;)



There are vending machines on every block, which B was a big fan of (someone bring this drink to the U.S.!) since it was so hot most days. Some of the vending machines even had alcohol. You have to be 20 to drink, but it seems to be based on the honesty policy, though people take it very seriously. Drinking (at all) and driving is illegal, and restaurant menus state that servers have the right to not serve you if they feel you've had too many.



We LOVED the Tokyo Food Show and found ourselves walking around again and again. There are so many cool vendors and interesting foods, you forget that you're in the basement of a department store. We had lunch plans, so we settled on a snack (chicken, we think?), but you could eat there for weeks and never get tired of it. Also, Japan has huge grapes.



I can't wrap my head around how big Tokyo is. It's ginormous. And Shibuya Crossing is the busiest intersection in the world. It feels like a giant beating heart, sending people in all directions with every pulsing light change. Nothing says "Welcome to Tokyo" like this place (and, if you go, the best view to see it is from upstairs the Starbucks across the street!).



Brian loved this stuff. I had a hard time getting behind something that looks milky and has the word "pis" in it, but it's admittedly delicious.




I loved all the little stores and coffee shops everywhere, like this cafe that could only fit one customer at a time.



This guy was doing a great job being a security guard :) That said, I've never been somewhere that has felt as safe as Japan. B said that if he was a woman he'd live there in a heartbeat. I think we tend to feel safe on vacation because we're staying in touristy areas and are also blissfully unaware, but Japan was very obviously different from the U.S., especially Chicago, and people we met agreed, saying it's the number one thing they value about Japan.





We had so many amazing meals in Tokyo, but Uobei blew us away. You order sushi via touch-screen (and it's dirt cheap ... less than $1 a plate) and it appears in front of you at lightening speed. It's not your traditional sushi train where the plates ride on a slow conveyor belt for hours on end; it's futuristic! It was so tasty (Brian ate 7 plates!) and so cool.



Oh, just people dressed up as Mario Kart characters, Mario Kart-ing down Tokyo's busiest streets. On a Monday.




We took the train to Tokyo's Setagaya district one afternoon to check out the Gotokuji Buddhist temple. It was such a quiet area, we couldn't believe it was still part of Tokyo. The photo of the lady on the bike is one of many I snapped on our trip because so many people bike in Japan and so many bike with two kids. I was in awe of all the women biking multiple kids around on packed streets! What we found interesting, however, is that Japanese kids (of all ages, like, kindergartners!) take the train and walk to school alone. Kids also run errands by themselves. We'd read about it before, but seeing it in person (in their cute little uniforms!) was neat and made us envious, again, of how safe every neighborhood is.




Gotokuji Temple is filled with hundreds of bright white beckoning cats! It's the birthplace of maneki-neko (the good luck cat you see in lots of Asian restaurants and shops). They're a symbol of the area and you see them all over the neighborhood. We had to buy one, of course ;)



We enjoyed Japanese beers at this bar for a few hours because our feet hurt so, so bad! So much walking!

Another random thing we learned: We noticed that many shops sold small washcloths (in many adorable colors and patterns), but it took us some time to understand why until we started to connect the dots. First off, most public restrooms do not have paper towels or a hand dryer, and while I was stuck wiping my hands on my pants, the Japanese women would use their own washcloth to dry their hands off. The washcloths also came in handy on hot days to wipe away any signs of sweat (one serious perk of Tokyo was how clean and odorless it was, even when it was hot and the subway cars were packed, no one smelled or even looked sweaty! Except us).






We were so moved by the sushi trains earlier that day, we decided we weren't ordering via a waiter or waitress anymore ;) Since English was so minimal everywhere, this new philosophy worked in our favor because we could look at photos and use translator apps at our own pace when ordering off a vending machine here.




There were only American and European tourists at this French toast restaurant, but guys, it was phenomenal. No regrets.





We had heard from friends that had visited Tokyo before that it's very orderly, but you have to see it to believe it. We were amazed at how people stood in line, in silence, waiting for trains (that always arrive on time) and how you always stay in your lane when walking or standing on an escalator. No one would be on their phone when walking, and train rides, while packed, were silent. Also, no trash (and no trash cans!) anywhere in sight, but lockers everywhere to store your suitcase, bags or coats while you're out and about (perfect for if your hotel or Airbnb makes you checkout early!).








We missed the wholesale auction on our first visit to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market (you have to go early, whoops!), but we still got to check out lots of vendors and sample the best orange juice and strawberry mochi. We also had the freshest sushi for lunch, conveyor belt style (which in Japanese is kaiten-zushi, or sushi-go-round, ha!)








I mentioned above that the Senso-ji temple was packed, but there's good reason for that. It's so colorful and has amazing history (it was built in 645 and is Tokyo's oldest temple), it's worth fighting the crowds to see. We didn't last long here though because we had dinner plans we had to get to early.






This meal was by far my favorite (we ranked them on our way home and Brian essentially tied like 13 for first, ha!). We went early to beat the local rush and even though no one in the restaurant spoke English and there were no menus, we ended up with the most delicious beef we've ever had. B cooked us a few different cuts of meat (it was a yakiniku style restaurant), and despite not being able to communicate well with the chef ended up with the chef's favorite cut after we praised him and the restaurant (it ended up being tongue, I'm not too upset I sat it out). The restaurant can only "seat" 12 (you stand!) and was so, so hot. So much sweating. But it was such a cool experience.









That night we went to the Golden Gai area, six tiny alleys filled with endless bars. It was the most wonderfully bizarre experience. Each bar caters to a different clientele and many serve only regulars. Some bars were so small that only three or four customers could fit at a time! In a city that's been completely rebuilt over the years and is more bright and vibrant than anywhere else, this piece of old Tokyo felt so special. My favorite bar was the one with a deer head and big chandelier (duh); Brian's was one that specializes in Japanese whiskey.

P.S. I love the photo of Brian counting coins. I feel like he spent 90% of the trip looking at a map or counting change! Because their currency uses a lot of coins (and basically everything is cash only), you end up with a ton on you at all times. B's pockets were constantly overflowing with yen.







On our last day we went back to the fish market (I needed to make my Jiro Dreams of Sushi dreams come true!). It was worth waking up early for! There were a gazillion different types of fish and sea creatures.



Despite all the fresh fish at the market, I stayed true to my delicious seaweed wrap from 7-Eleven for a quick snack. Next time we go to Japan I'm bringing a cooler of these home. I was hesitant to try them at first because there are dozens to choose from and they're not marked in English, but the shrimp and mayonnaise one was the yummiest treat. It's like $1.50 and comparable to the best hand rolls I've had here.




That afternoon we checked out some panoramic views from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (going up to the observatory is free!). Poor B had a fever, so we didn't stay long and went home to rest, but the quick glimpse put into perspective how giant Tokyo is (absolutely huge; can't. get. over. it).




For dinner we had tempura here (a bartender's recommendation from the night before), and it was phenomenal. Actually, maybe this was my favorite meal? Everything was so fresh, and the batter so crispy. I'd love that for dinner tonight.










If the only reason you go to Tokyo is the Robot Restaurant, I will understand and applaud you. You guys. This was nuts. Absolutely nuts. I have no words. I feel like it's what you would get if you gave a 10 year old boy a blank canvas and a checkbook (it cost over $100 million to build), and it is amazing. It's a must-do. It's surreal. It's the most ridiculous dinner show you can ever imagine. I honestly can't even explain it, you just have to go.





Before we took the train to Kyoto I was snapping photos left and right. So many cute restaurant logos and construction signs! Kawaii is seriously in full effect all over Tokyo. And of course everywhere we went there was all the Pocky I could dream of, which our pantry is now stocked with :)

Oh Japan, you magical, magical place. I love you so much!!! I can't wait to share our Kyoto photos. Thanks for indulging me in this first round :)

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