Before visiting Japan, I thought of it as one of the most inaccessible countries in the world. Not just because of its distance from my hometown (New York), language barrier, or how expensive it is (I had heard that a can of coke was $5 USD!), but also because I perceived their culture to be rather alien. I might even call it strange, but a desirable type of strange.
I know there’s weird stuff on the internet they do with an octopus
I don’t think I’m the only one that perceived Japanese culture as odd. In the first hostel I stayed in Tokyo, there were two brothers in their early twenties from the Midwest of the U.S. We engaged in conversation one evening as hostel guests often do. At one point, they called their father to ask him for money to attend the Robot Restaurant Show. They tried explaining why they had to pay money to go to a ‘restaurant’ if they weren’t going to eat. After they pleaded their case, the father replied, and they burst into laughter. The brother holding the phone replied, “No, dad, it’s not for some weird Japanese sex thing. Yes, dad, I know there’s weird stuff on the internet they do with an octopus.” It was an interesting conversation that started off hilarious but quickly turned rather awkward since they were in public.
Being in Japan is literally like being anywhere else in the world, though. Much of the cultural images received in the West are an exaggerated version, but there is something extra. For example, Japanese people do bow. But I noticed that bowing is practiced mostly in Tokyo. In the three other cities that I went to it is done much less frequently or it’s much more of a nod than a bow. And actually, I now prefer bowing much more than shaking hands. Firstly, so many times I’ve witness men in all countries of the world finish their business in a restroom then not wash their hands. Secondly, there’s no chance of missing your target to shake hands and end up giving a weak hand shake and being judged for it secretly. That never happens to me; I’m a pro. With bowing, it doesn’t matter! Also, bowing varies by the angle: the more you lean (90 degrees being the max), the more you are paying respect. I found myself bowing without noticing within a few days of being in Japan, either initiating or returning it.
One thing that is most apparent is how incredibly clean Tokyo is. I’m singling Tokyo out because the other cities, while clean, could not compare to it. The odd part is that it can be a bit of a challenge to find a garbage bin in the street. I found myself carrying my garbage for long periods of time. Sometimes it would take so long, I would just stuff it in my bag for later. I’m guessing everyone must do this. This is not a joke: Tokyo was so clean that public restrooms in train stations are impeccably white.
I actually took the picture above to prove it because I myself couldn’t believe it. All public bathrooms that I entered were free to use. You don’t even have to pay for the metro to access it, which makes it much more impressive how clean they all were. Outside of Tokyo, as I mentioned, it is still clean, but ‘regular clean’. There’s the occasional wrapper or tissue here and there but nothing obscene. Also, from what I could observe, all cities banned smoking in public unless in designated areas. Other than outside a Yakuza establishment, you will never see a cigarette butt anywhere.
My most notable observation of Japanese people is the lack of petty entitlement. It was quite nice to observe people caring for the well-being of everyone more than just themselves. This is easily observed by how much they respect rules. In Tokyo, they have a very extensive metro system. The Shinjuku station currently holds the Guinness World Record for the busiest train station in the world with about 6.2 million commuters per day. I went there many times and I didn’t encounter even a single issue for any of my commutes. This is made possible because everyone follows the arrows and guidelines on how to get somewhere. The information available is so detailed, the train cars display which exits are nearest to the car you are currently in.
They stand on one side of the escalator letting those in a hurry pass on the right of them. No one tries to hold the doors of the train trying to save a couple of minutes so they don’t have to wait for the next one. In the train, people don’t stand by the door because they’re about to get off ‘soon’. They move their backpacks to the front so they don’t hit others when moving around the train and no one ever takes it personally when people push themselves into the train when there’s little room and squeezes everyone else. No snickering, not even a passive aggressive side-eye. Being a New Yorker, some of these things were very strange to me, but seeing how smoothly the city functions when everyone follows the city rules was eye-opening. No one felt like the rules didn’t apply to them. It is a harmonious rhythm when everyone behaves as one.
Cities excluding Tokyo are a bit relaxed and do not exemplify what most people think of Japan as much. These other cities still have many similarities but are much more subtle in these practices.
$5 USD each
It is true that Japan is expensive. But I am happy to report that what I had heard prior to my arrival was grossly exaggerated. Tokyo for example, is more along the lines of New York, San Francisco, Sydney, or London and cheaper than Iceland. The rest of Japan is marginally cheaper than Tokyo but only if you pay close attention. Still, I can see why Japan has a perception of being ridiculously expensive, having experienced it personally. To start off, some items are mysteriously and extremely expensive. For example, I saw a mango that costs $10 USD or a single strawberry that can range from $5 USD to $10 USD. If you do a little bit of research, you’d understand those aren’t normal fruits. They’re grown in some specific city, with a specific farmer renowned to make the best of that fruit in the whole country. People will pay top dollar for those fruits. This practice is no different than how people in the states pay higher prices for organic goods; they believe they’re getting a higher quality product. I tried the white strawberry above, and it is sweeter and juicier than the red ones. But personally, it wasn’t worth the extra cost.
I found myself spending more as their lowest bill is ¥1000 JPY, which is roughly $10 USD. So you can easily find yourself carrying $20 or $30 worth of U.S. dollars in coins! In most countries people consider coins loose change, so you can easily convince yourself to spend coins more freely than bills.
Public transportation in Tokyo was actually cheaper than in Australia, but just slightly pricier than New York. It really depends on your destination since you’re charged depending on how far you travel. Oddly enough, buses are a flat fee. One cool thing about paying for buses and trains is that there is no dedicated public transportation ‘card’. Rather it is a pay card that you can use in many places outside of the metro. So for example, you can use it to pay for your purchases in supermarkets and video game arcades! 🙂
In terms of food expenses, the sky can be the limit. Tokyo is home to the most Michelin Star restaurants in the world. But you can also have excellent food for $10 USD, mainly ramen or conveyor belt sushi but still quite incredible. I have to give a special mention to 7 Eleven, Family Mart, and Lawson. They’re the three prominent mini supermarkets in all of Japan. In New York we call them bodegas, and it is where you can purchase bottles of water, juice, beer, hot food, magazines, ice cream, etc. But the real star at these places are the sandwiches. They are inexplicably good. A cold sandwich from a mini mart shouldn’t taste that good. And they’re less than $5 USD. Many times I found myself just picking one up for a quick bite. These places are also a WiFi haven. With one of the three in literally almost every corner, you always have access to WiFi and cheap food and drink.
Don’t go excluding places to eat because they’re not at least Michelin recommended or your trusty TripAdvisor doesn’t know about it. Many Chefs in Japan care more about the food and experience you’re getting from them rather than spending money in making the restaurant a lavish place or providing commonly expected comforts like seats 🙂 There are “stand-up” places ranging from restaurants and bars that literally have zero seats. This will disqualify some places from earning the coveted Michelin Stars, but the food is amazing and a tremendous value. Since TripAdvisor isn’t commonly used in Japan it will also be difficult to find locally loved places to eat. My strategy was if I see a ridiculously long line of locals waiting for food, that’s where I’m going!
My diet primarily consisted of sushi and ramen, with a few breaks of tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet) and the above mentioned mini mart sandwiches. Oh, and the two Kobe-beef dinners. There are more types of cuisines offered in Japan, but I can’t really comment on those since I didn’t try them other than at a restaurant that specialized in beef tongue. But regarding their sushi, it will fulfill whatever expectation you may have.
As far as ramen goes, as I expected, it is the best I’ve ever had.
My absolute favorite ramen was in Tsuta, the first ramen restaurant ever to earn a Michelin Star
My favorite tsukemen ever was in Fuunji
Many think of tsukemen as merely ramen soup served with the broth and noodles in separate bowls. While true, they are actually different. The broth in tsukemen is much thicker and richer than in ramen, and the noodles are served cold. Not because they’re previously cooked–they are actually cooked fresh to order. However, they are immediately chilled after cooking to conserve the texture. I’ve never had tsukemen before coming to Japan, but I’m now in love and have a mission to find a place back in the states that serves it. It’s really amazing how a deceptively simple soup—either ramen or tsukemen—can make you feel so damn good.
In Tokyo, it seems like that white-collar employees wear a uniform for work. I’d say that 60% of the workforce wears a dark blue suit, while 30% will wear a black one. This applies to both genders. Another 9% will wear gray, and the rest will wear something fashionable that is not a single, uniformed, colored suit. In the other cities, they didn’t appear to follow a strict dress code.
As for the working hours, I had previously heard they slept in their offices many times in a week. I had no way of verifying that, but having been walking the streets at all times of the day, I can confirm that they have a normal working schedule. My metric for this is that you stop seeing the uniformed-suits in the metro at around 7pm. You do see them later, but they’re shit-faced.
Speaking of which, while it is true that the Japanese have the highest number of people in the world missing the enzyme to properly process alcohol, they only make up 4% of the population. I got that stat from my “Mt. No-Fuji” tour guide (I call it the “Mt. No-Fuji” tour because I was unable to see the mountain due to clouds and rain except for a tiny portion of its left).
Mt. No-Fuji 😦
You do see some drunks stumbling home late in the evenings, but I also witnessed those that held their liquor quite well. From my experience, the stereotype of Japanese not being able to hold their liquor seems exaggerated as it didn’t seem any different to other countries. It was actually quite refreshing to see them get loose. I had gotten so used to them being non-stop law abiding citizens, that it was good to see them loose in the appropriate environment. One time in Kyoto, I inadvertently entered a bar that had people singing on top of their lungs, and appeared, well, shit faced. They can definitely get loose. The people singing saw me, but carried on with their singing, but then I was escorted out by one of the sober ones. Damn it.
An interesting bit of information passed on to me by a bartender is that infidelity is widely accepted; for both husbands and wives. They still try to keep it on the low, but not a terribly huge effort is made to hide it from their partner. It is a very big deal if you have a divorce as it brings great shame for both parties. So, when a couple becomes unhappy and/or sexless, they still prefer to stay together and simultaneously accept infidelity. This also explains why there are so many host/hostess bars in Japan.
While prostitution is legal, host/hostess bars only offer companionship while in the establishment
These aren’t your regular bars where you go and meet randos serendipitously, but a bar where the staff is there to host you. Naturally, a hostess bar has a bunch of ladies and a host bar has a bunch of dudes. Visitors frequent these places where they pay per hour for their drinks and the drinks of their hostess/host. In turn, the employees of the establishment do anything in their power to let the customer feel comfortable, relaxed, cared for, and even loved. But no sex. Zero. While prostitution is legal, host/hostess bars only offer companionship while in the establishment. From what I could find out, people go to these places as a form of therapy. Men go to talk to a pretty young lady, and make themselves feel attractive, wanted, and heard. The sole mission is to make them feel better about themselves or the problems they’re having at work or with their wives. Women go for pretty much the same reasons: to be with an attractive young man, hear how beautiful they are, and vent their problems to someone who will listen and care about them. I’m not implying that these bars are what encourages infidelity, but merely and outlet. Nevertheless, Japan has real bars too and they can be pretty amazing.
Sapporo (3 days)
I don’t want to single out Sapporo, but for the most part, don’t come there. Spend your time elsewhere in Japan. Why did I come here? Because in the midst of planning to visit 60 different cities, I had thought that 14 days was already way too much time to spend in Tokyo. Sapporo just happened to be another city I knew of. Yes, because of the beer and I thought maybe I’ll ski. It’s an extremely small city compared to the massiveness of Tokyo and even Kyoto feels a lot bigger. There’s little night life and the main tourist attractions (if you can call them that) in the city can be seen in one day if you hurry.
The one redeeming quality is that the food is really good, specifically crab, uni (sea urchin) and—their specialty—miso based ramen. The crab restaurant I went to was extraordinary.
Crab Steak dish at Sapporo Kani Honke
That almost made me feel like going to Sapporo was worth it. The uni I tried in a sushi restaurant, although very good, didn’t feel that much better to what you can have in Tokyo if you opt for the premium one.
As far as the miso ramen goes, I was very excited to try it, and I do love my ramen—I have no issue waiting for 2 hours for a bowl—but I found out that I just don’t like miso ramen. It was good, but compared to the soy and salt counterparts, it doesn’t cut it. Any ramen or tsukemen I had in Tokyo was better than miso ramen here in Sapporo and I did have a couple of them trying to like it. Maybe it’s just a matter of preference. What did stand out for me was a curry soup. I didn’t even know curry soup was a thing until coming to Sapporo.
Amazing curry soup at Sauge+ Honten restaurant
I’m a foodie, and I have gone to places based solely on food. Although the food was the best part of Sapporo, the travel time is too long, as it is located in the north of Japan on Hokkaido island. I can’t get myself to want to go back or recommend to anyone. I suppose if you like skiing you can go for that, like many Australians do. Their train system has only three train lines for crying out loud! You’re probably wondering if I went to the Sapporo Brewery. Of course I did, since there was nothing else to do. However, you can get that beer anywhere in Japan, and the experience of the brewery is not memorable.
Kyoto (3 days)
A charming little city. I suppose it’s small compared to Tokyo. Its excellent transportation makes it easy to go around town. You’re never really that far from a bus or train stop to wherever you’re going to go as a tourist.
Kyoto is definitely a must visit when in Japan. It has a great nightlife in Kiya-machi street and Pontocho back-alley, but there are many temples that make for wonderful cultural attractions during the day. I highly recommend the Kinkaku-ji Temple (the Golden Temple).
I cannot stress how beautiful this place and the temple is. It looks great in pictures and even better in person. Since the temple is a top attraction, try to come during the week to avoid the crowd. Either way, it should not be missed. Second to my liking was Fushimi-Inari or as I remember it: the place with the orange gates.
This one is not only beautiful to see, but it can be quite the hike since it is located on a mountain. After an hour of hiking, I decided to stop half way and not make it to the top. It was too much for me and most other people (at least I tell myself that). The sunset from this location appears in the Walking Akihabara+ Video.
Many of the locals I spoke to in Kyoto (there’s a decent amount of English speakers) have made a conscious decision to live in Kyoto instead of Tokyo. They all said the same thing: Kyoto provides a much more relaxed and slower pace of living without giving up entertainment, nightlife, restaurants and excellent transportation. There are also good job opportunities. Having been to Tokyo before coming here, I have to agree that people are a lot more laid back, but still feels like a mini Tokyo in terms of amenities.
Osaka (1 day)
Kyoto itself doesn’t have an airport, so one has to fly to Osaka and then take a train or bus to Kyoto. Given the amount of days I was devoting to Japan, I only allocated 1 night for Osaka. Mainly for the convenience of its proximity to the airport and to go to the capsule hotel, which was not as claustrophobic as I had imagined. It actually feels roomy.
Osaka felt like a more modernized version of Kyoto but with a little less charm. Although I only had one night here, it was enough to want to spend a couple more days exploring the city.
Tokyo (14 days)
In my mind, Tokyo is the only other city in the world that rivals New York, my home for more than 25 years and according to me, the greatest place on earth. In many ways, Tokyo met my ridiculously high expectations, and, in some, it exceeded them. It was very much the dream I wanted it to be. It’s hard to describe why it was amazing to me as I myself don’t quite know. It’s more of a feeling that grew every day for 14 days. But I’m sure it was not just one thing but rather a bunch of things that are greater than a sum of their parts. A lot of my general observations regarding Tokyo are above so I will briefly share the different areas that I visited in Tokyo.
Tokyo is massive. I don’t mean that in terms of land area, but in the amount of different things to do and see. I spent most of my time in three neighborhoods: Shibuya, Shinjuku and Akihabara. They are by far my favorite, and it’s the top three that must be visited when coming to Tokyo as they are the places that come to mind when you think of Japan. But if you have plenty of time, you need to try other places as well.
This is where both of the hostels I used while in Tokyo are located and I can see why: It has great proximity to the main metro lines, but it’s far enough from the chaos so that evenings are a bit chilled. It also has a less modern vibe, making it feel more homey and it’s a bit cheaper than other neighborhoods. Other than a desirable place to stay while on vacation, it has two main attractions: the Senso-ji Temple and the cruise to Odaiba.
Out of all the temples or shrines to see in Tokyo, this is the one that should not be missed.
Steps away from the temple, is the cruise to Odaiba. The cruise takes you along the Sumida river with wonderful views of the city.
This man-made island focuses on shopping, entertainment and restaurants. You will also find things like the Statue of Liberty:
And a giant, life-sized Gundam:
The island also offers a great sunset overlooking Tokyo:
Here you will find a long strip with all of the fancy shops that will smile at you politely while burning a giant hole in your wallet. To be honest, unless shopping for fancy stuff is your thing, you probably want to skip Ginza. Yes, there’s good fancy restaurants and delicious bars too, but unless you know which one you want before arriving (and have reservations for), there’s no point walking around here. You might be tempted to come and see the new Godzilla statue but be warned: you will be disappointed.
The statue which debuted in March of this year, it’s the largest statue of Godzilla in Japan, but it is just about 3 meters in height! I’m not sure what I expected, but the size of this Godzilla made me sad:(
You will find a nice market with a lot of inexpensive goods and food. Well, inexpensive relative to Tokyo but be careful, as some of the things here are copies of originals. Also in Ueno is the zoo that has three pandas and other animals no one cares about because everyone comes for the pandas!
Here’s the crowd behind me, 30 minutes before the zoo opens on a weekday. They’re here early in order to get a ticket to be allowed to see mama and baby panda. Let me explain: to see mama and baby pandas, you have to get a (free) ticket in addition to the one you buy to enter the zoo. There are a limited number of free panda tickets per hour so if you come too late to the zoo, it is possible you will not get a ticket, and you won’t know until after you paid the zoo admission. Or maybe you do get a ticket but it’s for 6 hours later. A ticket is not required to see papa panda, however. You know, cause no one ever cares about dads. Sigh.
Mama and baby panda
It is mandatory to come to the Tsukiji Fish Market even if you’re not into fish as they do have other things besides fish, like produce, soups and dried fruits. But if you are into seafood, make sure to bring your wallet full as you will easily spend $50 to $100 USD nibbling here and there. It may seem pricey, but the fancy restaurants get their fish from here and will turn around and charge you double to quadruple the price.
I will admit though, that the fancy restaurants will then focus their efforts on the rice since you can get the same fish from here. So technically, you can have better sushi outside the market (because the market folks are not sushi masters).
I really wish I had spent more time in this neighborhood. It looked like a less busy Shibuya or Shinjuku but with an identity of its own wanting to be explored. Thankfully, I had to make time to come here at least for a few hours to have the Kaiseki Kobe-beef dinner and by chance, discovered the great bar Dece. Nightlife seemed to be what Roppongi is all about with tons of bars and restaurants and pleasantly lit streets to just walk and people watch.
For my experience in this neighborhood, check out Akihabara (Electric Town).
A massive neighborhood actually made up of many smaller neighborhoods. Most notably among them: Kabukicho, the red light district. Many Japanese gangster movies or action packed anime’s will have scenes taking place in this neighborhood. If you’ve seen them, this is probably what you imagine Tokyo looks like.
Iconic entrance to Kabukicho
But just because Kabukicho is the home of the red light district, it does not mean that’s all it has to offer. There’s many restaurants, bars, arcades, a huge cinema, the samurai museum, and shopping. It really has entertainment for the whole family! But don’t come here during the day as many places will be closed, and the real treat is when all the streets and business are lit up anyway.
Shinjuku Gyoen National Park
Shinjuku is much more than just Kabukicho. In its other areas, it has temples, shrines, the busiest train station in the world, shows, Gyoen National Garden, the free observatory from the government building, world class restaurants, bars and hotels like The Park Hyatt featured in the movie Lost In Translation (from this hotel is where I took the titular picture of this article). Basically, this one neighborhood has everything you think Tokyo has.
This neighborhood has the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world: Shibuya Crossing.
The Starbucks in the second floor of the building pictured above, became “my office.” I would often go there to plan the things I would do for the rest of the day and also people-watch the crowds below as it relaxed me.
Much like Shinjuku, Shibuya is home to plenty of restaurants, bars, clubs, parks, but it drops the red light district in favor of temples and shrines. This means Shibuya is equally alive at night and during the day.
Entrance to Meiji Jingu Shrine
Overall, 21 days in Japan was not enough. There was still so much more that I wanted to explore. My biggest regret was not having the time to go for a few days and live as a monk in a Buddhist temple. In it, you need to wake up at 6am everyday, help clean, and prepare vegetarian meals. That definitely would’ve been an experience. Another regret was not having an international driver’s license to drive around the streets of Tokyo in a kart, dressed up as Mario. And of course, I did not get to see Mount Fuji and countless other cities on the other islands. It’s even supposed to have beautiful beaches.
After being in Japan for as long as I was, their culture doesn’t seem so alien anymore. In a lot of ways, I understand it much better, and it actually makes sense. But it still remains unique when compared to many other cultures around the world. Japan deserves to be high on people’s travel list. For me, it’s not a matter of deciding to return or not, but rather deciding when to return.