I’ve wanted to go to Japan for a very long time.
Being half-Yonsei (fourth generation Japanese-Canadian) on my mother’s side, I’ve always been relatively detached from any real semblance of Japanese culture save for sushi and the Japanese names of relatives. Pretty much everything I know about Japan I have picked up from movies and comedy shows (Gaki no Tsukai!), and of course questionable photos from reddit.
Something about the country has always just struck a chord with me. The quiet reservedness, the strange sense of humour, the strong social values and tradition, a visual aesthetic that seems to find its way into every aspect of life… it all just sounded too perfect. Everything I want in a society, at least in the movies, was apparently right there. I wanted to see if it really was like I had imagined.
Tagging along with myself was my roommate Will (that’s not actually him). In the 5 months leading up to the trip we basically managed to book our flights and figure out our first hotel. Not quite as much as either of us had hoped, but we went with it.
Because our flight left at 6am we decided to skip sleep that night because hey, you can just do that on the plane, right?
Wrong. I did not sleep for 21 hours (thats a flight to Vancouver, a 4 hour stopover, and another flight all the way to Tokyo-Narita). By the time we got to our hotel, I was actually hallucinating from exhaustion. It was actually kind of scary, as if you’re incredibly drunk but you haven’t had a drink. Definitely the first and last time I go without sleeping for 40+ hours.
It’s also interesting to note that from the time we entered Pearson International Airport in Toronto to the time we stepped out of Asakusabashi station in Tokyo, we never actually went outside.
Finding our hotel proved to be quite the feat. The address system in Tokyo still makes absolutely no damn sense to me. I’ve read the Wiki and a handful of articles on it and I still cant wrap my head around how people manage to navigate the city. “Turn at the FamilyMart” seems to be as accurate as you can get, which sucks when there are over a thousand FamilyMarts scattered around Tokyo. After asking at least six incredibly helpful locals (in fact, every single person we asked for help over the two weeks was more than accommodating, some even going 15 minutes out of their way to guide us to where we wanted to go!) we finally found Hotel Yanagibasi. Our room was about the size of my washroom in Toronto, with a miniature bed on each side and about a foot between. Our washroom was… a little smaller than a portapotty, but the price was right so who am I to argue?
First thing in the morning we were off to the subway station to have our first awesome Japan experience, but of course we need our caffeine fix! Vending machines line the streets, alleys, and hallways across the city. Here’s a video of Will getting a cold coffee because why not.
Tsukiji Fish Market (築地市場)
The largest fish market in the world is located right in central Tokyo. It’s also the place to be if you want the bar none freshest sushi, so obviously this was planned from day 1. We woke up at 6:00am (this is actually a little late by fish market standards) and subwayed ourselves down to Tsukiji to take part in a delicious sushi breakfast and check out the bustling market itself. When we got to the sushi joint for breakfast, it turned out there was about an hour and a half wait, so I kind of ditched Will in line while I lugged my camera into the market to catch it in action before it died down. Regrettably, this was the only day I managed to carry around my DSLR as later in the day I would injure my back pretty badly. I did manage to grab some awesome shots of the market in action, however:
The Streets of Tokyo (東京)
Without getting into too much detail, the streets of Tokyo are incredibly beautiful, well-designed and pristine. So clean in fact, there were multiple occasions we saw maintenance people vacuuming the sidewalks! Toronto is shameful in comparison and after a day there I actually felt depressed that I would be returning to our cold, bleak, glass and concrete metropolis in a little less than two week’s time.
The architecture was very inspiring. Every building had character and in many cases you could tell that the goal was to create an original, visually pleasing building that would bring character to the area, rather than maximize your allotted footprint by plopping down a big glass square a la Toronto. I need to stop with the comparisons to Toronto, it’s just not fair.
I don’t think I saw a single crack in the concrete or asphalt of any street and we walked about 30km our first few days there. Another interesting aspect of their streets was that sidewalks only really existed on the main arteries. All of the sidestreets were asphalt from doorstep-to-opposite-doorstep, with the “walking” area designated by a simple white line. While I am not entirely sure of the reasoning behind this, I feels like a much more cost effective design, and I imagine it’s pretty convenient for cyclists as well.
It goes without saying that the sushi in Japan was mind-blowing. On my first day in Tokyo I had sushi for breakfast (at Tsukiji), lunch (I picked up some fresh tuna in the fish market) and dinner (kaiten-zushi 回転寿司, also known as conveyer-belt sushi or sushi-go-round). I’m just going to say it was absolutely delicious and make you look at the following food photos:
One of the more memorable sushi experiences of the trip was eating at Genki Sushi. Every individual seat has its own tablet, running an application that lets you order 3 dishes at a time. Your order is then sent directly to the kitchen, from which they launch you your meal via a crazy track that spans the entire restaurant. Within seconds your plate comes to a stop in front of your seat, from which you take your food and hit the button to send it back. Very fun. Video below:
Random Tokyo Learnings
- Maid cafes are fucking weird. I almost had a full-blown panic attack it was so uncomfortable. They make you sing. They talk in trademark high-pitched schoolgirl voices. Everything is really expensive. The other patrons are… not tourists.
- MUJI is AWESOME. They need to open one in Toronto pronto. Its like… Japanese IKEA? No, that doesn’t do it justice. Superbly designed Japanese furniture, gadgets, clocks, clothes and other items. I lost most of my spending Yen to this fine store.
- Uniqlo is also awesome. Cheap clothes that look good and fit great.
- I am big in Japan. Seriously though, I’m an XL. Felt kind of beastly, actually.
- Do not go to a maid cafe unless you want to feel more uncomfortable than you have ever felt, and/or enjoy the company of a man who opens a hockey bag full of toy cars and then proceeds to place them in specific places around the cafe for 45 minutes while cackling to himself, only to put them all away when he runs out.
- Celine Dion is really big shit here. Literally. 100ft tall signs towering over sidewalks, singing on all the screens in subway cars, ads absolutely everywhere. You know that scene in Minority Report where Tom Cruise is being bombarded by all those advertisements in the mall? It’s like that but really French-Canadian. My friend Hisako pointed out that it’s because her name happens to rhyme with the name of a Japanese electronics company, so they pay her obscene amounts of money to be their spokeswoman.
- Tommy Lee Jones is really big shit here, too. I’m actually kind of pleased about this. For a great example of Tommy Lee Jones’ Japanese kick-assery, please see his ad appearances for BOSS coffee.
While perhaps not the main attraction of the trip we definitely wanted to see some of the world-renowned historic buildings and temples, and Tokyo is chock full of them. As amazing as they are, after a while they do tend to start looking the same, so we didn’t exactly make it to every single one (sue me).
Onward, to Kyoto (京都市)!
Kyoto, the former capital city of Japan, is located in the centre of Honshu (the largest Japanese island). Known for its beauty and rich cultural history, this was definitely somewhere we had to stop. To travel the 367km from Tokyo to Kyoto we opted for the second fastest option (next to flying). The Shinkansen (新幹線), or bullet train, travels at a cool 300km/h at its peak and got us there in a quick couple of hours. It also managed to scare the shit out of me while I was waiting at the train platform and looking the other way. Imagine total silence, except for the odd cough or rumble of a wheeled briefcase, only to be broken by the instantaneous wail of a massive 10-car train flying past you somewhere in the range of 200km/h. I managed to get a video of a subsequent train, but it doesn’t quite do it justice.
After arriving in Kyoto it is immediately apparent that this city is not like Tokyo. The streets and sidewalks were a lot wider, the city is quieter, buildings did not seem to be as tall and while there were plenty of trees in Tokyo, Kyoto manages to outnumber them by quite a margin. It was a quick walk to our hotel Matsubaya Ryokan from Kyoto station. I can’t recommend this place enough. The owners were incredibly friendly, the hotel was spotless, laundry was free and the room was the biggest I’d seen yet! If you wake up early enough, you also get an awesome Japanese or American style breakfast served at the shared dining table on the bottom floor. I’d definitely stay here again.
The owners of the hotel recommended we rent bikes for our first day and I must say, if you’re in Kyoto this is a must. After walking roughly 45km the first few days in Tokyo, I was starting to wonder how I’d be able to handle Kyoto (not to mention I had developed some insanely bad blisters and a strained back from our first-day 30km walk with heavy camera gear in tow). The bikes were a godsend. It was so refreshing to bike around a clean, beautiful city like Kyoto. It was also refreshing to not have the constant fear of death on my mind just because I was riding my bike on city streets (looking at you, Toronto).
On our way to our first temple viewing of the day we got a little lost and ended up walking our bikes through what we thought was a small graveyard. It turned out to be massive and we felt pretty bad as we trudged along with our clicking bicycles in hand. The graveyard itself was amazing, though. From above it looked like an entire city, each tombstone a highrise of its own and each family block creating little streets between the next.
The view from the temple was pretty stellar as well. Unlike Tokyo, we could actually see the city limits (made obvious by the mountains).
The side streets in Kyoto were also very interesting, many of which tailored to walking by foot. Because their design hasn’t changed very much for such a long period of time—minus the few minor updates like telephone poles and electric signage—it was very easy to imagine yourself being hundreds of years in the past.
Next Up: Osaka (大阪)
43km South-West of Kyoto is Japan’s third-largest city: Osaka. Osaka has historically been the commercial centre of Japan, the result of which being an enormous daytime population surge from 2.6 to 3.7 million people. Although there are many more similarities to Tokyo rather than Kyoto, Osaka still had a lot of its own character. Shopping here was different, as the main “malls” are actually city streets that (and I am kind of assuming here) became so packed and full of stores they simply built a roof over the street effectively turning the roads into kilometre-long shopping centres.
Osaka is also home to Dōtonbori (道頓堀), the famous street running parallel to the canal it shares its name with. Check out Anthony Bourdain’s take on Osaka, which helped us decide what we wanted to try. A few of the restaurants he visits are along this street.
Back to Tokyo for a Few Days
Tokyo is just so incredibly massive we knew we had to tack on a few days at the end of our trip to get the most out of it. Entirely by coincidence, we ended up staying in the Shinjuku Washington Hotel which was also home to a restaurant recommended to us by a friend.
In this particular restaurant, Zauo Shinjuku, you catch your own fish and have the chef prepare it in a few different ways. I obviously opted for sashimi, because if you’re going to go that fresh you might as well go all the way. We also met up with a past coworker of Will’s, who happened to be in Tokyo at the same time.
I opted for the flounder so I was set up with a rod, hook, some baby shrimp for bait, and told which area to fish in. The flounder must have been sleeping because for 30 minutes they completely ignored my appetizing baby shrimp skittering across their deformed one-sided faces. I got a little fed up, so instead of fishing the proper way I managed to get a bare hook into the mouth of an unsuspecting flounder and yank him to his sashimi death. For an idea of just how fresh this meal was check out this video from my phone (spurred on by the sodium in some soy sauce, I’m fairly sure).
As our trip was coming to an end we decided to try and get a better view of the city, as our original attempt to go up the Tokyo Skytree was unsuccessful (mostly because we didn’t have hours and hours to wait to go up). Our second option was the Roppongi Hills Mori tower and a damn, what a view we got!
Owari (The End)
As the trip came to a close I wished I had months left to explore, as I know we only scratched the very surface of what Japan has to offer. I’m also happy to know that a lot of what I had anticipated before the trip was true, and seeing cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka really gives you perspective when you live in the third-largest city in North America, which pales in comparison.
I’m not sure when or for how long, but I am certain I will be going back. Sushi just hasn’t been the same since.