26 Days in Japan - A Complete Itinerary

This post is for travelers looking for itinerary tips and ideas. If you are usually here for the stories, feel free to skip this one. It is about to read more like a guide-book.



Transportation

Japan Rail Pass

Japan offers the Japan Rail Pass to tourists in increments of 7 days, 14 days, or 21 days, at prices that locals can only dream of. These rail passes will give you unlimited access to MOST of Japan’s railway system for the amount of time that you choose, so if you plan on traveling between cities more than a couple times, this is definitely the way to go. (A round trip ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto costs more than the 7-day pass). These must be purchased outside the country in advance, and can be purchased online here. You will receive a voucher in the mail, which you will exchange for your Rail Pass when you arrive in Japan, at a JR ticket office. The 21-day pass is required for the following itinerary.

When does the pass activate?

Our trip was longer than the 21 days that the longest Rail Pass allowed for. For this reason, I planned all of our roaming around within those 21 days, and we remained in Tokyo for the final days of our trip, only having to pay for small subway fees those last days, and the final shinkansen trip back to Narita Airport. The pass does not have to be activated upon arrival. If you choose to hang out in Tokyo at the beginning of your trip, and then use the Rail Pass for the final portion, the Rail Pass can be activated at any time, and is valid for the consecutive number of days indicated by your pass.

What is the Green Pass?

The Green Pass is the first class pass. The biggest benefit is larger seats that recline farther. We did not feel the need to spend the extra money as the standard seats already offer plenty of legroom, even for Fletch who has long legs.

Culture tip: I noticed that every time the person sitting in front reclined their seat, they peeked back at the person sitting behind them to ask if it was ok to do so. This nicety can easily be accomplished with hand gestures.

So I just show up at the train platform with my JR Pass? 

Note that for journeys on the shinkansen, you will still have to head to a ticket office to book your seat assignment. We were traveling a month after cherry blossom season, and never had a problem showing up half-an-hour before our train and receiving a ticket. Only once did we miss out on a direct ticket and have to switch trains somewhere. It might be a good idea to book a little further in advance during high seasons though.

For local routes it is not necessary to book a seat assignment.

These Boots Were Made for Walking

Most of the accommodation we booked was within a ten minute walk of the train station, and so we never saw the inside of a taxi. The entirety of our trip utilized either the public transport system, or walking.

There's an App for That 

The app Navitime for Japan Travel was very helpful for being able to plug in two different train stations, and receiving all the different route options. Google Maps was also helpful for walking navigation, but wasn't always entirely accurate. It often spat us out on the wrong side of the block, or had difficulty picking up our exact location when we were in the midst of numerous tall buildings. 

Suica Cards

It is definitely worth it to purchase a Suica Card (one each) at your earliest convenience. These are prepaid cards used for bus and metro fare, and can even be used at many convenience stores. I figured we wouldn’t need them until our JR Passes ran out, but there were numerous occasions when having one would have been way more convenient than fishing around for the right change.

I say one each because we did initially try sharing a card. I would scan it for fare, and then pass it back to Fletch who would try to scan it again. The system wouldn't accept that though. 

Accommodation


For the mid-range budget for a couple, there’s really not much variety in hotel rooms. A low budget brings up an assortment of hostels, guest houses, and capsule hotels, but those all have single beds and shared bathrooms. Some hostels have a few private rooms on the side with double beds, but the price comes out to about the same as a business hotel. The business hotels have notoriously tiny rooms, so be careful to always read the square meterage when shopping. I finally came up with a method that involved finding the biggest room that was closest to the train station for the best price. The hotels we ended up sleeping at are listed here, but due to price fluctuations, these may or may not still be the most cost effective. I will also note that most business hotels are created more or less equally, so don’t worry too much about the quality. It is safe to shop by floor space.

Due to Japan’s wonderful dining options, we never opted to pay more for the included breakfast.

We also stayed at a few Airbnbs during our travels. When I started booking, this was a great option as we could get more space for a much lower price. Unfortunately Japan shut down 80% of Airbnb’s listings during our stay, and so a few of these may no longer be valid options. I will be sure to indicate if that is the case.

Eating


Japan is home to some of the most wonderful food in the world. I encourage you to wander around and try it all. A trip to Japan is as much a culinary experience as it is a cultural experience. For this reason, only a few recommended restaurants will be mentioned below. If you are traveling on a tighter budget, convenience stores offer more food than you would imagine for cheap, and noodle shops are always inexpensive and filling.

Culture tip: restaurants in Japan tend to be tiny, and so at many places it is considered rude to linger around longer than it takes you to eat. Some busier places may tell you up front how long you may sit at the table.

All prices listed are in US dollars, and assume a rough exchange rate of 100 yen to $1. (In other words, after all the work I put into creating this, I’m still to lazy to find the yen symbol).


Itinerary 

Day 1 - Arrive in Tokyo

  • Purchase Japanese SIM cards at the airport if you have unlocked smartphones. We found a kiosk near the exit. 
  • Follow JR signs downstairs to the ticket office and exchange vouchers for your JR Passes. Book tickets on the next Narita Express towards Ofuna. 
  • Board Narita Express towards Ofuna. Debark at Tokyo Station. Journey time: 1h 0m. 
  • Walk to, and sleep at Daiwa Roynet Hotel Ginza. Price: $165 per night. 

Day 2 - Acclimate in Tokyo


Suggested Activities:
  • Tsukiji’s outer market opens at 5:00 AM, and is a great way to take advantage of jet lag. Roam around and enjoy sampling different culinary creations for breakfast.
  • Take a stroll through nearby Hamarikyu Gardens and learn about duck hunting. Entrance Fee: $3 per person. 
  • Catch a showing at the traditional kabuki theater, Kabukiza. Ticket price varies as per the length of the show. The single act we chose was $6 per person. 

  • Sleep at Daiwa Roynet Hotel Ginza. Price: $165 per night. 

Day 3 - Travel to Sendai



Suggested Activities: 
  • Have breakfast at Eggs ’n Things if you are already craving your egg fix. Price: $38 for two meals, two coffees, and juice.

  • Check-out of hotel and walk to Tokyo Station. 
  • Book tickets to Sendai. Sample route: Hayabusa to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto. Debark at Sendai Station. Journey time: 1h 32m. 
  • Walk to, and sleep at Hotel Vista Sendai. Price: $75 per night. 

Day 4 - Explore Sendai


Suggested Activities:

  • Walk to Hapina Nakakecho Shopping Arcade. There are some breakfast options here, as well as game arcades. 
  • Purchase Loople Bus tickets from the bus station. This is a tour bus that makes a loop around Sendai’s famous landmarks. Price: $6 per person for unlimited access for the day. (Note that the museums are closed on Mondays). 
  • Visit the final resting place of Date Masamune, Sendai’s most famous feudal lord. (Accessible from the Loople). Admission: Free. 
  • Visit the ruins of Sendai Castle. (Accessible from the Loople). Admission: $4.50 per person. 
  • Visit Osaki Hachimangu Shrine, dedicated to the god of warding off evil. (Accessible from the Loople). Admission: Free. 
  • Try Sendai’s famous dish, gyutan, at Rikyu Ichibancho Yanagi. Price: $25 for two entrees that come with soup and salad. 

  • Sleep at Hotel Vista Sendai. Price: $75 per night. 


Day 5 - Explore Nearby Matsushima 


  • Board Senseiki line to Matsushimakaigan. Journey time: 0h 45m. (Since this is a local train, you will not need to pre-book seat assignments).

Suggested Activities:

  • Visit Zuiganji Temple. Don’t miss the zen garden, or the caves outside where monks once lived and meditated. Admission: $7 per person.
  • Enjoy a sightseeing cruise around the bay. Price $18 per person. 
  • Walk the scenic red bridge to Fukuura-Jima. Admission: $2 per person. 
  • Try Sendai’s famous sweet: zunda mochi. 

  • Train back to Sendai Station. 
  • Sleep at Hotel Vista Sendai. Price: $75 per night. 


Day 6 - Travel to Sapporo


  • Check out of hotel early as it is a fairly long trek up to Japan’s northernmost island. As the journey requires two trains, that don’t run as often, these tickets may be worth booking a day or several in advance. 
  • Purchase some bento boxes for the journey! Price: varies, around $10-$12 per box. 
  • Sample route: Hayabusa to Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto. Debark at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station. Journey time: 2h 30m. Followed by Super Hokuto to Sapporo. Debark at Sapporo Station. Journey time: 3h 30m. 
  • We stayed in an Airbnb across the street from Nakajima park, but it looks like the listing is no longer active. Price: $85 per night. 

Suggested Activities:
  • Splurge on shabu shabu dinner at Kirin Beer Garden. Price: $180 for two all-you-can-eat dinners and drinks. 

Day 7 - Explore Sapporo


Suggested Activities:

  • Try a heaping bowl of hot ramen at the little shop across the street, to the west side of Nakajima Park. Price: $9 per bowl. 
  • Visit JR Tower and enjoy the view of the city. Admission: $7 per person. 
  • In mid June, attend the Hokkaido Shrine Festival. Admission: Free. 

  • Sleep at Airbnb. Price: $85 per night. 

Day 8 - Explore Sapporo Some More


Suggested Activities:

  • Try soup curry at Suage+, my new favorite Japanese dish I never knew existed! 
  • Visit the quirky TV Tower and enjoy the view of Odori Park. Admission: $7 per person. 
  • Walk Odori Park. Don’t miss Black Slide Mantra. Admission: Free. 
  • Sample Japan’s craft beer scene at The Craft. 

  • Sleep at Airbnb. Price: $85 per night. 


Day 9 - Travel Back to Tokyo


  • Once again, check out fairly early as it is a long trek back down to the main island. Due to the frequency that the train runs, it may be worth booking seat assignments a day or several in advance. 
  • Sample route: Super Hokuto to Hakodate. Debark at Shin-Hakodate-Hokuto Station. Journey time: 3h 16m. Followed by, Hayabusa to Tokyo. Debark at Tokyo Station. Journey time: 4h 29m. 
  • Purchase some bento boxes for the journey! Price: varies, around $10-$12 each. 
  • Sleep at Belken Hotel Tokyo. Price: $120 per night. (Note: this was the tiniest room we stayed in, and was mostly just bed immediately surrounded by wall on three sides, with barely any floor space on the fourth side. In fact, the room didn't even list the square meterage, just the bed width at 153cm. Again, beware the tiny rooms!) 

Day 10 - Travel to Hakone



Suggested Activities: 
  • Explore downstairs Tokyo Station for endless food options. 

  • Book tickets to Odawara. Sample route: Kodama to Shinosaka. Debark at Odawara Station. Journey time: 0h 35m. 
  • At Odawara Station, find a Tourist Information booth and purchase a Hakone Free Pass. We did the 3-day pass. This is your ticket to unlimited access to Hakone’s 5 different modes of transportation, and some additional discounts around the area. You can store your JR passes someplace safe; the Hakone Free Passes will be all you need for the next few days. Price: $45 each. 
  • Ride the Hakone Tozan Train to Hakone Yumoto. Journey time: 0h 16m. This is the main area of Hakone. From here you can sightsee around the entire loop, in either direction, via 5 different modes of transportation. There are numerous accommodation options at various different stops along the way. 
  • Hakone is known for onsens, and this is a great place to experience staying at one. They ended up being fairly pricy though, and so we booked an Airbnb with the idea of visiting an onsen (sans accommodation) separately. 
  • Ride the Hakone Tozan Train to Gora. Debark at Miyanoshita Station. Journey time: 0h 27m. 
  • We slept in the Miyanoshita area, at the Airbnb listing titled “legally-rented mountain&hotspring 7min>STA TV+Int”. It is still active at the time of writing this. Everything about the place was recommendable, except the noise level. Book the upstairs unit if at all possible. Price: $128 per night. 
Suggested Activities: 
  • Try the boiled shirasu (small whitefish) bowl & soup at Men 398-1. Price: $9.00 per bowl. 

Day 11 - Explore Hakone


Suggested Activities:

  • Ride the Hakone Tozan Train up the mountain to the end of the line. Bonus: In June the hydrangeas are in full bloom, making the already beautiful ride even more scenic. 
  • Ride the Hakone Tozan Cable Car. 
  • Ride the Hakone Tozan Ropeway.
  • Stop at the summit for a snack of famous, hot-spring boiled, black eggs. Price: $5 for 5 eggs. 
  • Continue on the Hakone Tozan Ropeway back down the mountain to Lake Ashi. (At the time of our visit, this second ropeway was under maintenance and we boarded a bus instead). 
  • Ride the pirate ship around the lake. 
  • Complete the loop via bus, ending back at Hakone-Yumoto station. 
  • Experience a Japanese onsen (hot spring) at Hakone Yuryo. Many onsens are public, and therefor, separate men and women into different rooms. If you are traveling with your other half, Hakone Yuryo offers three different types of private rooms, so that you can enjoy the experience together. Or if you have tattoos, you will also want to book a private room. Price for one hour in the nicest room: $57. 

  • Sleep at Airbnb. Price: $128 per night. 


Day 12 - Travel to Kyoto


Suggested Activities:

  • Ride the Hakone Loop again in the opposite direction! Our tour the previous day was the worst visibility possible, so we decided to give it a second try before heading to Kyoto. It didn’t cost us a penny extra as our Hakone Free Passes were still valid. We dropped off our backpacks in lockers across the street from Hakone-Yumoto Station for $6 each. 

  • Ride the Hakone Tozan train to Odawara Station. Journey time: 0h 17m. 
  • Switch back to JR Passes, and book tickets to Kyoto. Sample route: Hikari to Shinosaka. Debark at Kyoto Station. Journey time: 2h 3m. 
  • Sleep at Villa Front Kyoto Seimei. This was a brand new Airbnb-style hotel (read: hotel rooms with no staff). The price was unbeatable, and the rooms uncharacteristically spacious, but the check-in was a pain, as it required walking to the drug store across the street from the train station to retrieve the keys, then boarding a local bus (no English) for around 20 minutes to the property. So whether or not the hassle is worth the savings is up to you. Price: $60 per night. 

Day 13 - Explore Kyoto


Suggested Activities:

  • Try an entirely unagi (freshwater eel) meal at Kyogoku Kane-yo. The dishes are small, so order multiples and share. Price: $62 for four dishes and two carafes of sake. 
  • Try taiyaki (dessert of a custard-stuffed, fish-shaped cone, topped off with ice cream). 
  • Wander around Shinyogoku Shopping District. 
  • Visit the nightingale floors of Nijo Castle. (We were too wiped to do this and it was the only thing on our itinerary that we didn’t get to. I can say from a previous visit that it is a cool experience). Admission: $6 per person. 

  • Sleep at Villa Front Kyoto Seimei. Price: $60 per night. 

Day 14 - Kyoto’s Tourist Traps


Suggested Activities (although be warned, while magical places, at the time of our visit, they had become quite the tourist traps):

  • Visit Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. Arrive as early as possible to beat the crowds. Admission: Free. 
  • Try an entirely tofu meal at Saga Tofu Ine, near the entrance of the bamboo grove. Price: $20 per set meal. 
  • Visit Fushimi Inari Shrine and marvel at thousands of vermillion torii gates while you relive your favorite scene from Memoirs of a Geisha. Admission: Free. 
  • Visit Kinkaku-ji, or the Golden Pavilion. Bonus if you visit at sunset. (It closes well before sunset during the summer months). Admission: $4 per person. 
  • Wander around Gion after dark and enjoy the lantern-lit pathways. 

  • Sleep at Villa Front Kyoto Seimei. Price: $60 per night. 


Day 15 - Travel to Osaka

Suggested Activities:

  • Arrive at the train station early and check out the 11th floor for lots of dining options. The Korean restaurant is good if you are missing spicy foods yet. Price: $37 for way too much food for two people. 

  • Book tickets to Shinosaka Station. Sample route: Nozomi to Hakota. Debark at Shinosaka. Journey time: 0h 13m. 
  • Transfer to a local train to Osaka Station. Sample route: JR Tokaido Sanyo Main Line Rapid to Kakogawa. Debark at Osaka. Journey time: 0h 4m. 

Suggested Activities:

  • Visit Dotonbori and marvel at the bright lights and giant, animated food signs. 
  • Try the regional specialty, okonomiyaki. Price: $10-$15 per pancake. 

  • Sleep at Hotel Mystays Premier Dojima. Price: $115 per night. 

Day 16 - Explore Osaka


Suggested Activities:

  • This was meant to be our Universal Studios Day and so I will keep it here on the itinerary. Admission: $79 each. Express Passes (to skip the lines): An additional $104 each. 
  • Try multiple varieties of Osaka’s other regional specialty, takoyaki, at Takopia, just outside the park gate. Price: Around $10 per order with small beers. 
  • For dinner, pig out on kaiten zushi (conveyer belt sushi) at Isono Ryotaro Namba Shop. Price: $1 per plate. You heard that right. 

  • Sleep at Hotel Mystays Premier Dojima. Price: $115 per night. 


Day 17 - Finish Exploring Osaka and Travel to Hiroshima


Suggested Activities:

  • Check-out and leave backpacks in lockers at Osaka Station. Price: $6 each. 
  • Visit Osaka Aquarium, one of the largest in the world, and say hello to the whale sharks, mola molas, and king spider crabs. Admission: $23 each. 

  • Pick up bags and ride the local train back to Shinosaka Station. 
  • Book tickets to Hiroshima. Sample route: Sakura Line to Kagoshimachuo. Debark at Hiroshima Station. Journey time: 1h 26m. 

Suggested Activities: 

  • Try Hiroshima-style Okonomiyaki (different from the Osaka-style). Price: $10 per pancake. 

  • Sleep at Hotel Granvia Hiroshima. Price: $92 per night. 

Day 18 - Explore Hiroshima and Take in the History


Suggested Activities:

  • Visit Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Admission: $2 each. 
  • Walk the Peace Park, don’t miss the Cenotaph, Flame of Peace, Children’s Peace Monument, and the Bell of Peace. Admission: Free. 
  • Visit the Atomic Bomb Dome. Admission: Free. 
  • Unwind and enjoy an oyster dinner (Hiroshima’s specialty) on the river bank at Oyster Conclave. Price: $70 for a set meal that we split and drinks. 

  • Sleep at Hotel Granvia Hiroshima. Price: $92 per night. 


Day 19 - Travel to Himeji and Visit the Castle


  • Book tickets to Himeji. Sample route: Sakura Line to Shinosaka. Debark at Himeji Station. Journey time: 0h 56m. 

Suggested Activities:

  • Visit Himeji Castle and unleash your inner samurai. Admission: $10 each. 
  • Try the best, homemade udon noodles you ever tasted at Menme Noodles. Price: $7 per bowl. 

  • Sleep at Hotel Nikko Himeji. Price: $100 per night. 


Day 20 - Return to Tokyo


  • Book tickets to Shibuya. Sample route: Hikari to Tokyo. Debark at Shinagawa Station. Journey time: 3h 27m. Followed by JR Yamanote Line to Shibuya, Shinjuku. Debark at Shibuya Station. Journey time: 0h 13m. 
  • Sleep at Shibuya Hotel En. Price: $146 per night. 

Days 21-25 - Slow Down and Explore Tokyo


Suggested Activities:

  • Live out your Mario Kart dreams with a MariCar tour around the city. Price: Varies depending on tour length, around $100 per person. Must have an International Driver’s Permit to participate. 
  • Embrace your inner child who wanted an owl after reading Harry Potter and visit an owl cafe. Try Owl no Mori in Akihabara. Price: $10 each, includes a free drink. 
  • Walk the Shibuya Scramble, the busiest intersection in the world. Price: Free. 
  • Pay homage to the statue of Hachiko, the world’s most loyal dog, just outside Shibuya Station. Price: Free. 
  • Experience a Japanese Cinema. Price: $18 per person. Popcorn and drinks: $10. 
  • Visit Tokyo Skytree, the word’s tallest, freestanding tower. Price: $20 each for the 350m observation deck; an additional $10 each for the 450m observation deck. 
  • We debated whether or not to go to the Robot Restaurant. Many of the reviews said that it was overpriced and gimmicky so we ended up skipping it. 

  • Sleep at Shibuya Hotel En. Price: $146 per night. 


Day 26 - Sayonara, Japan


  • Book tickets to Narita Airport on the Narita Express. Price: $32 each. (Remember, your JR Passes will be expired by this point). 

I hope that this post has been helpful in planning your own Japan adventure. Tackling such large cities with so many things to do can definitely be a daunting task. If anyone needs advice or has questions, feel free to reach out. My email address is listed on the About page. If you have additional suggestions for fellow travelers, feel free to leave a comment! Happy adventuring! 

That Time We Rode a Glass Elevator a Quarter Mile Up Into the Sky

Japan Day 26 - Tokyo

Our flight back to the western world wasn’t until late in the afternoon, and so Fletch and I decided to spend our final morning visiting Tokyo Skytree. We had been meaning to go, and I had been scanning the weather apps for the clearest day possible. Today was our lucky day.

We checked out of the hotel and left our bags in the lobby, then rode the subway over to Japan’s tallest structure. The Skytree is new since my last visit to Japan, and definitely demands attention when you catch a glimpse for the first time. At 2,080 feet, it is the tallest tower in the world, and the second tallest free-standing structure in the world (the tallest going to the Burj Khalifa in Dubai). Tokyo's second tallest building by comparison is only half that.

Tokyo Skytree

Tokyo Skytree has two different observation decks, one at 350 meters, and a second at 450 meters. We bought tickets to the first observation deck, and caught a final glimpse of the elusive Mt. Fuji. It was cloudy in that direction, but we were able to make out the majestic mountain’s outline. How nice of her to come out to say goodbye to us.

The size of Tokyo from 350 meters was overwhelming. In every direction, there was nothing but concrete jungle as far as the eye could see. Miles and miles of square, grey buildings.

Imagine this view times 360 degrees. 

When we had made our rounds, we bought tickets up to the next deck at 450 meters. This time the elevator was glass as it whisked us upwards. The experience was only slightly nauseating, and has only given me a few bad dreams since. Sitting in a glass elevator a quarter mile up in the sky will really make you hope that this isn’t the moment that the big earthquake decides to come.

We were let out onto a spiral path, one side of which was lined with windows, allowing for an even more vertigo-inducing view than before. The other side was a gallery of life-sized, Marvel superhero posters, and we were amused to observe that the rest of the crowd was more interested in taking selfies next to Iron Man than the actual view. Had they only looked out the window, they would have seen the tiny Ant-Man in the corner of the sill, surrounded by ants.

Life-sized Ant-Man inside a display case. 

On our way back to the metro, we passed by a takoyaki stand, and so decided to stop for one last round of the lava-hot octopus balls. We might as well take advantage of all the things we wouldn’t be able to find in a few short hours.

Our last moments happened in a blur. We retrieved our backpacks from the hotel, and then tried to figure out how to get the remaining balances on our metro cards refunded. (Tip for travelers: you have to go to the ticket office for the refund; the machines won’t do the job). I sent Fletch to get one last round of 7-Eleven drinks for the road, and then sat by Hachiko and waited for my friend who gifted us with some macaroons for the journey. And then we were on the Narita Express, being whisked back to the airport; the past month having gone by in as much a blur as the scenery out the window.

My last memory of Japan was sitting on the plane, waiting to taxi, when our seat-mate sat down next to us with a big bag of fast food french fries. I found the scene quite humorous. For one, where did she even find those? And she must have really been desperate to get back to America to choose french fries, of all things, as her final meal.

Musings on the Cost of Modernization

Japan Day 25 - Tokyo

Our last full day in Tokyo was spent more or less lazing around. We met up with my friend from high school again in the evening, and another mutual friend from college. Fletch and I requested okonomiyaki, the delectable cabbage pancakes, for our last dinner in Japan.

I laid awake in bed that night reflecting on the place that Japan had become. An overwhelming sense of emptiness and loneliness had been growing somewhere deep inside of me ever since stopping in Tokyo.

For cities so crowded, we had observed so little in the form of human interaction. Hundreds of thousands of people constantly going about their days, and you would think every last one of them was the last person on the planet for the amount of acknowledgment they gave to the people around them.

And the quiet… The cities in Japan are some of the quietest you have ever been to. The streets are not filled with chatter, just the shuffle of feet from commuters heading to work. The sounds of children screaming or laughing are almost never heard. City people aren’t finding relationships, or having children. They’re working, around the clock, always overtime, and often on weekends. People are actually dying from overworking themselves. It is such a problem, that the government decided to have businesses give everyone Friday afternoons off. Unfortunately, the end of the workweek tends to be the busiest time for many employees in Japan, and so no one was taking advantage of it. The new initiative is to try and get people to start their workweeks on Mondays at noon. Can you imagine the government having to step in and tell the entire country to work less?

Japan has always been known for being forward thinking with their innovations and technology, while simultaneously preserving their beautiful, historical and cultural values. But seeing Japan on multiple occasions, spaced ten years apart, showed that history and tradition were slowly fading away. Once spiritual sites now had the magic stomped out of them by droves of camera-happy tourists. Harajuku fashion had been replaced with corporate labels. Folding hand fans were unnecessary with a/c inside every building. Kimonos were only worn by Chinese tourists. Family values also seemed to be disappearing. When I lived with a host family ten years ago, I always thought it was so beautiful that the grandparents lived next door and would join us for dinner every night. Granted that wasn’t downtown in a big city, and I do hope that families still function in such a way in more rural areas. In the cities, you never see families though. Even couples are a rare sighting.

Japan seems to have achieved a utopian ideal in terms of work ethic, peace, and safety. Even pickpocketing is extremely rare there. But at what cost? Obviously a week in Tokyo doesn’t make me an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but it felt like a very sad and lonely city. Fletch and I always find our own fun of course, but no one around us seemed to be doing the same. It felt like a society of emotionless robots. I hope no one takes offense to that. I’ve always been a huge Japanophile myself. Some fundamental human need for connection felt like it had gone the way of the samurai though, leaving in its wake a rather isolated and meaningless existence.

It seems that every place I have visited, the locals there have all reminisced over the place that it had been ten years ago. In Koh Tao, they used to talk about the fishing village the sleepy little island had been ten years ago, before the tourists arrived. In Palau, a place with more fish in the ocean than you could ever imagine existed, they used to talk about how many more (even more!) fish there had been ten years ago. To someone who fell in love with those places just as they were, it seemed a sad outlook to have. But now I understood. Time does change places. Tourism allows us to see the world, and allows countries to bring in revenue; seemingly a win-win. Something is lost in the process though. The things that made that country unique and worth seeing are suddenly branded and commercialized. Part of the mystique is gone.

Japan was not the same place that I had remembered. Perhaps a part of that was no longer seeing the world through the same rose-tinted glasses as you do as a child. Perhaps the country and its culture had really changed that much. Whatever the case, I felt a sensation that had for the most part eluded me through my travels: homesickness. I wasn't sure where in the world that home was anymore, but it was someplace where life was simpler, and people were happier.


Tokyo’s Disappearing Fashion Scene

Japan Day 24 - Tokyo

We trekked over to Harajuku for brunch. They had an Eggs ’n Things there (a Hawaiian chain we had discovered early in the trip) and we were both in the mood for American breakfast.

Harajuku is an area in Tokyo known for its colorful street art and fashion scene. On the weekends, it is usually teaming with young people dressed up in cosplay and Lolita fashion (or so I remembered my high school Japanese teacher saying). Japan as a whole is a fairly conservative society. Women don’t typically show their shoulders, or any amount of chest. None of the everyday fashion is anything that Grandma wouldn’t approve of. And yet for some reason, a lot of non-Japanese people tend to associate Tokyo with funky, futuristic fashion trends. Those images all come from Harajuku.

After brunch we walked around in search of some good costumes and people-watching. It was a Sunday so I figured it should be prime time for such an activity. No one was dressed particularly outrageously though, and so I figured we must just be in the wrong area, and I had no idea how to go about finding the right area. In researching for this post though, I stumbled across an article about how Harajuku street fashion is now considered to be dead, mostly due to the growth of big chain corporations like Uniqlo. A well known photographer who used to put out a magazine of Harajuku fashion every month is no longer doing so, because there aren’t enough people left to photograph. Yet another piece of Japanese culture that had disappeared in the last ten years. If you are into fashion, the article is a fun read, or you may just want to see the photos of what I am talking about, since I obviously don't have any. That article can be found here.

Fletch took me to Pandora and bought me a charm of a girl in a kimono for my charm bracelet. He’s given me a charm to commemorate every place that we’ve been together; the perfect memento for someone who never wants anything that takes up any space in a backpack. And then we walked around a few knick-knack stores before hopping on the train back to Shibuya. For someone who really doesn't care to own much in the way of material possessions, I sure do love browsing knick-knacks.


That evening we met up with a friend of mine from high school who has been living in Japan for years now, making her practically a local. She brought us to her favorite seafood izakaya, and introduced us to some of her favorite menu items, in particular, tuna sashimi from parts of the fish that they don’t usually serve elsewhere. I wasn’t a huge fan of the meat from around the eye. The cheek meat was better, the forehead was my favorite, and yes, it was all raw of course. We drank and ate and ordered dozens of small dishes that were all delicious.

As we traded stories of our times in Japan, the bit I mentioned earlier about women not showing their shoulders came up, and she excitedly exclaimed, “Oh shoulders are actually in right now! See?” And sure enough, her sleeves each had a small peekaboo slit. Moral of the story, when you travel to Japan, ditch the tank tops and tube tops.

After dinner we headed over to a British pub. Apparently it was the place everyone would go to when they wanted to interact with English speakers. The pub was deceptively tiny from the front, but once we entered, the establishment kept extending backwards for quite some distance. The air inside was a giant cloud of smoke and people from every corner of the globe were congregated inside like sardines. We met a couple guys from Senegal of all places, and a Japanese guy who had just moved back to Japan after attending pilot school in Arizona.

A couple drinks later, we all walked back to the area where our hotel was located, as apparently there was a craft brewery across the street worth visiting. We arrived to find it closed though, and so did what we usually end up doing when drinking is involved. We bought some drinks at the conbini next door (in Japan there's always a conbini next door) and sat there on the steps into the early hours of the morning.

What It's Like to Attend a Movie in Japan

Japan Day 23 - Shibuya, Tokyo

Our last four days in Tokyo were spent at a much slower pace, wandering around the city, exploring, and watching the fast-paced world turn around us. That is what Fletch and I have become good at over the years, planting ourselves in a spot and getting to know the neighborhood like locals. I notice the cultural nuances and he has the uncanny ability to never get lost. I pick up bits and pieces of the language, and he reads context and people’s intent, making language almost unnecessary. It makes for good wanderings. Now that we were done zipping around the country, we did just that. It wouldn’t be for a whole year like some of our previous spots had been, but maybe when life moves that much faster, you don’t need as much time to observe.

My proudest moment in Japan was getting Fletch as hooked on okonomiyaki as I was, and so that afternoon we sought out a restaurant that served the cabbage pancakes, and ended up finding one that would let you make them yourselves. The pictures on the menu just showed bowls of all the raw ingredients. We ordered a veggie and a seafood, and that is exactly what arrived at our table, two bowls of raw ingredients. The girl turned on the grill that was built into our table, and asked if we wanted to do it ourselves. We had absolutely no clue what we were doing; she might as well have asked us if we wanted to stand and sing the Japanese national anthem for the restaurant. So we asked her to do the first one so that we could watch and learn.

Cabbage Pancake Yumminess


She pulled out a regular old silver spoon and started using the edge to seamlessly chop the ingredients, as if the spoon was built for the job of chopping, while simultaneously stirring the entire contents of the bowl together. The ingredients of the bowl were poured onto the grill in one graceful swoop, and then she procured two silver spatulas to form the eggy puddle of chopped vegetables into a perfectly round pancake. She walked away to tend to her other tables, every now and again returning to flip and pat the pancake flat. When she was happy with the golden color the edges had turned, she covered the pancake in okonomiyaki sauce, which is like a thicker and sweeter version of Worcestershire sauce, and mayonnaise, then proceeded to draw symmetrical lines through the contrasting colored sauces with a toothpick, like a barista creating foam art. To finish off her effortless masterpiece, she powdered the top with bonito flakes, which wiggled around with the heat as though the fish was still alive (I used to think this was the case when I was little). The entire process happened in less time than it takes me to make a cup of tea.

Now it was our turn. We felt confident in our ability to assemble the second pancake after seeing our waitress make it look so easy, but easy it was not. Spoons are not meant for chopping, and when I tried to do so, the vegetables went flying all over the place. Fletch had a slightly more productive time mixing everything together. We poured the mix onto the griddle and try as I might with the spatulas, the shape was nowhere near as spherical as the perfectly shaped pancake sitting next to it. for every vegetable I nudged into line, another one would pop out of formation someplace else. Fletch did a nice job of making the lines through the sauces on top all pretty. Ours might not have been quite as aesthetically pleasing, but guess what, they were both delicious!

There's the pretty pancake our server made on the right, and our jumbled mess on the left. 


After lunch we decided to catch a showing of Solo: A Star Wars Story. I know that on the surface, seeing a movie in another country may seem like a waste of time to some hard-core cultural enthusiasts, because you can enjoy that activity back home. I would like to disagree with that thought. Seeing a movie in a foreign country is exactly the insight into another culture that you never knew you needed. It doesn’t even have to be a foreign film. In Thailand we learned that you can buy VIP tickets that include blankets, and everyone stands for the national anthem before the film starts. In Fiji we learned that serious drama can’t be taken seriously, and usually results in a laughing audience. Intellectual jokes are usually met with silence, and potty jokes result in the entire theater roaring with laughter.

Since Tokyo doesn’t have room for anything to extend outwards, the different theater screens were all on different floors, and we had to get on an elevator to find our theater. The seating area had a higher capacity than any theater I have ever been to, including Imax. Fletch estimated maybe 1250 people could have fit inside. Our popcorn and drinks came on a little tray that actually connected to the drink holder on the seat. How convenient. The popcorn was fantastic, and the butter tasted real, which was odd for a place with funky dairy products. Just like they do in America, there was a cartoon at the beginning with cute characters asking us to please silence our cell phones and remain silent throughout the entire film. Unlike in America, the audience took this request extremely seriously. Not a peep was heard from the entire audience the entire movie. It was dead silent, and there were some funny moments in that movie. No one laughed at any jokes though. The lady sitting next to me finally stifled a small giggle when Chewbacca said he was 190 years old. I felt slightly relieved to know that we weren’t sitting next to a bunch of robots. (And found it ironic that a culture know for never aging chose that joke to laugh at).

The oddest part of the entire experience happened when the movie ended, and the credits started rolling. No one moved a muscle. The entire audience sat there, still as statues, through all of the credits. Only when the very last name had rolled off screen, did the entire audience rise and quietly exit. Maybe we were sitting in an audience of robots after all. Trying to fit that many people into the two small elevators heading downwards was organized chaos, but you’d be surprised how many Japanese people you can pack into an elevator. (That sounds like the beginning of a bad joke). I can only imagine how comical the view from Fletch’s vantage point was, staring down at a jumble of people my height.

We walked the Shibuya Scramble again, this time under the magic of the brightly lit nightscape. All the other tourists were out as well, and watching them was almost more entertaining than the actual scramble. The organized flow of thousands of Japanese pedestrians would be interrupted, usually smack in the middle of the street, by oblivious tourists, jumping with their selfie sticks, trying to capture the perfect jump shot. Some had set up heavy duty DSLRs on tripods, again, smack in the middle of the street. All were trying to catch that perfect Instagram shot before the lights changed. You would have thought we were at a music festival rather than a busy city intersection with cars waiting.

So many people! Shibuya Scramble, Tokyo.


We were having such fun people watching that we decided to buy some drinks at the nearest conbini and sit by Hachiko and play “spot the grifters” again. I know a lot of people have fun at bars and nightclubs, and I’ve had my fair share of fun there too, but my best nightlife memories from my travels over the years have been sitting next to the people I care about, drinking cheap liquor from Seven One One Bar, and watching the rest of the world go by. Watching tourists happily making fools of themselves (it’s ok, we’ve all been there. Actually we were there just for drinking on the street, that’s pretty much a no-no in Japan, even though it’s not illegal). Watching grifters trying to get lucky. And watching the locals, immune to all the nonsense, just going about their nights with practiced disregard. Just like going to the movies, we’ve learned a lot about cultures from sitting outside and watching life happen. I’m not recommending you be a bad gaijin and drink next to the Hachiko statue, but once in a while put the phone down. Stop trying to find the next big thing to do, or posting photos of all the big things you did, and just enjoy the moment. As Ferris Bueller says, "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."