Japan has been on my travel bucket list for as long as I can remember. Advanced technology, clean streets, high fashion, Michelin restaurants, cherry blossoms, and the list goes on. These are the things I think of when I think of Japan, and these are exactly the reasons I was inspired to visit the beautiful country.
With sakura season set for late March, Courtney and I each bought our flight tickets nearly 6 months in advance for ~$680 USD for a direct, round-trip flight. Sakura blooming is considered peak season, so I believe we got a good fare deal. Courtney and I budgeted $3000/person for our 2-week, self-guided tour of Japan, which included 5 major cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, Nara, and Hakone. We planned and booked everything by ourselves, which involved staying at 5 different hotels and heavily relying on the JR Train Pass to navigate the country. Our budget included airfare, lodging, transportation, food, shopping, and everything else in-between.
Immediately after arriving at the Narita airport in Chiba, I found myself amazed by the hospitality of the staff who work at the airport as well as the animated colorful machines, which were covered with cute characters and playful sound effects. The lines at customs were uniform and quiet, and the staff were extremely gentle and helpful. After existing the airport, Courtney and I quickly located the bullet train that would take us into Tokyo. While waiting on the platform, I couldn't help but think, "WOW. THE TRAIN IS MOVING SO FREAKIN FAST."
An hour later, we arrived at the Shin-Okubo station, but it was no easy feat to de-board the sardine-packed train without knowledge of the Japanese language. With our bulky backpacks and luggages in-hand, Courtney paved the way as she pushed and shoved Japanese men in suits so that we wouldn't miss our station. In this moment, I realized that neither of us knew how to say basic things like "excuse me" and it made me feel so helpless and rude. I'd done research prior to our trip to determine if we can get by without knowing the Japanese language, and found many sources that said it's totally navigable. But in that moment, I felt more mute than I'd ever felt before. I felt a sense of what my parents must go through every day while they try to navigate America without knowing the language, and I became determined to learn how to say "excuse me." "Sumimasen" truly carried us through the rest of our trip.
Staying at a Capsule in Tokyo
For our first two nights, we stayed at the 9-Hours Capsule in Shinjuku. I'm so glad we stayed here in the beginning of the trip because we didn't have as much luggage to deal with. As you can imagine, there's no space for luggage in the sleeping pods. Each person is assigned a locker, which is the size of your typical gym locker. We had to constantly visit our lockers to retrieve belongings and gather things for a shower or a snack.
Upon arrival, the first thing the staff gave us was a set of PJs, slippers, and shower essentials. We were required to wear this outfit in the pods. My guess is that it has to do with cleanliness. Everyone wore the same outfit and in a way, it felt like a prison cell. The pods and lockers were so close to one another. However! Everywhere is very, very quiet...the pods, locker room, bathroom, etc.
One of the best things about staying at the 9-hour Capsule were the toilets. My goodness! Upon entering the private bathroom stalls, the toilet seat would automatically open as if it were smiling and greeting me. The interior of the toilet bowl lit up in color and a gentle, and calming music began to play. There were many controls available on the toilet including audio volume adjustment, nature sounds, and various spray settings. After finishing, the toilet bowl auto-flushed and released a puff of fragrance. It. Was. Amazing.
Would I do this again? No, because it's really just a one-time, check-off-the-bucket-list type of experience. I would also recommend staying here for only a night because to be honest, it was very suffocating and claustrophobic in the pods. There was no good air circulation and it was so quiet that I felt like I couldn't even sneeze. It also made it hard to hang out with Courtney because I couldn't talk out loud. I didn't even hear anyone attempt to speak in a whisper voice... that's how quiet it is. There was a lobby and hang out room, but still, not as comfortable as being able to talk as loud as you want in a comfortable, private setting.
First meal in Japan
The first meal we ate in Japan were Korean-style cheese hot dogs from the streets. That was probably a good practice meal for us because boy, were we confused about how the heck to order food! Similar to the hot dog stand, Ichiran Ramen, which was our second meal, had a vending machine where you order food. If you don't read Japanese (like us), then you have to hope that the pictures are enough to describe the meal.
After waiting in a long line for about 20 mins, we were led downstairs to another line. The second line was for the machine. It was super confusing how to use this and not intuitive how to insert the cash in. Much help was needed, but luckily, the staff at hand were extremely friendly and understanding. Afterwards, we get back in line with our receipt which has our order choice on it. We wait back in line until we see green dots light up on a seating board. Green means that there are seats available.
Once inside the eating area, we each sat at our individual stalls, but right next to each other. We hand the receipt to another staff through a small window. They close the window. Literally no human interaction at all leading up to this point. There's even a tap water dispenser at each stall for you to serve yourself. There's also a button on each stall for you to call for assistance if need-be, but really, I didn't see anyone use it.
After about 8 minutes, the cook behind the window opened it up and delivered the bowl of ramen, only a few seconds of interaction before again, closing the window. The whole experience had very limited human interaction and somehow, the service was one of the most spectacular I've ever had. Everything was timely, organized, and easy.
One of the days, we took several local buses to a district called Ichijoji, aka Ramen Ward in Kyoto. It felt like we spent 1h 30m in commute. There was a particular ramen shop that we planned to go to and when we arrived, there was a long line. Considering how many Japanese locals were in line, I assume that this place is very legit. They are known for their thick, gravy-consistency broth.
For our very last meal, we tried to experience 1 Michelin star ramen at Nakiryu, but by the time we arrived, they sold out of broth. Courtney and I walked over a few blocks and found a fusion ramen restaurant...it was quite interesting. I can't remember what it was called, but they served Italian pasta with a Japanese twist.
We ordered the carbonara ramen and a tomato-based ramen. They weren't bad, but for our last meal in Japan, I think we could've ended with something a little more memorable.
Bars and Cafes on a Whole 'Nother Level
There are so many interesting bars and cafes in Tokyo. Hedgehogs, vibrators, maids, owls, etc. We tried them all. The most expensive one that we experienced was the maid cafe in Akihabara. We ordered two cups of dessert which came with one headband, a choice of song for a performance, a picture with the performers, and some stickers. This costed us nearly $60 USD. At the maid cafe, we had to mimic our server's gestures in exchange for our desserts. For example, Courtney ordered a bear-shaped dessert. When the server came to deliver it to her, Courtney had to say, "bear bear, roar!" It was an interesting experience, and definitely one for the books!
No Human Interaction Hotel
We spent 6 nights in Kyoto. During this time, our home base was at The Grand Japaning in Omiya. 24 hours before check-in, we received an email from the hotel with instructions on how to check-in. The instruction included a key-in code, which we had to enter on an external key pad to enter the hotel. We discovered that the numbers and letters on this key pad shifted orders every time, which helps to prevent strangers from following and entering the hotel. Once the code is entered, the glass door automatically slides open and stays open long enough for us to get through. Then, it immediately shuts.
To our surprise, there was no actual person at the reception desk. There was an iPad and a scanner device to copy identification documents. After checking ourselves in, we received another key-in code, which gave us entry into our actual hotel room. For the entire duration of our stay, I did not once encounter a human staff. Granted, housekeeping serviced our rooms, but we were always out exploring during the day, so we never actually got to see them.
All in all, we had an incredible experience staying at the Japaning. The entire experience was completely automated, and extremely efficient. It made me wonder how much technology could really replace the workforce. I'm still grappling between whether this is a good or bad thing...but I have to admit, it was a pretty darn cool experience.
The best place to go souvenir shopping is at Don Quijote. There are literally so many Don Quijote locations all over Japan. My favorite was one in Kyoto. Here, Courtney and I spent 2 hours shopping for souvenirs. Everything from mochi and Tokyo Banana to pens can be found here. Even cosmetics and ointments.
The Japaning hotel was about a 15-minute walk away from the Nishiki Market entrance. Nearly everyday, we walked through the market. It mostly is a touristy shop, but that didn't stop us from going there. There are plenty of food stalls and shops that sold all types of knick knacks.
During one of the nights in Kyoto, Courtney and I separated to do our own thing. I went to get a massage (really needed one after walking miles every day) while Courtney went to shop for souvenirs. I can't remember the name of the massage facility I went to, but they specialize in sports therapy. It was amaaaazing. They really took the time to knead all of my knots while making sure that I wasn't in pain.
Trying the Buzzfeed Famous, Kichi Kichi Omurice Egg
I learned about the kichi kichi omurice from a friend's Instagram story. Months before our trip, I made reservations for this restaurant, which is extremely limited and competitive. The chef that you see in these photos became famous after he aired on Buzzfeed and YouTube. His restaurant seats only a handful of customers...maybe 12? So, if anyone is able to snatch a seat, they are considered lucky!
Our reservations were for lunchtime and we made sure to arrive a little early in case our seats were given away as I remember reading in an article about this happening to other customers before. Since the omurice is their most well-known dish, Courtney and I each ordered one. One of the excitements of eating at Kichi Kichi is the show that comes with the chef preparing the omurice. The chef was so animated and enthusiastic, I could feel his energy without understanding what he was saying.
I wish I could say that the omurice itself lived up to the hype, but in my opinion, it did not. The texture of the omlette was extremely soft and fluffy, and I could taste yolk in every bite. However, the rice and gravy didn't settle well with my taste buds. The rice was a bit mushy, and I think it was because it was fresh rice. I personally fried rice with day-old rice as it adds a tough, chewy texture. The gravy was a bitter, and I could not remove the bitter taste from the rest of the dish.
All in all, Kichi Kichi was a fantastic experience as I'd never eaten or seen such a perfectly formed omlette before, but in terms of taste, I've had better omlettes before...
Monkeys in Arashayima
One of my favorite days in Kyoto was when we went to Arashayima. This was an all-day adventure for us. I remember us having to take a train and bus to get to Arashayima. And along the way, there were lots of Japanese families also headed to Arashayima, so I believe that this is a popular for tourists and locals alike.
Visiting the monkeys requires a small hike up to a mountain. There was a small fee required to enter. The hike is well-maintained and there is enough space on the path for rests. However, there were some stairs and steep slopes involved, so I would not recommend for those with limited mobility or difficulty breathing.
Once we arrived at the top of the mountain, the view was incredible! And immediately, we saw monkeys everywhere. They were not caged since this is their natural habitat. I could spend hours just hanging at this mountain and observing the monkeys. Their behaviors are so alike to humans...the way they open shells, play with other monkeys, and etc. I was so amused by their playfulness and curiosities.
Arashayima Bamboo Forest is Overrated
Not too far from the monkeys was the bamboo forest which had free admission. This place was extremely crowded, which made it hard to enjoy. If I were to visit the bamboo forest again, I would aim to come early in the morning.
There were a lot of working photographers pushing around traditional Japanese rickshaws and tourists crowding the forest. Quickly into the forest, we realized pretty quickly that it wasn't worth the struggle to snap the perfect picture, so Courtney and I really tried to embrace the experience. We visited in March and it was really cold. I highly recommend layering up if you plan to visit Japan during this time of the year.
Shrining in Every Possible Way
It's hard to go to Japan and not visit at least one shrine. In fact, shrines are everywhere and you would have to be intentionally avoiding them to miss them. Shrines are a sacred place for people to pray for good fortune and pay their respect. Since they are a sacred place, visitors are expected to behave in a respectful way. There is a proper way to shrine which includes cleansing your body at the water pavilion right before entering the main shrine. The most popular, touristy shrines will have directions on how to use the ladle to cleanse yourself. The general rule of thumb is to scoop up water with the ladle using your right hand and pour it over your left hand over the drain. Do not pour the water back into the water tub. Then, switch hands and wash your right hand. Finally, take some water in your left hand and rinse your mouth, but don't swallow! Spit it out into the drain. Rinse the ladle with the remaining water. Voila! You may now enter the shrine.
To be honest, after a while, the shrines that we visited began to feel very similar. We planned to visit more than we did. When I go back to Japan, I'd visit 1-2 shrines and call it good. There are so many sights to visit in Japan, that I wouldn't scope too many shrines. For example, I wish we'd done more of was attending local festivals and taste testing tea!
Osaka is known as a human scale of Tokyo, but significantly cheaper. The city is all about great food (lots of it!), and shopping. We took a day trip to Osaka from Kyoto since the two cities are fairly close and we didn't want to lug around our bulky luggage to another hotel. The train ride between took roughly 1h 30m, and I enjoyed every minute of it. It was quite relaxing to sit on the train since we had done so much walking by this point; and it was comforting to look out the window and observe the beautiful scenery.
I went to a Sumo Match
We were fortunate to have visited Japan during the Sumo tournament dates. I was thrilled to have gotten tickets to one of the sumo events because securing tickets seemed to be as competitive as the actual match itself! Each ticket allows all-day entry for the date purchased. Courtney and I purchased the bleachers level, but since we arrived fairly early, the auditorium was practically empty. This gave us the opportunity to sit closer to the action and at one point, we sat on the blue mats.
Quickly into the first match, I started to feel queasy. I could hear the loud breathing from the wrestlers and see blood being being shot out here and there. I realized pretty quickly that I don't like watching people get hurt and although that's not the intended goal of a sumo match, wrestlers surely do get injured from the sport.
The judges are dressed in a black robe and are seated at each side of the stage. I presumed that they were previously sumo wrestlers themselves. There were referees who would rotate after every few matches. They were dressed in traditional Japanese attire and heard announcing comments. I could not understand them, but it was very rhythmic and rehearsed. The entire auditorium was quiet besides the vocals of the referee and the loud breathing of the wrestlers.
Cup Noodle Museum
Although a touristy location, I observed many local Japanese visit the Cup Noodle Museum as well. In fact, there were groups of young children visiting the museum--it looked as though they were on a class field trip. Oh how I wish I got to go on such a field trip growing up! Visiting the Cup Noodle Museum was personally one of the highlights of the trip. With free admission, we got to learn about the history of Cup Noodles and make our own Cup Noodles for a small fee. I believe it costed $3 USD per cup? Possibly less. We toured the museum and also noticed that they was a kitchen for a cooking class. Unfortunately, the cooking class was full, but it looked like so much fun.
I decided to make Cup Noodles for two of my sisters whose birthdays are in March. After decorating their cups, I got to choose the seasoning and toppings for each cup. The options were endless. They were seafood, pork, veggies, and more. Above is a sequence of photos that demonstrate how my cups were sealed. So cool!
We didn't really do much in Nara besides visiting the deer park. By this point in our trip, we were both exhausted and feeling a bit homesick. I think 10 days may have been too long for us as we found ourselves repeating some events like visiting shrines and shopping. We did lots of shopping! To get ourselves back on our feet, we decided to take a day trip to Nara from Kyoto. At the deer park, you can buy thin crackers to feed the deer. They're very accustomed to the smell of these crackers and the moment I had them in-hand, they came rushing towards me. Deer are harmless animals, but I still freaked out because there were so many of them and only one of me. Since it was so cold that day, Courtney and I didn't stay too long at the park. We walked around the nearby food stalls and got ourselves some warm tea.
So where was the Sakura?
One of the main sights we wanted to see were the cherry blossoms. Unfortunately, we missed the full bloom by a few days. The anticipated full bloom would take place after we left Japan. However! We still got to see and eat (yes, eat!) sakura--mostly in the form of desserts. Below are some photos of us at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo. It was absolutely beautiful. For a small fee, we got to roam around the national park which was filled with locals of all ages laughing, picnicking, and embracing the beauty of the Sakura.
Japan has stolen a piece of my heart that I can't fully describe. Everything about this beautiful country is gravitating--the train station malls, ramen, wagyu, neon lights, onsens, surrounding mountains, and more. I am so grateful for the opportunity to visit and will surely be back in no time. Huge shoutout to Courtney for being one of my dearest travel buddies and friend. This trip wouldn't have been the same without you :) Until next time, Japan!
I've always been a very curious and reflective person, and this blog serves as place for me to track and share some of those thoughts. Lately, I've been sharing more about travel, so follow along if you're interested in learning tips & tricks or just want inspo.