Thursday, April 9, 2015


Since we had begun both the hypothetical planning 5 years ago and actual planning earlier this year, there was one place that Hannah insisted we go. She didn't know why she wanted to go to Japan, she just knew that she did. There was something very different about the thought of Japan, something elusive and culturally intriguing. My response to her common pleas to visit Japan were usually "sure, if we can go to Tokyo Disneyland". The moment we touched down in Japan after our harrowing journey through the Gili Islands we were transported. Transported into a land of zen, a land where personal space is a virtue, where manners and politeness are expected and bidets are common even in the most obscure restrooms.

Our initial stay in Japan was planned for 10 days. Within 12 hours (8 of them sleeping in our windowless shoebox hotel in Shinjuku) we decided that we needed more time. We needed to immerse ourselves, travel, meet monks, buy beer from vending machines, see baseball games, and interact with as many locals as possible. We changed our plans to stay a full month at breakfast that first morning. Hannah had done a ton of research on what to eat, where to go, what to see, and we needed more time to do it all. While we had a plan, because of the language barrier we found ourselves wandering taking it all in without a clear direction, but loving it nonetheless. This was the first time in almost two months that we could fully let our guard down and feel 100% safe.
Our first meal was not the best meal we had in Japan but it was one of the most memorable. As we wandered around the Shinjuku train station looking for what to eat, we realized that finding English spoken or written was less common than anywhere we had traveled so far. The menus were all in Japanese and finding an English menu was not common aside from more touristy places. We stopped into a small restaurant with 5 tables and an open kitchen. In the kitchen was an older man and woman, and at the tables a bunch of Japanese businessman. Without even asking us what we wanted the woman brought us lunch. Lunch was our first tonkatsu, a delicious fried pork cutlet, with a miso soup and small salad. This was the specialty of the house, there was no other option, that was lunch and it was amazing.

We spent the next few days in Tokyo wandering around in pure amazement. The shopping malls towered overhead. The trains and subways were immaculate and never late. Most importantly, the people were different than any that we had encountered. There is a level of politeness and respect that comes with being in Japan. Looking bewildered at the signs in a subway station for more than 5 minutes would inevitably end up with a stranger stopping and asking if we needed help. They would then escort us, sometimes 10 minutes, out of their way to make sure we got where we needed to go. Communication was largely conducted with a series of hand gestures and pointing while they continued to speak in Japanese to us. Very few times did this communication need clarification. The message being communicated was almost always evident.

There was one area that Hannah really wanted to take me to, Akihabara, as it is known to be the "geek capital of the world." As we explored and roamed the streets, it turned out Hannah was in love with this neighborhood as much as I was. Whether it was the girls dressed as anime characters trying to lure all the techies into their store or the 8 story video game arcades, we were both hooked. We realized that Tokyo is a place where things come to life.

While we were loving figuring out Tokyo on our own, there is no better way to explore a city than going out with locals. Thankfully I had a great connection, Atsushi and Namino of the Ooyala Tokyo office. Atsushi and Namino planned a great night out local Tokyo style, and we had no idea what to expect. The evening started by meeting them at The Washington Hotel in Shunjuku for dinner. What we didn't realize is that we were expected to catch our own fish, swimming in a pond surrounding our tables. Hannah was the true fisherman of the family and caught our meal.

After dinner we raced to the main event of the evening, Robot Restaurant. The Robot Restaurant can't be explained in words, and really can't be explained in pictures or videos either. It just can't be explained. It was, however, one of the most entertaining experiences ever, I would describe it as Tron over Cabaret with a Blade Runner kicker.

The evening ended for Namino and Atsushi at a tiny bar in one of the piss alley areas of Shibuya where tons of tiny bars only capable of seating 10 people line the streets. Locals, expats, and tourists alike sit and chat, sip Japanese whiskey. We found a great spot run by Tsuyoshi, a great guy who had spent a few years in Colorado. His taste in music was spectacular. We spent the night in his bar drinking whiskey and playing tunes by Wilco on his bar's stereo. Aside from me leaving Hannah at the bar with Tsuyoshi and a french dude to look for an ATM without a cell phone and almost getting helplessly lost at 2am in the streets of Tokyo the night couldn't have been more perfect.
Our evening at the Tokyo Dome to see the Yomiuri Giants take on the Hiroshima Carp was one of the defining moments of our time in Tokyo. We learned that Japanese baseball is one the must do things while in Japan even for the least of baseball fans. Its like going to a soccer match in South America without the flag burning and stabbings. Every crowd member is so into the game its unlike anything you'd see at even a Red Sox and Yankees Game 7. Every player has a song and every fan knows every song. The crowd welcomed us with open arms and we made some great friends that night....aside from the drunk, knacker, Aussie who kept trying to steal food from the locals around us.

The rest of our time in Tokyo was a hodgepodge of eating the local food and shopping. We spent more time shopping in Japan than anywhere else on our trip. Things were just so cool, areas of town that were known for style and fashion were the hippest we had ever seen. The people carried themselves with a confidence and unassuming swagger....we loved every place we went in Tokyo and were happy that after a tour of the surrounding areas we'd be coming back for another week.


After almost a week of urban Japanese pleasure seeking it was time to hop on the Shinkansen Japanese bullet train to Kyoto. The bullet train was built up in my head as being one of the highlights of visiting Japan and Hannah heard my endless fascination with the fast does it go, where does it go, can any ticket get us on it, do they serve food, blah blah blah. It didn't disapoint. On our trip up to Kyoto I turned on MapMyWalk and watched intently as the speed reached 170mph.

Planning our stay in Kyoto was something we did off the cuff and without much forethought. This meant that there were no hotels available for a reasonable rate. Things in Japan tend to cost twice as much as anywhere else in the world anyway, and booking a hotel the day before at one of the busiest times of the year isn't advised. This lack of planning meant that we ended up at the amazing Granvia Hotel located right in the amazing Kyoto Central Station.

Even though Kyoto is one of Japan's largest cities it maintains a beautiful, traditional feel. Wandering through the Gion neighborhood we got lost in the streets of quaint wooden homes and restaurants. We didn't see any Geisha but heard this was the area that a Geisha encounter could happen. We were surprised that many restaurants and bars in Kyoto were unmarked. The local establishments didn't seem to want the tourists to visit, they were reserved for locals. At times restaurants would actually politely turn away tourists telling us that they were full.

Dinner the first night was a bust. For some reason I thought that Shabuzen would be the best Shabu Shabu we had ever had. It turns our that Shabuzen is The Olive Garden of Shabu Shabu. It was, however, entertaining when the waiter thought I was Adam Sandler and had to have a picture taken with me.
The next few days in Kyoto we spent wandering the shopping areas of Shijo Dori and introducing ourselves to our new love...ramen. Hannah and I had both never had Ramen, and especially not the ramen of Japan. Finding the best ramen noodles in Japan became an obsession and by the end of our time in Japan we think we had a large enough sample size to make an informed decision. We had many favorites in Osaka and Kyoto but the winner was called Gogyo. We ate lunch here 2 days in a row and would have gone more if we had more lunches to spend.

Kyoto was much more touristy than Tokyo. We definitely felt the crowds much more than the busy metropolis we had left behind and it was hard to not feel like we were surrounded by others like us. Japan being Japan, it still felt unique and culturally more interesting that any other places we had seen. The simple, wooden, Japanese architecture, gardens, temples, and homes were beautiful and had an amazing understated simplicity.

We had a few more things to do and see in Kyoto but first we had to hit the road again bound for Kobe, the home of the famous beef, and Osaka, the urban home to Japan's street food culture. Both of those distinctions were awarded by Hannah and I and you probably won't find them being a claim to fame in any tour books. We were headed off for a week, planning a return to Kyoto after exploring more of Japan.

Koyasan - 9/21

We headed out from Osaka and made our way up to the top of the pristine, beautiful Mount Koya, also called Koyasan. Koyasan is a gorgeous, mountain getaway with dozens of Buddhist temples and monuments. Most visitors will elect to stay at an actual Buddhist monastery while in Koyasan, as a stay at a monastery is a peaceful, tranquil experience.

As we made our way up the mountain via a combination of trains, cable cars, and buses we welcomed the serenity all around us. There were forests, rivers, bridges, temples, and it all felt incredibly peaceful.

At the monestary we chose based on other travelers recommendations, called Shojoshin Temple, the stay included a 12 course vegetarian meal for dinner and an equally impressive breakfast served in our own private room, and it was also expected that we would attend the 7 am prayer ceremony.

As we walked around the small town of Koyasan we were amazed by the quiet beauty and countless temples and shrines covering the town.

It also just so happened that we were there at the night of the full moon which is the one night a month where visitors are given access to the most holy shrine for a moonlight buddhist ceremony. This experience is one that will live with us forever. We walked for about a mile, carrying lanterns, with about 50 others down a path of buddhist monuments to the huge shrine at the end of the pathway. We then sat as monks performed a rhythmically chanted prayer service. The sound was never broken as the monks chanted in perfect unison, each taking turns to breath while the other continued the chant. Whether or not the religion is something we identified with wasn't important. It was easy to get lost in the chants and feel yourself dreaming, eyes open, as the rhythm continued in the background.