Once you made it to Japan from this part of the world, you are definitely a connoisseur of traveling. Every person we got the chance to meet from any part of the world was amazing. It’s the ultimate experience when it comes to expanding your wanderlust experiences. We visited 5 cities: Tokyo, Kyoto, Miyajima, Hiroshima, Osaka, and this is what we learned about Japanese culture.
Food is incredible ANYWHERE
No need to book a Michelin Star restaurant or look for the “best restaurant in Japan” to find fantastic food. Any, and I mean ANY, hole in the wall has excellent food. The one that impressed me the most was a sake bar in a market. It was one of the most simple bars I’ve ever been to: chairs and tables were constructed from stacked bottle crates, blocks, and barrels. But sometimes simplicity is best, such was the case with the menu. They served raw wagyu beef cooked with a torch in front of you. I ate several while enjoying the sake. I can’t talk about food in Japan without mentioning sushi. Prices are very reasonable compared to any sushi place here in DC. In Japan, you get premium, fresh cuts for a similar (or even less expensive!) price. I was surprised because everyone told me Japan was crazy expensive, but I was actually able to eat anywhere without being afraid to stripe the credit card.
Markets are pretty large and each one has its character. Tsukiji Outer Market is a fish market in Tokyo famous for its tuna auction in the past. Nakamise is a market with more than a century with only 800fts packed with small stores. In Kyoto, we visited Nishiki Market and Shijo Dori were beautiful to walk and try the food or buy cooking utensils. Finally, I can’t talk about Japan without mentioning the Yokochos which are literally “alleyways off to the side of a main street.” These alleys are filled with small food vendors or restaurants where you can sit and order for a “bira” (beer). Some of them don’t have a menu, they have papers with large words describing the menu pasted to the wall or the ceiling!
Everyplace is instagrammable
Everything is beautiful; they are so good at decorating. Definitely, a Marie Condo style where less is more and everything means something! They are not afraid to use vibrant colors without harming the aesthetics of the decoration, they play around with natural light and take advantage of outdoor surroundings. Every plate, glass, chopstick I saw was unique to the style of the place I was.
Parks and Temples
You can find huge parks in the middle of the city, parks so big that when you enter, no matter that you are in a frenetic part of the city, there is no noise. It is like going from the crazy daily life of a crowded city to total beauty and peace. The same happens with shries, usually just before arriving, there are markets or street vendors selling food and souvenirs, but once you get to the shrine architecture and the respect to their religion makes everyone to be quiet. We went to Meiji Jingu, a man-made forest with the most visited shrine and it has more than 100,000 trees donated by the citizens. We also visited the magnificent Kaminorimon entrance gate, Senjo-ji temple (the oldest Buddhist temple) in Tokyo and Kinkaku-Ji (gold temple), Ginakaku-ji temple, Nazen-ji temple, Eikando Zenrin-ji temple, Fushimi Inari-Taisha temple (the famous red/orange torii gates paths), Nishi Otani cemetery, Kiyomizu-Dera temple, Yasaka Koshindo, Arashiyama Bamboo grove, and many other beautiful places.
So many subcultures in one same place
From geishas and samurais to sumo to anime fans, Japan has many beloved ad trendy cultures. Depending on the neighborhoods you visit, you can enjoy and learn from them. For example, if you want to know about the teenage kids in Japan, go to Harajuku were fashion and candy are centered on what is cool for the youth. If you want to explore the anime culture, then go to Akihabara, where otakus gather to shop in 8-floor comics and hobbies stores, play in arcades and share their animes. If you are all about sumo, you can go and see sumo practices at Arashio Beya. If you want to be able to see a real geisha, your chances are in Gion, Kyoto, a famous district area where they live and you can see them walk by while going to work.
Tokyo vs. Kyoto
So different, both so cool. If you want to experience a more local vibe, Tokyo is your place for sure. Kyoto offers a more a tourist scene because it preserves all of what one thinks Japan would look like: the traditional houses, temples, pagodas, geishas, and samurais. Tokyo is for me indescribable, I was able to see so many different things, so many subcultures that I would have to dedicate an article for that alone.
Miyajima, Hiroshima, and Osaka
Miyajima is a small island in Hiroshima Bay located in western Japan. It is known for its forests and ancient temples, and it’s famous floating torii the Itsukushima, which you’ve probably seen on Instagram before. It is also known for its street with free-roaming deer. We took the bullet train and we crossed X in 2 hours, very impressive! Then we jumped on a train again and head to Hiroshima. We were able to see the atomic bomb dome, the only large building that survived this tragic explosion.
We also visited the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and had lunch in Inachu, a famous place for their cooked oysters. Finally, Osaka, the city of the wagyu meat and other fantastic foods. We were able to visit it for a few hours only, honestly, we did not even plan it. When returning in the bullet train from a Sake distillery, we saw on the map that it was one of the stops before arriving in Tokyo, so we decided to adventure and get to know Osaka. It was as vibrant at Tokyo at night, and the area we visited you turned left, right, straight and back and there was food to try!
If you think the Tidal Basil is gorgeous during cherry blossom, these will flip your mind. Imagine 20 times that! There are cherry blossoms everywhere, and we had the chance to see them at their peak time. They are a little more pinkish than the ones here, but both are equally beautiful. Cherry Blossoms in Japan usually opens in April as well as in DC.
Tokyo: Morning is equal to complete silence versus the night is total noise
It was like being in two different cities depending if the sun or the moon was out. Every morning when walking to work, you could hardly hear even footsteps. In the subway, it was hard even to hear anyone breathing! Total quiet. Constructions of buildings weren’t loud. Night, on the other hand, is all about flashing lights, karaoke, and sushi. How do they do it? We spent 10 days there and every night, weekdays or weekends, the city was full of people eating and drinking. They must have a secret that I was not able to figure out.
Tiny places are trendy
In a city like Tokyo with 9.2 million people, can you imagine going out to a restaurant or bar (in this case they call it izakaya) that only host 1 to 15 people? For example, some shops only allow recurrent clients to come; they can only accommodate three clients, and every day, the seats are reserved for the same three people! Other bars welcome anyone, up to their maximum capacity. We got the chance to go to visit Nonbei Yokocho (Drunkard’s Alley), which is right next to the busiest pedestrian intersection in the world, Shibuya. If you to Tokyo don’t miss this spot.
Restroom are everywhere
And they are equipped with smart features, regardless if it is public or private. I know it sounds weird to talk about this, but I promise I’ve never seen so many bathrooms in my life. All of them were neat, regardless if they were public or private. They take it very seriously, once I got into a restroom and the door of the toilet opened by itself! There were restrooms with individual seats for babies so the moms could go do their thing while babies are secure. I could go on, and on describing the variety we saw, and probably if you ask someone else that has been to Japan they will bring this into the conversation!
In summary, I LOVED JAPAN. If you have been considering going, don’t hesitate, go! It will be an experience you will never forget. There are direct flights from D.C., and in the past months, I’ve seen several discounted tickets that are even less than half of the regular price.