Japan

Hello. This is a summary of my holiday to Japan with my friend Daniel. Why? Well, obviously I’m the first twenty-something to go and everyone wants to know about my experience right? Of course not, but by mother definitely will and maybe about four or five other people — and there are some nice pictures.

Left: Me. Right: Dan.


Japan

127 million people live on an island where 73% of the land is mountainous, which isn’t great for living on — for any Australians playing at home — that’s like our entire population living in South East Queensland. So it’s really no surprise for a country with 98.5% native Japanese, and that was (almost) completely closed to the rest of the world for 212 years, has a very strong, slightly quirky culture.

A lot of places were two or three degrees warmer than is comfortable; bins for regular trash are very hard to come by; the recycling culture is excellent, however the excessive use of packaging is a little contradictory; police cars were often left parked and running, with no one inside; and in Osaka you walk up the left side of an escalator, while people stand on the right.

It wasn’t until I arrived back in Australia that I realised how much I appreciated some of the Japanese culture and lifestyle — while it can be exhausting — most is quite pleasant and comforting. There is something for everything, a gadget you never knew you needed, an amazing combination of a food inside another food, and pretty much every fetish under the sun is catered for.

Friendly

It’s true: Japanese people are very polite. Etiquette is a big deal and it’s followed rigorously. But don’t worry, it’s very simple, all you have to do, is not be a dick. For example: if you’re riding a busy train and you’re near the doors and it’s not your stop, step off for a moment to let other passengers get off, then hop back on. Don’t stand in the doorway and think just because you’ve turned sideways you‘re now magically wafer thin — step off the carriage you ignorant fuck (take note Australian train commuters).

During our first few days, people often stopped and asked if we needed help. Shop staff always greet you with the customary “irrashaimase” (which roughly translates to “welcome, come in.”) and in some stores, they’ll even carry your bag to the exit. This also means that obnoxious people really stand out. Unsurprisingly they were almost all tourists and foreign nationals.

Safe

The areas we visited felt ridiculously safe. When you see 6 year old children walking to school on their own, you‘ve got nothing to worry about. If there’s one country you can fall asleep drunk on a train or in a doorway — yes, we saw plenty of drunk-sleeping Salarymen — and not worry about being robbed, it’s Japan. Bikes are only locked around the wheel; not through the frame, both wheels, seat and then to a fixed object, like in Australia.

Things work

The technological revolution Japan experienced in the 80s and 90s embedded technology into their everyday lives. Australia still very much struggles with understanding the importance of technology. And when it is implemented, it’s usually a half-arsed solution, like the Coalition’s MTM NBN or the recent Census cluster-fuck by the ABS. This comes from our predominately over-privileged white, male, baby-boomer government, who think it’s more important to “stop the boats” than to future proof our telecommunications infrastructure for the next 40 years.

A wave of your hand will turn on a tap, dispense soap or flush a toilet (so there’s no need to twist on a tap like an animal). Store doors open automatically when you leave, but you press a little button to enter; so the thing isn’t opening 500 times a day when you’re within 30m of it. You can adjust your train fare at barrier exits with, wait for it — a “fair adjustment machine” — so you don’t hold up other passengers. And cab drivers punch phone numbers into their GPS to find your destination — genius.

Fatties

Once a year at Christmas I usually visit my family in Townsville, North Queensland. At some point I end up walking around the nearby shopping centre. Last year I noticed a disturbing trend, 90% of the people I saw were overweight, borderline obese.

Parents, their children, grand parents, teens; everyone looked unhealthy. I didn’t see this level of obesity when I lived in Brisbane or Sydney (where I am now). Japan however, from what I can tell, that’s flipped. Genetics, diet, portion size and cigarettes are all a factor, but I put it down to one thing — bicycles. And I don’t think I’d be wrong saying everyone rides a bike in Japan; men, women, children, 85 year old grandmas. It’s quite incredible to see mothers navigating busy footpaths with a child mounted at both ends of a bike.

Helmets aren’t mandatory either and I didn’t feel unsafe at all riding helmet free in Kyoto. But before you start that GetUp! petition, there is absolutely no way you could do that in Australia. Generally, drivers here are pretty terrible at actually driving and have a real chip on their shoulder when it comes to cyclists (and yes, cyclists can be dicks too). I’m not saying Japanese drivers are better, but they are definitely better educated about cyclists, it’s apart of the culture and they’re not scorned by drivers.

Late start, late finish

Japan is pretty sleepy place in the morning, most shops and cafe’s aren’t open til around 10 or 11am. Which for a country that prides itself of convenience, is well, inconvenient. However, you can forgive this because on the flip side, you can always find somewhere to go late at night. It’s a nice change from Australia, where nanny state governments actively work to ruin night life and small businesses (unless you’re a casino).

Fast food

Inevitably, at some point on holiday in a foreign country, you can’t pass up the chance to grab a Bacon & Egg McMuffin or a Cheeseburger. I also wanted to sample Japan’s western fast food franchises. And let me tell you, they do it so very much better than we do. Dan and I looked at each other in silent, delicious amazement during our first J-Donald’s experience. We were stunned by how good Maccas food could actually taste when it’s done right. It had the complete opposite effect than in Australia, where every six months I crave it, eat it, regret it, then remember why I avoid it.

Japan’s very own Mos Burger was also fucking incredible. The service is fantastic and the burgers melt in your mouth. Dan did fuck up once and order a shrimp burger instead of chicken. For most people this wouldn’t normally be a problem, however Dan has the palette of a five year old and doesn’t like seafood. Fast food 5 stars.

Coffee

I am a coffee snob. I genuinely love the taste and could drink it all day if caffeine wasn’t a double edged sword. And while you’d be hard pressed not to find barista coffee (good and bad) in every cafe, restaurant, bar, grocer, icecreamery, bookstore, food truck, hair salon and park in Australia — it’s a little harder to come by in Japan. But, fear not fellow coffee snobs, when you do find one, there is a 90% chance it’s going to be amazing, and probably better than back home. Because in Japan, it’s still niche, which means the only people who do it are people who generally love it — and those people do it well, damn well. Full coffee list further below.

Smoking

Japan is a smokers paradise, the ciggies are cheap and you can smoke just about anywhere. They even have dedicated smoking areas inside most places, some are comfy, but some look like this. Cigarettes are apparently so cheap that most younger smokers only suck down half before stubbing it out and lighting another — oh and I have no idea what this trend is about.

Shinkansen

The Japanese bullet trains are my new favourite mode of transport. I would happily take the Shinkansen over an aeroplane any day. Why? It’s more comfortable, more convenient and so much less stuffing around — you just show up and get on, no need to check in or empty your bag at security gates. That said, the Shinkansen are run like regular trains, if you miss it, you miss it, they don’t wait for you and if you’re a local or don’t have a rail pass, it can be expensive. You also need to pay attention to your stop, you usually don’t have long to get off, maybe 1–2 minutes at most. But since they run to the second, you can set an alarm a few minutes before if you want to nap.

Shopping

It goes without saying there’s cool stuff to buy in Japan. Traditional Japanese souvenirs are a no brainer, toys and models are well priced, as well as some boutique, contemporary Japanese crafts. However most fashion was absurdly expensive. Reasonably stuff does exist, it was just much harder to find. Some of the pieces were amazing, but I couldn’t justify paying ¥30,200 ($400AU at the time) for a short sleeve button up or ¥93,000 ($1,230) for the equivalent of a $500 pair of leather shoes in Australia. Also be careful of the 8% consumption tax. Unlike Australia, tax isn’t usually included in the price, so you can get surprise at the checkout.

Absurdities

Two things that surprised me were ten-pin bowling and gambling. Bowling is very popular, some high-rises dedicate five or six floors and there are more of these buildings than you think. It’s a wide demographic too, lots of students, families and company workers.

Pachinko and slot parlours are everywhere and you absolutely cannot miss them. If the sheer brightness of neons and fluorescent lights doesn’t get your attention — the blaring, anime-style, J-pop will. But it wasn’t until we ventured into the 10 floor, 24-hour, “everything” chain store Don Quijote in Osaka, that my mind was blown. The building listed five floors of “amusements” which we figured that meant arcade games, and in a way we weren’t wrong. The first two floors were standard slots, however three to five was something else, it looked and felt like an arcade, but it certainly wasn’t.

At one end there were rows of cockpits facing a large LED cinema screen, each unit had multiple touch screens and speakers around the headrest. “What was it?” you ask: virtual horse racing. Personally I preferred the game with benches, set around a miniature track with tiny model horses racing around like slot cars.

Some other machines mimicked games, like the ones you find at TimeZone, that roll tokens down a rail to push other tokens off shelves and into the basket below. Except, this ones gives you money, and not tickets to get that plush Koala.

But the creepiest of all was an arcade game. From what I can tell it was a top down, real time, fantasy war sim. Your army was at the bottom moving up and the enemy was at the top moving down. Abilities down the right hand side of the screen cost varying amounts of Yen to use. It was quite amazing to watch the woman sat in front of this huge touch screen have at it.

Now, the actual trip.


Shibuya crossing

Shibuya, Tokyo

When most people think of Shibuya, it’s likely the tall buildings, bright lights, busy streets and the Shibuya crossing. In reality that’s only a small part, Shibuya is an enormous ward, with a lot of different areas — I’ll get to the these, but let’s start with central Shibuya.

221,801 live within the ward and 1.5M people pass through the train station every day, it’s also a tourist attraction, so it’s nuts. The first time there is a sensory overload, especially wandering along the main streets at night — watching people pass through the Shibuya crossing is really something. But once you start to venture into back streets and alleys, you can find some amazing places, usually very unassuming. We relied heavily on the Monocle’s Guide to Tokyo, Time Out Magazine, friend recommendations and of course Google to find these and we weren’t disappointed.

Sasazuka

Since we were spending 6 days in Tokyo, we shelled out for a bigger AirBnB in Sasazuka, Shibuya-ku (1 stop East of Shinjuku on the Keio line). Sasazuka turned out to be a great choice, it’s much quieter and laid back than areas like Harajuku, but there’s still lots of places to eat, drink or bowl at.

Sasazuka Bowl

We hit the local bowling alley to kill time before our check-in. The place felt like a local alley you’d find in the outer suburbs. No gaudy neons or loud music, just a small bar and friendly staff. It was a Tuesday afternoon so the place was half filled with regulars. After a little while, a middle aged Japanese women came over to speak with us. This became a common thing throughout the trip — not being approached by middle aged Japanese women — but people who wanted to chat and practice their English. Her name was Mitsuko, it turned out one of her daughters had studied in Australia. Her husband worked for Mitsubishi (I think) which moved them to a few different countries. Mitsuko was retired and a Sasa Bowl regular, she was super lovely and gave us some free game tickets. Sasa Bowl 4 stars.

Sasazuka Bowl
3–4F, 1–57–10 Sasazuka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
sasazukabowl.com

Manimal

Since Japan trains stop around 12am, we went out looking for a local bar to kick on and we stumbled across Manimal, an Italian wine bar. Manimal’s quirky atmosphere is surprisingly comfortable — even with the oddly bright lighting — and the animal inspired décor is fun without trying too hard. The staff were great, it was pretty quiet so they didn’t mind Dan trying to order in Japanese after I taught him a few words. There were a group of twenty somethings, a very attractive Japanese woman in her mid thirties — who sat and chatted to us for a few hours — and a hungry salaryman that didn’t want to go home. Seriously, I’ve never seen someone eat so much. He ordered four or five full meals while we were there, then went and sat in a dark room around the side we didn’t know existed. Manimal 5 stars.

Manimal
2F, 1–57–10 Sasazuka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
manimal.jp

Ichiran Ramen

Ichiran Ramen

One of our two best food experiences in Shibuya was at the 24-hour ramen chain Ichiran Ramen. After a 30min wait, Ichiran was our first experience with ordering via vending machine. After a few minutes we realised you need to put your money into the machine first (I still think this is silly), you choose your ramen, toppings, extras, get your ticket and go find a seat. Normally you have almost zero interaction with staff, the place is setup like bar with stools fixed to the floor and partitions between each seat — these are collapsible so you can fold them back if you’re with friends. In front of you is a small window with a blind that is just big enough to pass your noodles through, a buzzer and a little water tap built into the bench. First you check boxes on a form, describing how you’d like your ramen; rich or mild broth, hard or soft noodles, a lot or a little garlic and so on; you press the buzzer, someone takes your tickets and form, draws the blind and you wait. I don’t claim to be a ramen connoisseur, but working very close to Sydney’s China Town for 18 months, I’ve eaten my fair share — and this was the best ramen I’ve ever had. Ichiran 5 stars.

Ichiran
ichiran.go.jp

Toritake Yakitori

Toritake

The second was Toritake Yakitori, three levels of grilled goodness. We waited about 30min for a table and begrudgingly took one in the smoking section on the top floor — it wasn’t too bad, but reminded me of days before smoking was banned in clubs and bars back home, and how you reek of smoke afterwards. We went non-smoking in the basement for our second visit, we sat at low tables and chatted with an Korean-American couple on holiday and their Japanese friends. Anything with chicken was ridiculously good, the capsicum stuffed with chicken mince and the Japanese mushroom combination in particular; and each dish can be grilled in sweet or salty marinate. There are some good draft beers on tap, whisky of course and a decent selection of sake. We drank quite a lot of sake, we made a point of always ordering it with our drinks — no matter how we felt. Sake comes hot or cold, and that’s the limit of my knowledge. Often the cheap stuff was pretty damn good. Toritake 4 stars.

Toritake
1–6–1 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
facebook.com/Toritake

Nonbei Yokocho (Drunkard Alley)

Nonbei Yokocho (Drunkard Alley)

Coincidentally, our friends Rita and Wade were in Japan and their itinerary was identical to ours, one of our many outings was to Nonbei Yokocho (or Drunkard’s Alley). Nonbei Alley is a short walk North of Shibuya station and is a series of alleyways with tiny little bars, that only fit around four or five people. We settled on a place called Bar Piano, the walls were crammed with kitschy ornaments, frames, animal heads and the ceiling was filled with chandeliers. Surprisingly there were two levels and upstairs was slightly roomier. As is customary in these bars, you make friends with other guests — our new friends were Moto and Reiko. Moto Matsumura is a talented photographer and Reiko was a designer, fashion maybe — we had a lot of beers. Drunkard Alley 5 tiny stars.

Nonbei Yokocho
1–25–10 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Bar Piano

Yoyogi Park

In the heart of Shibuya is was my favourite place — Yoyogi Park. At the main entrance you’re greeted by an enormous Torii gate, then a long, wide path with trees towering over top. We arrived late in the afternoon when the light was low and shining through the trees, it was pretty magical. Yoyogi Park 5 stars.

Yoyogi Park and Meiji Temple
2–1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Yoyogi Park

Daikanyama

Daikanyama has a noticeable upmarket feel without being (too) pretentious. Dotted throughout are plethora of great boutiques from records, books and furniture to fashion, fabrics and tenugui. I picked up some pants from ts(s), former stylist and creative director Takuji Suzuki store. The space is shared with Takuji’s wife Masayo Shimano and her brand Toujours. Their collections are gorgeous, but bring your credit card — I bought from the sale rack.

ts(s) TOUJOURS
1F, 1–29–5 Ebisunishi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
notsohardwork.com

Shibuya Publishing & Booksellers

Tomigaya

I regret leaving the visit to Tomigaya to my last 10 hours in Japan. The quirky residential area is located on the South East edge of Yoyogi Park. I found some great little stores selling hand made fabrics and cloth crafts, a figurine store full of blind toy collectables (I picked up a few Bearbricks), a cool bicycle store where you can sit and make your own drip coffee and the fantastic Shibuya Publishing & Booksellers — I dropped quite a bit in here.

Mimet

Mimet

My reason for visiting Tomigaya was to eat at Taro Yamamoto’s cafe Mimet, known for it’s breakfast food (Ron Swanson would be a fan). Mimet is tucked away in an alley and Google Maps doesn’t make it easy to locate. But after about 15 minutes of matching shop fronts to photos, I found it. The place was busy and but I found a spot at the counter. Be warned, there’s no English menu and the staff there on the day weren’t fluent either. The gorgeous Japanese girl (with gorgeous English) who was having lunch with her mother beside me, offered to help read the menu, however I decided to wing it by gauging meal size by price and pointing to something randomly. The meal was phenomenal, a pan fried sandwich, filled with slow cooked pork hock with some kind of creamy cheese mixture and fried egg on top. Served with a side of roasted and pickled vegetables. Mimet 5 delicious stars.

Mimet
1F, 1–38–7 Tomigaya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
facebook.com/mimet.tokyo

Akihabara, Chiyoda, Tokyo

Otaku capital of Tokyo, Akihabara is home to hobby shops, maid cafes, electronics stores, retro arcades, vintage video game boutiques and weeaboo.

Akihabara

Gundam Cafe

This is on a lot Akihabara to-do lists, however it was a letdown, it lacked atmosphere and the food was terrible. If you want to do something Gundam related however, check out the Bandai Hobby Center in Shizuoka — which looked fucking rad. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to go. Gundam Cafe 2 stars.

Super Potato

Vintage gamer heaven, the multi level building is full of every type of gaming console and cartridge you can imagine — and probably the biggest collection of Super Famicoms I’ve seen since 1992. The top floor has arcade room with a small canteen and manga section. Super Potato 4 invincibility stars.

Super Potato
1–11–2 Sotokanda, Chidoya-ku, Tokyo
superpotato.com

Super Potato

Yellow Submarine

Dan found Yellow Submarine on a list of places to check out in Akihabara, it was a little hard to find and we walked into the wrong hobby store by mistake. After we wandered around the ground floor browsing the standard hobby merch, we ventured to the basement level. The posters of the scantily clad, busty, young, illustrated women plastered along the stairs, weren’t really a red flag since they’re all over most hobbies stores (and Japan for that matter). But it wasn’t until I started flicking through DVDs that I realised we’d moved out of “hobby” and into “fetish,” specifically Hentai porn fetish — some questionable ones at that — and the clientele reflected it. It took Dan a little longer to notice. Watching him realise he’d brought us into a seedy hentai den was pretty funny — I didn’t let him forget that either. There was also another five levels above with wall to wall live action porn DVDs, that got progressively weirder as you went up. My personal favourite was the reasonably tame “conservative house wives” genre, it pictured house wives in very normal situations and attire, just missing their top (bra still on). It was so subtle and niche it made me laugh. I only made it to level three before the white middle aged tourists creeped me out. Borderline illegal porn store 5 Pedobears.

Owls of Fukuro No Mise

Fukuro No Mise (owl café), Chuo, Tokyo

We visited the popular Fukuro No Mise hang out with some owls. There are are about a dozen different types from tiny to huge and they’re all very friendly and well looked after. However, you’re going to want to book ahead.

Fukuro No Mise
1−27−9, Tsukishima, Chuo

Owls of Fukuro No Mise

Yanaka, Taito, Tokyo

If you’re after a taste of old Tokyo, take some time to walk around Yanaka. It’s peaceful and laid back vibe is a nice change of pace and it was by far my favourite neighbourhood. The traditional architecture of low rise wooden houses with ceramic-tiled roofs give it the small town feel of prewar Japan. Wandering around Tennoji Temple and through Yanaka Cemetery, the final resting place of Japan’s last Shogun ruler Yoshinobu Tokugawa, was a nice taste of culture and history. Hidden throughout Yanaka are gorgeous boutique stores like Classico, Yanaka Matsunoya and Isetatsu Paper. Great beverages from Kyaba Coffee and awesome rice-crackers from Kikumi Senbei — which located in a gorgeous wooden building that opened in 1875! But if you’re looking for something more substantial, keep an eye out for Nezu Takajo, a very popular but hard-to-spot soba restaurant — exceptional noodles.

Yanaka
Tokyo Skytree

Tokyo Sky Tree, Sumida, Tokyo

I don’t need to say much about this, just take a look at the pictures. I would suggest going in the late afternoon so you can see just how dense and sprawling the city is, then hang around for an hour or two to watch it light up after dark. Also, once you’ve seen a city from this height, it’s hard to appreciate other observations decks like the Kyoto Tower or Umeda Sky Building in Osaka — they just don’t cut it.

Tokyo Sky Tree
1–1–2 Oshiage, Sumida-ku, Tokyo
tokyo-skytree.jp

View from the Tokyo Skytree
View of Mt. Fuji from Mt. Kachi Kachi

Mount Fuji

I would highly recommend joining the Mt Fuji and Lake Ashi day trip, our tour guide was great fun and extremely knowledgable. We were very lucky to have exceptionally clear, crisp weather on the day and were even able to spot the iconic snow tipped peak from the bus ride up.

Mt. Kachi Kachi Ropeway

Because of the great weather, our guide made a judgement call to ride the Mt. Kacki Kachi Ropeway instead of the planned route. This gave us way more time to view the mountain and the lakes from a distance and we avoided the other seven bus loads of tourists waiting to ride the ropeway later in the day. And we got to try some local dango and iced tea.

Mt. Kachi Kachi
View from Mt. Fuji 5th Station

Mt. Fuji 5th Station

Seeing Mt. Fuji up close is something else, it’s very, very large, and of course majestic. The view from the 5th Station of the surrounding area is also quite something — if you can ignore the huge car parks. However the area is pretty busy with tourists and some weird old Japanese men hassling young women to ride their pony — and no that’s not a euphemism. However if the weather isn’t great, don’t waste your time or money getting up to the 5th station.

Mt. Fuji 5th Station antics

Lake Ashi

Included in our trip was a boat ride from Hakone on Lake Ashi, again, I don’t need to say much about this, look at the photos, it’s gorgeous.


View from above Ginkaku-ji Temple

Kyoto

Kyoto is gorgeous, it was the capital of Japan for more than a thousand years and it was spared from bombing during WWII, so many of the historical sites remain intact. Things are calmer and move at a noticeably slower pace than Tokyo, many of the expats we met working there said they wouldn’t live anywhere else.

The streets of Kyoto

I could have easily spent a week or more in Kyoto. There are at least a dozen more temples and shrines I wanted to visit, as well as forests and mountains to the East and North I wanted to hike. You can read about the ones we visited further below.

Kyoto is deceptively big so hire a bike to get around. The city’s grid-like structure makes it reasonable easy to navigate without needing to whip out your map every 30 seconds. But take some time to park the bike and wander, the quiet streets and are dotted with gorgeous boutiques and cafes.

9h Nine Hours

If you’re travelling light and need a cheap place to stay, I recommend a capsule hotel. We stayed at the Kyoto branch of the minimalist 9h Nine Hours hotel.

The colour scheme is predominantly white with black and a few hints of colour. At check-in you’re assigned a pod number, shoe and bag locker, men and women have dedicated floors and bathrooms; which I might add are modern and clean, they even have an onsen, however it was being repaired at the time.

The capsules are surprisingly comfortable and roomy, and as you’d expect, the pods have some cool features like slow wake with gradual soft lighting — instead of a nasty alarm clock.

9h Nine Hours
ninehours.co.jp

Kyoto Tower

While you don’t quite get the “holy fuck” reaction of the Tokyo Sky Tree, Kyoto Tower it does have powerful coin operated binoculars.

And because the tower is considerably lower and the city is smog free, you can see a hell of a lot. Like someone standing at a cross walk, in detail, 5km away; or clothes drying on the line; or well, other stuff.

Kyoto Tower
721–1 Karasuma-dori, Higashi Shiokoji-cho, Shimogyō-ku, Kyoto

Ryokan

We shelled out a little and spent a night at the 100 year old ryokan Momijiya Honkan Takao Sanso, which is about a 45min drive NW of Kyoto City. One night cost ¥32,400 (roughly $200AU each) which included dinner and breakfast, use of the private onsen was an extra ¥1000 or so.

Kiyotakigawa river

Momiji-ya and a few other hotels are located along the Katsuragawa and Kiyotakigawa rivers, and since we had time before dinner we went to explore. The area is gorgeous, the river gently flowed while the afternoon sun spilled though the lush forest that lined it. We desperately wanted to take the paths that winded into the mountains, but had to get home.

Back at the ryokan, we donned our yukata and headed to dinner. Now, ryokan are famous for the ridiculous meals, which are usually several courses of traditional Japanese food. You can see Dan looking surprisingly disappointed — this was because he doesn’t eat seafood and forgot to ask for the vegetarian option — which meant I ate one and a half ridiculous ryokan meals.

Also, I found a centipede in the bath.

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest

There are a few bamboo forests in Kyoto, but Arashiyama is the money. It’s gorgeous, impeccably maintained and unfortunately my photos don’t do it justice. It’s not a long walk, you can knock it over in 30min. I would suggest getting there early as it’s a tourist hot spot.

Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
Sagaogurayama Tabuchiyamacho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto

Pontocho Alley

If you’ve done zero research but want some decent food and drink, head to Pontocho Alley. It doesn’t look like much during the day, but it comes alive at night. Small warning: touts hang around some of the back streets, so you may find yourself being invited into a pink salon (blowjob bar) or similar.

Pontocho Alley
Nabeyachō, Nakagyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyoto

Unassuming yakitori sports bar

One of our most fun and random nights in Japan started while waiting for our friends dining at the popular Chojiro Sushi restaurant. We didn’t want to wait in the 40+ person queue, so we wandered into an unassuming yakitori sports bar (which I’m going call UYSB because I’m still trying to find it’s actual name). UYSB is lo-fi, the room was narrow with modest, standing height tables with TVs on the back wall playing baseball. The food was exceptional, Dan and I both think it was better (definitely cheaper) than Toritake.

Johnny and Toyoko

We started chatting to an older couple at the table beside us about baseball — Johnny and Toyoko — I can’t remember his actual name, but Johnny insisted we call him Johnny, so we did. It turns out they were on their first date, which was super cute, and that Toyoko’s daughter Mami was apparently in Australia creating chalk art.

We hung out with the pair for a few hours, swapping recommendations and telling them about Australia. At some point Toyoko starting buying us beers, then stubbornly insisted on paying our entire bill — which we graciously accepted after a while. UYSB 5 stars.

Unassuming yakitori sports bar
A few doors down from Chojiro

RUB A DUB, Hello Dolly and the rest of the night

We hit a lot of fun bars that night, two stand outs were; RUB A DUB, a rasta-themed, reggae bar, with tropical decor and great music; and Hello Dolly, an old-school jazz club.

RUB A DUBBING

It was a massive surprise when Chihiro (our Hello Dolly waiter) busted out perfect English in a very casual, Californian, surfer accent. Which was made more hilarious by Dan still trying to order our drinks using pigeon Japanese and sign language. Chihiro was great about it and really looked after us.

A few hours and several bars later, our friends had gone home and we wound up at an empty, unknown bar, chatting to Anna, a cool, young Japanese-American bartender. As we recounted our random night, Anna laughs and reveals that we’re probably talking about her boyfriend, who had finished his shift and was on his way. Yes that’s right, our hero Chihiro from the paragraph earlier, wanders into the bar a few minutes later and we all hit the town.

Dan Struggledinger

I can’t tell you much more about the night after that, but to say it was a helluva lot of fun; so fun that Dan fell asleep in our hotel bathroom (a recurring theme) and for three hours he thought someone was asleep in this capsule — when he had really just pulled down the blind.

RUB A DUB
facebook.com/rubadubkyoto

Hello Dolly Jazz
facebook.com/Hello-Dolly-Jazz-Kyoto-Japan


View from Osaka Castle

Osaka

I have a love/hate relationship with Osaka. I know a lot of people rave about it, but I think many would agree their first trip there was underwhelming. You definitely need local knowledge, you can’t wing it as easily in Osaka as you can elsewhere.

Dotonbori

It wasn’t because I managed to pick the only street vendor in Dotonbori to poison me with the Takoyaki I had waited excitedly to eat; or because Japan has something against rubbish bins, so I had to swallow hard while frantically power walking in search for something to vomit in; or by the time I found a place to vomit (McDonalds), bought the cheapest thing on the menu, waited for the person in the bathroom to vacate, then stood over the toilet failing to get the vomit actually out; which ultimately meant I needed to plan my meals and journeys strategically for the next week. No, it wasn’t those things. Osaka was the unexpected in every way, and it broke me. I’ll go back, but not for a while. Why? Let’s take a look.

The must don’ts

“The must do things in Osaka” are probably some of the worst things you can actually do there. I would suggest avoiding:

Umeda Sky Building

Umeda Sky Building
Don’t waste your money, the view is kind of “meh.”

Jolypolis Sega
For an arcade, it’s pretty light on actual arcade games, it’s mostly full of photo booths.

Don Quijote Umeda Store
It’s a 24hr department store, I talked about it earlier, enough said.

Shopping arcades 
Don’t go out of your way to find these, they’re everywhere and they’re nothing special.

Tennoji Zoo
Welcome to the world’s most depressing zoo! I have a thing against zoos, we didn’t go in but we walked past.

Osaka Aquarium

Osaka aquarium
Where you can see a whale shark in a tank! Not sad at all. Ditto with the zoo, I would have avoided this, but everyone was going so I did too. However the bottom level with jelly fish and comb jellies was pretty amazing.

View of Tsutenkaku Tower from Shinsekai

Shinsekai and Tsutenkaku Tower
You know this awesome photograph Tsutenkaku Tower everywhere on the internet? Well that’s about the only cool thing there. Shinsekai is actually worth a quick look though, only because it’s easy to get to, but go at night time when stores are open.

Kind of old and dirty

Compared to Kyoto and Tokyo, inner city Osaka is pretty grubby and dated. Maybe coming straight from Kyoto made this more evident.

Super creepy

If you walk a block or two off some main areas, like around Dotonbori for example, you can find yourself in some very seedy places. This was the first time we actually felt a little unsafe. There were lots of touts and escorts roaming the corners, followed closely by their minders. And unlike areas like Shibuya where touts are all over westerners, here you’re looked at with a hint of disgust.

But hey, it wasn’t all bad, here’s the good stuff.

Brooklyn Roasting Company

Amazing coffee and strangely, Pizza. I’m not kidding about the coffee, it was fucking brilliant. When I told the 20 year old Japanese barista she had made the best coffee I’d had in this country or mine, she blushed so hard I thought she was going to faint.

Brooklyn Roasting Company
2–1–16, Kitahama, Chūō-ku, Osaka
brooklynroasting.jp

Tobita Shinchi

Tobita Shinchi is the largest police-sanctioned, red light district in western Japan, I walked through it on my way home one night when I happened to be alone — yes those things sound suspicious — but no, despite what you’re thinking, I didn’t partake, it was shut anyway.

Tobita is interesting because it functions differently to other parts of Japan’s sex industry (which if you’ve ever looked into it, is pretty different). Tobita brothel’s function similarly to ones in Amsterdam, where young women are on display in the entryway, although sat nearby is their Mama-san, an older woman that handles the transaction. Tobita sidesteps Japan’s prostitution laws by offering you very expensive tea and snacks, which is what you’re buying, not the sexy time that comes after.

Tobita Shinchi after hours

Tobita is a really nice area, much nicer that other parts of Osaka. The low rise, traditional architecture is more reminiscent of a pre-war restaurant district, than a gritty entertainment area. I encourage you to see it in person, the area has strict photography rules, so there isn’t a great deal of quality photos.

Tobita Shinchi
Sanno, Nishinari Ward, Osaka

Baseball!

Watching the ORIX Buffalos beat the Chiba Lotte Marines at home was definitely a highlight of the trip. Even if you don’t like baseball, it’s a real treat. The stadium wasn’t even full and the atmosphere was fantastic. Book well in advance if you’re looking for a game in Tokyo.

Balloon time
Highlights

Breaking point

Since I’ve been making fun of Daniel, it’s only fair that I make fun of myself too.

Hanging with Yakuza at Cherry Bomb Rock Bar

On recommendation from a bartender at Cherry Bomb (an excellent little bar), our last night in Osaka we checked out Fusion Bar.

Oddly enough, Anthony the owner happened to be Aussie, also happened to be from Sydney, the same part of Western Sydney that two of our friends were from, oh and they also had a few friends in common. So that meant criminally cheap beers, and lots of spontaneous vodka shots.

The beginning of the end at Fusion Bar

Afterwards, and this is where it gets fuzzy, Anthony took Dan and I to a club. I couldn’t tell you where it was or what it was called, but I remember it being awesome; because I had lots of new Facebook friends, with lots of incoherent messages to them, that I promptly deleted the next day.

And being the responsible travelling companion that I am, I had the only set of keys to our AirBnB, which meant Dan was asleep outside our front door. Meanwhile I was lost in Osaka with a dead phone and a series of mysterious cuts and bruises at 8 o’clock in the morning; trying to sober up enough to remember where I lived. Oh, and did I mention that we were checking out in 2 hours and I was catching a train to Hiroshima?

Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Atomic Bomb Dome)

Hiroshima

Dan and I parted ways in Osaka, which was good because I was a shell of a man for the next few days. Despite this I didn’t waste any time and battled though. Central Hiroshima is quite small but it’s beautiful, open and relaxed. Hiroshima reminded me a lot of Kyoto, with a lot of fantastic boutiques and bars tucked away in the maze like backstreets. I had fantastic coffee at Obscura Roasters, who have a daily selection of freshly roasted beans sourced from around the world.

Hiroshima Castle

Hiroshima Castle and a few parks are located in walking distance of the city centre, the peace museum is a must for anyone visiting for the first time, especially from a country like Australia where the younger generations can feel very far removed from war, death and destruction.

Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park
The great torii

Miyajima Island

Miyajima Island is located a short ferry ride from Hiroshima, and THERE’S DEER EVERYWHERE. It’s also very nice and has a famous floating shrine and giant, floating Torii gate, but THERE IS VERY CUTE DEER LITERALLY EVERYWHERE.

DEER!
Miyajima Island

Goodies

A trip summary wouldn’t be complete with a flatlay of the haul of gifts and goodies.

My Neighbor Totoro clock

That’s all folks

Yes, that really is all, I hope you enjoyed it, read on for some tips and favourite locations.


Recommendations

Travel tips

If it’s your first time in Japan, here are a few tips that aren’t always listed on travel sites.

Dedicated coin purse

Trust me guys, get one, you’re going to have pockets full of change every day.

JR Rail Pass

If you’re catching (or missing) a few Shinkansen, it’s worth getting a JR rail pass, it’ll give you access to all local JR line trains as well.

Suica card

Like an Oyster/Opal/Myki/GoCard for traveling on busses and trains. Your rail pass will only work on JR line trains, this will cover the rest. It’s quicker and easier using a Suica than buying a ticket every time, also you won’t pay too much if you stuff up. A Pasmo card is another option, however they don’t work on all train lines. There are Suica vending machines at most major stations.
jreast.co.jp/e/pass/suica

Google maps

You can search accurately for any train and bus. Don’t worry about the other dedicated apps, they don’t work as well.
iOS app

Battery charger

When you’re whipping out Google Maps constantly you’ll burn through that battery in no time. Get a charger that will allow for at minimum 3 full charges per day.

Rental sim

Australian telco’s have horrendous deals for international roaming data. Renting one at the airport is fine, however you’re likely to get a ripped off, organise it before you leave. I rented a sim from Global Advanced Communications with unlimited data for three weeks for about $180AU, not having to worry about data was totally worth it — with Telstra it would have cost $300 for 2.2GB. You can pick it up and drop off at the airport 24hrs.
globaladvancedcomm.com

WhatsApp and LINE

I found a lot of people in Japan use WhatsApp and even more use LINE for message and voice chat, which makes an even stronger case for renting an unlimited data sim. You can only set up LINE with a Japanese phone number, so you’ll have to wait until you get that sim. LINE is an all-in-one social and chat platform, similar to WeChat.
LINE iOS
LINE Adroid
WhatsApp iOS
WhatsApp Android

Google Tanslate and Yomiwa

Both of these translation apps are handy, Google Translate is quicker to use if you know a little Kana, but Yomiwa is great for translating signs from photos.
Google Translate iOS
Google Translate Android
Yomiwa iOS
Yomiwa Android

AirBnB

Always check here before anywhere else. You can find some fantastic places for crazy cheap.
airbnb.com.au

Booking.com

Great for cheap last minute stays at places like capsule hotels.
Booking.com

Momondo

Great little app for finding cheap flights.
Momondo Android
Momondo iOS

The Monacle’s Guide to Tokyo

It’s a fantastic curated guide to Tokyo, it did not steer us wrong.
monocle.com/travel/tokyo

Shrines, temples, castles and parks

I definitely filled my shrine quota in Japan, we went to more than I care to mention, but I’m just going to list our favourites.

Senso-ji Temple and market

Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo

2–3–1 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo

Imperial Palace East Gardens

Imperial Palace East Gardens, Tokyo

1–1 Chiyoda, Tokyo

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden

Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, Tokyo

11 Naitomachi, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo

Jisho-ji Temple

Jisho-ji (Ginkaku-ji) Temple, Kyoto

2 Ginkakujicho, Sakyo-ku, Kyoto

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine, Kyoto

68 Fukakusa Yabunouchicho, Fushimi Ward, Kyoto

Maruyama Park

Maruyama Park, Kyoto

Maruyamacho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto

Tenryu-ji Temple

Tenryu-ji Temple, Kyoto

Ukyo Ward, Kyoto

Itsukushima Floating Shrine

Itsukushima Shrine, Miyajima Island

Hatsukaich, iHiroshima Prefecture

Food

Butagumi

2–24–9 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo
butagumi.com

Harajuku Gyoza-ro

6−2−4, Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
facebook.com/Harajuku-Gyōza-Rō

Toritaki

1–6–1 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
facebook.com/Toritake

Ichiran

ichiran.go.jp

Nezu Takajo

2–32–8 Nezu, Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo

Standing Sushi Bar

2–9–1 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
uogashi-nihonichi.com

Maruhachi

2–10–12 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
facebook.com/Maruhachi

Mimet

1F, 1–38–7 Tomigaya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
facebook.com/mimet.tokyo

Drink

Manimal

2F, 1–57–10 Sasazuka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
manimal.jp

Nonbei Yokocho

1–25–10 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo

Hitachino beer

1–25–4 Kanda-cho, Kiyoda, Chiyoda, Tokyo
hitachino.cc

B.Y.G.

2–19–14 Dogenzaka, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
byg.co.jp

Fusion Bar

1–6–9 Higashishinsaibashi, Chuo Ward, Osaka
facebook.com/FusionBarOsaka

Cherry Bomb

2–4–8, Higashishinsaibashi, Chuo Ward, Osaka

RUB A DUB

Nakagyo-ku, Ishiyacho (Kiyamachidori), Kyoto
facebook.com/rubadubkyoto

Hello Dolly Jazz

Kamogawa, Pontono-machi District, Nakagyo-ku
facebook.com/Hello-Dolly-Jazz-Kyoto-Japan

Coffee

Obscura coffee Roasters

obscura-coffee.com

Vermillion Coffee (Aussie owned)

85 Fukakusa Inarionmaecho, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto
vermillioncafe.com

Brooklyn Roasting Company

2–1–16, Kitahama, Chūō-ku, Osaka
brooklynroasting.jp

% Arabica

arabica.coffee

Shopping

Tokyu Hands

Tokyo store locations
tokyu-hands.co.jp

Volks Hobby Paradise

1–15–4 Sotokanda, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo
volks.co.jp

Beams

Tokyo store locations
beams.co.jp

mAAch

1–25–4 Kanda Sudacho, Chiyoda, Tokyo
maach-ecute.jp

Flying Tiger Copenhagen

4–3–2 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
flyingtiger.com

Shibuya Publishing & Booksellers

17−3 Kamiyamacho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo
shibuyabooks.net

Fun

Tokyo Sky Tree

1–1–2 Oshiage, Sumida, Tokyo
tokyo-skytree.jp

Fukuro No Mise

1−27−9, Tsukishima, Chuo
ameblo.jp/fukurounomise

Sasazuka bowl

1–57–10 Sasazuka, Shibuya, Tokyo
sasazukabowl.com

Accommodation

Super AirBnB Hosts: Tomo and Kenji

Excellent hosts that have dozens of listing around Tokyo
airbnb.com.au

9h Nine Hours

ninehours.co.jp

Momijiya Honkan Takao Sanso

Umegahata Takaocho, Ukyo Ward, Kyoto
momijiya.jp

Santiago Guesthouse Hiroshima

4–18 Nakamachi, Naka-ku, Hiroshima
hiroshima.sansansantiago.com

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