Instead of contributing to the oversaturated sphere of Japan travel content, I figured it would do the internet more good to deliver the completely unfiltered solo experience of a Chinese American Millennial (70% white-washed, 30% still keeping it real with hot water).
Here you will find no talk of food adventures, majestic temples or self-discovery. Instead, this image driven post will be full of my unsolicited commentary and occasional travel advise.
I hope you enjoy!
Me and Japan
Growing up in Beijing, my elementary school had their teach-kids-at-an-early-age-to-hate-the-Japanese game down. 6-year-old me would have told you that WWII was entirely the Nanking massacre — okay maybe there was something going down in Germany, but don’t worry about it, WWII was China vs. Japan.
Disclaimer: I’m sure not all schools in China teach this and things probably changed within the decade.
I was a pretty racist kid when I immigrated to America. However, through YuGiOh, I mean, teachings of tolerance, a country I once hated has become my (and apparently everyone else’s) #1 travel destination.
Japan was my first time traveling alone and being in a country where I don’t speak the language. Minus a few hiccups, it was easy-peasy.
I was technically in Tokyo first, but I’ll save the crazy for last. Instead, we will start with the super wholesome leg of my trip. Beginning here with Mt. Fuji.
I recall seeing the Grand Canyon when I was 13 and thinking, “Cool, a giant hole in the ground, next”. Seeing Mt. Fuji, I did the whole thing where I gasped in appreciation of its beauty and proceeded to snap a billion pictures. What a terrifying sign of aging.
I took a cable car up to Owakudani, an active volcanic valley where if you try hard enough, you can see an orcs being birthed in the sulfurous gas.
Owakudani’s most popular souvenir is the “black egg”. They get their black shells from being boiled in the volcano’s sulfurous waters.
Pro-tip: They say eating a black egg can extend one’s life by 7 years. So feed them to your dog.
I stayed until the sun went down. Let me tell you, Owakudani is horrifying at night. These pictures they don’t show you in the brochures.
Since traditional onsens don’t allow customers with tattoos, of course I (someone with multiple tattoos) had to go to see if I can get away with it.
Spoiler alert: I got away with it. Granted, I did make an effort to cover up my chest tattoo with my long (luscious and beautiful) hair and my inner arm tattoo by crossing my arms. All you need to know is that it was disappointingly uneventful and I did not get kicked out naked.
As for the actual experience, I feel like onsens are over romanticized (as is 99.99% of things travel). I was not prepared for just how hot the water was (110°!!!). I was in the pool for about 5 minutes before I thought I was going to die. I forced myself to stay the whole hour anyways because I paid for it (+100 Asian points).
I do still recommend onsens because a) maybe you’re not a wimp like me and b) love yo’ body and bathe naked with strangers.
Odawara is a city 20 min away from Hakone where (more) real people live. This place is exactly how I imagined a quaint Japanese town would be.
Since I traveled alone, I took the chance to try out an Airbnb experience.
The bike tour lead me through the outskirts of Odawara, which was seriously some of the most beautiful sights of my entire trip. Oh, and this is only 30 minutes outside of Tokyo.
Check. This. Out. When the old man noticed that his dog was pooping, he did this superhuman maneuver where he threw his newspaper on the ground right before the poop landed. The old man then proceeded to pick it up, fold the newspaper strategically and carried it with him (until he found a trashcan I presume).
San Francisco, this 👏.
My stroll through Odawara struck a nostalgic nerve. There were several elements that reminded me of my own childhood in China. Odawara felt like the setting of a small town fairytale.
Culture Shock 1.0
On the Bullet Train to Kyoto, a Japanese man came to my seat and proceeded to yell at me in front of everyone. I was completely dumbfounded as to what could have provoked this. Despite me repeated saying “I don’t understand Japanese, I am a tourist”, the man continued.
Finally the train conductor came and translated the situation to me. Check this out: the man had left cakes, yes, cakes next to my suitcase in the unattended luggage area. He had boarded after me, so I had no idea. And since, you know, trains move, my suitcase damaged some of his cakes and he wanted an apology.
Here’s the thing, in a less dramatic setting, a courtesy “I’m sorry” could have been in order. However the man had created a mortifying scene and apologizing to him, 45° bow and all, would be me condoning his behavior in front of every passenger on this train (who were all probably living their best life witnessing this altercation).
I basically said some version of: “It’s your own fault you cakes are ruined. I will not apologize”
I knew the train conductor felt extremely uncomfortable translating (if anything I owed her an apology). Never in a million years did she think I would would respond the way I did. After all, a young women talking back to an older man which in Japan is probably societal suicide.
My thought process was basically:
- In Japan you apologize for everything for the sake of politeness.
- In America you apologize if it’s your fault b/c it’s the right thing to do.
- In China you apologize for nothing or else society will eat you alive.
- 2:1 — nope, not apologizing today.
ANYWAYS, LIFE GOES ON
Kyoto was probably the most underwhelming city I visited — oh did I forget an unpopular opinion warning?
I feel like Kyoto is where tourists come to play Edo Period make believe. Basically, if you want to see tourists in Kimonos, this is the place to be.
This random poodle laying in the middle of the street was the highlight of the whole city.
With no interest in shrines or stalking Geishas, the only thing left to do is eat.
I’m obese by asian standards anyways, so I ate to my heart’s content. Dessert for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
I should probably explain why I don’t care for shrines, temples and palaces as tourist attractions.
It’s simple, I grew up around a lot of them and thus there is zero novelty factor. To break it down for you, shrines/temples are Walgreens and palaces are Walmarts.
Arashiyama is a historic district featuring attractions such as the Iwatayama Monkey Park, Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, and a gajillion gift shops…or maybe they were Amazon pop-ups — you really can’t tell these days, they all sell the same stuff.
While crossing the Togetsukyo Bridge, I met the world’s most adorable family. Remember everyone, kids or dogs, the choice is yours, but only one of them is guaranteed to love you back.
Iwatayama Monkey Park was 99% my motivation for visiting Kyoto and it lived up to all my expectations. Despite having watched so many vlogs, it was still so strange to see these monkeys hang around humans as casually as pigeons do in the city.
Not only are you with the Monkeys, but you also have a fantastic view of the city. Kyoto, very much like downtown San Francisco, is — unpopular opinion warning — much more beautiful when you’re not actually in the city.
Visit the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove for a grand opportunity to save some battery life.
Kyoto International Manga Museum
I don’t like museums, but the subject matter makes this an exception. I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures, but I go the extra mile for y’all.
The museum featured manga in languages ranging from Turkish to Polish. The library style setup reminded me of the days when I would go to Borders and read for hours b/c Asian parents don’t buy their kids Harry Potter.
They have a very limited selection for sale, so this place isn’t great if you actually want to buy manga — I mean it’s all free on the internet anyways.
Nara by Day, Osaka by Night
Neither of these cities were originally on my itinerary. I had the impression that Nara = needy deers and Osaka = Tokyo wannabe. But I had exhausted all my interest in Kyoto, so I made the trip down.
Nara Park is home to the bowing deers. The signs warn that some deers are aggressive and will chase you down if you don’t give them their treat after they bow.
I personally fact checked anyways. Can confirm signs are correct.
Nara was Japan’s capital before Kyoto, so it features the oldest and largest temples that I didn’t go see. But being in the city of historical treasures, I tried traditional matcha for the first time. After this cup of what was probably the most expensive drink I’ve ever paid for (sober) I’m ready to confess that I really don’t like matcha unless its in my seven dollar venti Starbucks coconut milk latte 🙈.
After I arrived, I endured Osaka’s horrific human traffic jam to make it to the ferris wheel located on the roof of the HEP Five shopping mall for some night views — also who comes up with these mall names.
Afterwards, I encountered a Shounen Jump store. Here’s a list of things I would have bought had I not known I could just order it for cheaper online.
Cultural Shock 1.2: Purikura booths
I wasn’t even going to mention Purikura booths…
until I saw the this sign.
For those who don’t know, Purikura are photo-booths where you edit your skin whiter and your eyes larger. You may then proceed to add stickers and other glittery effects (see image below).
I don’t need to explain how problematic this sign is for all genders, but I do want to mention how Japan can even make overt sexism adorable. Admit it! You thought the prince/princess thing was cute.
Just the concept of Purikura booths themselves may surprise westerners (after all y’all are out there giving yourselves cancer for that asian skin tone). But it’s pretty common in Asia for groups of girls to get dressed up just to go to these booths.
Also, I’m genuinely curious how both people and technology would react if a group of black people used these booths 🤔.
I finished my night in Osaka with generic nightlife sightseeing. The most noteworthy thing I witnessed was this senior cheerleading performance — I recorded it and will uploaded it eventually. It’s pure gold. I need to update my old lady goals.
I honestly did nothing in Osaka other than low impact cardio, but this city looks like a 10/10 place to come back and get really drunk with friends. As it approached midnight, I caught the last train back to Kyoto, excited for my next destination, Kobe.
You’ve finished Pt 1! But my trip is far from over.
Please stay tuned for the following:
- Shawnee goes to a love hotel
- Shawnee goes to a rock concert and almost gets kicked out
- Shawnee tries to make friends with more animals
Until then, thanks for reading! 🙏