When handing out awards, Japan is the dark horse of our trip. We didn’t know much about the country or culture, nor did we know many people who’d visited. We’d traveled through 11 countries in Asia at this point. We’d been through Africa, the Middle East, and South America and had traveled constantly for the past 9 months. We got comfortable and felt that nothing could surprise us. And as usual, the world proved us wrong.
Japan’s culture is unlike any other in Asia, which is a good (incredibly clean) and bad (incredibly expensive) thing. Incredibly conservative and polite, there is a huge emphasis on respect, manners, and honor. We learned some of our favorite customs here. For instance, one never turns their back on a customer. So when a conductor travels through one of the high speed bullet trains and must turn his back in order to walk down the aisle, he turns around at the end of every train, takes his hat off and does a very deep bow. This is at the end of EVERY single car.
Or, there is absolutely no tipping. So when you accidentally leave money on the table, one of the waiters will chase after you to return it!
And then there’s the food. Another surprise. Japan is a foodie paradise with an incredibly wide range of traditional dishes and you’re sure to find one you’ll love. From sushi to ramen, you could eat a traditional dish every night for a month and not repeat. We’ll recount some of our favorites as we go through our itinerary.
We started in Tokyo at Anne Hostel. Unfortunately, Japan is more expensive than other places on our itinerary, so we kept accommodations simple so we could splurge on experiences. We immediately set to work seeing the sights.
First on our list was the famous Tsukiji Fish Market. About 2,000 tons of seafood are traded here daily, but the most sought after sight is the Tuna Auction held in the VERY early morning. We got up at a casual 3AM in order to earn the privilege to watch this auction in action. Experts from the best restaurants in the country review these gigantic tuna brought into the port in the past night, and then a Japanese man spouts off prices until the highest bidder is found. We’d seen a lot by now, but this experience was bizarre.
The next day we continued to hit Japan hard. We headed to the Meiji Shrine, which is located on a park of 170 gorgeous green acres. The shrine is dedicated to the deified spirits of Emperor Meihi and his wife Empress Shoken to commemorate his role in the Meiji Restoration. (Pssst the Meiji Restoration was in 1868, when Japan realized how behind it was from the West, it opened up its doors to foreign trade and technology. This was further done after WWII, and is the reason the country is so changed from our grandparent’s generation to ours). The shine and park were beautiful and wonderfully peaceful.
On the walk home, we experienced Tokyo’s fashionable district and soaked up the glamorous beauty that is Tokyo. We. Love. Cities.
Next we headed to the Imperial Palace, which is the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan. The grounds and architecture were gorgeous.
Next, we took advantage of our incredible luck to be in Japan during the Sumo Wrestling Championship! The Japanese absolutely LOVE sports (more on that later). Sumo is their national sport and indicative of their deep heritage. It is a ritualistic form of wresting from ancient times involving two overweight men clothed in loin cloths with their hair in topknots (like hipster man buns) battling out their strength to try to force their opponent out of the circular ring or into falling to the ground. Though that is the technical explanation, there is much more to it than that.
Sumo wresting isn’t just a sport, it is literally a way of life. As usual with the Japanese, they go all in. The wrestlers are required to live in a heya where they train and live. Their diet and lifestyle is heavily regulated. These guys may look fat, but in real life you can see they are HUGE mountains of muscle and disarmingly flexible. These mountains crashing together was a sight we’ll never forget.
After the sports, we needed to support the arts! We did so by visiting one of the largest art museums in the world: The Tokyo National Museum. Located inside a beautiful Ueno park, the museum is dedicated to art works and archaeological objects of Asia with a particular focus on Japan. We finished off the day with a walk through Otaku, Tokyo’s anime or gaming district (Japan is OBSESSED) with skyscrapers covered in neon lights and anime characters dancing around us!
All of this touring made us hungry and we visited one of our favorites (that we even came back to later!). Kikanbo Spicy Ramen. The craving returns just by typing the name!
After Tokyo we headed to Kyoto, which is considered the cultural capital of Japan due to its rich history of the Imperial time. The city holds the vast majority of Japan’s National Treasures and UNESCO World Heritage Sites and is obviously a must if you travel to Japan. Even the Japanese citizens go here to learn more about their own heritage.
The Arashiyama Bamboo Forrest is a gorgeous must, and it transports you to another planet. A quieter planet. Be sure to get there early as it is a (rightly so) popular spot.
Another must is Fushimi Inari-taisha, which is the mountain shrine that holds the pathway with the thousands of iconic orange gates. We were grateful to have each other on the two hour walk, as once you get lost in the pathways, the sound disperses and it becomes eerily quiet and isolating. Though it is technically one shrine, it holds as many as 32,000 sub-shrines.
Now, it is time for a confession. After the sumo wresting match, we went to dinner with an Australian couple who sheepishly asked us if we liked Harry Potter. Blakely tried to play calm and casually said yes. They then proceed to tell us about the UNBELIEVABLE Harry Potter World located at Universal Osaka. Even though the couple weren’t fans themselves, they were impressed. Again, Blakely tried to act casual, but Ryan received multiple kicks under the table which communicated that their plans were set.
If you get the opportunity, the Japanese culture is made for theme parks. The impeccable cleanliness, unwavering respect to strangers, and relentless cheerful demeanor make them the perfect hosts in this imaginary land. Plus, they’ve got the funds and the following to invest in these ventures, and the Harry Potter world alone received an investment of over $400 MILLION. We couldn’t help but be taken in, and were grinning madly from the moment we got in line.
OF COURSE, Harry Potter world was the first place we went. We’ll let pictures describe the utter joy that filled Blakely’s being. It was complete system overload. While standing in line for a ride (The Flight of the Hippogriff, thank you for asking), Blakely asked Ryan urgently for 5,000 yen (about $50). This was A LOT for our world trip daily budget, and far more than the souvenir department ever requested on a whim. She offered no explanation but Ryan handed it over. 10 minutes later, Blakely came back with her very own Harry Potter wand. Yes, these wands perform magic in the park (she hasn’t tried since leaving because she’s worried about breaking the International Statute of Wizarding Secrecy).
We went on to enjoy TONS of rides and calls to our childhood like Jaws and Jurassic Park. We consumed cheesburgers and huge cokes with tons of ice. We walked down the streets of “New York” and ended the day at TGIFridays. Then almost fell asleep in utter exhaustion on the ride home. It was a wonderful day.
And the treats weren’t over, because next we headed to a Glamping.com assignment in Miyama with some of the most charming people we’d ever encountered. Read about the amazing experience in our gorgeous thatch roof hut here.
Of course, another must is to view the ruins in Osaka, where the US dropped one of two atomic bombs during World War II. We were there for the historic visit from President Obama, and it was an honor to be present as our two countries met to continue the healing from that horrible time.
Lastly, we headed to the mountains for a little relaxation. It’s a fairly well kept secret that Japan has some of the best skiing in the world. While we were there during off season, we still got to enjoy amazing hiking.
Another mountain must was a Japanese tradition and a Blakely delight: The onsen.
An onsen is a Japanese hot spring with spas, inns, and bathing facilities built around them. Since Japan is volcanically active, thousands of onsens are scattered throughout the country.
We were very skeptical. Firstly, it’s intimidating because, like many traditional Japanese activities, onsen bathing is seeped in etiquette. We shouldn’t have been hesitant, because also like other traditional Japanese activities, the rules are clearly explained and (even better) make sense!
So the onsen ritual is essentially bathing in a hot spring. This used to happen with both men and women, but since the Meiji Restoration the bathing has been separate.
The main etiquette for onsen bathing is ensuring cleanliness before you get into the bath. There are showers with toiletries, and you are expected to clean yourself THOROUGHLY and rinse off absolutely all traces of soap before entering the onsen. Love this rule.
Bathing suits are normally not permitted, and towels and wash clothes are normally not allowed to be dipped into the bath. This is all to preserve cleanliness.
Onsen bathing was absolutely one of the most relaxing things we’ve ever done. The only regret is not finding one in every city!
We ended our Japanese adventure back in Tokyo where we experienced entertainment unlike ANY other in the world. A Japanese baseball game.
Yes. The Japanese absolutely love baseball. While the game resembles its American cousin, it has been Japan-i-fied with choreographed cheers, multiple life-size mascots, and skimpily dressed beer girls. Our seat neighbors promptly lent us gear in the proper colors once they realized we didn’t have any team paraphernalia, and the stadium was perfectly clean when we left. Such a cool experience.
As we said at the top, Japan was the dark horse of our trip. No place delighted us more, surprised us more, or welcomed us more. We can’t recommend it highly enough, nor wait to go back.