When visiting a different giant city every three days, you naturally begin to take for granted the scale of such cities. While they each still have a unique vibe and aesthetic, the novelty of simply being in a city whose population is measured in millions eventually fades.
Then you arrive in Tokyo. To call Tokyo a mere “city” seems almost categorically incorrect — and it is. Technically a “metropolitan prefecture” consisting of twenty-three constituent wards (each huge in their own right), Tokyo is almost incomprehensibly vast. It’s possible to spend years in Tokyo and never truly see it all, so I had my work cut out for me during my four-day stay.
I stayed in the Shinjuku ward, home to the busiest train station in the world. With twelve connecting train lines (that’s more than most cities have!) and hundreds of exits, Shinjuku station is a perfect microcosm of Tokyo’s public transportation system: blindingly complex at first glance, but surprisingly efficient to navigate once you know where you need to go and how to get there.
One of the most striking aspects of Tokyo is how visually different each of the main city centers are from each other. A common piece of advice for first-time visitors: if you don’t like the vibe of a particular area, hop on the train for two stops and emerge in a completely different world.
I made a one-night pit stop in Kanazawa on my way from Kyoto to Tokyo. Kanazawa is commonly referred to as a “miniature Kyoto”, featuring a lot of attractions rich in cultural heritage but with slightly smaller crowds. It actually reminded me a bit of Jeonju in South Korea: a medium-sized city somewhat off the beaten track for foreign travelers, but extremely popular for intra-country tourism.
Kanazawa is the only city where I stayed in a private room rather than a shared dormitory. The privacy was a welcome respite, but with so much newfound space at my disposal, I was much more lax than usual about strewing my belongings about the room. Even after only one night, packing up was quite the chore!
In a country as universally obsessed with food as Japan, it’s difficult to crown a single city its de facto food capital. Every city and region has its own local specialties and traditions, matured over generations by that quintessentially-Japanese fervor for artistry, craftsmanship, and attention to detail. Japanese cuisine is fundamentally decentralized, which is why touring the country is such a delight for the food-oriented traveler.
And yet, the sprawling seaside metropolis of Osaka is a food mecca of particular renown. The source of this fame lies not in an eponymous dish like Kobe beef or Hakata (Fukuoka) ramen, but the sheer zeal with which Osakans approach the act of eating. There’s even a word in Japanese that is synonymous with food culture in Osaka: kuidaore, or “to ruin oneself by extravagance in food”.
This spirit is captured no better than in okonomiyaki, a popular dish throughout Japan but particularly famous in Osaka. It’s often described as a “savory pancake”, a gross injustice roughly equivalent to calling a pizza “bread topped with cheese and stuff”. Okonomiyaki is the epitome of Japanese soul food, a hodgepodge of meat, seafood, egg, tempura batter, noodles, and honestly whatever the heck else you want, fried up on a griddle and drowned in a delectable sweet-and-savory sauce. It is refreshingly and unabashedly inelegant, the type of food that was probably invented for drunk people by drunk people — though thoroughly satisfying regardless of inebriated state.
Sushi @ Harukoma
Though Osaka is not particularly known for sushi, it was here that I had the best sushi meal of my life. Deep in the labyrinth of the Tenjinbashi district sits a little sushi joint called Harukoma, whose 20-person capacity is usually dwarfed by the queue waiting to get in. What they serve is top-notch, no-frills sushi at astonishingly reasonable prices. The atmosphere is welcoming and convivial, the type of restaurant you’d want in your own neighborhood, and a gem to find while traveling.
If Tokyo is the heart of Japan, then Kyoto is its soul. Over the course of its thousand-year tenure as the nation’s capital, Kyoto became a veritable treasure trove of cultural and historical landmarks (seventeen UNESCO World Heritage sites alone!). Naturally, the city is a mecca for travelers even remotely interested in traditional Japanese culture, and anecdotally seems to top the list of highlights of many a first-time visitor to Japan.
Most of the points of interest in Kyoto are Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. While both can be found in abundance throughout Japan, many of the most striking examples are in Kyoto.
A common affliction experienced by visitors to Kyoto is becoming “templed out” after a few days of touring the virtually endless circuit of temples and shrines (Southeast Asia veterans will be familiar with this phenomenon, though there it goes by the pithier label “wat fatigue”). The fact of the matter is that, unless you have a particular interest in Buddhist or Shinto interests, temples and shrines start to blend together after a half-dozen or so. In Kyoto I hit my tipping point a bit earlier than most, and after two full days exploring the city I had gotten my fill. I had booked six nights in Kyoto, but fortunately I was able to put my expensive rail pass to work by taking day trips out to neighboring cities like Kobe and Osaka.
My experience in Kyoto exemplifies one of the dilemmas I often encounter during my travels: how much time to spend visiting established tourist sites as opposed to unstructured exploration of lesser-known areas. After all, many well-known destinations are popular for good reason and absolutely shouldn’t be missed, while others are little more than thinly-veiled tourist traps. Conversely, aimless wandering a random neighborhood can result in the discovery of amazing little pockets of local life, but can also be a tiring and boring waste of an afternoon. Interestingly, I’ve found that my mood can be a deciding factor: on some days I long for the comfort and anonymity of blending into a crowd of tourists, on others I want nothing more than to escape the confines of the carefully-curated tourist sandbox and seek out a more authentic experience. Solo travel is quite liberating in this regard — I’m able to entertain my own whims and fancies without having to worry about the preferences of companions or a strict, preordained daily schedule.
Due to a combination of a hyper-ambitious itinerary and personal laziness, my blog has regrettably begun to lag behind my travels. As an effort to catch up, here’s a highlight reel of several of the shorter stops along my northward route across Japan. 🙂
I don’t think there is a city in the world with a source of renown so singular and dubious as Hiroshima’s. You wouldn’t know it at first glance: a stroll through downtown is virtually indistinguishable from that of other Japanese cities: nondescript office buildings, bustling pedestrian thoroughfares lined with shops and restaurants, impeccable cleanliness despite the notable deficit of public trash receptacles. But once you arrive at the city center, a triangle of land nestled formed between the tines of a river fork, urban development gives way to a sprawling park dotted with museums, memorials, and monuments. This is the spot where, if you had stood seventy years ago, you would have borne witness to a blinding flash of light — and the darkness that followed.
Visiting Hiroshima as an American evokes a feeling of slight unease, a proxied guilt on behalf of those responsible for what happened here. I took a class on the history of nuclear weapons in college, and a healthy emphasis was placed on explaining — even justifying — the American decision to deploy them against Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. To be clear, I have no interest in second-guessing wartime decisions from the comfortable vantage point of historical hindsight. The arguments in favor of dropping the bomb were several, each carrying all the weight of military or political expedience. By contrast, the argument against is made purely on the basis of humanity, and with no greater simplicity or efficacy than at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
The museum exists not to editorialize or cast blame, but to document the fateful morning of August 6, 1946. 140,000 people died as a result of the bomb — this I had already known, but what the museum so graphically displayed is how these people died. The mental image I had (which I suspect many people share) of nuclear casualties is almost laughably sterile: a flash of light, and people disappear into so many poofs of ash. A quick death, even painless — and a complete illusion. In reality, many of the victims within the immediate blast radius died agonizingly over the course of several hours or even days, with their skin hanging off their bodies in ragged tatters or charred black with fifth-degree burns (I hadn’t known that there are degrees beyond third, an ignorance rectified by some of the more gruesome photographic displays). Others are crushed by the rubble of collapsing buildings, or burned alive by the ensuing conflagration. Those who escaped the blast and the inferno were left to suffer the ravages of radiation poisoning, which wreaked its toll on the human body in bizarre and alien ways. Simply put, the people of Hiroshima experienced a hell on earth, created and unleashed not by an abstract evil but by their fellow man.
I have a deep admiration for the museum for the manner in which it depicts one of the darkest moments in human history: graphic but not gratuitous, respectful but not exploitative, compassionate but not vindictive. It is a plea to humanity that nuclear weapons never again be used for malice, one echoed in countless places around the world, but nowhere so compelling.
Fukuoka is a charming coastal city off the southwestern tip of Japan — just a hundred miles or so from Busan, in fact — and my first port of call in Japan. Fukuoka doesn’t show up on most travelers’ itineraries as it’s geographically out of the way and lacks a headline attraction.
What Fukuoka is known for is: ramen. Fukoaka-style ramen is extremely popular throughout Japan and beyond; two of the most popular international ramen chains (Ippudo and Ichiran) were founded in Fukuoka. As it so happens, ramen holds a very special place in my heart, right up there with pho and mapo tofu as hypothetical death-row last meals. So, after perhaps the most stressful day of travel of my entire trip (thanks a lot, China Eastern Airlines), the first thing I did after checking into my hostel was traipse a mile across town to a popular local ramen house called Shin-Shin.
This is flat-one of the best bowls of ramen I’ve ever had. It’s also the simplest: noodles, chashu, broth, and scallions scattered unceremoniously atop. That’s it. No soft-boiled egg, kikurage, nori, or any of the other myriad adornments that tend to accompany the elaborate bowls I’ve had in States. Ramen is, after all, a fundamentally simple dish, and its humble origins seem to have been lost in translation during the incredible surge of popularity it has experienced in America over the past decade. Turns out that ramen is like many things in life: better to do extremely well at a few things than dabble in many.