Tokyo

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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.

The wards

The massive building on the left is but a sliver of the Shinjuku station.

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.

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Takeshita, the perpetually-clogged main artery of the Harajuku district.  
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The manga-festooned highrises of the Akihabara district.

Sights

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Lotuses (loti?) as far as the eye can see.
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While visiting a park, I see a crowd of locals literally stampeding through a plaza on their phones.  Rush hour?  Nope, Pokemon Go.
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The Yebisu beer museum, a surprisingly classy affair compared to the uber-casual beer culture in the States.  I signed up for a Japanese-language tour just for the complimentary tasting at the end.  Don’t judge.
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Meiji Jingu Stadium, home to the Yakult Swallows.  The Swallows are the less-popular of the two Tokyo teams (hence, why I was able to buy a ticket on the day of the game), kind of like the Mets to the Yomiuri Giants’ Yankees.
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The infamous Tsukiji fish market.  Due to complaints from vendors, they don’t admit tourists until 10 a.m. when the morning’s business has mostly wound down.  
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Still early enough to see some impressively large fish.

Food

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Tsukemen (dipping ramen) at a popular shop in Shinjuku.  Order at a vending machine, hand your ticket to a cook, specify what size noodle portion you want (hint: oomori = large), and enjoy!  Tsukemen tends to be richer and thicker than standard ramen broth, and this one was no exception.
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There are many high-end restaurants in Tokyo that are amazingly affordable during lunch.  This is a wagyu beef lunch set priced at around $18 — an absolute steal, for which you have to queue an hour before the place opens in order to secure a spot.
A top-rated sushi restaurant whose dinners run in the $150 range.  Bara chirashi at lunch?  $20.  
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Kanazawa

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Gyokusen’inmaru Garden, my favorite of the entire trip.

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!

A few snapshots from the day:

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Kenrokuen, widely considered to be one of the three most beautiful gardens in Japan.
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A statue in Kenrokuen
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The Higashi Chaya geisha district, lined with well-preserved teahouses and other traditional architecture.
The gleaming-white Kanazawa Castle 
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Roasted sea bass over rice: the single most expensive rice bowl I’ve ever eaten, but worth every yen.

Osaka

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The neon explosion of Osaka’s Dotonbori district after sundown.

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.

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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.

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Bar seating at an okonomiyaki joint delivers both dinner and a show, as the meal is prepared right before your eyes.
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…and served unceremoniously on the grilltop in front of you.

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.

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Popular Japanese restaurants are never without lines during peak meal hours, and most are hyper-efficient at turning tables over as fast as possible.  It’s common to have your order taken as you wait in line.
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No need for crude dipping trays here, as the sushi comes pre-dressed with wasabi and the soy sauce is dabbed on with a brush.  This is a vastly superior approach, affording the eater much greater control over the application of a vital but often-overused condiment.
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Saba (mackerel) and unagi (eel), both excellent.  Note the impressive fish-to-rice ratio in each piece of sushi.
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Sake (salmon) and a trio of snapper.  Salmon is usually the star of the show for me at sushi restaurants, but was actually the least impressive dish at Harukoma — not because it was sub-par, but because everything else was just so damn good.
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This is the uni (sea urchin) that changed my mind about uni.  Sinfully creamy and without a hint of the muddiness that plagues lesser uni, this is the essence of the sea distilled into a delicious yellow glob.
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Clockwise from left: Tamago (egg), maguro (tuna), and otoro (fatty tuna belly).  The otoro is, by a significant margin, the most delicious piece of fish I’ve ever put in my mouth.

Kyoto

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A canal running through the center of Kyoto.  In Japan, of course even the municipal water conduits are gorgeous.

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.

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The immersive bamboo groves of Arashiyama, a mountain just outside Kyoto.
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I stayed near Gion, one of the famous geisha districts in Japan (this is where Memoirs of a Geisha was set).  Some of the streets preserve the traditional architectural aesthetic remarkably well — this one in particular looked straight out of a movie set.
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Another historic neighborhood in Kyoto.

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.

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Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), a temple whose top levels are plated in gold leaf.
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The torii gates of Fushimi Inari, one of the most iconic sights of old Kyoto.  Tourists (especially young women) love to dress in traditional garb while sightseeing in Kyoto.  Kimono and wooden sandals can’t be the most comfortable outfit when traipsing around a city all day, but they apparently make for a darn nice Instagram shot.
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A shrine near the top of Fushimi Inari.
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The rock garden of the Ryoan-ji Zen Buddhist temple.  Perhaps the most recognizable Zen rock garden in the world, and the best expression I’ve encountered of wabi-sabi: the classic Japanese aesthetic wherein beauty arises from feelings of imperfection, incompleteness, and impermanence.
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The beautifully lush garden at Tenryu-ji temple.

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.

Food

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My first experience with kaiten-zushi (conveyor belt sushi), where you simply snag whatever looks tasty off the line in front of you and are billed according to your plate count.  My stack was twelve high by the end of the meal.  This was a lot, but the guy next to me had twenty-six.  Respect.
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Kaiten-zushi restaurants are the most casual way to eat sushi (short of picking up prepackaged sushi at a market), but the food quality at this one was comparable to some of the better sushi restaurants in America.
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A monstrous, no-frills bowl of shoyu ramen.  Most bowls come with two slices of pork; this one had no fewer than ten.
One of the best meals of my entire trip was at this tiny yakitori restaurant, which took me half an hour to find and could easily have been mistaken for somebody’s home by its unassuming exterior.  This is not unusual for mid- to high-end restaurants, perhaps yet another manifestation of the infamous and omnipresent sense of Japanese modesty.  Or maybe they’re just trying to keep tourists like me out.  No matter, the thrill of the hunt is half the fun. 🙂
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A grilled chicken wing, beautifully crisp and bursting with smoky juiciness.
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Chicken knee cartilage.  Not my favorite, but much tastier than it sounds.
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Chicken skin.  Anybody who claims not to like chicken skin needs to eat this — it’s a life-changing experience.
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One of the best versions of karaage (fried chicken) I’ve ever had.
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A grilled rice ball — because if there’s one thing better than rice, it’s grilled rice.

Rapid-fire updates

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. 🙂

Miyajima

Miyajima is an island about ten miles south of Hiroshima, known as a pristine bastion of cultural heritage and nature.
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…including disturbingly tame deer.
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The iconic floating torii gate.  It’s prettier when the tide is in.
Local plum wine, fun-sized!  
Inscriptions at one of the several temples on the island.
Miyajima peaks at around 1500 feet, making for a nice afternoon hike.

Helpful sign is helpful.
Miyajima is known for oysters.  My lunch was oysters served five ways: simmered in miso soup (unpictured), grilled over charcoal…
…poached in soy sauce…
…deep-fried, with sauces creatively served in the vacated shells…
…and steamed, served over rice.  There you have it: the Japanese counterpoint to Bubba’s thesis on the versatility of shrimp.

Himeji

Himeji is a small city between Hiroshima and Kyoto, known almost exclusively for its beautiful and well-preserved castle.  
The Japanese did wood before wood was “in”.  
Exhibit B.
Koi in the castle garden.  

Nara

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Nara is another quiet city a short distance away from Kyoto, with an expansive park at its center chock full of temples, shrines, and other goodies.

 

Oh, and Nara deer make their Miyajima counterparts seem positively agoraphobic by comparison.
English signage in Japan is almost universally excellent, which makes small slip-ups all the more amusing.
Visitors to Japan frequently remark on the high cost of food.  A fair point, but cheap eats can be found easily as well.  This is a massive pile of udon and karaage for about the cost of a Chipotle burrito.
And thrown in almost as an afterthought: the best mochi I’ve ever had.
By the afternoon I was “templed out” (a frequent addition to the Japan tourist’s vocabulary), so I visited a local sake brewery for a tasting.

Kobe

Kobe is a bustling seaside city, now fully recovered from the devastation inflicted by the Great Hanshin earthquake of 1995.
In addition to beef and fault lines, Kobe is home to one of the most easily-accessible hikes I’ve ever seen.  The trailhead starts literally right behind the main train station.
Fifteen minutes is all it takes to reach the upper Nunobiki Falls, one of the three great waterfalls in Japanese lore.
A nice herb garden a bit further up the mountain. 
Jazz is surprisingly popular in Japan, particularly in Kobe.  You haven’t been to Japan until you’ve heard “Moon River” sung passionately in a thick Japanese accent.

Hiroshima

 

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Every year on August 6, thousands of paper lanterns are floated down the Ōta River to memorialize the bombing and its victims.  Each lantern is hand-inscribed with a message of peace.

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.

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Hiroshima, past and present.  The Genbaku Dome marks the hypocenter of the atomic blast and exists today as the Hiroshima Peace Memorial, the iconic centerpiece of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park.

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.

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A panoramic view of the Hiroshima rubble, composed of 140,000 tiny tiles.

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.

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Earlier in 2016, President Obama became the first sitting American president to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.  Paper cranes have become a symbol of peace for Hiroshima; these two were created by Obama himself.

Fukuoka, Japan

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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.

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This was the line at 9:30 p.m.  Usually a good sign.

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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.

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Obviously I wasn’t going to limit myself to one bowl of ramen in Fukuoka, so I hit up one of Ichiran’s flagship locations as well.  Quite good, but Shin-Shin wins by a nose.
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Ichiran is known for its ultra-private seating arrangement, which takes bar seating (ubiquitous in Japan) to an extreme.  Great for solo diners!
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Lunch at a seafood restaurant that proudly displays its wares out in the open.
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All this for $14.  Higher-end Japanese restaurants often offer much lower prices for lunch than dinner.