Having just squatted three times in the past few days to pee in a trough on the floor…Well, let’s just say I’m really starting to miss the Japanese toilets. These are wonderful places – spotlessly clean, stocked with toilet paper (that you can flush down the toilet), warm seats, colorful buttons that squirt hot water wherever you want… They’re really quite dreamy. I wanted to make toilets a Top 10 experience, but it wasn’t mutual: P’s potty rooms were nice, but hardly as advanced. So there. We’ve had our toilet talk and I freaking love the ones in Japan.
A few of the gardens (especially Okochi Sanso and Koraku-en) and Tsukiji fish market should also be on this list, but since they’ve already received coverage, we left them off. In fact, this list really could have had about 30 things listed, but we’re already two countries behind with this blog and this post is a good 20-minute read. (If pressed for time, skip to #2, where Patten makes a cameo as a writer on ZINK Year!)
If you’re feeling really ambitious and want a “play-by-play” rundown in pictures from Japan, you can browse our Flickr sets: Tokyo, Nikko, Takayama, Kanazawa, Kyoto, Nara, Koyasan, Kinosaki Onsen, Okayama, and Hiroshima/Miyajima.
Now, the list:
10. Afternoon trip to Nara
We read lots of mixed reviews about Nara, and most people we talked to didn’t seem to like it as much as other sites. Maybe it was the quiet afternoon or just our low expectations, but we really loved the place. The tame deer that wander around to eat out of your hands are pretty creepy… and smelly. Lots of deer = lots of poop. But they added an interesting charm. The star attraction, Todai-ji, is much better in person than it is in your art history textbook. The 50-foot-tall Buddha is incredible to behold; even more impressive though is his home: the 400-year-old wooden structure that surrounds him was the oldest wooden structure in the world until the late 1990s.
From Todai-ji, we walked around the grounds, passing open fields, Nara architecture (modern-looking slatted windows), windy paths, and good views. We ended at Isui-en, the garden we had completely to ourselves. If you’re staying in Kyoto, we definitely think Nara is worth the hour-long train trip.
Tip: We had a late start the day we visited – we didn’t actually get there until 1 pm or so. By the time we had lunch (Mellow Café – good wood-oven pizza!) and made our way to the Big Buddha, the masses of tourists had mostly dispersed. (Most sites in Japan seem to quiet down significantly around 2-3 in the afternoon. By 4 pm, many are almost empty. Everything closes around 5 pm, so you have to time it right, but the late afternoon is significantly more pleasant than hitting a site at 11 am.)
9. Pork Tonkatsu at Kotaro: Takayama City, Japan
Crisp on the outside, moist and a little fatty inside, seasoned perfectly, especially when dipped in the vinegary sauce: Pork tonkatsu at its absolute best. This meal had Patten searching for a pork cutlet as good for the rest of our trip and he couldn’t find one remotely close.
We found Kotaro in our LP guidebook. It felt like a risky meal – we were the only customers – and we got a pretty strange (if cold) welcome from the husband/wife operators when we entered. But after we ordered our set meals, the orchestra began. She poured us tea, then prepared the pickled vegetable dishes; He breaded the pork, then fearlessly dropped it into a Dutch oven of bubbling oil. She warmed the miso soup on the small burner behind the counter; he flipped the pork with giant chopsticks, without emotion, almost meditatively, as if this was as ordinary and harmless as a yawn. Their movements were coordinated; they communicated through grunts; and 10 minutes after we’d ordered, she placed the gorgeous set meals on the counter. We ate, loudly, as we do when we’ve found the perfect meal. She sat and watched the soundless TV in the corner; he tidied up his workspace, then poached some fish heads – supposedly supper for the two of them. It was as if this was the way they’d spent every Tuesday night for the past 30 years. Neither spoke much English. We paid our bill ($20 USD), then exited into the chilly night.
8. DT Suzuki Museum: Kanazawa, Japan
Lonely Planet fell over itself about this museum; I was intrigued enough to push Kanazawa as a pitstop. One of my favorite classes in college was “Buddhism” and I was pretty darn sure we studied this guy. It all came back to me when we arrived at what was one of the most appropriate, special, sophisticated museums either of us have seen.
The museum is comprised of three rooms: The Knowledge Space (where you learn about Suzuki, famed for introducing Zen thought to the Western world), The Learning Space (a minimalist library with Suzuki’s writings in many languages), and the Contemplative Space (a courtyard surrounded by a reflecting pool). We sat in the last space for a while, contemplating the awesome talent of Yoshio Taniguchi, who was somehow able to manifest philosophical thought into the physical structure of the museum: a reminder of just how special great architecture can be.
At the entrance of the third room, you could pick up paper copies of Suzuki’s famous quotes. Our favorite, now crumpled from riding in the pocket of my Eagle Creek purse:
“Power is always arrogant, self-assertive, and exclusive, whereas love is self-humiliating and all-comprehensive. Power represents destruction, even self-destruction, quite contrary to love’s creativeness. Love dies and lives again, while power kills and is killed.
It was Simone Weil, I understand, who defined power as a force which transforms a person into a thing. I would like to define love as a force that transforms a thing into a person.”
7. Itaru Honten: Kanazawa, Japan
We’re glad we visited Japan first, mostly because we’d never consider a $70 meal now. And this was such an amazing experience. As we looked for this izakaya, we ran into Thomas, a friendly Dutch guy we met the night before at a bar in Takayama and who rode the same train as us to Kanazawa that morning. He was our first single-traveler friend, of many others we’d find along the way. We told him we’d likely be heading to Itaru at some point that night, so he milled around the area until we showed up. “Yes, I would like to join you for dinner,” he said, and we walked into the tiny, crowded Itaru.
We waited with hot tea and watched the action at the low bar: four men were actively preparing food, led by one – TDH (named so by me) — who was clearly directing the action. He wore a billowy gray shirt open to the bottom of his ribs, the sleeves tied with a red sash that tied around his shoulders. He smiled a lot and seemed to be solely responsible for slicing fish with his gigantic knife. We were told we’d have an hour wait, but after tossing smiles at TDH, we were seated in 20 minutes… and he gave us free sake at the end of our meal. I like to think I orchestrated this.
Thomas and Patten got the 4500 yen set meals, a parade of snails, sashimi, shrimp toast, goey seaweed substance, hot custard soup, duck soup (famous in Kanazawa), and divine green-apple sorbet. I ordered a succulent fish collar and picked on Patten’s set meal. The food was excellent; the ambiance even better.
6. Everything about Kyoto: Kyoto, Japan
Kyoto is such a special place. We stayed in Gion, the heart of the geisha district and very close to all the famous temples and gardens. Our stay was way too short, but it left us wanting to return. We’ll skip words here and just share a few of our favorites images:
5. Japanese theatre: Gion Odori (Kyoto) and Kabuki-zo (Tokyo)
We unintentionally timed our trip to Kyoto just in time to catch a Gion Odori performance. This famous geisha show runs only 10 days of the year (Nov 1-10), and we luckily got tickets on the last day. For an hour, you watch beautiful geishas (maeko and gekoi) sashay about the stage, twirling umbrellas, opening/shutting/fluttering ornate fans, and repeatedly bowing to each other and the audience – all this while six ladies kneeling in a box at stage right play their shamisen (a three-string instrument) and sing what sounds like a mix of opera and Buddhist chanting. It was so calming, spellbinding, that I took a short doze until Patten whispered in my ear that “this is officially the most expensive nap you’ve ever taken.” Noted. I was wide awake for the grand finale: 20 or so beautifully garbed, white-face-painted ladies twirled their robes as tinfoil autumnal leaves fell from the sky.
Pictures were forbidden, but we did sneak in one and record a bit of audio:
The next theatre experience was kabuki in Tokyo with Yohei and his aunt, who played tour guide for us all day in the city. She whisked us to the Kabuki-za theatre in Ginza, and secured us last-minute seats to Act 5 of the 11-act Kanadehon Chushingura, a play about the famous 47 Ronin who famously committed suicide after avenging their master’s untimely death. The section we watched was relatively uneventful, though we did get a dose of seppuku at the end. (Seppuku = ritual suicide by disembowelment. Considered the most honorable way for samurai to die). Yes, nice and dramatic. Luckily, we rented an English headset for commentary throughout the play, without which we would have been thoroughly lost. Like Gion Odori, the story was narrated by singing, shamisen-playing men. A must-do if you’re in Tokyo.
4. Soaking in Onsen: Kinosaki, Japan
I’m squeamish enough in hotel bathrooms, let alone public bathhouses. But this trip is about experiencing new things and opening myself up to fears… so, we made Kinosaki Onsen – a town filled with onsen, the famed Japanese soaking houses – a requisite stop on our trip. We splurged on a room at a traditional ryokan, a Japanese guesthouse where you generally sleep on a futon atop a tatami floor. When we got to Morizuya, the host led us to a “special room with colorful yukatas.” I got to pick my robe of choice, as well as a decorative flower barrette for my hair: essential garb for walking to/from the onsen.
An American woman staying at our hotel gave me a few tips before we headed out onto the cobblestone streets in our geta, wooden platform sandals: “Leave your sandals in the first locker right inside the door. When you’re inside the ladies locker room, take off all your clothes and cover yourself with the tiny towel. When you step into the bath house, fill the bucket with water and douse yourself before getting into the onsen,” she continued, “I was completely awkward with this the first time, so hopefully this helps!”
I did what she said, but missed her warning about the scalding water. I finally adjusted to the heat, making my way from group tub to shower to the rotemburo, an outdoor hot-tub set into rocks. Groups of naked ladies all chatted, laughed together, as I sat in the corners of the tubs trying to not be awkward. It wasn’t exactly the most peaceful experience for me. Patten, on the other hand, made fast friends with the men, who were excited to practice their English with him. And he’s always been better withstanding long stints in hot tubs. He left the first onsen ready to try another; I wanted to go to bed.
3. IchEnSou Guesthouse: Kyoto, Japan
We were a little nervous going into our first “mixed dorm” sleeping situation, but IchEnSou was our best hotel experience in Japan. The house holds a maximum of 15 guests; it’s popular enough on TripAdvisor that it’s probably booked most of the time. Run by Yoshi, who spent years traveling himself (and fell in love with his guesthouse experiences in New Zealand), IchEnSou feels like your favorite dorm in college + your favorite coffee shop blended into one. The mixed dorm had seven beds – all bunks; the female dorm (which I stayed in the last night) is a traditional tatami room with four futons on the floor. The shared bathrooms are spotlessly clean – the wall tiles sparkled: I asked Yoshi if he’d just remodeled them. “No, we did it seven years ago. We just clean so much they stay in great condition.” The next day, I watched one of his workers inspect a towel that had just come from the laundry, speed-reading against each fiber to check for any kind of spot. A new class of clean in a clean-obsessed country.
The dorms are sparse, intentionally, so that everyone congregates in the main living room downstairs: a low-ceilinged Tabard Inn-like lobby with sultry Edith Piaf ballads on loop. Yoshi facilitates the guest’s fast friendships by taking us all out to a bar on our first night, which ensures that the vibe is perfect in this main room in the days to come: friends drinking Asahis from 7-11, recounting their sightseeing that day, making jokes, learning about each others’ cultures, talking about food – clearly, our kind of place.
2. Koyasan — a post by Patten
Very little about our trip to Koyasan could be described as easy. Following three consecutive train connection screw-ups, a nearly forgotten piece of luggage (Emily left her suitcase on the train platform), and topped off by a hair-raising funicular, we’d arrived in Koyasan from Kyoto (albeit three hours later than planned) ready for what we imagined would be the highlight of Japan.
Part of the allure of Koyasan was the opportunity to get an insider’s look at the often private lives of Buddhist monks, so prior to leaving the States we arranged a night’s stay at Shojoshin Temple (built a staggering 1,150 years ago). Sure, the $190 night’s stay was hard to swallow at the time of booking, and even more so after the morning’s draining trip, but upon arrival a Shojoshin we knew hit on something special.
After being checked in by one of the resident monks we were led to our room. The sliding front door revealed tatami floors with the bare essentials including futon bedding, a kettle, and a gas heater (vital for the autumnal sub-freezing tempsLavish? No, but the setting was perfect for a bit of quiet introspection–just what the doctor ordered following two solid weeks of go-go-going.
There are a handful of attractions in Koyasan, but since we arrived a little later in the day than we planned, we focused on the big kahuna: the famous World Heritage Site, Okunoin. Okunoin is home to the mausoleum for Kobo Daishi (one Japan’s most well-known Buddhists), who has been waiting for the arrival of the Buddha of the Future since 835 AD. He’s joined by more than 200,000 souls — each with their own headstone or stupa — waiting patiently for the meeting.
We wandered through the cemetery for hours in 40-degree weather, wearing every layer of clothing we had. Pockets of sunlight streamed through the tops of some of the oldest cedars in Japan, creating every shade of green on the moss-covered headstones.
The stone stupas blended with the earth and tree trunks in every direction to create one of the most mysterious and magical scenes I’ve seen. Once we were at the top of the cemetery, we entered Okunoin temple: Inside we watched golden-robed monks, backlit by 10,000 lanterns, chant their way through their afternoon service.
We headed back to Shojoshin Temple just in time for one of the best meals we had in Japan: a vegetarian feast comprised of we-have-no-idea what. It was served on trays on the floor. There were a few other guests in the room but nobody talked. We ate in silence as well.
The next morning, we awoke to a bell: the signal to make our way to morning service. We all sat on the floor in a small temple, while two monks chanted and gonged for 50 minutes. Next, a breakfast spread similar in style to our dinner the night before. We were thankful for two vegetable-heavy meals, a rarity in Japan.
From here, we packed up our stuff and hopped on a bus for the funicular ride down the mystical mountain – leaving with a little more Buddha inside each of us.
1. Yohei Suzuki
Travel is special in so many ways, but one of the all-time most wonderful things to do on the road is to connect with old friends. We wrote about our night with Shoko in our first post.
Next, we met up with Yohei, one of Patten’s friends from tourism school in Florida. Aside from making us laugh with his amazing sense of humor, Yohei served as our tour guide — he zipped us through the streets and sights of Yokohama, and along with his aunt, through the far busier streets of Tokyo, where we witnessed Caroline Kennedy making her way from Tokyo Station to the Imperial Palace in a carriage!; our concierge — he was integral in ordering us an Asus adapter and arranging with the Koyasan temple to have a left-behind iPhone mailed to his house; and as our host — we had dinner at his parents’ home in Yokohama, where they showered us in food and gifts, and breakfast at his home south of Tokyo, where we feasted on one of the best breakfasts we had while in Japan and played with his adorable daughter Yui. Patten had talked about Yohei for years — now I know why. Such a fun kind guy! THANK YOU, Yohei!
Since we’re closing the ZINK Year coverage on Japan, we thought it may be nice to share a few tips for those of you who plan to visit, which we highly recommend. These are all things you can probably read in guidebooks, but we didn’t:
1. Bring slip-on shoes. You will take off your shoes to enter temples, homes, restaurants, hotels, you name it.
2. But they should not be sandals. I was the only person in Tokyo who was wearing open-toed sandals on November 2, 2013. Seriously. I became obsessed with looking at feet that day and there were NO bare toes.
3. Don’t expect Chase Sapphire rewards. Japan is a cash society and a very expensive one at that, which means you’ll be visiting the ATMs often. These, however, are hard to find. We had the best luck at 7-11, though many of their machines did not accept our debit card. Having cash on hand became a surprising challenge.
4. Pack dressy clothes. If you want to blend with locals, you’ll wear incredibly stylish business attire. If you just don’t want to call attention to your American slobbishness, then bring a pair of dark pants and a nice top or two. In our Icebreaker tech tees and light-wash denim, we felt like we were under-dressed 100% of the time.
5. Think twice about getting the Japan Rail Pass. Every book, blog, person will tell you to buy this pass, which gets you 7, 14, or 21 days of free train travel for a discounted rate. Yes, if you add up all the train fares of what you would have spent for your days of travel, you will see huge savings. But… we think the pass forces you to travel in a way we probably wouldn’t recommend. We did enjoy seeing 14 cities in 21 days, but it really was too much. Better would be to focus on Kyoto and Tokyo, flying into one and out of the other. From each city, you can do quick day trips or overnight trips, riding on one of many affordable train lines. On the topic of trains…
6. Get to the platform 20 minutes early for unreserved cars. If you’re traveling during high season, there’s a good chance you’ll be standing during your train ride… unless you get there 20 min early. We luckily arrived early for our train to Nikko — after spending 2.5 hours watching standing tourists writhe in back-and-leg-ache misery, we continued our practice of arriving early.
7. Ask for directions continually. The Japanese are super helpful and will go out of their way to show you where places are located. The trains can get very confusing, but if you just ask someone “which train goes to Musashi-Kosugi,” they will tell you. We promise. We were good about asking for directions initially, but got a bit over confident by the end of our trip, which resulted in a few wrong trains. Not the end of the world, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
8. Bring gifts!!!! If you plan to meet up with friends or friends of friends, bring gifts with you. We brought a few trinkets/US candies with us, but wished we’d packed a lot more. (Yohei — We owe you a Rolex!).