Notes from Japan
I spent about a week in Japan, which was the last stop on my trip.
Right away you notice the trains. It’s a train culture. It seems to be one of the most effective train systems, both within Tokyo and intercity among other Japanese cities.
I walked around and one of the first meals I had was a sushi spot. It was a non-notable casual sushi place. Most of the people sitting in the restaurant in Tokyo were older Japanese people. I don’t know what they said, but every time someone would walk in the restaurant, and every time someone would leave, the staff would say the same thing. It’s a country of rituals and traditions. Lots of thank yous, lots of bowing. The one word I kept saying was ‘arigato’ for thank you.
The sushi spot was one of the sushi train spots, the plates go around and you just pay for the number of plates you eat at the end.
I went to Shibuya crossing, which may be the busiest intersection in the world. It’s sort of the Times Square area of Tokyo. Lots of big screens, tons of people walking. I went up on the Starbucks on the second floor of one of the buildings and you get a nice view.
On a few recommendations I went to an area called Omoide Yokocho, going also by other names “Memory Lane” and “Piss Alley.” It’s a small alley and there are many yakitori restaurants there — basically serving skewered chicken.
We walked more around Shinjuku, where I ended up staying a few nights later. It’s a lively area to walk around. In particular, at night with the neon on some of the main streets it looks kinda of what I would imagine Japan looked like.
There is a touristy bar area called Golden Gai which was a lot of fun. All the bars there are tiny, most of them seemed to have 5–8 seats. There are maybe 5 small alleyways and every spot is a bar, both on the first floor and second floor. It sounds like this area was less touristy before, but has become a tourist spot over time. However, despite hearing this from many people, there were lots of Japanese people. Some bars were clearly only Japanese people. Some bars had signs that said ‘members only.’ Some had signs that said ‘tourists welcome’ or ‘no cover charge.’ So it was definitely a mix. Actually I found this area to be a great concept. It was a lot of fun to go to, and I think it would be fun in any city. With a small bar of just a handful of people you talk to everyone, it’s a very different friendly vibe.
Tokyo was also the city of some absurd tourist attractions, marked mostly by crazy lights and mirrors. One of these new hot spots was teamLab Borderless, best described as an interactive digital art museum. But actually the photos don’t really show the whole thing. You wander around, there are many rooms. Some are just lots of lights. But some are lights with mirrors. One was a room of all these lanterns with mirrors, it creates a pretty trippy view. There was an area with lots of poles, and climbing handles that were lit up in various colors. The goal was to make it to the other end using just one color which was very difficult. It was a very creative place. We walked around for a few hours. One room was a LED room with mirrors, that creates a very bizarre effect.
On one of the nights I went to a place called Robot Restaurant. This, again, was definitely a tourist place, but really only in Japan. As you walk down a certain part of Shinjuku, it seems every sign is for Robot Restaurant, you can’t miss it. It’s colorful and it’s hard to explain. It’s a show with robots and lights, and it is absurd. When you walk in in the waiting area, it was too brightly lit and there were a few people in metallic silver robot costumes playing low-key guitar songs. Then you walk into the show area, and it starts with a bang. They come out in various costumes, playing drums and riding on different moving robots. There is a hint of a Japanese style to them, but mostly they are just weird robots. There was a part of the show with an apocalyptic theme. But it was definitely a spectacle. As they come out, you don’t really know where to look. There are scenes with samurai and lasers and dinosaur-type moving robots and moving globes. It felt like it had a Burning Man art car meets Japan, meets absurd music show. I think with the people sitting around me, the whole time we were just saying, “what?” But I found it entertaining.
I took the Shinkansen to Kyoto — the Shinkansen is the Japanese bullet train. These are some of the fastest trains in the world. They also leave right on time, and they give people about a minute to board on and off. While this system is effective and moves tons of people, I did find it confusing that there are so many various lines, operated by different organizations. So there is lots of walking and confusing transfers for trains. According to Wikipedia, “Public transport within Greater Tokyo is dominated by the world’s most extensive urban rail network (as of May 2014, the article Tokyo rail list lists 158 lines, 48 operators, 4,714.5 km of operational track and 2,210 stations [although stations recounted for each operator]) of suburban trains and subways run by a variety of operators, with buses, trams, monorails, and other modes supporting the railway lines.” So it is comprehensive but a bit confusing.
In Kyoto I visited a few areas, one being the Arashiyama area. There are a variety of temples, a few Zen gardens and rock gardens. There’s also a bamboo forest area. So it was a nice spot to walk around.
I also checked out the Fushimi Inari Shrine and area. As you walk, there are thousands of red/orange torii gates. It’s a good walk and hike though I didn’t do the whole thing.
One of the days I stayed in a ryokan, which is a Japanese style hotel. Mostly what stood out is the service, everyone was so over-the-top nice. There wasn’t really a bed. There were however, instructions on how to make green tea and wear the yukata robe.
Took another train to visit Kobe, where a friend has been living.
On one of the last nights I went to Sushi Zanmai, which is a chain sushi spot that had been recommended to me by a number of Japanese people. It was pretty packed, with a 45 minute wait. This chain is owned by Kiyoshi Kamura, who now has the record for paying over $3m USD for a tuna.
So overall, enjoyed Japan a lot. Weird, modern, good sushi. Hope to visit again.