And now back to our regularly scheduled programming…
I’ve been back home in the States for a few months now, and between initial exhaustion/decompression and subsequent efforts planning a job search and cross-country move, writing has taken a real back seat for me. But I’ve promised many of you that I’d write about the final few months of my journey, and today’s the day I make good on that… with a real treat for you.
I spent virtually the entire month of October traveling through what would turn out to be my favorite country on the planet – precisely because it feels like it’s on another planet altogether. Yes, I’m talking about Japan – the land of the rising sun.
I feel as if my time in this tiny country drew a clear line, dividing my life into two distinct parts: before and after my exposure to this most fascinating, mind-bending string of islands that has blown wide open my understanding of what the world has to offer and what I have to learn from it. It’s that feeling when you think you’ve loved before, but then you feel that intoxicating, devouring fire of real, TRUE love for the very first time… and suddenly you know. Nothing will ever be the same again.
But then of course…. Someone has expressed this sentiment better than I.
“What do you need to know about Tokyo? Deep, deep waters. The first time I came here, it was a transformative experience. It was a powerful and violent experience. It was just like taking acid for the first time—meaning, What do I do now? I see the whole world in a different way.
I often compare the experience of going to Japan for the first time, going to Tokyo for the first time, to what Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend—the reigning guitar gods of England—must have gone through the week that Jimi Hendrix came to town.
You hear about it. You go see it. A whole window opens up into a whole new thing. And you think, What does this mean? What do I have left to say? What do I do now?”
– Anthony Bourdain
Japan: A Primer
Before we dive into the neon belly of the beast and I tell you about Tokyo, it will probably be helpful to explain a few things about Japanese culture, as it is singularly unique in a number of ways.
Japan was completely isolated and shut off to the outside world for more than 200 years, spanning 1639 to 1853. As a result, culture, lore, traditions, cuisine, and all other facets of Japanese life were allowed to emerge and thrive in an absolute vacuum, completely isolated from outside influence. These were the core years of the pivotally important ‘Edo period’, a time of unparalleled peace and prosperity for the country that goes a long way toward explaining how and why Japan is so distinctly unlike anywhere else.
Japanese society is incredibly homogeneous, orderly, and polite. Whereas the west places a great deal of importance on individual identity, Japan honors collective society. Its dominant religions are Shinto – a uniquely Japanese animist belief that worships spirits in the form of things like wind, rain, trees, and fertility – and the more globally widespread Buddhism. Both of these belief systems place a great deal of emphasis on mindfulness, meditation, honor, respect, and peaceful coexistence – and neither are rooted in dogma or books full of rigid rules. Many modern Japanese consider themselves both Buddhist and Shinto, as the two are often complimentary.
Japan is also ruthlessly obsessed with perfection and the tireless pursuit mastery in all things. It’s this absolute infatuation with improvement and excellence that colors all things in Japan – the quality of its cuisine, its infrastructure, its manufacturing, and its cultural heart.
Between the nation’s unique 200-year cultural incubation and it’s love of order, perfection, peace, mindfulness, and respect, you have a fascinating formula for something special. Things get really interesting when you consider Japan’s reemergence into the modern era, though. Thanks to a deeply unified population that accepts nothing short of perfection, Japanese adaptation of technology and efficiencies evolved with staggering speed – and continues to today.
Let’s jump ahead a bit and consider the modern era in the wake of World War II. It’s 1945, and Japan is devastated by warfare. Nearly all large cities are crippled. Food shortages and starvation are rampant. The Emperor is stripped of power. Massive industries are in shambles, industrial production is less than 28% of prewar strength, and post-war political sanctions aren’t making life any easier. And yet – and yet – by the late 60s and early 70s, Japan would rise from the ashes to become the world’s second largest economy, behind the United States.
This period is known as Japan’s ‘economic miracle’, and it’s an absolutely astonishing comeback story. Historians will tell you it required a lot of external variables to happen – the Cold War and the US Marshall Plan were highly instrumental – but it also required an insane collective effort by a resolute, unified people. To illustrate, here’s Tokyo in 1945 (NOT VERY LONG AGO):
And here’s modern Tokyo:
What we have here, then, is a country the size of California with a population of 127 Million – that’s 40% of the entire US populace. These 127 Million people have an incredibly distinct cultural tapestry to draw from, they have massive, organized collective strength, and they’ve proven that even absolute devastation can’t stop them from thriving and innovating. The end result is a fascinating culture that seamlessly blends unique ancient traditions with ultramodern technology in a way that absolutely bends the mind. And there’s nowhere where this bizarre juxtaposition of ancient and bleeding edge are more prominently displayed than in capital Tokyo: my favorite big city in the world.
Tokyo, Japan: Neo-Future Fever Dream
Ahh, Tokyo: the bizarre bastard child of utter chaos and absolute order. Home to 38 Million people, 285 subway stations, 6,000+ parks, and 314 collective Michelin stars (second place: Paris with a paltry 141). Also residing here are the world’s tallest tower, the world’s busiest railway station, a bigger-than-full-size replica of the Eiffel Tower, a 1:7 scale replica of the Statue of Liberty, two full-size Disney theme parks, and the world’s busiest fish market. To name just a few.
Drenched in neon and cowering in the shadow of seemingly infinite high-rises, this implausible city readily and emphatically earn’s Bourdain’s comparison to an acid trip. It’s like nowhere else on Earth. And despite being one of the world’s most populous megacities, it’s also one of the safest cities on the planet. Like all of Japan, crime is virtually non-existent. Having a drink at the bar but need to use the bathroom? Go ahead and leave your phone and wallet on the bar. They’ll be there when you get back.
Helping me wrap my head around the madness of Tokyo were two of my dearest friends, Matt and Nicole, who paid me a visit from Denver, Colorado to spend a week getting lost in the sauce. And boy, did we ever.
I had a quick day to kill before their arrival, and I used it to ogle at ancient Samurai armor, meet the infamous ASIMO, and sample some conveyor belt sushi. The real fun began once we were all together, though.
I wanted to waste no time embracing the bizarre, hallucinogenic nature of Tokyo, so I asked Matt and Nicole to meet me at a restaurant for their first stop off the plane. Little did they know, this was no ordinary place to eat. We’d be dining together at a restaurant called ‘Kagaya Izakaya: Frog is Stranger Than Fiction’… and if you think the name’s weird, you haven’t seen shit. Any attempt to describe the place in words is destined to fail miserably… see for yourself (Content skews slightly NSFW).
Never a dull moment, eh? Unsurprisingly, we spent a lot of time eating while in Tokyo. This is, after all, the world’s undisputed greatest food city.
Our culinary highlight – and indeed one of the great meals of my life – came when we sat at the tiny and incredibly exclusive 6-top table at world-renowned Sukiyabashi Jiro Roppongi, home of one of Japan’s greatest masters of sushi, Takashi Ono. Takashi is the son of Jiro Ono, one of Japan’s national treasures and the subject of the sensational documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi (which I highly recommend checking out on Netflix).
The 15-course omakase menu, served to us piece-by-piece directly by Chef Ono at precisely the right time and temperature, was an explosion of flavor and freshness the likes of which I’ve never experienced elsewhere. Nigiri that I’ve known and loved for years suddenly tasted like it was 100 orders of magnitude more flavorful, more explosive, more sublime than I’d ever experienced. I had to elicit the help of a native Japanese speaker to make this reservation for us months in advance, and at great cost, but the three of us unanimously agreed that it was worth every minute and penny.
On the opposite side of the fancy spectrum, our other favorite meal in Tokyo was the one we shared with Masayo and her sweet daughter Nao, who we met through an incredible program called Nagomi Visit. The program allows foreign travelers to meet local hosts and their familes, who open their homes to visitors and cook a traditional meal together. This provides for an absolutely magical way for Japanese people – still curious about foreigners in their largely homogeneous culture – and foreign people, undoubtedly bamboozled by Japanese culture – to meet one another, practice English, and learn about real, authentic everyday life in their own respective corners of the world. It melted my heart to help Nao with her English homework. She made this sign for me herself!
Another memorable evening began in Omoide Yokochō, or ‘Memory Lane’, a a visual feast for the eyes meant as a callback to 1940’s Tokyo. This tiny alley is absolutely stuffed with purveyors of yakitori: skewered meats, vegetables, and offal whose incredible scent permeates every inch of the narrow throughfare as it’s prepared over open flame.
This was merely a quick stop to fuel up and pad our stomachs for the coming hysteria, as we were headed directly to a Tokyo tourism institution: The Robot Restaurant (or as I like to call it, dimethyltryptamine’s permanent mailing address).
I’m still not really sure what the hell we watched happen in front of us, but there ya go. Still, the night was young, and more madness was at hand.
Enter Shinjuku Golden Gai, six tiny alleys absolutely stuffed to the brim with HUNDREDS of bizarre micro- and nano-bars, each of which seats between roughly 3 and 12 people and has a radically unique vibe completely unto itself. This place is absolutely NUTS. Even getting here is an adventure, as it’s situated near Shinjuku Station – the world’s busiest train station, with more than 200 different exits.
The lunatic bars here – each one featuring a radically different vibe and atmosphere than the next – are famous for alluring a wild mix of foreigners and locals, like Natsuke and Aiko here. Like most Japanese people, these girls spoke extremely minimal English, but that didn’t stop us from becoming good friends while drunkenly eating donuts at 4 in the morning.
Another random Golden Gai stop gave us the opportunity to meet the Japanese Captain Jack Sparrow. At some point you just stop asking questions.
After the hangover wears off, why not visit the local Owl Cafe? Because of course that’s a thing.
Or perhaps the uniquely bizarre ‘Maid Cafes’ are more your cup of tea. Here’s a Japanese lesson for you: “Kawaii!” means CUTE!
No matter what sort of bizarre fever dream you find yourself in, Tokyo somehow continues to find ways to surprise and stupefy again and again. Take the MORI Digital Art Museum for example – an incredible and vast display of interactive projection-mapped art that feels positively unreal.
One of the coolest things I’ve EVER done, anywhere on Earth, was racing real-life Mario Karts through the streets of Tokyo. Pinch me… this is not a drill.
Highlights abound in Japan’s capital city. You can’t miss the ultra high-tech toilets, which have seat warmers, bidets, music, and a butt dryer. Yep. Butt dryer.
What city is complete without life-sized Gundams?!
Japan is home to thousands of beautiful, serene temples and shrines from the Buddhist and Shinto faiths – even hectic Tokyo is no exception.
Even merely boarding the train can be… um… an adventure sometimes.
Believe it or not, though… this train isn’t even crowded. A proper crowded train in Tokyo looks more like this. Hope you’re not claustrophobic!
Japan LOVES vending machines. No, I mean they love them. There are more than 5.5 Million of them in the country – that’s one for every 23 people. You literally cannot walk for more than 30 seconds anywhere in Japan without finding one – or several. And these aren’t just what we’re accustomed to – they serve cold drinks, hot drinks, food, and even alcohol! (Not to mention the really bizarre ones vending lingerie, bananas, soup, and mystery boxes).
This one’s not even a real vending machine… it’s the door to a coffee shop!
Here’s something really remarkable – there are virtually ZERO trash cans on the public streets of Japan, due to a terrorism incident back in the 80’s – but despite the total absence of trash receptacles and the INSANE density of vending machines, the streets in this country are absolutely spotless. People do not eat or drink while walking, and they take their trash with them virtually without fail. This is made easier by the equally absurd density of ‘conbini’ – Japanese convenience stores. There are over 6,000 in Tokyo alone.
These are not what you’re used to in the US – these places have everything, and they’re on every corner and open 24/7 without fail. Hot and cold drinks, legitimately delicious hot (and healthy) food, ATMs, home goods, books and magazines, cosmetics, fresh coffee, free WiFi, free (and largely spotless) public bathrooms, trash cans (there we go), and much, much more. Need to pay your phone bill? Ship or receive a package? Buy concert tickets? Do some duty-free shopping? You can do all of this at any conbini, and it’s virtually impossible to walk more than 60 seconds in any direction without stumbling into one. I cannot understate how incredible useful this is, throughout all of Japan.
Another ‘familiar-with-a-twist’ thing about Japan? They adore baseball. As in, much more than Americans these days. The country is absolutely obsessed with this once All-American pasttime, but they do things a bit differently. The fanbases are radically organized, with chants and dances performed in flawless unison. Fans are dead quiet while the opposing team bats, out of respect – heckling is considered deeply shameful.
My favorite part about Japanese baseball? The affectionately nicknamed ‘Ghostbuster girls’: cute roving beer vendors who wear a beer backpack(!!) to dispense icy cold draft Asahi, Kirin, or Sapporo.
Vending prices are super reasonable, but if you’re really thrifty, you’re in luck: games here are BYOB. You can bring food inside, too – all fair game!
On one of our last days, we got to experience another quintessentially Japanese situation: a seriously ferocious typhoon. Not to worry – obviously we escaped unharmed!
A week in Tokyo with Matt and Nicole felt like about 17 lifetimes, but it also flew by really quickly – and soon it was time to bid them farewell. It was a blast having them travel alongside me, and I’m looking forward to calling them my neighbors in Denver soon!
That said, Tokyo was just the beginning of my exploration in Japan… there’s so much left to come. Fortunately for me, Japan has the most efficient transportation system on the planet, spearheaded by the world-famous Shinkansen – colloquially known to us as the Bullet Train. These trains are impeccably spotless, famously on-time to the fraction of a second, and they tear through the country at an absolutely blistering 200+ mph with ease. How fast is that? Welllllll…
Best of all, Japan has an incredible program for foreign travelers called the Japan Rail Pass, which allows unlimited use of the train system throughout the country for a 1-3 week period for one low flat cost. That meant I could board these trains at will and on a whim, and travel anywhere I wanted in the country at dizzying and ridiculous speeds. All aboard! Next stop: Hakone.
Blissful Hakone: Hot Springs, Fast Cars, Cool Art, and (why not:) Pirate Ships!
For most Japanese, Hakone is principally famous for its onsen: traditional Japanese public bath houses situated over natural hot springs. Onsen are a quintessentially Japanese pasttime, and Hakone is known to be one of the best onsen towns in all of Japan. It doesn’t hurt that it’s nestled in the shadow of the gorgeous behemoth Mount Fuji, a source of great National pride.
Onsen are patronized by men and women of all ages, and are segregated by gender and enjoyed exclusively in the nude. Japan doesn’t have the same sheepish western sensibility as the US – so nobody bats an eyelash when stripping to the buff. Because of this, however, pictures are strictly prohibited at all onsen – so I had to grab these online for a few examples of onsen in Hakone. Blissful, huh?
Interestingly, tattoos are extremely taboo in Japanese culture. Traditionally, tattooing in Japan was reserved only for the nefarious gangsters of the Yakuza, and as such they are severely stigmatized. Tattoos are strictly forbidden at the vast majority of onsen even today – probably 97%+. Fortunately, Japan is slowly adapting to the broader spread of tattoos in other cultures, and Hakone is known for one of its onsen that’s not only world-class – it’s also the rare exception where the staff turns a blind eye to tattooed foreigners. Seeing as I’m covered in them, this was a lucky break for me. The Yakuza are bonafide baaaad dudes, so I’d recommend not messing with them if ever you run into a group like this.
Even had I not discovered this rare gem of a tattoo-friendly onsen, however, I’d have still been covered to get my R&R soak on. While the most traditional onsen are large, public areas, Hakone is so rich in sulfuric activity that many of the traditional guesthouses – called ryokan – have their own private baths for their guests to soak in. Here’s the scene where I stayed:
Another famous attraction that makes Hakone popular with locals is their incredible Open Air Art Museum. This place is a serious feast for the senses.
Clearly, then, Hakone is already a wildly worthwhile stop on any Japan itinerary. What I haven’t mentioned yet, however, is that none of these are the primary reason that I came here. No, my stop in Hakone was principally intended to flex my adrenal gland and fulfill a lifelong dream.
I mentioned before that Hakone sits in the shadow of Mt. Fuji – and it’s the gateway to some of the best and most revered driving roads on the planet: the notorious Japanese touge, immortalized forever by Japan’s lunatic drifters and weekend warriors and thrust into the global spotlight by the famous anime Initial D.
Those who know me well know that nothing gets my heart beating faster than a ludicrously twisty mountain road behind the wheel of a blisteringly fast, purpose-built car… and oh yes, Japan will scratch that itch for you. Enter Fun2Drive Japan, a local Hakone company with an insane fleet of Japanese tuner dream cars – literally the ones I grew up salivating over – available for daring travelers to slay these world class mountain passes.
Though their stable of ludicrous Japanese tuner missiles was unfathomably deep, I knew there was only one choice for me: the sublime Honda NSX: the dream car of my youth and one of the all-time great handling Japanese sports cars. It’s aged remarkably well for having been a product of the early 90’s – with the exception of the stock wheels. Those kill the aesthetic a bit 😛
Joining me for my spirited romp through car nerd holy ground were two other travelers, who wisely selected a Nissan GT-R and Mazda RX-7 as their weapons of choice. We’d spend 4 hours tearing through the mountains and paying a visit to the world-famous Fuji Speedway.
It was a real adjustment driving on the right side of the car and the left side of hte road!
I cannot express this enough: piloting these legendary machines through these harrowing roads was a literal dream come true to the degree that I was nearly shaking. Definitely a highlight of my year and worth every penny.
These cars aren’t the only interesting transportation options in Hakone, though. No, the area’s actually famous for its wildly unique transportation infrastructure. I left town by way of the bizarre combination of bus > cable car > pirate ship. Where else but Japan?
The seafaring vessel deposited me at the banks of the famously serene Hakone shrine: one of Japan’s hallmark Shinto sites.
If you think that’s special, though… wait ’til you see what’s next. As I departed Hakone, I was still just getting started on my journey through Japan (no, seriously, we’ve covered 10 days out of 30 so far). Next up was Kyoto: one of the most breathtakingly beautiful and spiritually sacred cities on the planet, and arguably the principal highlight of my travels through the country. It’s a city so sacred and beautiful that it was exclusively spared violent devastation during World War II – even Japan’s enemies couldn’t bare to see it destroyed. Home to more than 2,000 temples and shrines, Kyoto is devastatingly and spectacularly beautiful.
I’ll tell you all about it – plus Nara, Osaka, Naoshima, Teshima, and Hiroshima – next time. (Don’t worry – it’s coming sooner than you think).
Sound off in the comments if you enjoyed this post — More love = more motivation to write Part II! Stay tuned… some of the best is yet to come.