He went to: Tokyo, Yokohama, and Kyoto.
He traveled because: My wife had a six-week work assignment in Japan, and I just couldn’t miss the opportunity to meet her there for 10 days prior to her return home. She had lived in Japan in the ’90s, and I really wanted someone with me who spoke fluent Japanese on this first trip.
How he got there and where he stayed: I flew United to Tokyo via San Francisco and ANA returning to Seattle (excellent price). The flights are much shorter than I thought: nine hours and 45 minutes to Tokyo and eight hours and 15 minutes on the way back. The jet lag comes from the 16-hour time difference — yikes! In Kyoto, I stayed at the Kyoto Tokyu Hotel, and in Tokyo at the ANA Intercontinental Hotel (Minato area, in the heart of Tokyo).
What struck him initially: The amount of pop culture and art everywhere I turned — it’s in the layout of the cities, in the parks, the architecture, the street art and graffiti, the neon signs, the presentation of the food. And the perfect blend of tradition and modernity, co-existing side by side in sync.
The best thing about the trip: In Kyoto, since my wife lived there, she was able to show me her favorite places. I love traveling, and there is nothing more exhilarating than going someplace for the first time — my eye is fresh and untainted by any preconceptions, and I feel open to discovery and exploration. In Tokyo, my wife was working during the day, so I could walk around neighborhoods and really see the city at my own pace.
Trip takeaways: The Japanese are an incredible people. They are perfectionists, and there is design-meets-function embedded in their daily lives, and in everything around. They are friendly and polite to a fault. They either bike, ride the subway or walk everywhere for the most part, so everyone looks pretty slim. Everything seems to be done deliberately, and with the utmost care and attention to detail. I felt welcomed. And I saw many elements that connect our area to Japan. That said, I also felt a very deep sense of isolation in people (which yielded some really striking photos) — I think they are very peculiar as a society in that regard. While warm and welcoming, there is also a very strong social pressure to succeed and perform, and I think that contributes to that.
The best bite(s): Aside from the markets, the best food I had in Tokyo was at a small restaurant called VAN in Akasaka, very close to the Ana Intercontinental Hotel, where we stayed. The chef/owner also is the server — a one-man show. The food is simple but made fresh on the spot and absolutely delicious. He described it to us as ‘comfort mountain food.’ We had grilled and breaded boneless chicken thighs, a slow-braised beef stew, and a fantastic salad with a divine sauce. In Kyoto, my favorite thing was the green tea Japanese cake with strawberries and vanilla cream topping at the Kyoto Tokyu Hotel. I love Japanese cakes. They are 30 percent less sweet than American cakes and are just perfectly fluffy. My biggest surprise was being able to find really good coffee in Japan, something hard to do in certain American cities.
A fun side trip: “One evening, we took the train to the town of Yokohama to watch a soccer match — Yokohama F. Marinos vs. Sapporo. The Japanese are big on soccer and have a pretty good national soccer team. Their fan base excitement during games rivals our Sounders! So much fun!
The calm after the storm:
(I) took the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto and back. I was able to see the iconic Mount Fuji against a beautiful clear sunset sky, the day after Typhoon Trami passed. That’s right: We were in Kyoto during the typhoon.
If you go to Tokyo, don’t miss:
The Shibuya crossing, where there are loads of people walking across crazy diagonal crosswalks in this huge bustling intersection.
A stroll through the Roppongi Hills (visit the MORI building, and see the huge Maman spider sculpture by Louise Bourgeois) and Akasaka (to do some shopping and sight-seeing at the stunning Tokyo Midtown.)
A visit to a Sento (bathhouse). Bathhouses don’t allow clothing, and there are very strict rules that must be followed. I stood out being the only gaijin among all the naked Japanese guys, but I was also surprised at how natural it felt … It made me realize how culture truly shapes behavior.
Tokyo Tower, iconic and cheesy at the same time, for a dazzling sky view of Tokyo, and especially if you are a fan of Godzilla. For the record, it is taller than the Eiffel Tower in Paris by 13 meters.
Tsukiji Fish Market: Amazing, much like Pike Place Market in Seattle, but larger, spanning a few blocks of booths selling fresh seafood and small bites of the freshest fish you will ever eat.
Check the multiple art museums’ current exhibitions when you’re there. There is always something amazing going on. The Japanese love the impressionists, so there is always an exhibit around that movement.
In Kyoto, make time for:
The shrines! The stunning Kiyomizu-dera (for a panoramic view of the city) and the Fushimi Inari, with 2.5 miles of breathtaking colorful Torii tunnels up a mountain.
The Nishiki Market downtown — all the best sampling of food and goods typical of Kyoto.
The Zen rock garden of Ryoan-ji.
The Kyoto International Manga Museum, located in a former school building, and showcasing 300,000 manga, displayed on shelves in a library style, most of which you can touch and flip through.
A night stroll through the Kiyamachi Dori district, full of restaurant options and a busy nightlife.