Tuesday, March 29, 2016


If Sapporo isn’t on the main tourist track, then Fukuoka is on a whole other planet.  Let’s face it:  most of you probably haven’t heard of Fukuoka.  Unlike the other big cities in Japan, nothing really stands out as a must-see attraction for tourists, but Fukuoka is lovely and definitely shouldn’t be overlooked.  The city itself is Japan’s seventh largest, but the metropolitan area is Japan’s fourth largest with over 5.5 million people.  That’s more than Sydney.  To my surprise, it’s big enough and important enough to have a U.S. consulate.  Who knew?

Fukuoka is located in the far south of Japan on Kyushu Island – the country’s third largest by area and second largest by population.  This location puts it super close to South Korea and other parts of East Asia.  This proximity to the Asian mainland made Fukuoka prominent throughout history.  With the rise of the cities in the north (Kyoto, Tokyo, and others), Fukuoka lost its prominent position, but still retains a more Asian feel than the rest of Japan given its history as the entry point for other Asian cultures.  There are a ton of Thai restaurants there and an increasing number of Korean and Chinese tourists.  This increase in tourism makes its airport the country’s third busiest after Tokyo’s Haneda and Narita airports.  Most importantly, Fukuoka has been consistently ranked as one of the most livable cities in the world, and after spending three days there, I can easily see why.  While Fukuoka may not have the draw or allure of Tokyo, Osaka, or even Sapporo, it’s pleasant, easy to get around, and very pretty.

As I said before, there isn’t a whole lot in the guide book that really stands out, but I did manage to find some gems mostly in the form of museums.

A few highlights of my time in Fukuoka:

Fukuoka Asian Art Museum:
The only museum that focuses solely on modern and contemporary art from Asia post-1965, The FAAM had a great collection of modern works from all across Asia.  My favourite was a series of photographs from a Korean photographer who would immerse herself in foreign environments and shoot herself in that setting.  Think a super Korean girl dressed like a redneck, posing for a picture in a trailer with a guy with a gun in front of a big Confederate flag.  It was brilliant.

Fukuoka Art Museum:
More traditional than the FAAM, the FAM had a collection encompassing some of the less famous works of some of the most famous artists, such as Dali, Warhol, Chagall, Rothko, Lichtenstein, and more.  They also had an antiquities section and works from many Japanese artists, including one of the famous pumpkins from Yayoi Kusama, one of the most important living artists in the country.  The museum is located next to the lake at Ohori-koen (park) and it makes for a great day of art and walking outdoors.

Fukuoka City Museum:
The history of Fukuoka was outlined in the Fukuoka City Museum.  Starting from ancient times through to modernization, the museum is thorough but not overwhelming.  It had a cute section on culture and customs – particularly how they differ from other parts of Japan.  For example, I learned it’s a custom to give the gift of a fish.  Other Japanese people apparently think this is weird too.

Aside from this, Fukuoka was just a nice place to walk around.  There were some cute shopping streets and the waterfront was a great walk.  Overlooking the beach, the Fukuoka Tower gave 360 degree views of the whole city, and I walked past the Fukuoka Dome – the city’s massive American-style baseball stadium which appeases the baseball-crazed Japanese.  After Fukuoka, I headed back to Tokyo for two days and then headed out of Asia.  This was my six-month mark.  I was sad to be leaving Japan, but excited to see what the UK and the Americas had in store for me.  But first, let me take a selfie.

Monday, March 28, 2016


Famous for… well, you know what Hiroshima is famous for.  Hiroshima isn’t really the happiest place to visit in Japan.  In fact, it’s probably the saddest, but a visit here is really a must for international tourists.  Destroyed by the world’s first atomic bomb over 70 years ago, the city of over two million people today is just like any normal city – you would never know that any sort of tragic events took place here during the waning days of World War II.  Enter the Peace Memorial Park and all of that quickly changes.  I obviously knew what happened here on a basic level, but I didn’t know all of the terrible details of the bombing.  The experience I received in Hiroshima was one the most educational I’ve had on this journey.

A few highlights of my time in Hiroshima:

Atomic Bomb Dome:
The Atomic Bomb Dome – previously called the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall – was almost directly under where the atomic bomb went off at 8:15am on August 6, 1945.  An estimated 70,000 people died instantaneously, including everyone inside the promotion hall, but the skeleton of the building somehow remained.  Despite initial opposition, the remains of the building were maintained and are now a peace memorial.  It’s of note that the 70,000 figure above represented about one-fifth of the entire city at the time, and does not include all of the people who died weeks, months, and years later from complications related to the bomb.

Peace Memorial Park:
Across the river from the Atomic Bomb Dome, Peace Memorial Park has many monuments and memorials to the victims of the blast.  A cenotaph frames the Flame of Peace, which will only be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon on Earth has been destroyed.  Two of the most touching monuments were the Children’s Peace Memorial and the Korean Atomic Bomb Memorial.  The Children’s Peace Memorial was inspired by a little girl who died of leukemia a decade after the blast.  Many people who survived the initial blast died some weeks or months later from complications caused by burns or radiation poisoning, and years and decades later due to cancers that most likely were caused by the bomb.  The Korean Atomic Bomb Memorial educated us on how 20,000 Koreans died in the blast in Hiroshima.  The Japanese brought over the Koreans as forced labourers (a.k.a. slaves) and denied them compensation for this for many years.

Peace Memorial Museum:
The haunting Peace Memorial Museum gave all of the gory details that I didn’t want to know.  Preparing for more fire bomb attacks, the Japanese ordered all seventh and eighth graders to work to help clear buildings to create fire breaks.  On the morning of the attacks, thousands of these schoolchildren were sent to work in the area where the bomb went off.  They all died, but their parents – safe at home – all lived.  The museum also had lots of depressing pictures, pieces of burned clothes, and other melted items.  Two of the more haunting ones were a set of bank steps with a dark spot on them (where someone had been sitting when the blast went off – the rest of the steps changed colour) and roof tiles that bubbled under the heat (but the portion of the roof tiles that were covered by other roof tiles were left smooth).

National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims:
While many countries – such as Vietnam, Cuba, and others – fill their museums with propaganda, lies, and blame, the Japanese are humble and honest in their approach to the events that lead to the atomic bomb.  The information inside the National Peace Memorial Hall for the Atomic Bomb Victims clearly stated that Japan initiated hostilities against the United States, United Kingdom, and others, and that the events that unfolded forced them to reflect on their national policy.  There was no blame laid; no fingers pointed.  The memorial, the museum, and the monuments are presented in a way that tell the facts without taking a side either way.  Despite being absolutely depressing, everything was well-presented.  The people of Hiroshima have done an admirable job.

Outside of the Peace Memorial Park area, there were a few other things that we did in Hiroshima just to cheer ourselves up.

Mazda Museum:
This was one of the highlights of Japan for me:  the Mazda Museum and factory tour.  Mazda is from Hiroshima and its 23 sq km headquarters contains the world’s longest assembly line:  7 kilometres long.  The guided tour took us through the past, present, and future of Mazda, as well as displays on how they design and build cars and their famous engines.  The best part:  the assembly line.  It was one long line producing sedans, sports cars, SUVs, and more – both left-hand and right-hand drive – all on the same line.  It was spectacular.  I’ve never been particularly into Mazdas (my three cars were Toyota, Honda, and Nissan), but I now want to check them out when I next am in the market for a set of wheels.

A short ferry ride from the suburbs of Hiroshima lies the island of Miyajima.  Famous for its “floating” tori, the island is one of the top three spots for domestic tourists in Japan.  Miyajima is also home to the world’s largest rice scoop, a bunch of temples, and a whole lot of deer.  The highlight for me was the cable car ride up Mount Misen, and the 20-30 minute walk to the summit.  Despite it being a hazy day, you could make out the outline of Hiroshima and a big cargo ship full of Mazda cars was on its way out of port past the island.

I also visited Shukkei-en garden while in Hiroshima.  Modelled after West Lake in Hangzhou, China, the garden is supposed to represent a miniature version of one of China’s biggest (domestic) tourist attractions.  I was in Hangzhou in 2011, but the lake was pretty obscured by pollution (as all of China is) so I don’t know if the replica is legit or not.  Aside from the above, there wasn’t all too much in Hiroshima that I thought would sound too appealing to international visitors.

Of course I ate food in Hiroshima.  Duh.  I had my first udon soup, first seaweed rice dumpling, and my first Coco Curry House – a big chain of Japanese curry restaurants that I had seen all over Taiwan and Japan.  It was Miyajima, however, that proved to be the best little spot to eat.  Miyajima is famous for its maple leaf-shaped pastries filled with red bean, cream, or whatever else.  I also had my first sweet corn on a stick (which a random deer tried to commandeer from me), a beef bun, and soft serve ice cream (as per usual) out of an oddly buttery bread roll (as per unusual).

Hiroshima was toward the end of my time in Japan, and it’s where Lenora left me to head back to the USA.  I, however, had one more city to check out before I headed back to Tokyo to mark completion of the first half of my gap year.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Hiroshima, follow this link:

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Osaka & the Kansai Region

Osaka:  Japan’s third most populous city and second most populous urban area.  And by second most populous urban area, I mean the area is big… really big.  More formally known as the Kansai region or the Kaihanshin metropolitan region, the area actually includes a bunch of cities lumped together in close proximity to each other.  It’s sort of like a San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose scenario, or a Miami-Fort Lauderdale-West Palm Beach scenario, but on a much more massive scale.  How massive?  The urban area has over 19 million people which is just slightly smaller than New York or Mexico City.  Osaka has more people than Rio de Janiero, Moscow, Los Angeles, Paris, or London.  Holy crap.

Lenora and I visited during the New Year period which didn’t give us the most typical impression of the area, but it was great nonetheless.

A few highlights of my time in the Kansai region:

New Year’s is a big holiday in Japan and pretty much all of the museums in Osaka were closed for the festivities.  Therefore, there wasn’t all too much to do in Osaka aside from walk around the very busy Doutonbori Street pedestrian area and a few other neighourhoods, check out the illumination at a shopping centre called Namba Parks, and – because we couldn’t resist – go bowling.  Lenora beat me all three games.  Devastation loomed large.

Just a fifteen minute shinkansen ride from Osaka lies Kyoto:  Japan’s old capital and the top agenda item on most tourists’ lists.  Kyoto is all about the temples, and with it being New Year’s season when everyone goes to visit shrines, the whole city was busy with both domestic and international tourists.  Our first stop was Fushimi-Inari Taisha – a shrine with thousands of red torii (gates) that line trails leading to the top of a small mountain.  The mass of people prevented us from making it up to the top, but we did join the crowd for a very slow shuffle up a small portion of the hill.  I’ll need to go back one day.  Kinkaku-ji was the most picturesque site we visited – a gorgeous golden pavilion sitting over a lake.  We also visited a few other temples, some well-manicured gardens, a bamboo grove, and a busy shopping area for tourists.

For me, Nara was the part of the Kansai region that I was most looking forward to.  The reason: one of the temples there is on my list of 103 Things.  Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan long before Kyoto rose to prominence so it also has a wealth of temples and other cultural sites.  The Todai-ji Temple was the draw for me.  Its main building – the Daibatsu-den (Hall of the Great Buddha) – is the largest wooden structure in the world, and it contains the Daibatsu (Great Buddha) which is the largest bronze indoor seated Buddha in the world and one of the largest bronze figures in the world.  The building was massive and we walked around the giant room for ages (along with the mass of other tourists).  The temple was located in Nara-koen (Nara Park) which also has various other temples, pagodas, museums, gardens, and more.  The gardens are of particular quality.  The one we wanted to visit was closed for the holidays, but a smaller one next door (the Yoshiki-en Garden) was open and free for international visitors.  AMAZEBALLS!  The park is inhabited by many tame deer (we got to feed them!) which are a tourist attraction themselves.  For me, Nara wins the award for most tourist-friendly Japanese city.  We were approached by a man at the park who gave us a flyer and told us to come to the Nara Visitor Centre for free sake, sweet red bean soup, chopsticks, and other gifts.  In any other Asian country (except Taiwan) this would have been a scam.  But this is Japan, and it was legit.  They just wanted to share their culture and give us free stuff – for nothing in return.  They even taught us how to write our names in kanji (Japanese characters!) and gave us tips for the rest of our stay in the region (we added on a stop in Himeji because of their advice).  Before heading back to Osaka, we walked around one of the traditional neighbourhoods which has lots of great-looking cafes, shops, and Migawarizaru (red monkey cloths that people hang outside for good luck).  Nara definitely wins the award for best part of the region.  A+.

Kobe – most famous for its devastating 1995 earthquake – was the first stop on our way from Osaka to Hiroshima. We hopped off the shinkansen after a quick twenty minute ride and headed straight to the Kobe Nunobiki Herb Gardens and Ropeway.  After taking the cable car up a steep hill, we entered the immaculately manicured gardens and slowly wandered down the zig-zagging trail that leads back to the lower entrance.  Despite it being a hazy day, views of the city were great, and we were able to take them in while enjoying an herbal foot bath.  Rather than take the cable car back down, we decided to go for a hike past the Nunobiki Reservoir, Nunobiki Dam, and Nunobiki Waterfall.  The end spit us out right near the Kitano neighbourhood, which is where Japanese people go to feel like they’ve gone on vacation to Europe or America.  We made a valiant attempt at enjoying some Kobe beef – the other reason Kobe is famous.  Kobe beef is expensive, and we skimped opting for a Kobe beef pizza to save money.  It wasn’t enjoyable.

Our final stop on our way out of the Kansai region was Himeji.  As mentioned before, the lovely staff at the Nara Visitor Centre told us that we absolutely must stop here on our way to Hiroshima.  And it was well worth it.  The star attraction here is Himeji-jo (aka Himeji Castle) – the “most magnificent castle in Japan” according to Lonely Planet.  The castle is the wooden original – not a concrete reconstruction like most other castles that have been destroyed by fire, earthquake, or war.  The building was expansive, and while mostly empty inside, it was still really interesting to walk through and climb up.  On the way in, I got stopped by people with a big video camera.  I don’t know if they were reporters or students, but they asked me a few questions about my visit to Himeji.  I’m just waiting for Elcid to call me and tell me that I’m all of a sudden famous in Japan!

I can’t not talk about the food.  The food.  The food!  Our first night in Osaka we had the privilege to enjoy the second most delicious melonpan ice cream in the world.  What is it?  It’s a sweet bread heated up and then filled with a very creamy ice cream.  Why is this one the second most delicious and not the first most delicious?  Is it just bad advertising?  No.  We think got second place in a TV competition and this made them famous.  They’ve embraced their second-place status as a marketing gimmick.  The queue was massive.  It worked.

Green tea is all the rage in Kyoto, and I enjoyed a nice cup of green tea, along with matcha (green tea powder) flavoured Kit Kats and Krispy Kreme doughnuts.  I had my first Japanese chicken curry (OMG yummy!),  the Japanese version of a kebab (similar to the one in Taiwan), and a full dinner at a nice restaurant in Kyoto which featured a set menu of edamame, fried chicken, rice, vegetable tempura, eggplant, and a nice warm sake to wash it all down.  I also first used a Japanese vending machine while in Kyoto!  Last but not least, I had more Japanese soft serve ice cream.  More than I probably should admit.

With only three days to split between five cities, the Kansai region is definitely one that I’ll need to come back to on my next visit to Japan.  From here, we continued on to Hiroshima to get a good history lesson.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in the Kansai region, follow this link:

Thursday, March 24, 2016


A few days after my arrival in Tokyo, I hopped on a full day of trains to make my way north.  Three trains, ten hours, and the world’s longest, deepest underwater tunnel later, I reached my destination:  Sapporo.  And let me just get this out of the way right now:  I love Sapporo.  I FUCKING LOVE IT!  Maybe it was the weather, or maybe it was the drinks (see below), but Sapporo had just what I needed.  It was freezing cold – snow on the ground – and I think it was here that my body temperature finally returned to a normal level after so long in the heat and humidity of Asia.

Sapporo is Japan’s fifth largest city and sixth largest metropolitan area with a bit over 2.5 million people.  It is definitely not on the international tourist circuit like other parts of Japan are, with the notable exception of its major snow festival in February each year.  Many foreigners do fly into Sapporo just to head to the ski fields in other parts of Hokkaido and this helps make the Sapporo to Tokyo (Haneda) the world’s busiest air route.  Despite the lack of international tourists in the city proper, Sapporo is still quite famous: for its beer, for hosting the 1972 Winter Olympics, and (of course) for its snow.  One of Elcid’s friends – a beautiful girl named Miho – is originally from Sapporo and gave me a great list of tips before I set out from Tokyo.

A few highlights of my time in Sapporo:

If you know anything about beer, you most likely know Sapporo beer.  If you don’t know Sapporo beer, then go to your local store and get some.  Now.  I’ll wait.

Brewed right here in its namesake city, Sapporo was Japan’s first beer and has been going strong since 1876.  While the new brewery is outside the city and conducts tours only in Japanese (thus illustrating just how little foreign tourists pay attention to Sapporo), the old brewery has been converted into a great little museum complete with an English translation sheet for the displays and a tasting room.  I dabbled in all three options on offer including the Sapporo Classic which is only available on Hokkaido Island.

When it’s this cold outside, a nice cold beer doesn’t always sound appealing.  That’s where whiskey comes in.  A one hour train ride from Sapporo landed me in the little town of Yoichi, home of Japan’s first whiskey distillery.  The award-winning Nikka Distillery is open for visitors with a museum, displays on whiskey production (many in English!), and (of course) a tasting room.  Yay!  The delicious whiskey was definitely worth the train trip each way.

Winter Olympics:
The 1972 Winter Olympics Ski Jump sits high on a hill just outside the main city.  It has a chairlift to the top with stellar views of the city.  At the base, the Winter Sports Museum looks really cool… but it’s all in Japanese so I was in and out in about ten minutes.  Bah!

In the city:
I’m not going to lie:  the Sapporo TV Tower isn’t all that tall or that impressive, but its central location does provide cool views of the city surrounding it.  I went up twice: once by day and once by night.  Particularly cool was the view of the “Illumination” – the elaborate Japanese version of Christmas lights that go up in December.  Back on the ground, the Illumination was accompanied by a German-style Christmas market complete with mulled wine.  Yes. Yes. Yes.

Also of note is the Sapporo Clock Tower.  The Japanese apparently commonly refer to it as one of the three most disappointing tourist attractions in the country, but I rather enjoyed the little museum inside the crappy little clock tower.  English captions told the history of the building including its substantial ties to the United States.  Note only was the clock made in the USA, but the building served as an agricultural college during part of its lifetime and saw many American teachers make their way here from a sister school in Massachusetts.

Aside from that, I just enjoyed walking around the city.  There were several large parks and quite a few cute neighbourhoods with nice shops and cafes (it reminded me of Portland or Seattle but on a quieter scale), including Kurashiki Coffee which was conveniently located across the street from my Airbnb and had the friendliest Japanese wait staff that I encountered during my entire time in the country. 

Given its distance from the other major population centres and its distinct ethnic identity (the Ainu people – not the Japanese – are the original inhabitants of the island), the food in Hokkaido is a bit different to the rest of Japan.  Soup curry is a local specialty and I tasted it twice:  once at a famous restaurant called Suage+ and once at the Nikka Distillery restaurant.  Soup + curry = foodgasm.  Jingisukan (Japanese for Genghis Khan) is another local speciality.  Jingisukan consists of thin slices of raw lamb and an assortment of vegetables that you have to “burn” (aka cook) yourself on a little grill at your table.  I think it’s called Jingisukan because of the perception that Mongolians eat a lot of mutton, which actually makes sense because they do.  The most important find for me was a sushi restaurant called Hanamaru.  Famous in Hokkaido, the restaurant has a handful of locations across the island and is known for having top quality sushi at beyond reasonable prices.  I was so pleased with this find that I looked them up online and discovered they have one location in Tokyo as well.  I went there twice upon my return.  Win.  I also had my first tempura in Sapporo as well as some chicken hips and chicken hearts at a more traditional restaurant.  Yikes.

For dessert, The Fruitscake Factory (complete with the font and colour of the logo of The Cheesecake Factory) focuses on desserts featuring fruit, and Yukijirushi (Snow Brand) Parlor has a wide assortment of parfait… because everybody loves parfait.  Yes, it was freezing.  And yes I had ice cream.  It won’t melt at -2 degrees Celsius.  I think that’s perfect ice cream weather.

I had four nights and three full days in Sapporo and I tried to extend my stay by a day or two at the end.  Unfortunately, my Airbnb was booked up so I opted to stick to my original plan and head back to Tokyo to have Christmas dinner with Elcid.  Sapporo is definitely at the top of the list for my next visit to Japan.  I will start daydreaming about that trip soon.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Sapporo, follow this link:

Thursday, March 17, 2016


Tokyo:  the capital of Japan and the country’s largest city.  It’s also Asia’s largest city.  And the world’s largest city.  In fact, Tokyo is just fucking enormous.  The city itself isn’t really any bigger than other major world cities – Tokyo proper’s population is about the same as New York City proper – but Japan’s ridiculously fast transport system has allowed the urban area to grow out and engulf other major nearby cities such as Yokohama and Kawasaki.  All up, the Tokyo metropolitan area has nearly 38,000,000 inhabitants.  That’s 38 MILLION PEOPLE.  Tokyo has more people than Canada.  Canada!  And Canada is fucking huge!  To give some more perspective it’s basically New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco combined.  For the Europeans reading this, it’s basically London, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, and Rome combined.  And for the Australians, it’s basically all of Australia and then add another Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide.  Holy fuck.

Despite having a friend in Tokyo (Hi Elcid!) and being able to access free wifi at Starbucks and most train stations, I quickly realized that I would certainly need a local sim card if I had any hope of getting around Tokyo on my own.  That’s because Tokyo has 13 subway lines.  It also has 23 above ground lines.  And it has over 60 other types of rail lines, including a handful of monorails and streetcars and private commuter lines.  This figure does not include lines that are part of the Tokyo metropolitan area but don’t run through Tokyo proper, such as the Yokohama subway system.  Add another 20 lines.  882 railway stations in Tokyo later, and I was cross-eyed looking at the map.  Shinjuku Station is the world’s busiest train station with about 20,000,000 passengers per day.  Can you fucking imagine the crowd of people at rush hour?

The crowds of people on public transport are often equalled by the crowds walking in the streets, particularly in busy pedestrian areas like Harajuku.  Queues to get into some restaurants can be hours long.  But despite all of this, Tokyo isn’t too overwhelming… provided you spring for the local sim card.  Fast trains can whisk you into the countryside in no time at all.  And the city itself has quite a few pockets of quiet, so it’s not always hustle and bustle (though it mostly is hustle and bustle).

A few highlights of my time in Tokyo:

Museums & Galleries:
The number of museums and galleries in Tokyo is staggering.  Lonely Planet lists the best ones, and I would need to spend a year being a tourist in Tokyo just to get to them all.  The best and biggest that I visited was the Edo-Tokyo Museum which outlines in great detail the entire history of the city from its founding to present day.  The amount of information is enormous but it is well-presented and laid-out in a way that’s easy to follow.  I spent four hours here and only left at that point because I was hungry.  I could have spent the entire day – it’s fantastic.  The Tokyo National Museum contains a wealth of antiquities, including a collection that encompasses all of Asia.  I had seen enough of that so I moved on to some smaller venues, such as the Yebisu Beer Museum, outlining the history of Japan’s second oldest beer (and providing the opportunity for a beer tasting!) The Hara Museum and the Mori Art Museum are two smaller galleries that were also on my list.  Neither have permanent collections, but the Hara had a photographic exhibition on display and the Mori had a fantastic exhibition of works from Japanese artist Takashi Murakami.  The Mori Arts Center also has an open air Sky Deck which has 360 degree views of the city.  Fabulous.

On a side note, it was at the Mori Art Museum that I became increasingly annoyed by the shutter snap of everyone’s smartphone cameras.  Why not silence it in a museum???  I just assumed it was a cultural thing – like slurping soup – but I later learned that smartphones sold in Japan cannot have the photo sound silenced because too many Japanese men were taking pictures up the skirts of Japanese women.  Instead of street crime, Japan has sexual harassment.  I don’t know enough about it to comment more, but this and the lack of anti-smoking laws are the two major drawbacks to Japan.  Everything else was pretty sweet.

I was a bit over religious shrines at this point of my trip, and by “a bit” I mean “definitely”.  But I was in Japan so I had to visit at least a few.  Knowing I’d see the cream of the crop in Kyoto, I opted to limit the number I popped into while in Tokyo.  Elcid took me to the Meiji-jingu Shrine and explained some of the typical rituals to me.  Lenora (a friend from high school who flew out to see me for a few days) and I visited the Senso-ji Shrine in Asakusa, and we rang in the New Year at the Hie Shrine in Akasaka.  A rather low key New Year’s Eve, we arrived at the shrine just before midnight to witness what must have been every single local in the area there.  New Year’s Eve is a big deal in Japan and most people head to a shrine either at midnight or within the first three days of the year to ring the bells and get their fortune among other traditions.

Lenora and I took a day trip to Yokohama.  Our main purpose for visiting was to head to the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum which turned out to be less of a museum and more of a place just to eat ramen.  But that’s ok.  We ate ramen.  We also walked around the waterfront and rode a giant Ferris wheel.  We learned that the “Cosmo Clock 21” is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the largest Ferris wheel in the world… with a clock affixed to it.

I’m not even joking.

Elsewhere in Tokyo:
The first item checked off my tourist checklist in Tokyo was the Hachiko Statue at Shibuya Crossing.  This statue of a dog was erected by residents decades ago to commemorate a local canine that would show up here at the train station every day to greet his owner after work.  It’s an uber-famous landmark among the locals.  The crossing itself is the world’s busiest pedestrian intersection – with about 100,000 people crossing the street there every hour.   

The Tokyo SkyTree is the world’s largest tower and the second tallest structure in the world (after the Burj Khalifa).  It offers 360 degree views though I prefered the open air Mori Arts Center roof top deck.  I couldn’t see Mount Fuji from either one – it was too hazy both days – but I did get great views of Japan’s iconic mountain from the bullet train back to Tokyo from Fukuoka.  I wandered down to Tokyo Bay to see Japan’s model of the Statue of Liberty (along with a bunch of other random crap that they have there) and visited the Asakusa neighbourhood, where restaurants go to buy (or get made) plastic sample food for their window displays.  Speaking of stores, I visited the world’s largest Uniqlo in Ginza and some crazy fancy department stores where I could buy a cantaloupe for over $100.  I can only assume that the melon in question would give you the world’s longest, most intense orgasm, because there’s no other reason why a cantaloupe should cost $100.  Finally, on my last day in Tokyo, I visited the Hama-rikyu Gardens.  Steeped in history, the gardens offer a quiet respite from the busy streets surrounding it, and an audio guide narrates stories about the gardens as you walk around.  The device uses GPS to track where you are so you don’t even need to push any buttons: it just plays the appropriate track for wherever you venture.  Creepy.  The gardens also manipulate some cherry trees to have cherry blossoms year round.  Yay!

Obviously I will talk about food.  Of course I had sushi.  And ramen.  And sake.  And weirdly flavoured Kit Kats.  And tea.  Lots of green tea.  And anything and everything flavoured with matcha (green tea powder).  And mochi (rice cake) filled with all sorts of things like cake and cream or red bean or whole strawberries.  But Tokyo is such a big city that it has everything.  I had pizza, burgers, French pastries, fancy brunch, American cupcakes, craft beer, Mexican food (duh!), Hawaiian food, and some delicious local desserts such as the fruity creations at Takano – a famous dessert restaurant in Shinjuku that Elcid’s friends took me to.  But I have to give a special shout out to one aspect of Japan that I particularly enjoyed:  the ubiquitous soft serve ice cream.  It was everywhere.  And it came in a variety of flavours, the best being black sesame, matcha, and the matcha/vanilla swirl cone.  Oh fuck yes.

I refrained from eating horse sushi.  And shark cartilage.  And whale sushi.  But I did eat some other weird shit in other parts of Japan.  More to come later.  But first, let me take a selfie.

To see more photos of my time in Tokyo, follow this link: