It’s sort of a surprise it took me this long to travel to Japan; there’s so many factors in my life that should have pushed the island nation to the top of my destinations list. The biggest has to be my passion for cars, and Japan is as car obsessed as they come. Two out of the three cars I’ve ever bought withc my own money have been from Japanese manufacturers. When traveling in Japan, you wouldn’t even need to visit any specific car-related places - and of those there are many: simply walking around and spotting interesting cars is plenty enough to satisfy the car enthusiast senses.
To be sure, I did plenty of that on this trip.
Another factor is Japan’s cultural influence. Long before the explosive wave of Kpop and entertainment coming out of South Korea, Japan was the standard-bearer of entertainment export to the rest of Asia. Even as a young kid growing up in Southeast China, the cartoons I watched were all from Japan. The music I listened to may be Chinese in language, but the composers of those songs were mostly Japanese. Travel programs I watched was dominated by trips to Japan: of eating crabs in Hokkaido, or taking an onsen bath out in the countryside.
I grew up so fascinated with Japan that when it came time to pick a foreign language to study in high school (it was mandatory), Japanese was the obvious choice. Until of course I found out how insanely difficult the language is, so after only one grueling school year’s worth of it, I gave up.
That slight setback aside, it still seemed I was destined to visit Japan as quickly as possible, when the time and means allowed. Obviously, that was not how things turned out. So what happened?
Family, happened. In recent years when i was truly ready and able to start on a travel binge, a more immediate destination came above anywhere else: going home. Not since the turn of the millennium have I went back to China, so it was something long overdue. And because my personality is such that when I find a place or thing I enjoy, I tend to keep returning to it, going back home because a yearly tradition, which pushed Japan even further rearwards on the list.
Fear played a part, too: having failed at learning the language, traveling to Japan would entail being that dumb tourist who doesn’t know the local language, and instead rudely uses the lingua franca of the world - English. All the while hoping to god the opposing party also knows it as well, even though you innately understand that they probably don’t, but you trudge on anyways. I was not yet mature enough to risk looking utterly stupid in public, so I opted for “safer” travel destinations: places and countries where I know the language. Before this Japan Escape happened, I’d gone to Taipei, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Seoul.
Indeed, South Korea also happened. Starting in the late 2008, I caught the Kpop bug hard, and from then it branched out from music to the greater Korean entertainment sphere, and I’ve been consuming it ever since to this day. I really dig the culture as well; I was so immersed with Korea-related milieu that I even took the step to learn the language - something I could not accomplish with Japanese. It’s a small wonder how much easier it is to learn another language when you don’t have six other classes’ worth of workload to contend with simultaneously.
Naturally then, South Korea leap-frogged Japan on the travel list.
To be honest, by the time 2019 rolled around and the Japan trip was imminent for the summer, I was not all that enthused. Even from a car perspective, I’ve switched from Japanese cars to something German, and currently hold dreams of driving on the Nurburgring. Truth be told, I rather return to Seoul instead. That said, it was something my good friend wanted to do, seeing as he has never done Japan “properly”. As we age deeper into our thirties, who knows how many more opportunities we’d get to travel with ous best mates, what with prospects of family and kids looming in the near future. Therefore, to honor the wishes of my friend, it was (finally) time to tick Japan off the list.
Before departure, I’d remarked that this trip would be truly once in a lifetime: I don’t intend to return to Japan again after this.
Famous last words.
Here is our ANA Boeing 777 plane, flying out of LAX. My friend and I are very much not from LA, but rather, San Francisco. The reason we’re flying out some 300 miles south is because non-stop tickets to Tokyo NRT from LAX is significantly less expensive than routes out of SFO. A negative side-effect of having a relatively small international airport with only two runways, I reckon.
A brief 12 hours later, we arrived at Narita International Airport. Praise be to Lord Nobunaga.
Like most airports servicing major cities in Asia, NRT lies quite a bit away from Tokyo proper. Of the many ways to get into the city, taking the Narita Express is the quickest option. It’s the perfect appetizer to get your first taste of the vast Japanese railway network, and taking an initial glimpse of rural Japanese countryside life. In a little over an hour, we arrived at Shinjuku station for our transfer to local train.
For our first leg of the trip, we stayed in Nakano district, on the western side to central Tokyo. More quaint and less busy than the typical touristy districts, we really like the balance at Nakano. Yes, initially it will be slightly more difficult to get to compared to, say, Shinagawa, but as with most anywhere in Tokyo, it’s conveniently accessible by train.
Our plane touched-down at around 4PM local time, so by the time we got settled into our Airbnb, it was already past 8PM. The only thing to do for our travel-wearied bodies was to quickly grab something to eat and then head for bed. It’s quite fitting, then, that our first official meal in Japan is ramen noodles.
At a local shop just around the corner from where we’re staying, this fun little ramen place is operated by this old couple, and it looks authentic as it can be. Not knowing how to read Japanese, we quickly asked for an English menu, which luckily they had. As far I’m concerned, the only appropriate soup for ramen is tonkotsu, which is of course what I ordered.
First meal in, and it’s already the best ramen and gyoza (freshly hand-made by the elder gentlemen in the photo) I’ve ever had. Yes, I’m going to be saying that a lot on this trip.
Onto the following morning, our first full day. A thing I wanted to do in Japan was to constantly scan for interesting cars scattered throughout. The country is famed for being obsessed with cars, especially peculiar types that you wouldn’t necessarily expect. One such example propped up immediately as we walked towards breakfast: a Jeep Wrangler four-door, looking sinister in all-black everything trim. While small by American standards, in the tight streets of Japan, this Wrangler might as well be a Hummer.
The owner of this car must be well-heeled, seeing as it costs about $15 a day to park at this tiny lot. These lots are what counts as street parking, because in Japan there aren’t any of the typical street-side parking we Americans are used to. I have to say It really cleans up the aesthetics of the roads and buildings.
Restaurants in Japan tend to cater to the lunch, dinner, and the late night crowd, and there doesn’t appear to be a breakfast restaurant culture at all. Unlike in America where there are diners aplenty serving up pancakes and eggs, just about the only restaurant in Japan open in the morning hours is McDonalds.
We did what the locals do, and bought “snacks” at a convenient store for breakfast.
Convenient stores in Japan are legend in their own right. Open 24-hours a day and scattered absolutely everywhere that civilization touches, these 7-Elevens and Family Marts are an absolute havens. These magical places offer fresh, hot food and drinks, a place to sit, and clean restrooms to use. In the heat of summer, the air-con alone is a welcome respite. During the entirety of the trip, we visited a konbini many dozen times.
For my first breakfast in Japan, I bought at the local Family Mart two onigiri rice rolls, and a bottle of tea that’s already preheated. For the equivalent of about $3 dollars, it was sublime.
The absolute best and most efficient way to get around Japan is taking the train. The network is vast and extents to any corner of the country you’d wish to go. The train stations themselves offers a superbly unique flavor of life, great places to people-watch the locals going about their daily business. Yes, it’s completely true: trains in Japan are always on time, to the dot. Imagine us Americans being amazed at public transport arriving at the time it’s printed on the schedule.
Foreigners should definitely take advantage of the 7-day JR Pass, granting you unlimited rides on the massive JR system for about $260 when we went (price fluctuates with currency exchange). One round-trip ride on any Shinkansen route alone would already justify the initial cost.
Our first place of interest, which turned out to be a bit of a tourist-trap, is the Sensō-ji Temple in Asakusa - the oldest temple in Japan. We figured that visiting a temple in Japan is a must do, so might as well be the one that’s been around the longest?
Here is the “Thunder Gate” entrance to the temple facilities.
Before entering the Thunder Gate, looking to the right you can see the Tokyo Skytree tower, which is our next destination.
Once you get pass the front gate, there’s a long corridor full of shops on either side that you must traverse through before arriving at the temple proper. This is the tourist-trap part of the equation, replete with a sea of people looking at things to purchase, invariably blocking your progress to the temple. Of course, I too was being a blocker as I stood right in the middle to take photographs.
Not having spent a single yen on any of the stores, we arrived at what I guess is the official main entrance into Sensō-ji.
Looking back at whence we came from atop the main temple steps.
When in Rome, you do as the Romans do. Even though I am not Buddhist, I did the polite thing and prayed at the altar.
Yes, you are able to rent traditional Japanese outfits and cosplay to your desire.
Some shots of the temple architecture.
Whenever I go to ancient temples like Sensō-ji, I wonder to myself what it must’ve been like back before the advent of easy international travel, back in a time when these hallowed grounds were truly places of worship, of peace and serenity. Somewhat sad that these places will never revert back to its original, undisturbed existence. Admittedly, as a traveler, I am definitely a part of the problem.
The sights of side-streets surrounding Sensō-ji.
One thing I greatly admire about Japanese people is their utter dedication to a task or art-form. All this person in the picture does all day is make these stuffed pastries, and it is an absolute awe to watch him precisely produce these tiny little things, batch after batch. Boring and repetitive? Not in the least.
The famous hand-hold rings of the Japanese subway trains.
A brief subway hop took us to the grounds of Tokyo Skytree. Honestly, it looks just like any other tall tower featured in other Asian cities. Unlike the “old” Tokyo Tower, there’s nothing particularly special about the Skytree’s exterior. It’s a thing built solely to extract money from tourists. I’d say the same thing about the Seattle Space Needle.
It would seem I am not the only person with that sort of thinking: it wasn’t at all busy at the Skytree when we were there, though it must be said the weather that day was extremely cloudy, so visibility was compromised. I think had it been a sunny day, the photographer spirit in me would’ve sucked up the expense and gone up to the observation deck.
The Skytree’s rather uninspiring lattice work up close.
Since we weren’t going up the tower, we walked around the surrounding area around Skytree instead, including this I am assuming man-made stream nearby.
Or perhaps the stream isn’t man-made, but rather just diverted from a natural source. As we walked along the promenade, we encountered an elder gentleman fishing from the river (a fake stream couldn’t possible have fresh fish, right?) Not a bad way to spend an afternoon, provided you can withstand the heat and humidity of summer in Japan.
The facade of Tokyo Skytree really isn’t all that different from the Seoul Tower in Namsan, aside from lattice exoskeleton.
Spaces for only three cars passes for a typical parking lot in Japan. Parked at this particular one is a Suzuki Swift Sport, a car I wish were available here in the States.
Another car we don’t get because Americans hate minivans: the Toyota Alphard. I’d rock one so hard if given the chance; one with better wheels than the tiny donuts on this particular one, though.
What a lovely place to spend time. I can be here all day.
If it weren’t for the heat. Being from San Francisco, I am not acclimatized to temperature extremes, and the hot humidity in Japan can only be withstood for so long without a bit of reprieve. Indoor spaces offer excellent opportunities to get a breather and cool down.
But before long, it’s time to get back on the train system to our next point of interest.
More so than sushi or takoyaki, the one food item that was a must for me on this trip is, oddly enough, curry. CoCo Ichibanya is a world-famous Japanese-style curry restaurant chain, with international franchises all over. Being the smug person that I am, though, I was adamant in eating CoCo curry at its country of origin. So that was what’s for lunch after visiting Skytree.
My particular order was the curry over rice with chicken made in three styles, and I have to say, chain restaurant or not, it was super delicious.
The ubiquitous Japanese taxi, which oddly, we never once took in the week and a half we were there. The rail system does too good a job, and far cheaper, too. Due to traffic, taking the taxi might not even get you to a destination any faster than taking the subway.
Vans are cool. Don’t let silly Americans tell you otherwise.
In America there’s the strip mall plazas. In Japan and much of Asia, there’s strip-mall buildings. Surely there’s something for everyone in one of these.
Right around the corner from the CoCo Ichibanya in Asakusa is the Sumida River; it flows through much of Tokyo in a north to south direction, terminating into open water in Tokyo Bay.
As per usual with any major river that flows through an Asian metropolis, there’s the obligatory river cruises to entice locals and tourists alike. I have a major disdain for lines, so we obviously passed on the occasion.
Tokyo: a city of apartments where seemingly no two are alike in any way or shape.
When I travel, I tend to avoid the super touristy places. But, since I was still of the mindset that I don’t plan to come back to Japan ever again, the world-famous Shibuya Crossing - supposedly the busiest crosswalk on the planet - is then a must-visit. So onwards we departed via subway towards Shibuya station.
Even before you leave the subway station, you can see the entire operation right across the street. Seeing the Shibuya Crossing live and in person was my first “holy shit, I’m really in Japan!” moment.
It was incredibly surreal to be right there; these famous crosswalks I’ve only seen on television and in movies. I guess that’s why places like the Shibuya Crossing is such a hot destination for tourists. We definitely look ample time to soak in the atmosphere, and crossed the street (for no reason, really) multiple times.
Notice the Starbucks Coffee in the background: it’s the perfect place to people-watch the crosswalk from a higher vantage point. Sadly, because it is such a perfect place, this particular Starbucks is beyond crowded. We didn’t even try to get in, as the line was already out the entrance doors.
Where else but Japan would there be shops with a dedicated section to glow-sticks? It’s this style of obsessiveness towards a niche subject matter that I can greatly appreciate.
After Shibuya, we still had some time to spare before the dinner, so we went back to our Airbnb in Nakano to chill.
And by chill I really do mean it: Japanese summers are absolutely no joke. Periodic breaks indoors and proper hydration is crucial to ward off fatigue caused by the heat.
Thankfully, drinks vending machine in Japan are as ubiquitous as street signs; it seems we were never more than a block away from the closest one. The one in the picture is literally directly across the street from our apartment building.
The sheer logistics to keep all of these things operational and stocked - and it’s always stocked; I didn’t encounter a sold-out drink item the entire time I was in Japan - has got to be immensely impressive. Imagine such a system here in America, and it’s immediately impossible: the vending machines would get wrecked or stolen in quick order.
I’ve heard that Japan car enthusiasts are mad about classic Minis, and I was lucky enough to encounter this clean sample as we walked back to our Airbnb from the train station.
As evening hour arrives, we reemerged and headed out for dinner.
Japan train stations are incredibly photogenic, and as a photographer they serve as delightful canvases. The same station we departed from this morning is now bathe in a wholly different ambiance, in the bluish tones of a departed sun.
When it comes to food association with Japan, amongst the sushis, ramens, and 7-Eleven Onigiris, is the famous Wagyu beef. No trip to Japan is complete without sampling the cuts from local cows that’s been tenderly cared for to extract the best possible taste. My friend suggested an all-you-can-eat Wagyu barbecue (say no more, fam) somewhere in the Ginza district for dinner.
Before we got to the restaurant, how about two Lamborghini Countachs just parked out here on the side of the street? Moments like this reaffirm my adoration for how car-crazy Japan is every single time.
A sampling of all the cuts of Wagyu that’s available; it makes that piece of chicken in the bottom middle look horrendously out of place, doesn’t it? And yeah, hashtag marbling.
Needlessly to say (but I’m going to say it anyways), it’s the most delicious pieces of beef I’ve ever had.
A stroll around Ginza at night is a good way to burn off some of the Wagyu.
Finally, we returned to our “home” station of Nakano after a packed first day’s sightseeing, and I think it’s an equally good time to stop for this part one of the Japan Escape photo story. In the next part, we briefly leave Tokyo for Yokohama, and later that same evening, we get in some go-karts.