This February I had the incredible opportunity to travel with a friend through Southeast Asia for two weeks. WOW what a two weeks it was! We started in Japan, then went on to explore Indonesia, Thailand, and Vietnam together. It was one of the most incredible trips of my life, and I can’t wait to share my experiences with you one blog post at a time. I’ve always wanted to travel this part of the world, so going on this trip was literally a dream come true for me. I’ll be breaking this trip up into about 5 blog posts. First stop – Tokyo, Japan!
After a grueling 30 hours of long flights mixed with long layovers I finally found myself in Tokyo at 4:50pm on Friday, March 5th. I booked myself for one night at the Shinjuku Kuyakusho-mae Capsule Hotel, so my first adventure was to get from the airport to Shinjuku! I navigated the airport just fine, got a bus ticket (thanks to the very friendly airport staff at the info desks), found out how to use the incredibly confusing (and in all Japanese) ticket machines for the subway, took my train to Shinjuku, and stepped off the platform into Shinjuku District. Shinjuku is known for being a very lively and busy part of Tokyo. It is known for its night life and shopping, so when I arrived I instantly found myself in a sea of people (it was Friday night at around 8pm after all). There were skyscrapers everywhere, bright lights, Japanese advertisements and large glowing billboards, smells of delicious food in the air, street performers singing anime songs by the station (so cool!) but I’ll never forget my first real thought when I got there. It was, “Wow… I’m a minority!!” This may seem like a really strange first thought, but I couldn’t help it. I have never truly been a monitory anywhere I’ve traveled, so stepping off the train in Shinjuku and realizing I was the only Caucasian person around was startling. I was self-conscious for only few seconds, then just decided to continue walking down the street with a huge smile on my face. This was my dream coming true! I was in Tokyo!
After my initial “Holy cow, I’m finally here and it’s so cool!” moment I realized I had to find my capsule hotel. I had been flying for more than a day, I was tired, hungry and in desperate need of a shower. Finding my capsule hotel was quite the task though! I didn’t have WiFi access, I couldn’t read any of the signs (everything is in Japanese), and I had no idea which direction to go! I must have asked random people on the street for directions to this place over 100 times. Sometimes they spoke enough English to point me in a direction, other times they simply smiled apologetically and tried to convey that they couldn’t help. I did get to see some really cool side streets, and street performers though!
Two hours later I was still wandering around Shinjuku trying to find my hotel. I kept returning to the subway station because the information desk ladies there spoke the best English and were able to give me a map. I have to say, despite how tired I was, and how much I wanted to shower I was loving how lost I was. I got to see so many cool streets and back allies in Shinjuku that it made the whole adventure fun to me. So there I was, wandering Shinjuku for hours, when finally I just stopped on a street corner and stared into the crowd. I was close, I knew it, but could not read any signs to know if I had found it or not. I must have had some kind of “Please help, I’m a foreigner!” look on my face, because a group of guys walked by who energetically started waiving at me asking if I was ok. “Kuyakusho-mae Capsule Hotel?…” I said for what felt like the millionth time that night. “Oh! Right there! Right there!” they energetically said as they pointed at the building literally right across the street from where I was standing. Finally!
The hotel itself was a dream. I took a nice long hot shower, changed into some clean clothes, and slept like a baby. I wished I could have stayed another night there, but the next day I was off to meet my friend Cruise at Tokyo Station.
The next day Cruise and I met up and decided to get some lunch before beginning our tour of the city. This was my first real meal in Asia, so it was time to see just how easy or difficult it would be as a vegan! Overall, I’d say Japan was the most difficult location we were in to be vegan. That being said, it was still pretty easy! I say that Japan was the hardest simply because fish paste/sauce is used in everything. There were only a few times where I could not avoid it, but for the most part being vegan in Japan was easy and delicious! I tried so many unique dishes and so many new flavors. Tempura pumpkin = the bomb.
After lunch we hit the streets and decided to visit the old Royal Palace and some temples/shrines. The Old Royal Palace had a huge moat around it and the walls were so ancient and cool looking. There was also a map next to this area, and the largest thing on the map was, well you can see in the image. Why was that the largest thing on the map?! It cracked us up. 🙂
After that we visited our first shrine. The first one we went to had these huge stairs leading up to the gate. Once there we entered a giant courtyard with ornate walls, statues, roofs, and all sorts of cool things to see. The colors are so bright and vibrant at these places, and the architecture was everything I pictured Japan would be like. We waited patiently in line for our turn to go up to the main entrance to say a prayer. When you get up to the wooden structure you are supposed to throw your coins into the box, bow twice, clap twice, pray, bow once, and then leave (through and awesome tunnel of orange arches!).
Next we decided to see Tokyo Tower. It’s a famous landmark in Tokyo that looks very similar to the Eiffel Tower (except it is orange and white). On our way we saw more cool arches and mini-shrines throughout the city. It was very cool to see such ancient architecture/style mixed in with the modern buildings of Tokyo. For example, I really like the one picture below with the traditional looking Japanese gate and directly behind it is a towering modern skyscraper. Much of Tokyo was like this.
At night we met up with one of Cruise’s friends. Saida, and went to Shibuya District. Shibuya is another famous district of Tokyo; It is known for its bustling night life, shopping and dining similar to Shinjuku. I got to experience one of the famous “intersections” of Tokyo here. The only word I can use to describe this intersection, is crazy. There are so many people here, and as soon as the little man lights up for pedestrians this one main intersection just floods with people. People walk perpendicular to streets, parallel, there are two huge diagonal cross-walks that go through it too! Combine this with the fact there are cars everywhere, giant glowing billboards, street signs, food smells, and all sorts of activity as well. We saw the famous dog statue of Hachikō and got our picture taken with it. It has a story that goes along with it (and a movie as well) that goes something like this: A man and his dog would walk every day to the Shibuya train station (1924), the man would board it, go to work, return at night, and the dog would wait for him the entire time. One day the man died though, and did not return. The dog waited each day for the next nine years, nine months, and fifteen days for his master to return until the day he died. His story garnered so much attention that a statue was eventually made of him at Shibuya Station. Cue sobbing – but in all seriousness, it was pretty cool to see this famous landmark.
For dinner that night we ate ‘soup curry’ which is a new dish emerging in Japan that is becoming popular apparently. It is mixed vegetables in a spicy curry broth with rice on the side (supper yummy). Afterwards we went to an Izakaya. Izakayas are very popular in Japan. They are sort of like restaurants, sort of like bars, but not quite like either (at least not here in America). The idea is to go, get a bunch of appetizers for the table to share, and then drink. It’s different in that everyone shares everything, and it is not really meant to be a place to go have a full meal. It is more of an “after-work” drinking place between work and dinner. We shared tons of edamame, soy-sauce french fries (a.k.a. “fried potato” – super delicious), and warm sake! I was not much of a sake fan before going to Japan, but now I have to say I think I really like it!
After dinner we decided to go to a Karaoke bar. After all, a trip to Japan is not complete without visiting at least one Karaoke bar, right? I had a great time singing anime songs with Cruise, and tried a few English ones as well. I sang “Lose Yourself” by Eminem and had a grand time showing off just how little I knew the lyrics, haha! We stayed there and sang for about an hour, but after that I kind of needed to rest. It was getting late and jet-lag was still effecting me a bit!
Cruise and I checked into our hostel for the night (a quaint little place above a coffee shop that had the most comfortable comforters ever) and the next day went out to explore more districts. We first went to a huge outdoor market that had tons of street food and random shopping. I tried so many yummy little snacks as we walked! In the picture above there is “Mitarashi Dango” at the top: mini soybean dumplings on a stick, rolled in cinnamon-sugar and with it goes a warm soybean sake. Bottom left is a “Senbei” rice cracker dipped in soy-sauce. Bottom right is a traditional Red Bean Paste Rice Dumpling. All three snacks were really yummy!
At the end of this street market we came across a big shrine (which I later learned, was the famous Sensō-ji Temple). In the center is a pit of coals/ash and you are supposed to waive the smoke over your body before you enter for good luck/health. Once again, the architecture, ornate structures and vibrant colors all around were breath taking!
On our way out of the market/shrine area we came across two street comedy performers. I’m the kind of person who’s always entertained by street performers, no matter the act, but these two were seriously funny! They weren’t speaking English or Japanese, but a made-up language so that anyone could understand the humor. They also did a bunch of hat-tricks that were fun to watch!
After moving away from that area we both got a fried sweet potato snack at a Don Quixote (think extremely large convenient store with anything you could ever want (except deodorant)) and watched a live Anko show. Now, Cruise and I didn’t know this at the time but apparently the Anko singer we stumbled across was SUPER famous. We bought our sweet potatoes and exited the convenient store into a very large crowd. There was a stage up ahead with someone on it talking. It appeared to be a man in makeup and a kimono. Then he started to sing. Now I don’t know much about traditional Japanese music (Anko singing), but I could tell his style was very old, and it was really really beautiful. The crowd before us started to freak out a bit. Cruise speaks fluent Japanese, and he overheard people around us apparently saying things like “Is that really him?!”, “No, it can’t be!”, “I think it is!”, etc. Apparently the man singing before us in this beautiful traditional Anko style was extremely famous, and people couldn’t believe he was on some random street corner giving an impromptu live performance! Even though I didn’t know who this man was, or just how “big of a deal” he was in Japan, I could certainly appreciate that his music sounded really cool.
Next, it was time to visit the anime district, Akihabara. That’s right, it was finally time for me to nerd-out hard core on some anime merchandise and shopping! I happen to love anime and manga, so I’ve been looking forward to seeing this district for awhile!
Besides getting to explore tons of various anime merchandise shops, manga shops, cafes, etc. we also got to explore a video game arcade SKYSCRAPER. That’s right, and entire skyscraper arcade where every floor was a continuation of the arcade. Besides getting to beat Cruise pretty badly at a Pokemon battle game, I had so much fun just walking around and watching the other players.
The Japanese take their video games SERIOUSLY. There was one strange game where players had to tap, whack, slide, swipe, and drag arrows all around this weird large disc (I’m describing it as best I can, but honestly I had no idea how you played this game!).
We also came across a Dance Dance Revolution MASTER going full berserk-mode over his game. He was on the highest level of difficulty and playing both sides of the screen. He was very clearly dripping in sweat, but no worries, he brought his gym bag with him! It was seriously entertaining to watch!
At this point Cruise and I had been walking all day long (and remember, it was freeeezing in Tokyo when we were there!) so we were pretty eager to get inside and warm up somewhere. We met up with two more of his friends and went to another Izakaya. In this one we got our own private room and got to sit on the ground with our feet in a hole below us (just like in traditional Japanese dining); It was so cool! I was happy to order my own appetizers to munch on, but upon finding out I was Vegan (something veeerrrrryyyy strange to native Japanese people) Cruise’s friends were so nice about it and ordered all vegan things for us to share while we were there! We got a salad with tofu on it, edamame, fried potatoes (what they call ‘french fries’), cooked daikon root, fried yucca root, potato wedges in oil and spices, and lots of sake!
The next day was our last day in Tokyo. We started the day by grabbing some onigiri at a “conbini” (The Japanese refer to ‘convenient stores’ as ‘conbinis’ – it’s so cute! Getting breakfast at one before school/work is apparently very popular). After that we went to another famous temple in Tokyo that was tucked away inside a beautiful park. We walked through the park among the tall trees and gravel paths until we came upon the temple.
This one was different in that it had green roofs and plain wooden walls (as opposed to the bright red colors I had seen previously). It was much more tame in design, but it was still very beautiful. We walked in a different direction to leave the park, coming across a huge wall of old sake barrels. Apparently one of the previous emperors of Japan loved to gift foreign leaders that visited a sake barrel as a parting gift. That was the story on the plaque next to these barrels at least!
We met a few of Cruise’s coworkers for lunch after that. They were all web developers/designers too, so I had a ton of fun talking about design and development with them! We ate at a restaurant that was close to Harujuku (another famous district in Tokyo) and they recommend we go check it out. We found the Kawaii Monster Cafe (an Alice in Wonderland themed cafe), explored the streets a little more, and then gathered our belongings at the hostel and headed to the airport.
Overall, my impressions of Tokyo was that I LOVED it. I can honestly say that it is my favorite big city I have been to so far. What shocked me about Tokyo was how CLEAN it was. Imagine a city of that size with no trash, no litter, no graffiti, no homeless people, no crime, etc. I couldn’t believe how much of a ‘Utopia’ the whole place felt like.
I was also very interested in the people there. In public, people are extremely reserved and shy. They are quiet, walk with their eyes down, head down, they talk in whispers, and are overall very polite and quiet. It is so different compared to the loud/bold personality of most American cities. Everyone I met was incredibly friendly though. They are so respectful, polite, and kind. I truly loved it there!
Closing thoughts about Tokyo:
- The food there is delicious, though it can be unhealthy at times. They are big into frying their vegetables in most dishes (tempura) and they loooove their sweets!
- Most of the native Japanese that I met were very shy. In general, I think when out in public this is how they act.
- Being an ‘otaku’ (one who likes anime/manga) is popular there, but not as mainstream as I would have thought. There seemed to be a kind of stereotype surrounding the word, and it usually describes a person who is waaaaaay too into it for being an adult (and someone who is kind of a social loser/dork). Cruise’s friends even poked harmless fun at us when they found out we were ‘otaku’ – “What? No way! You two are otaku?!” It was funny 🙂
- Again, I can’t emphasize enough how freaking CLEAN Tokyo was. Honestly, it was something I thought of everywhere I went because I couldn’t believe it! No litter anywhere! Tokyo doesn’t even have public trash cans because no one litters. They simply carry their trash with them and throw it away when they get home. Cruise told me it was because in Japan public schools have no janitors. The students/children are the janitors, so growing up they are taught at a very young age to always pick up after themselves and be tidy (I thought this was so cool).
- Many people wear face masks out in public, and I found it very interesting. In Japan they do it to ward of germs from other people around them. I guess in a city as large as Tokyo it makes sense.
- The subways/trains are mind-blowingly efficient. If a train says it will be arriving at the station at 3:34pm it will arrive EXACTLY at that time. If a schedule says a train will be departing the station at 3:36pm that is EXACTLY when the train will be moving again and leaving the station. It is so reliable there, that most people apparently set their watches according to the Japanese trains. How cool is that?!
- Portion sizes are very small there. This was something I definitely had to get used to throughout Japan, as I am usually a very big eater!
- Tokyo was very expensive. I felt like I was taking so much money out of the ATM while I was there. They say that Japan is one of the most expensive countries to live in and now I believe it!
- Yes, all of the rumors you hear about Japanese toilets are true. You need a freaking degree in rocket science to figure them out! Ok, it’s not that bad, but they do have waaaay more buttons than a toilet needs! I used a squat pot for the first time there too, and it wasn’t too bad at all!