If you’re relentlessly curious, this can be your ultimate guide to Japan. Start by listening to the podcast. Or save the podcast for later. It’s your choice.

Japan. Travel. Adventure. We were planning a trip to Japan, and I was searching for something that would be like an ultimate guide. I couldn’t find one so I decided to create it myself. Here’s my biased and ultimate guide to Japan.

In addition to this Applied Curiosity Lab Radio podcast episode, this can be your cheat sheet for planning and executing your own trip. This post also serves as show notes for the podcast. In both this post and podcast you will find insights, advice, personal preferences, and hidden adventure opportunities. This is as comprehensive as my personally biased guide to Japan can be. I blame sake for any important things that you find that I overlooked.

When should you go? That’s a personal question so here’s a personal answer.

We went in early October. Go then. Or not. In early October the fall foliage is not at its peak, but since we knew that we would come home to gorgeous foliage in Portland, we didn’t care. We had planned to visit Mt Fuji and then hang with the Snow Monkeys outside Nagano, but ultimately we couldn’t pull ourselves away from Tokyo so we skipped those adventures. We did hear that it was not yet snowy or particularly cold in Nagano.

When we started in Nara it was warm and misty. In Kyoto (an hour from Nara by train) it was unseasonably warm. We sweated in short sleeves. In the higher elevations like Koyasan, it was cool, but pleasant. By the time we got to Tokyo two weeks later, it was rainy and comfortably cool. We missed a huge typhoon by one day. The rain was typhoon foreplay.

When you go also depends a lot on where you plan to go. The cold island of Hokkaido will vary greatly from the subtropical islands of the Okinawan archipelago. This is my biased account, so I’m focusing on the weather where we were on Honshu, the most populated and largest island of Japan.

I’m not adamant about you going in October, so if you skip this first piece of advice, here’s what you may want to know about the other months.

November in Japan is crisp and cool with glorious autumn foliage, but we found better airfare in October. You probably will too. In December, it gets cold across most of Japan, and I’m less likely to maximize adventures by poking around in alleys and up hidden stairs when I’m cold. January starts ski season, and February is peak ski season. Skiing would be fun, but since my travel partner husband doesn’t ski, it might not have been the best time for the two of us to go together. Plus, this was a curiosity quest, not a sports-y adventure. It’s still pretty cold in March. That’s okay, but I don’t like to spend all my time inside museums preventing numb fingers. April and May is peak season with the cherry blossoms flashing tourists their flowering glory. I’m sure that the blossoms are prettier than the cherry blossoms on my own street at home, but I don’t want my trees to sense that I’m judging them. June is full-on rainy season (tsuyu, the plum rain). I don’t need to travel to hang out in rain because I live in rainy season nine months out of the year. July is the end of the rainy season and it starts to get very hot and humid throughout most of Japan. July is also when we plan our domestic road trip adventures. Next year we’ll probably fly up to Alaska to join Airship in July. I mention this so you can check out my friends’ amazing Slowboat website, and maybe apply to join one of their flotillas.

Slowboat by Laura Domela

August is hot and humid in Japan. I like hot. It’s also the most beautiful time to be in Portland. Why leave when it’s glorious? In September, we are usually busy with location-dependent work. Plus, we wanted to avoid peak typhoon season. October was a great time. You’ll see lots of Halloween decorations. I’m not sure when the Halloween thing infiltrated Japan. Go in October.

How might you pay for this trip? If this is not of interest to you, skip to Osaka.

Now that you’ve decided on your month, how should you choose your exact dates? Do you have flexibility with your schedule? If not, then you’re stuck going when you can go. Either way, you should still engage in a bit of travel hacking. The more flexible you are, the more you can take advantage of special deals or wait until the special deals pop up. Why not save a shekel or two to apply to a fabulous meal, a side excursion, or another great trip? Check out the free travel hacking advice that my friend, the Miles Addict, shares on his site.

Do you have the best credit card for accruing miles? Here’s a handy credit card benefit chart from The Points Guy. Many of these credit cards are only available to card holders in the States, but Miles Addict has great advice for you European travelers. Be aware of what benefits are offered by your card versus the other options available to you. Know where to look to keep track of changing and expiring benefits. Remember to check on updates to your benefits on a regular basis. Credit card companies typically don’t put the benies front and center.

My husband and I don’t have the absolute best of the best credit cards for travel, but we still have pretty good benefits. The fine print in our credit cards offered, among other things, $500 toward the purchase of any airline lounge, free general access to over 1000 lounges around the world (when they’re not full), travel insurance, rental car insurance, no foreign transaction fees, and concierge service to help book trips using points. If I had been wise enough to regularly check benefits I would have also known about the $100 credit toward Global Access or TSA/Pre, before it was too late. We used miles from our Alaska Airlines card to book the flights and points from our UBS card to book the tour.

Chances are that whatever credit card you have, there are benefits hiding in the fine print for you to discover. You have to do a bit of clicking around. You can do it!

Wanna copy our itinerary? Go ahead because it was pretty great. What follows are the places we went and what I think are the most interesting insights.

Osaka (KIX)

We flew into Kansai International Airport (KIX). It’s located on an artificial island in the middle of Osaka Bay, 38 km southwest of Ōsaka. We changed our money at the airport. Remember that Japan is a very cash-y country. Surprisingly, there are many places that do not take credit cards. We each started with about 30000 yen in cash—way more than I carry around at home in the States. It didn’t last long, but where there are convenience stores, there are ATMs.

We heeded the sage advice of our friend, Kersten, and we rented a portable WiFi device from one of the several vendors. We chose SoftBank. It was about $8 per day. I know that it can be weird to interrupt a vacation to check Facebook and post to Instagram, but we both loved being able to chat with our sons from remote parts of Japan, it made navigation easier, and I loved being able to share cool places via Facebook Live. Plus, I wanted to know if we were about to be bombed by North Korea. I’m not entirely sure why.

Nara

After landing at the airport, we immediately took an hour bus ride to Nara and then checked into Hotel Nikko Nara.

Our regular suitcases (62 linear inches and under 50 pounds as allowed by most international airlines) fit under this bus, but later in the trip we learned that our luggage certainly didn’t fit on all the buses. We had large day packs for when our luggage would not make the trip with us.

We got up early in Nara. This was easy because we were already wide awake. I usually don’t get excited about hotels that include breakfast because I’m not an early morning eater. With this first exotic Japanese breakfast buffet and all that followed, I made every attempt to stuff this food in my still-sleeping stomach. A typical Japanese breakfast buffet includes many small dishes of interesting pickled and savory delicacies. These are not the high carb-high sugar extravaganzas that I’m used to in all-you-can-eat buffets of my beloved home country. If your sense of adventure does not extend to your palate and beyond, the buffets will have a few of the recognizable croissants and sausages disguised in Japan-sized portions. Avoid the temptation to eat like you’re home, and you’ll add dimension to your adventure.

I suggest that you try everything. Except tripe. I hate that. Our typical Japanese breakfast consisted of a bowl of miso soup, rice or rice porridge (the name, okayu, is an apt description), cooked or raw fish, pickled vegetables (kobachi), green salad, and green tea. The small teacups coupled with our caffeine addiction required the addition of coffee…and a couple of refills.

Here are my top favorite Japanese breakfast foods: almost every version of miso soup, daikon and tofu boiled in broth with ginger and soy sauce, pickled plum (umeboshi, the saltiest plum ever), Japanese pickles (tsukemono), a smattering of kobachi, dried seaweed (nori), and a few mystery foods. Each time I considered these mystery foods a grab bag for my gullet.

It’s important to note that when you try the food of other cultures, it can be an incredibly effective way to connect with people of that culture. I like people who bravely try my cooking. I love people who love my specialty, matzo ball soup. Okay, I only cook my matzo ball soup for people I love, but think about it. Don’t you like people who like the less common foods that you like? This is why I will try (almost) any food offered to me, and I will make it a point to publicly share in food culture. I have connected with people from all over the world by sharing their food. This has included, among other my questionable decisions, eating balut and tamilok in the Philippines and Hakarl (rotted shark) in Iceland. To be sure, Japan has some exotic stuff to consume (see menu below), but the only time I got sick was when I ate a Panda Express-like meal at a horrible Chinese restaurant in Tokyo.

Uterus? Why not?

 

Tamilok worms about to go down my gullet

Biting balut. Check out my sister’s expression.

Taste everything. If you feel that you’re not brave enough, swig some sake, shochu, or Japanese whiskey first.

The ancient city of Nara set just the right vibe for our Japan adventure, but before that the toilets in the Osaka airport provided the first hint that I might be falling in love with another country. After sitting down on the heated seat, I found these toilet-button offerings: bidet (targeted stream) spray (wider target), temp control for bidet and spray, sound effects, air freshener, light, seat up, seat down, lid up, lid down, toilet seat cleanser, and flush button (that often resulted in my pushing a few buttons before figuring out how to flush). Surprisingly, this was in the “Western” stall. The “Japanese” stalls had those porcelain-covered holes in the ground that provide incentive for not skipping leg day.

 

Eastern-style toilet

Often labeled Western style. Just a few toilet choices.

Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan. It warrants at least one day. We had slightly less time because we had to catch a train at 3pm for the hour ride to Kyoto. We checked out of our hotel and checked our luggage at the front desk. We then walked from our hotel to all the sights of Nara using a very loose version of this one-day itinerary.

Remember that tipping is not only not necessary in Japan, it is often frowned upon. Weigh this fact as you think about costs. In many other places tipping can add up to 20% to your bills for transportation, food, and services.

The two train stations will be your points of reference. If you’re at the Nara Station, walk 12 minutes to the Kintensu Nara Station and start there. Wear comfortable shoes. We walked up Nobori-oji Street and that’s when we started to see Nara’s famous sacred deer. At first the deer seemed cute and we snapped many photos. The baby deer were cute. The female deer were cute. The male deer were shaggier and hornier. They chased and humped the female deer. Perhaps it is ridiculous to admit, but for some reason this annoyed me.

We watched people buy deer cookies from the local vendors. We saw deer eat these cookies straight out of people’s hands. At first we were amazed and delighted. Then the deer got a little too familiar by knocking over a small child and delving into my purse to try to steal and eat my map and paper money. I got in a tug-a-war style fight over a plastic bag with one particularly aggressive deer. I won. Barely. Before familiarity could breed contempt, I stopped paying too much attention to the sacred deer of Nara.

Deer instructions.

Nara Park is one of the oldest parks in Japan. We wandered and explored as much of the park as we were able. Start your day using that attached one-day itinerary and wander from there. Don’t miss the Todai-ji Temple because that’s where the Daibutsu statue (Great Buddha) is housed within Great Buddha Hall. The hall is the largest wooden building in the world, and the Daibutsu is one of the largest bronze figures in the world. The Great Buddha statue was originally cast in 746, and the current statue is over 16 meters high and consists of 437 tons of bronze and 130 kg of gold. It’s magnificent.

While in the Great Buddha Hall, crawl through the square hole in the base of one of the temple’s wooden pillars. You’ll know the one. It’s the so-called “nostril” and it’s said to grant enlightenment in the next life to anyone who can fit through it. The magic hole is supposedly the same size as one of the nostrils on the giant Buddha. Turn sideways or you will get stuck.

 

Find a place to watch the green mochi being pounded. It’s like a cross between a dance and ritual. Buy it fresh and eat it while it’s warm and gooey.

Pounding mochi

After poking around several glorious temples and shrines, I started to be less amazed by each new place. My husband, Stephen, may be reluctant to admit it, but he was too. Nothing in this fabulous city warrants this waning amazement, but this is a common thing anywhere you go. It is hard to find the mystique in the mundane. After only half a day, even these glorious temples and shrines were becoming mundane. Elevating curiosity in order to find the mystique in the mundane is one of the central exercises in curiosity training. Because this increasing lack of amazement was already becoming clear after one day in Nara, I knew that this would be something to be aware of during our entire trip. I challenged myself to find a new thing to be curious about at each temple and shrine. Once I’m aware of the challenge of finding the mystique in the mundane, it’s fairly easy to meet.

Kyoto

We arrived in Kyoto via a one-hour train ride. This is where we were to meet our group. We debated back and forth whether, for the first time, we wanted to travel with a group, and we opted to give it a shot. We chose Intrepid Travel. While we had a great experience with our itinerary, the other travelers in our group, and our guide, we are probably not the perfect example of “tour” folk.

There are benefits to taking an official tour. You can choose from the proffered itineraries and leave a lot of the logistics to the guide. This is more important in more difficult to navigate countries. It was not necessary in Japan, but it was particularly nice when our guide acquired our JR Passes, when she booked our numerous buses and trains, and when she arranged to have our luggage sent ahead. She was also an extreme delight. On tours you meet interesting people from around the world. This second benefit is amplified by the fact that adventure tours tend to self-select for adventurous and friendly people, luxury tours tend to self-select for friendly people who want and need luxury, and budget tours tend to be made up of friendly budget travelers. I say friendly because people on tours tend to be friendly. Our tour was no exception. Everyone on our tour was great and added to the fun of the trip. However, if you’re frustrated by having to achieve group consensus and you prefer spontaneity, you’re best to find a tour that sounds interesting, copy that itinerary, and go on your own.

Kyoto is a walkable city where modernity is infused and lives side-by-side with traditional Japanese culture. I love this city. Walking down the street, quiet temples (1000 temples in the city) sit beside fantastic noodle shops. Busting markets are steps away from sublime gardens. There are 17 Unesco World Heritage Sites in Kyoto. We had two full days in Kyoto, but 3 days would have been better.

We had heard that Kyoto was the best place to try kaiseki. Kaiseki is a haute cuisine, multi-course Japanese meal presented with ceremony and elegance. We decided to splurge and try it. We figured that this dinner would be the most expensive meal we would have in Japan. This turned out to be true.  We joined with a few adventurous friends from our tour, and our party of five entered our own private room where we sat behind a shoji screen on a tatami mat. Originally kaiseki was presented to the royal noble class. It felt good to be nobility for a couple hours. We started with a sip of sake. One sip was all that was offered. Each of the many courses that followed were served by beautiful women in kimonos. The courses vary depending on where you go to try kaiseki. The standard courses consist of: an appetizer served with sake; Nimono, a simmered dish; Mukozuke, a sashimi dish; Hassun, an expression of the season; Yakimono, a grilled dish; a rice dish, dessert, and a macha tea ceremony. Find a place to try kaiseki.

Those pine needles are made of pasta and dried nori.

The first time that I spotted a woman in a kimono, I immediately thought that there must be some ceremony or special occasion. But then I remembered. This old-school dress is what many people wear on a daily basis, particularly in Kyoto. Some families have never worn anything else. Others have adopted the traditional dress in more recent times. Many of the men also wore traditional kimonos. In addition to the kimono, these traditional dressers wear wooden-healed thongs with sloth-toed socks. The tight kimono skirts and the tricky footwear means that they don’t walk very fast. Scampering down the street on my way to getting somewhere quickly, and being stuck behind a group of kimono-wearers slowly making their way down the street provided another uniquely Japanese hint to “slow down.” Find more information on kimono here.

There are many places one can go and rent a kimono to walk around Kyoto like an authentic…what? Kyoto-ite? Some might call this cultural appropriation. I call it cultural appreciation…and a bit silly. I like silly though. Our delightful guide, Masae, claimed that because she grew up in Kyoto, she could totally tell who was playing dress up and who was authentic. When she pointed out that the Swedish-looking woman was clearly playing dress-up, I was less impressed with her ability to discern. Ya think?

I love a food market. Unlike any other product, food provides the best peek into a culture. Go to the Nishiki Market on an empty stomach. Try the mini octopus stuffed with the quail egg on a skewer. Or try an octopus popsicle. Several of the food items that we saw in this market were unique to this market. Try any one of the hundreds of things that you have never seen before. You may never see them again. Wash it down with a sake sample or an Asahi beer from one of the many of vending machines found on nearly every street. How many minutes would these public vending machines last in your home town before they were vandalized or broken into?

Warning: Do not eat or drink while walking around. It’s considered rude. Although this can seem frustrating when you have a limited amount of time to taste and see everything, I couldn’t help but think that it’s a good rule. It made us snack less and slow down to eat.

You can find all the most common spots to visit in Kyoto here.

The most memorable shrine complex in Kyoto is the Fushimi Inari-Taisa. It consists of arcades of red shrine gates spread across a wooded mountain. We went at night and it was beautiful. I wish we had more time to climb to the top, but this was one of those times when being with a group was not conducive to doing exactly what I wanted to do. If you find a place to eat inari near this shrine, try it.

Outside most shrines and temples you will see gazebo-looking structures with water cisterns with ladles. These are temizuya water pavilions. There is a ritual for purifying yourself before entering the shrine or temple. It’s good to know how to do it. Here’s how. Scoop up water in the ladle with your right hand and pour some of the water over your left hand. Next, hold the ladle in your left hand and pour some of the water over your right hand. In your left hand, take some of remaining water and rinse your mouth. Do not touch your mouth to the ladle. Then, tip the ladle to rinse it off with the rest of the water.

What’s the difference between a temple and a shrine? Shrines are built for Shintoism. They are characterized by a tori gate at the entrance. They are usually red. Bow once at the front of the gate. Once you have passed through the gate you have stepped into the domain of the deity.

Most shrines have an altar. Here’s what you can do. Quietly throw in a saisen (money offering to the deity) into the saisenbako (offering box). Ring the bell to greet the deity. Bow twice. Clap your hands twice. This is to show happiness or appreciation and respect toward the deity. With your hands still together, silently express your prayer and feeling of gratitude. Bow one more time.

Temples are Buddhist. They are characterized by a sanmon gate at the entrance. If a temple has candles or incense, place one in the designated space, throw in a saisen (money offering to the gods or Bodhisattvas), and join your hands in silent prayer.

Buddhism originated in India in the 6th century BCE. It was imported to Japan via China and Korea in the 6th century. Shinto does not have a founder nor does it have sacred scriptures. Shinto is the indigenous Japanese religion. In Shinto there are sacred spirits that take the form of things and important concepts. Shinto and Buddhism peacefully hang out together in Japan. People borrow from both religions.

Shinto bride.

I’m not Buddhist or Shinto or Christian, but I felt perfectly comfortable performing the Buddhist and Shinto rituals. I don’t feel totally comfortable performing rituals at a Catholic or Christian church. Why is this? Is it because of familiarity of Christianity? The exoticism of Buddhism and Shintoism? Is it because of the improbability of proselytization in Japan? I’m curious about this.

At no point did anyone chastise us for doing any of the rituals incorrectly. On occasion, we were reminded to take off our shoes and point them in a certain direction before stepping onto a certain part of the floor, but most of the time we got the shoe part right.

Palaces are steeped in mystery, and we saw many palaces in Japan. I loved touring every one of them. My favorites were the Nijo Castle in Kyoto, the Matsumoto Castle in Matsumoto, and the Himeji Castle in Himeji. The floors of the Nijo Castle were designed so the flooring nails rubbed against a clamp, causing chirping sounds when walked upon. This was used as a security device to alert the Shogun that someone, like a sneaky ninja, was approaching.

Ninja-proof squeaky floor system.

Matsumoto Castle is the oldster of the castles at over 400 years. The steep stairs and long distance between risers were intended to slow down attackers and put them off balance. The Himeji Castle had secret doors where large stones could be dropped on the heads of intruders and fake entrances would trap unwelcome visitors. All the castles had systems of moats. They were military fortresses. Centuries ago, the esteemed-caste samurai warriors and the less-honorable spy ninjas snuck around in these very spaces supporting the shogun and protecting the emperor. Very cool.

Castle secret passage.

The Gion district is the Geisha district in Kyoto. There are about 130 Geishas left in Japan and 100 of these are in Kyoto (the remaining 30 are in Tokyo). You can walk around in Gion at night looking for Geishas (called Geikos in Kyoto) to come out of the tea houses. They are, however, elusive because they don’t want to be bothered and photographed.

Don’t touch the Geishas…and other rules.

 

She’s 18-years old. She could have started her training at 15. Her parents were shocked and nervous when she told them that she was leaving for Kyoto to train to be a Geisha/ Geiko.

She’ll live as an apprentice for 5 years before deciding to become a Geisha. No cell phones. No dates. No leaving the house of her Geisha “mother” except to work. Hair stays like this for a week between washings. Requires sleeping on small, wooden pillow called a Takamakura. The hair style for the first and second year Maikos are called Wareshinobu. The hair looks different from the third year on. This is one way to know how far along in her training the Maiko is. There are distinct hair stick and kimono designs for each month.

They do their makeup by themselves. The first year Maikos only apply lipstick on their lower lip. After that first year Maikos earn the right to apply lipstick to both the top and bottom lips. When I asked her what skin care products they use, she said, “Nivea.” If I was Beiersdorf Global AG (owner of Nivea), I would jump on that spokesmodel.

Education beyond the required junior high includes dancing, musical instruments, and traditional Japanese entertainment. This is not prostitution.

You want to visit a tea house and have a Geisha/Geiko or apprentice Maiko perform for you? You probably can’t. Gorbachev couldn’t either. You have to be in the know. Best to be Japanese.

They remain Geishas until they decide to marry (if they do decide to marry). It’s their choice. It’s their tradition.

It’s a wonderful human thing to have traditions. I certainly cherish mine. What happens to us when our own traditions are tied to others’ tragedy? What happens when tragedy is tradition? What do we humans do when we no longer have traditions to cling to? Are we witnessing a hint at this answer?

Koyasan

From Kyoto we took a train (maybe several trains) to a cable car and then up to Koyasan. Please do not miss Koyasan. It is a center of Buddhist study and practice, located in the Wakayama Prefecture at an elevation of about 900 meters. Koyasan was a monastery for men, and women were forbidden from entering until 1872.

We stayed in one of the several monasteries. Do this, too. Book here. It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to take your big luggage with you up to Koyasan. The cable car and monasteries are too small. You should ship your big luggage ahead and take a day pack. It’s easy to ship your luggage.

Upon arriving at our monastery, we were fed an amazing, multi-course vegetarian meal (shojin ryori) for dinner. A beautiful breakfast was included the next day. The monks of Koyasan are famous for their white, sesame tofu. I’m on a mission to find this goma dofu at home. It’s made from ground sesame paste, water, and kuzu or kudzu powder. To get it pure white is a tedious task involving something like skinning the sesame seeds.

Outside the monastery where we stayed.

About to enter and eat.

Take off your shoes and wear slippers in every monastery. Take off your slippers before entering any tatami mat. Take off your regular slippers and put on bathroom slippers before going into the bathroom. Don’t accidentally walk out with the bathroom slippers on. It’s considered gross, and you will be laughed at. Trust.

I tried my first onsen. Onsens are traditional Japanese baths/bathing facilities. The baths are communal and althought this was not traditionally the case, they are now separated by gender. Completely wash yourself so that when you get into the bath you’re already clean. The bath is for relaxing, but it’s not entirely relaxing to be naked with a bunch of people if you’re not used to it. If you’re thinking of getting a tattoo, wait until after your trip to Japan because many onsens don’t allow people with tattoos. This might have something to do with the fact that tattoos used to be given to criminals as a form of punishment. Those with tattoos were shunned and not allowed to do wonderful things like bathing with non-criminals in onsens. If you have a small tattoo, you can probably cover it with something or find an onsen that allows people with tattoos.

Most monasteries in Koyasan will let you participate in both a Buddhist morning ceremony and a fire ceremony. Do it! Both ceremonies were fascinating. Lots of props were used (incense, wooden sticks, gongs, drums, brass objects, ash, fire, paper). The chanting is mesmerizing. The head monk at our monastery was very gracious and helpful. His English was slightly better than my Japanese. Only slightly. It’s interesting how most religions infuse spiritual ceremony with the specific use of so many physical objects.

Like almost all of the better photos in this post, photo credit Stephen Saltzman

Okunion Cemetery and Sacred Area in Koyasan is one of the most interesting places I have ever been. This cemetery path to the Kobo Diashi’s mausoleum is lined by hundreds of centuries-old cedar trees and over 200,000 gravestones and memorial pagodas for people ranging from important historical figures to commoners. The Kobo Diashi was a Japanese Buddhist monk who founded the Shingon or “True Word” school of Buddhism. At the top of Okunion is the Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum where the Kobo Daishi remains in eternal meditation. Each day monks bring the Kobo Daishi two ritual meal offerings. Be sure to go all the way to the mausoleum and then go into the basement. The walls of the dark room are lined with thousands of little Buddha statues that have been donated by worshippers. Go during the day and then take a night tour. They are completely different experiences.

Walking along the cemetery, and in other areas throughout Japan, we saw Buddhist statues wearing bibs (Ojizo-sama) Some were red; some were doily-ish and white. The bibs are placed on these statues by grieving parents who have had a child die, in the hopes that it will protect the child in the other world.

Himeji

After our Buddhist morning prayers with the cutest monk I’ve ever seen, we left Koyasan to hop on several trains on our way to Hiroshima. On our way we stopped to see the Himeji Castle. In Himeji, we quickly got off the train and met one of the free volunteer guides. She walked us about a mile to the castle and gave us an excellent history lesson along the way. We then scampered to and around the castle and climbed many steep stairs to the top. If you can’t do stairs, this castle is not optimized for your body. If you can do stairs, plan to spend a few hours in Himeji and find yourself a guide. We learned all sorts of ninja secrets, but I can’t tell you.

The food at train stations blew me away. The bento boxes were works of art. Everything is packaged beautifully. The food was glorious. Get food at the train stations. Although you can’t eat on subways or buses, you can eat on the regular and bullet trains. It’s a bit challenging to find a place to eat at the stations because you’re not supposed to stop and eat against the wall or on a bench like you can in the eat-as-you-go States. Some stations have upper levels where you can eat. Look for these or wait until you’re on the train. Even the convenience store sushi was good. If you’re in a hurry, you can count on 7-Eleven and Lawsons “conveenies” to grab and go. They’re also good for ATM stops when you’re low on cash.

Bullet train

Here’s a question that I have been unable to answer. Maybe you can help. Japan is one of the cleanest places I have ever been. Almost every product is beautifully presented in elaborate packaging. When one unwraps a sweet treat or bento box or assortment of sushi, there is a lot of packaging, but it’s hard to find a place to throw this packaging away. Garbage cans/recycling receptacles are very difficult to find. Japan is an island. Where does it all go?

Hiroshima

Add Hiroshima to your must-go list. We arrived in Hiroshima and used the easy bus system to get to our hotel. Get your Hiroshima tourist pass here. Our hotel, Sunroute Hiroshima, was old, average, and a very short walk to the Peace Park and Museum. Everything looked different in Hiroshima. Even though that was to be expected because the whole city was wiped out by the Atomic bomb on August 6, 1945, the post-war newness was still startling. The one exception to post-war architecture is the Peace Dome (also called the Hiroshima Peace Memorial or the Atomic Bomb Dome or A-Bomb Dome). The Peace Dome is the only building left standing near the bomb’s hypocenter. It’s now a remnant of a building with a skeletal dome.

Photo credit Stephen Saltzman

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park is beautiful and haunting. It is located in what was once the city’s busiest downtown commercial and residential districts. It was built upon an open field that was created by the explosion from the first nuclear attack in history. The Children’s Peace Monument is a statue dedicated to the memory of the children who died as a result of the bombing. Groups of darling children in crisp school uniforms gather at this monument to honor, sing, and donate folded paper cranes. These cranes are sent from around the world to honor the young girl, Sadako Sasaki. Sadako was 2-years old when the bomb was dropped, and she contracted radiation-induced leukemia. She believed that if she folded 1000 paper cranes she would survive. She died before finishing 1000 cranes. Adjacent to the statue is a continuously replenished collection of folded cranes in glass displays. Plan on spending several hours at the Peace Memorial Park.

Also, plan on spending a couple hours at the Peace Memorial Museum. The panoramic-photo of Hiroshima on the day before the bomb is right next to the same scene the day after the bomb. The clock above is stopped at the exact time the bomb landed. As we stood 500 miles from North Korea reading the tweetstorm between Donald Trump and Kim Jung un, I couldn’t help but wish that these dolt-y leaders would shut up and visit this museum.

The bomb’s target was a beautiful bridge, but it was off by a few blocks. Walk these few blocks to the epicenter. It’s right next to a 7-Eleven and is identified by an unassuming marker.

The original Ground Zero.

Miyajima

If you’re able to take the short ferry from Hiroshima and spend a day in Miyajima, do it. It’s considered the Island of the Gods. The most famous spot is the great Torii Gate that stands out in the water in high tide and stands in the sand at low tide. You can see this from the port. Meander through the streets until you find the food vendors. Try the famous grilled oysters at any of the places that offer them. Also try the Momiji Manju. These are the maple leaf shaped pastries that are filled with azuki bean jam. You’ll find them in many places in Miyajima, but not elsewhere in Japan. If you miss Nara you can enjoy the frisky sacred deer roaming free on Miyajima.

Oysters on the way!

The hiking in Miyajima is glorious. You can take the ropeway gondola to the top of Mt Misan, but it was very cloudy when we were there. We also ran out of time. If we had more time, I would have spent a whole day hiking in Miyajima.

Magome-Tsumago

From Hiroshima we took several trains to Tsumago. We then took a harrowing bus ride to our ryokan, Hanaya Tsumago. Ryokans are Japanese style inns. I suggest staying at least one night in a ryokan because they provide an authentic experience that feels close to how I imagine staying in a traditional Japanese home might feel. The ryokan we stayed in was in a small valley village next to the main road to Magome. We had our own room with sliding shoji doors. Every time I slid one door closed so that we could change clothes, I accidentally left a gaping opening in the other end. Maybe I was loopy from buying beer from the vending machine. Our ryokan had shared bathrooms, a communal shower stall area, and a mini onsen. They served a beautiful dinner and a delicious, traditional breakfast.

Ryokan meal after hiking in the rain.

Our big luggage did not join us at the ryokan. We used a service to send our luggage ahead to Tokyo.

Scene from along the hike.

Ringing bells for bears.

The 8 km hike from Magome to Tsumago is breathtakingly beautiful. The billowing clouds created an otherworldly vibe. We walked through an artisan village area. The street of Terashita was where Japan’s first historic preservation movement took hold. After we walked through the town the trail took us through the forest with bamboo trees, big frogs, and little crabs that we had to actively avoid stepping on. As we first approached the forest area, there was a stand with a bell that we were supposed to ring to ward off bears. This was a bit of a surprise, but the handy bells were nicely distributed throughout the forested part of the trail, and they worked. We did not encounter any animals except those frogs and crabs. It was raining during the entire hike, and that part felt like home.

Matsumoto

From the Nagiso station in Tsumago, we took a train to Matsumoto. Matsumoto was developed as a castle town, and the Matsumoto Castle is certainly the highlight of the city. Visit the castle at night because it is beautifully lit and it’s reflected in the moat.

We enjoyed strolling down Nakamachi Street with all the craft shops, cafes, galleries, and places to taste local delicacies. I loved the baked sweet potatoes. Here’s where you want to try handmade soba noodles. They are best served cold on a wooden slatted platter. Dip the noodles in the noodle soupy liquid. Order a side of tempura and be sure to order a fresh wasabi root that you can grind to put on top. The fresh wasabi might have made me too snobby to ever again enjoy that green stuff that we get at most sushi places in the US. If you want to make your own soba, go here.

Stephen Saltzman photo credit of Matsumoto Castle at night

Tokyo

I loved that we ended our tour in Tokyo. If you choose to follow this itinerary, I think that you will appreciate Tokyo even more after you have experienced the history and vibe of the other places in Japan. By the time we arrived in Tokyo, I was ready for the ancient customs to collide and fuse with big city fashion and Hello Kitty. The city that holds tight to tradition and enthusiastically embraces modernity did not disappoint.

There are a lot of great guides to Tokyo so I’m going to focus here on the more esoteric things. If you want to avoid buying a guide book, here’s a good 3-day itinerary from the folks at Japan Rail.

I like fashion so I’ll start my raving about Tokyo with that. There’s the famed Ginza area for high end fashion. Certainly go there and slip over to Dover Street for seven floors of “if-I-won-the-lottery” shopping. At Dover Street we bumped into two guys shopping for a Hollywood celebrity. They were on the phone with the woman, and as one of the guys was tossing tens of thousands of dollars worth of clothing into the arms of the other guy, I could hear the celeb on the other end of the line saying, “Yes. Yes. Yes!” Several articles of clothing would have qualified as modern art. I admit that I vacillated between judgment and envy.

Hint: Even if you’re not into fashion, it’s fun to scan the streets for the future fashion trends. It’s also an often overlooked idea generation tactic. Fashion can provide a peek into a future that can reveal important insights that you could otherwise miss. For example, what do wide-legged pants tell you about the future trends in social media and consumer electronics?

Check out Cat Street for a walking adventure for your eyeballs and fantastic shopping. It’s a long, narrow road that crosses Omote-sando Avenue. There are a few good second hand shops, but you have to look on side streets and be willing and able to climb stairs.

Harajuku is known internationally as the center of Japanese youth culture and fashion. Walk along Takeshita Dori (Street) and the side streets around it. The huge mounds of multi-colored cotton candy and other sweets are nothing special to eat, but they look great when carried around by Harajuku girls. On Takeshita Dori, look for signs for Purikura places. These are themed Japanese photo booths where girls gather in giggling groups to take photos together. Sure the booths offer photos with filters and stickers, but why don’t they just use Snapchat? Don’t be shy. Go down the stairs and check one out. If you’re a guy, make sure you have a female companion with you or it could look creepy.

Throughout Tokyo we saw maid cafes.These cafes are where people (mostly men) go to be complimented and served by women dressed as young girls. Or are they actually girls?

If you want to pay to hear how strong and smart and successful and handsome you are, go to a maid cafe. Supposedly the maids are fashioned after French maids. They were originally designed to cater to the fantasies of fan boys of anime, manga, and video games. In the Akihabara and Shinjuku areas, the streets are crowded with women dressed up in girlish costumes. Maybe they are girls. It’s really hard to tell. They are there to round up visitors for their maid cafe. As boldly as they stand on the street recruiting in their costumes, they do not like having their photos taken. We peeked into a maid café and it was a bit creepy. I snapped a photo (or two) and the guy who seemed like the manager took my phone and deleted the photo.

Maid cafe photo that he missed.

 

Cat cafes are where people pay to go and hang out and pet cats. On a side street we took the elevator up several floors in a bit of a sketchy, old building and peeked into a cat café. We didn’t pay to go in. We also skipped the hedgehog café, although the hedgehogs were temptingly cute. We did go into an owl café. When we walked in we wiped our shoes on the antibacterial mat and then entered the strange room with disco lights, music videos playing, and owls everywhere. Some owls were tethered to perches. Most were not. We were allowed to pet most of the owls. Some had signs saying, “Do not pet.” It was crowded…and weird. It’s probably not a place to go if you’re less curious to see owls up close than you are concerned about animal cruelty.

Inside owl cafe.

The Akihabara area is where you go for manga, anime, and electronics. Step into one of the many pachinko parlors and try to figure out how to play.

In the 1970s, a few of my friends had mechanical pachinko machines. Now there are multi-level electronic pachinko machine parlors all over Tokyo. They smell like casinos smelled before the smoking bans. They are louder than any place I have ever been. In addition to the clanging and casino-like sounds, there is the common female, high-pitched cartoony voice sounds that one hears in the Akihabara and Shinjuku districts and in many stores throughout Tokyo. The only women I saw in the parlor were behind the redemption counter and in sexy cartoon form on the walls.

Out of huge rooms and many floors, there were very few empty machines. I didn’t notice an age restriction, but the demographic appeared to be Japanese men, age 25-65. Most were dressed in the omnipresent dark suit of Japanese salary men. Some were not.

Pachinko balls are like small, steel pinball machine balls. You are not allowed to remove the balls from the parlor to exchange at another parlor. To deter players from taking balls, the parlors have labeled their specific balls. This has resulted in turning balls into collector items.

The player pushes a button (I recall a lever in the mechanical version of my youth), and ball enters the playing field. The playing field is populated by a lots of brass pins and several small catcher cups. The goal is to get the balls to fall into the cups. Each cup is barely the width of the ball. The balls are the bet and the prize. I’m not sure whether pachinko skill is more like a pinball skill or slot machine skill or sort of a combo. Gambling is illegal, and these parlors are only sort of no exception. Tokens are awarded when the little balls are captured. There are exchanges nearby where tokens can be traded in for prizes and alcohol…and for cash. Yakuza, the Japanese mafia, used to run the exchanges. Much like the mafia influence in Los Vegas, this is mostly in the past.

We couldn’t figure out how to play. Our few Japanese phrases were just not sufficient for us to easily navigate the process. I would have been the only non-Japanese person and the only woman playing. In the parlors we visited we were the only tourist-looking people. This didn’t stop us from exploring deeper into the bowels. Maybe the few parlors we visited were not representative. I later learned that video is forbidden, but this was after posting to Instagram.

Stephen and I were approached on the street and asked if we would be willing to be interviewed for a Japanese television show. They were curious about the perspectives about Japan from people from the USA. We answered their questions. They seemed to assume that their sample size of two was representative. We all make this mistake.

One interviewer kept prodding. “But what do you find strange about Japanese culture?” We kept avoiding this question because, well, we wanted to be respectful and not seem judge-y. At least that was my reason. The social media #metoo thing/hashtag trend/movement (what do we call it?) popped into my head. I finally answered that it seems strange for women to dress and act like sexy, little girlies (maid cafes, manga characters, everywhere in Akihabara, etc). It seems strange for men to pay these girlie-women to flirt with and compliment them. It seems strange for cartoons to perpetuate this sexy-girlie thing. I’m all for women being sexy women. This is different. I told the interviewer that it seems like glorifying pedophilia, and that seems strange. He cringed.

This is a tricky thing about traveling and experiencing other cultures. It’s not unique to Japan. We perceive through the lens of our own experiences. Many of us consider morality to be absolute and not subject to the vagaries of culture. But is it? For example, throughout Japan we only saw two people who appeared to be living on the streets in a way that we might refer to them as homeless. They both appeared to be suffering from mental health disorders. What we see is clearly never all that there is, but if there is a problem with homelessness in Japan, we didn’t see it. At home in Portland, the problem of homelessness is an increasingly pervasive travesty that we can’t seem to figure out how to address. How you perceive this cartoon-y, sexy-girlie culture will be determined by your personal lens. My personal lens found it more than a bit uncomfortable.

Binders and sexy cartoons of…women?

Because men can’t stop themselves from groping in overcrowded subways?

From time to time we saw these signs on shops, restaurants, and some Love Hotels (kotaku). I did not find it offensive at all, but I am curious how people would react to signs in the US that said, “Americans only”.

If you’re able to see a sumo tournament, do it. We missed the official season by a few weeks, but I was more excited to see an intimate practice in a regular sumo stable. Do anything in your power to visit a sumo wrestling practice. It is not easy, but with the right planning and a Japanese-speaking friend with Tokyo connections, it is possible. Hire a private guide just for this if you have to. Our guide lives in Tokyo and she called in a personal favor. You usually cannot make these arrangements more than a day ahead, but plan in advance to have a couple of flexible days where you can work it into your schedule. Practices are early in the morning and last a couple of hours. This was one of the most interesting things I’ve ever experienced.

We took the subway and a bus and then walked through a quiet residential neighborhood. I looked down the street and saw this. I knew we had arrived.

This is a sumo stable. The average sumo wrestler starts at 15. Once they join a stable, their life becomes dictated by the rules of sumo. The stable is where the wrestlers live, eat, train and sleep throughout their career – unless they get married, in which case they are allowed to live in an independent dwelling. Their lives are dictated by ritual—what to wear, what to eat, where to live, etc. Their life span is 10 years less than average.

Sumo is a religious ritual entwined with Shinto. It dates back over 1500 years.
Non-Japanese people can become sumos, but they must speak Japanese, and each stable only accepts one non-Japanese wrestler. This one had none. Sumo wrestlers weren’t always fat. They mostly all are now. Because there are no weight classes there is an incentive to get big.

We walked to a stable in a non-descript neighborhood to watch a practice. We were given strict instructions to remove our hats and shoes (of course), not to move around, not to aim our feet toward the stable, not to make any sound, not to take video, not to sit on the big center pillow (thankfully, as one wrestler landed on the pillow inches from me), and not to step anywhere near the ring. Women are never allowed in the ring.

The practice ritual was amazing. The wrestling was intense. They butted heads. There was blood. They swept the dirt floor in a specific way. They raised and slapped their thighs, and clapped at a big wooden post. The sensei was quiet in his instruction. The wrestlers were serious and showed little emotion in their exhaustion.

Going from the frivolity of  Harajuku to this place of ancient sumo culture was mind-blowing. We humans are fascinating and complex.

The Tsujiki Fish Market is a sprawling wholesale market that is slated to close soon. The plan is to relocate the market to make room for the Olympic activities. Earlier plans were delayed because high levels of contaminates were found in the soil at the new location on the manmade island in Tokyo Bay. I was very glad that we were able to experience the market in its current location. To tour the whole fish auction is tricky because they only release two sets of 60 slots each day, and you have to get in line by about 3am to snag a spot. It’s also closed on Sundays and random Wednesdays. Wear sensible shoes because an open-toe style could result in your getting kicked out. Wear warm clothes because it’s cold. We did not go to the auction, because we pressed snooze on the alarm one too many times. We did tour the fish market and outer markets, and I highly recommend this.

We also ate the most incredible sushi and sashimi that I have ever tasted.

By the time we got to Tokyo, we had seen so many amazing temples and shrines that I was getting them mixed up in my mind. If your brain is at all mushy like mine, don’t let that stop you from visiting the beautiful temples in Tokyo. I particularly loved the Senso-ji Temple and all the wonderful vendors that surround that temple in what’s referred to as, Temple City. These are the top temples and shrines in Tokyo.

We probably visited more museums than we would have if the weather had not been so wet gearing up for the typhoon. I like museums, but my preference is to explore and poke around to get a more raw sampling of undocumented life. Museum enjoyment is personal, and some travelers feel obligated to check certain museums off their list. We enjoyed the museums that we did visit, but I wouldn’t present any as must-see. Follow your own curiosity. I tend to enjoy modern art museums. One unexpected bonus of slipping into a modern art museum because of the rain, was this incredible night view from atop the Mori Art Museum. 

Photo credit Stephen Saltzman, of course.

If you’re not a lover of department stores, I don’t blame you. But…don’t skip the department stores in Shinjuku. Go downstairs in Isetan on an empty stomach, and prepare to be amazed.

For part of the time we were in Tokyo we stayed near Jimbocho. The most fascinating thing about this rarely tourist-touted area are the hundreds of little bookstores. Poke around. If there are stairs inside, climb them and reward yourself with all kinds of art and antiquities that others miss.

Try one of the many restaurants where you order in kiosks at the front. Choose your food from the photos, put in your money, take your ticket, and sit down and wait. Most of the time we thought we knew what we were ordering, but not every time. I don’t think that we accidentally ate horse, but it was often on the menu so I’m not entirely sure.

Two of the more fascinating street areas to visit at night are Piss Alley and Golden Gai. Both are in Shinjuku. Piss Alley, also referred to as Memory Lane, was the location for street vendors and black market traders. It then became a drinking den of narrow alleys and tiny bars. Both provide tiny glimpses of old Tokyo. Golden Gai is the old red light district, and it doesn’t feel like it has entirely left its past behind. It consists of six tiny, dimly lit alleys lined by hundreds of tiny bars. The buildings are old and only a few feet wide. Each bar has a different vibe and different clientele. Many of the bars only serve regulars so you’ll have to look for signs that say, “foreigners welcome.” Many have a steep set of stairs leading to places that I’m dying to discover. Rumor has it that Golden Gai provided inspiration for Blade Runner. I believe it. Piss Alley comes alive a bit earlier so start there for yakitori and shochu or beer. Go to Golden Gai after 9pm. In any other city you would probably have your high-alert brain turned up to ten, but not so much in these mysterious alleys.

The kitchy side of Tokyo is in full force for all the tourists that flock to the Robot Restaurant. We flocked like the tourists we were…and we enjoyed every silly bit of it. Embrace your inner tourist, swig a bevvie, and give yourself a treat. If you do decide to go, don’t skip the bathroom.

Guess who took this photo. Yeah, Stephen.

Getting around Tokyo is interesting. The subway system is the largest and busiest in the world, but it’s easy to navigate once you get the hang of it. The JR system has separate stations connected underground to the regular subway system. The regular subway system has two operators, Tokyo Metro and Toei subway, operating 13 lines. Pay attention to the tickets you buy because the JR doesn’t work for the other operators. Changing lines can require long walks underground, but there’s so much underground to see, eat, and buy that you just might love it.

At almost every single restaurant we visited, great American jazz music was playing. This was not your typical Muzak, but rather really great jazz. While we were in Tokyo, we tried to go to a jazz club, but the one we traveled an hour to go to in Roponggi Hills had been replaced by a steak house. We ran out of time to go elsewhere. If you’re a jazz lover, your meals will provide you with a pleasant surprise.

As a random point of interest, this is the same wanted poster that we saw all over Japan.

I did visit a large police station because I lost my driver’s license. I was told that if someone found it, they would likely take the time to turn it into the police. The large police station was clean, quiet, orderly, and seemingly low tech. Our wonderful guide took me and acted as my interpreter. The official wrote everything down on a piece of paper that he filed in a paper folder. At no time did I see him touch a keyboard. My license never showed up, but I was amazed that anyone thought that it would. Perhaps they thought this because Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world.

This brings me to another curiosity about Japan. The low crime rate is another indication of a culture that is respectful of laws. We often waited with Japanese pedestrians for several long minutes at an intersection where I could not see a single car. While the light said not to cross, we did not cross. That was orderly and pleasant. It felt civilized. When there were no cars in sight, waiting for the light to signal that it was okay to cross also felt unnecessary to me. The right balance of respect, compliance, and conformity is subjective. These little experiences provide great insights for understanding different cultures. So often we ignore these differences at our peril.

Orderliness and cleanliness go side-by-side.

Our adventure ended at the international terminal in the Haneda Airport in Tokyo where I scampered over to a money exchange to swap out yen for US dollars. I had a pocket full of change that I either had to spend or take home and put in our foreign coins spittoon. Leaving the money exchange, I saw people looking at their handful of coins like, “What do I do with these?” Some people went to the store and bought candy. Other travelers dropped their coins into their wallets to be sorted and put with their foreign coin collection at home. Still others dropped the coins on the floor in front of the TSA scanner. They literally dropped the money on the floor.

Traveling not only provides adventure, prospective, and insights, it can also be a tremendous idea generator. I like to look for problems to solve. It’s one of my favorite curiosity exercises.

Here’s one idea that I had at the airport in Tokyo: What if we created a system to collect all the coins that people cannot exchange back into their own country currency? International travelers would donate their foreign coins at the airport. Maybe the collection device would look like a pachinko machine so it would be fun to drop in the coins. A large, international bank could partner with a large, international foundation to coordinate. What if we used these coins to create an international charity to do universally amazing things for humans? Can you think of a cause that would have universal appeal? Is there anything that we humans can all agree on?

People asked if this trip to Japan was for business or pleasure. The answer is that it was for both. It was a Curiosity Quest. Curiosity Quests are unique travel adventures. Are you curious to join a Curiosity Quest? What do you do when you’re curious?