Tokyo + Kyoto, Japan: My Top 10 Experiences

by tatiana on July 12, 2012

Buddhist Shrine in Kyoto

I got back to the states from Japan just days ago two months ago (yeah… it took me a while to get this post published!). Anyway, just like my last trip abroad, I’ve put together a countdown of my top 10 experiences in Japan. Since I spent time in both Tokyo and Kyoto, they’re jumbled together in this list.

10. Host Boys and Kabukicho

Host Boys of Kabukicho in Shinjuku

My friend and I had a bunch of goals when we were planning our trip, one of which was to stay in affordable hotels, but still have access to fun parts of town. Naturally that led us to Kabukicho (known for its love hotels and host & hostess clubs). No, we’re not pervs, but it was a really fun neighborhood to stay in. Very busy, and very different from anything I’ve experienced. Who would’ve known the red light district would be so safe and un-intimidating!? Also, if you’d like to learn more about Japanese host boys, I highly recommend this documentary: The Great Happiness Space.

9. Karaoke

Karaoke in Shinjuku

Because, duh. It was significantly cheaper than the private box karaoke rooms in SF… so of course we had to go more than once. Of course. Also, I need to add that I got super home sick when we were singing a song that featured video footage of Fisherman’s Wharf.

8. Vending Machines

Vending Machines in Japan

It’s true what they say about the vending machines in Japan… they are everywhere and they are AWESOME. The one pictured above is not a TRUE vending machine, but it was just the way to order a meal in an eatery. You choose your meal, put your money in the machine, give your ticket to the lady… and then you get your meal! Sometimes I’m all about limited human interaction.

7. Handmade Culture

Pottery being painted by hand in Kyoto

Fans, Handmade in Kyoto

We went on a really great 5 hour walking tour in Kyoto and learned that the handmade culture is still going strong in Kyoto. It’s just a way of life that hasn’t changed much (although our tour guide was telling us that all of the young people were fleeing Kyoto to move to Tokyo and work in more corporate fields, which seemed to concern him). I appreciated the focus and attention to detail; it was really great to watch the experts at work.

6. Public Transportation

Public Transportation in Japan

What can I say? Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a big fan of public transportation… especially clean, efficient and FAST public transportation. We mostly took the JR line when we were in Tokyo, and then took the Shinkansen (bullet train) when we went to Kyoto (about a 2 1/2 hour trip). It was pretty affordable, although it probably would have been a little cheaper had we purchased a pass. Oh! Also, fun fact: in Kyoto we took a bus — on the buses there you board in the back and then pay at the front when you exit. Topsy-turvy!

5. Buddhist and Shinto Shrines

Shrines of Kyoto

On the previously mentioned walking tour in Kyoto, we saw a handful of shrines. Our guide took us to the smaller, local shrines because he wanted us to see “where the people of Kyoto really go to pray.” At the end of our tour, we didn’t feel the need to go to the bigger shrines that attract tourists… also we were pretty tired from walking around for 5 hours.

4. LGBTQ Bars and Shinjuku Ni-Chome

LGBT Bars in Shinjuku Ni-Chome

My pal and I decided to take advantage of the many great night spots of Shinjuku (Golden Gai was another great one that didn’t quite make this list!). We glammed up and moseyed over to Shinjuku Ni-Chome to check out the scene. What we discovered was… not matter which country you’re in and what language is primarily spoken there, the gays will ALWAYS know the lyrics to the new Madonna song. Fact. We had so much fun.

3. Feeling Safe Everywhere

Safety First!

We were in Japan for 11 days and I can only think of two instances where I felt unsafe… which is pretty good considering how I encounter questionable people who make me uncomfortable every day here in San Francisco. Everyone in Japan was super polite, and really respected your personal space (at least in my experience). My friend and I would get home at 2am and have to walk through alleys to get to our hotel — not once did we feel uneasy. I really loved that about Japan.

2. The Shopping in Harajuku + Shibuya

McDonalds in Harajuku

I know this section is about the shopping in Harajuku and Shibuya (which was a lot of fun), but I want to take this opportunity to talk about the McDonalds that recently opened in Harajuku and how freakin’ cute their outfits are. Look at those berets! Talk about a fancy dining experience. We went to McDonalds a few times during the trip for a quick iced coffee or a cheap lunch. It was always super clean and seemed like kind of a hip place to be eating. The food also tasted cleaner than in the states, which was nice I guess.

1. The Food

Omurice in Kyoto

The best part of my trip was basically every time I ate. Seriously. Some of the amazing things I ate: omurice (pictured above), okonomiyaki, ramen, and a plethora of curry and beef bowls. And onigiri. Oh, onigiri, how I love thee. Everything was delicious and reasonably priced. Also, everything felt super clean (even though I did eat my fair share of curries and chicken karage). Loved it loved it.

Bonus: Attending Tokyo’s 1st Pride Celebration EVER

Tokyo Rainbow Pride 2012

Two weeks or so before we left for our trip, a friend told us that we’d be in Tokyo during their pride celebration, so OF COURSE we had to go. Being from San Francisco, a huge pride celebration is not only natural, but it is mandatory and it is always a good time. So we showed up, we walked in the parade, we cheered and danced. What we didn’t know until an English-speaking gent sat down next to us, was that we were at the very FIRST pride celebration EVER in Tokyo. Kind of amazing right? We thought so!

All in all, especially now that I’ve written about my trip and am craving some pork onigiri, Japan was an incredible experience. It was a bit frustrating navigating a country where neither of us understood or spoke the language, but after a few days, it wasn’t as frustrating. We learned how to get around and were really grateful for everyone who answered our questions (or tried to answer our questions). I absolutely fell in love with Japan and can’t wait to go again.

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