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  • Writer's picturevanlafaxine

week 44: japan - tokyo, kyoto


bill: after 24 hours of travelling, we are finally in tokyo! tokyo is an absolutely massive city, the most populous metropolis in the world at 37 million people (basically all of canada in one city). tokyo itself isn’t actually even a city, it is a prefecture, which is basically a province, but is composed of many, many smaller cities so densely packed it may as well be one continuous city.

Amy: We landed in the late afternoon, but it took us time to get oriented, pass through customs, buy our transit card, and take the metro, so we didn’t end up getting to our hotel in Ginza until about 7pm. It was a shoebox but had the most amazing toilet with a heated seat and MANY bidet options. We were exhausted, but headed out for some dinner at a local ramen shop. We were the only westerners in the place. The eating culture is very different here, many restaurants expect you to order, eat quickly and in total silence - no music, no chatting - and leave, so they can make room for others as quickly as possible. Everyone slurped their noodles in silence, and we did the same.


bill: first impressions of tokyo: i was bracing for at least some degree of culture shock, anticipating that maybe things would be a little more crowded, loud, hot, smoggy, smokey, and chaotic for my north american sensibilities, but it is almost the opposite; tokyo is wildly clean, organized, modern, and quiet, way moreso than any north american city. walking around on the street, there is literally no litter, the roads are completely spotless, no gum, no cigarette butts. everyone walking on the street is quiet and respectful and walks uniformly on the proper side of the road (the left), and despite the millions of people on the streets, it never feels messy or chaotic. you can be in an extremely busy area and turn one corner and be in absolute silence. japan is also extremely safe, there is next to no petty crime, pickpockets, etc. despite the massive crowds. there is also very little traffic in tokyo thanks to the effective subway system and therefore no car horns and very few idling engines and smog. the subway system is amazing, twice as fast as driving anywhere and always on time. a subway car can be crammed full of people, and everyone is silent and polite. there is also essentially zero homelessness in japan thanks to surprisingly progressive social policy (a shock for a long time conservative government) and extremely harsh drug laws (not a suprise). overall very different, but not at all what i was expecting.

Amy: A super fun, uniquely Japanese phenomenon: stellar convenience stores, aka kombinis. 7- Elevens are literally everywhere and they have a huge selection of snacks and surprisingly good pre-made food - sandwiches, onigiri, sushi, and bottled hot beverages (tea and coffee!). If you asked me if I'd ever eat an egg salad sandwich from a convenience store the answer would be heck no - except in Japan. I’m stoked we can get a cheap delicious meal at any time on just about every street corner. 

hot green tea from the hot beverage fridge at the 7/11

7/11 onigiri - a rice ball wrapped in seaweed paper stuffed with fish - we basically lived off these things


kando temple



Amy: We did a walking tour which started in Akihabara, then we visited the Kando Shrine, where we learned that there are two main types of cultural/religious buildings in Japan: the shinto shrines (which always have a tori gate you walk through before entering) and Buddhist temples. It seems many people aren’t too picky about which they go to, it's more of a cultural practice. We gave a coin offering at one of the shrines, and watched families gather together in their Sunday best. All the kids were wearing tiny kimonos - so cute!

The next stop was the Amayoko shopping district, aka Candy Lane, which used to a black market destination for candy brought over by US soldiers post-WWII. We ended the tour at Ueno Park, a huge green space where folks were picnicking and hanging out. For lunch, we tried monjayaki, Tokyo’s version of okonomiyaki (a creamy cabbage pancake) with a melted cheese-like consistency, filled with cod roe and shiso butter. Eventually, we walked to Asakusa to see Nakamise-Dori Street and Senso-ji, the oldest temple in Tokyo. By the time we arrived (around 5pm) the sun had set. The street leading up to the temple was a bustling night market adorned with glowing paper lanterns and fall decor. The temple towered at the end of the laneway, illuminated bright red against the night sky. After exploring the temple and market, we got some dinner at one of the many izakayas (basically a bar, but roughly translates to 'stay drink place'). This was my favourite neighbourhood in Tokyo - lots of people out and about, drinking on outdoor patios with their friends. 

that is a lot of cod roe - this goes in the monja

monjayaki - basically meant to be scraped off the griddle and eaten with a spatula

strawberry candy

izikaya sashimi

bill: the weather is pretty perfect: t shirt and pants in the day, sweater at night. it never really gets much below freezing in tokyo even in dec/jan and the summers are sweltering but everyone still wears suits.

tori gate

asakusa night market


senso-ji temple

bill: one of the things that japan is famous for is denim. introduced by the american soldiers during the post-war occupation, japan has been obsessed ever since and has massively refined and perfected the art of making jeans. i have always wanted to buy a pair but pants are very hard to try on on the internet, so the next morning we headed to the shibuya fashion district to go to momotaro, a raw denim shop. essentially everyone in tokyo is extremely well dressed, like wildly so, a massive shock after spending so much time in america. this also does come with pretty rampant consumerism, but for a historically thriving economy with low cost of living and no need for car payments, i suppose it makes sense. dressing well is also a form of showing respect for others, and is therefore important.

Amy: The following day we went to see the Shibuya Scramble - the largest multi-directional street crossing in the world. This neighbourhood was packed with thousands of people, very overwhelming. We found a tasty katsu shop for lunch (fried pork, shrimp and veggies over rice). Next, we walked over to Harajuku to see Takeashita Square, which was essentially another huge shopping district. It also had every type of pet cafe you could imagine—for the price of a coffee you could hang out with cats, dogs, otters, owls, even pigs. This didn't sit super well with me so we kept walking and found a quiet park with koi fish. A nice breather from the crowds. The next neighbourhood we wanted to explore was Shinjuku - we had scheduled a nighttime free walking tour! We had a few hours to kill, so we stopped by a federal government building where they have a free (!!) observation deck 45 floors up. We watched the sun set over the city/mountains, and stayed to see the Tokyo city lights flicker on after dusk. Very cool.


bill: we made our way up to shinjuku, home to the busiest train station in the world, with 3.6 million people passing through each day. the surrounding area is home to a huge number of restaurants, bars, and a red light district. we booked another walking tour to learn a little more about the area. our tour guide showed us where to get yakatori (bbq) in a very cool historic alleyway (omoide yokocho), and an ancient series of alleys called golden gai full of 4-8 seat bars where both locals and tourists drink side by side. we ate, we drank, we just barely made the last train home, which runs at midnight, otherwise you are stuck sleeping/singing/drinking at an all night karaoke bar until first train at 0500.

okatu: aka "nerds"

omoide yokocho


tiny bars - many of which are well lit for some reason?

golden gai

Amy: The next day, we woke up early to squeeze in one more Tokyo activity - the Tsjuki fish market! We ate tons of street food including: bbq unagi (eel!), a Japanese egg sandwich (sweet omelette), strawberry chocolate mochi, fresh fatty tuna sushi, red bean dango (rice balls), and a monja croquette with spicy sauce. There’s definitely a lot more to see in Tokyo, but that's all the time we had! Onwards to Kyoto.

egg sandwich

monja croquette topped with spicy roe mayo

red bean and butter dango (chewy rice flour ball)

strawberry chocolate mochi (a different chewy rice ball)

varying levels of fatty tuna, real wasabi


kobe beef yakatori ($80cad per stick - we did not have any)

bill: one of the weirdest things about japan is the complete absence of trash cans. due to concerns over terrorist attacks in the 90s, all of the public trash cans were removed, and now there is nowhere to throw out your trash. somehow this does not translate to any litter on the street, but i am not sure how? it is also very annoying when you are eating lots of things that come on sticks or in wrappers like at the fish market.

bill: tokyo is one of the only major metropolitans in the world at the world right now not experiencing a housing crisis. this is multi factorial obviously, but a major driving factor is that tokyo is generally called a “yimby” city. the general consensus of the population is that densification is good for everyone, and hey, look at that, they reap the benefits: extremely effective cheap reliable public transportation, endless local restaurants and bars that are affordable, delicious, and busy, and non-crisis level housing supply, which is actually in surplus at the moment.

one of the most impressive things about tokyo is that we as westerners assume that if you build a massive city with millions of people, there are always going to be weirdos doing weird stuff on the street, trash, homelessness, graffiti, crime, basically everything that makes new york city new york city. but tokyo is about 3 times the size of nyc and there is nothing of the like. the force of a culture of respect for others seems to be very powerful force. so is embarrassment; there are signs everywhere that say things like “don’t run for your train, it is embarrassing”. it is very weird to be in a city of that size and be walking through a dark alley without even the slightest concern, because there isn’t someone there with a knife waiting to jump you, there is probably a cool izikaya somewhere back there. even in canada, which is relatively safe, when you are walking downtown on the street at night and someone is coming the other way, you put up a little bit of a guard because you never know, but in tokyo, there is no need. a very cool experience.


Amy: We took the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto. Total distance: 475 km (roughly the distance between Ottawa and Toronto). Total time: a mere 2 hours! Though we were travelling around 300kph at some points, we could barely feel the train move. In Kyoto, we took a few hours to relax at our hotel (the nicest - and cheapest accommodation we've had yet).

v nice room at the hachi inn

bill: kyoto is a much smaller city, the previous capital of japan, with a population of only 3 million. it is widely called the cultural capital of the country, with many temples and shrines, as well as theatres, and thousands of restaurants and bars. many of the streets are small alleys running in every direction, full of multiple stories of restaurants and bars, with thousands and thousands of people walking around every night. it feels quaint and homey, but still very clean and organized.

chicken and soy sauce ramen

Amy: We woke up early the next day to visit one of the main attractions in Kyoto: Fushimi Inari - a Shinto shrine with more than 10,000 red Tori gates lining a path up Mount Inari. We woke up at 6:30am to get there as early as possible, but even by 8 it was completely swarmed with people. About 30,000 people walk through this shrine in a single day. We split away from the crowd down a less travelled trail and stumbled upon a bamboo forest, an old mossy shrine and a wood carvers’ workshop. The woodworker invited us in and showed us his work. He carves everything from tiny thumbnail sized figurines to larger statues a few feet tall. As we sat in his studio, the man spoke about his work, the shrine, and the significance of foxes (there are a ton of fox statues throughout the shrine, because they protect the crops - specifically rice aka inari - from rodents). We bought a little memento, Then continued on our way. On the way down, we ate a bunch more street foods: croquette, Inari sushi, a cheese coin and matcha ice cream!

woodcarver's studio

at the base of the mountain there is a large street food vendor setup to feed the 10s of thousands of tourists that come through the shrine everyday. we got some cheese coins, some matcha ice cream, some inari sushi, and some more croquettes. super good.

cheese coin - basically a pancake stuffed with mozzarella

matcha ice cream

in the afternoon we went to explore the other temples of kyoto, along with a massive unbelievable crowd of people. not everyone at these places is necessarily a foreigner, there are lots of japanese tourists and school groups. the pagoda is cool, but the crowds are starting to get to me, so we headed back into town to get ready for dinner.

these schoolkids wanted to practice their english with us - or they just wanted a picture of white people, not sure

bill: yesterday we saw a massive line of locals out front of a sushi shop, so we got there today half an hour before it opened and still barely made it into the first seating. omikase is a popular style of dining here, essentially a set menu prepared for you piece by piece by the chef right in front of you. i looked at the menu and did not think that 8 pieces of nigiri sushi would be enough food me at all, but it turns out that nigiri in japan is a totally different ballgame. the pieces of fish on top of the rice were so big that they barely fit in your mouth, for one course i had a half a foot long piece of eel on a tiny ball of sushi rice. the fish was all super fresh (and i even liked the uni (sea urchin), which i normally don’t go for) and well prepared, and the experience of sitting on the floor right at a sushi counter was super cool. we left super full, well worth it.

how are these supposed to be eaten in one bite?

unagi, fatty tuna (excellent)

finished our last night in kyoto with a sake tasting - extremely good, complex, fruity stuff

overall, we have had a blast in tokyo and kyoto, we wish that we had more time to explore the nooks and crannies of each, but it is time to keep moving on to nara and osaka! there is so much to love about japan but so little time.

no video this week because i am going to make one big (in) japan video

1 commentaire

Chris Forsyth
Chris Forsyth
01 déc. 2023

love it




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