Exploring Japan felt a little like playing a video game. With every turn, it was like I’d made it to the next level, whether I was walking past a vending machine that sells hats for cats in Osaka, encountering Hello Kitty traffic barriers in Tokyo, or trying to follow the rules of the free-range monkey park in Kyoto.
When I try to explain the wonderment of exploring Japan, it’s the little things that keep coming up, some preserved in the form of the text messages shared in quotes below. Those snapshots helped guarantee that I would remember the tiny details that made every moment feel like a discovery.
“So. Much. Fake. Food.”: It started with a crepe stand. My husband and I spotted the first one, in the bustling Harajuku shopping district in Tokyo, not just because it was Pepto-Bismol pink but also thanks to the brightly lit displays of fake crepes that lined its walls. One with strawberries and whipped cream. One with strawberries and whipped cream and ice cream. One with blueberries and whipped cream and a slice of cheesecake. The crepe stand had fake versions of everything on its menu. We would come to find that almost every restaurant we passed did the same. A ramen restaurant had faux bowls of the noodles it offered; a Japanese curry restaurant showcased plates with simulated pools of the brown stuff. At first, the elaborate displays seemed bizarre. But we were grateful when we realized how easy the fake food makes it for people from all over the world to choose a restaurant and place an order without knowing Japanese. I felt even more gratitude when I learned I could buy fake food and bring it home! There are a handful of shops in the Asakusa area of Tokyo that are dedicated to selling nothing but that. I stocked up for Christmas gifts, keeping a fish-roe magnet and a tuna-roll keychain for myself.
“Bullet train!”: The bullet trains — or shinkansen — are famous for their speed (they go up to nearly 200 mph) and punctuality. A few months before our trip, one made headlines by leaving the station 25 seconds early. Because you can usually set your watch by the train, it was a big deal; heartfelt apologies were made. For our trip, we purchased a Japan Rail Pass, which gave us seven days of access for $259. The futuristic-looking vehicles zipped us from Tokyo to Kyoto in about 2 hours, 40 minutes and from Kyoto to Osaka in under a half-hour. The ride was a nice way to relax, get an occasional glimpse of the Japanese countryside (at least, between Tokyo and Kyoto) and appreciate the efficiency of high-speed train travel. By the way, our trains were all right on time.
“Insanely delicious meat.”: A friend suggested that if we were to splurge on one meal in Japan, we should make it a steak meal. And splurge we did — to the tune of about $500 for the two of us — on a decadent Kobe beef dinner at Mouriya Gion in Kyoto. There, the host led us to two spots at a counter and introduced us to our chef, who would prepare our meal teppanyaki-style. We selected two cuts (filet and sirloin) of A5, which is the highest grade of the finest beef, and then watched as our chef cooked the artfully marbled meat in front of us, cooking four bite-size pieces at a time — two for each of us — and then plating it with vegetables and garlic rice. Before this meal, we’d had incredible sushi, amazing ramen and fantastic dumplings in Tokyo and Kyoto. But now, all of a sudden, it felt like we’d wasted so many meals by not seeking out this beef. We made it a goal to have beef wherever we could find it, and find it we did, in Osaka, our next stop, where we had it grilled and even fried and served on sticks, a method of cooking called kushikatsu.
“Soft cream after soft cream after soft cream.”: The ice cream. By God, the ice cream! In Kyoto, we found a stall at the enormous, food-filled Nishiki Market that served black vanilla ice cream (also known as soft cream). We squeezed into a tiny corner in the stall — you’re not allowed to walk and eat there, and they take that rule very seriously — and shared a cone that turned our tongues charcoal. In the restaurant-filled Dotonbori area of Osaka, I found a stand that had cones reminiscent of those thin, rolled Pirouline cookies. The soft vanilla ice cream was advertised as 35 percent milk fat (yum) and described as “graceful form with a high class appearance” (true). We went back multiple times. And on a day trip to Nara, a town about an hour’s train ride from Osaka, where more than 1,000 deer freely wander the streets, we paid a little extra to get a cone of vanilla ice cream from Hokkaido, a Japanese island famous for its high-quality milk. As we ate it, those deer stared longingly at our cones.
“Every animal cafe imaginable.”: In Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, my husband and I passed owl cafes, mameshiba cafes (housing a type of dog), cat cafes, rabbit cafes, a goat cafe, an alpaca cafe, snake cafes and hedgehog cafes. We only set foot inside of one: the hedgehog cafe in the Asakusa neighborhood in Tokyo, to see what the phenomenon was all about. With the purchase of a drink, we were given 10 minutes with a hedgehog, which was presented in a small, rectangular box that had a miniature couch, a wheel, a swing and a tiny palm tree. As the poor little creature, with its heart-shaped nose, tried to hide under the couch, it was quite clear that he had no interest in making our acquaintance. We spent the next nine minutes trying not to scare him and catching him with our gloved hands when he angled to escape from the box. We didn’t feel good about ourselves when we left, and it squelched any possible thought of visiting any of the other types of animal cafes.
“The $40 strawberries looked handcrafted.”: The strawberries look like works of art in Japan, and they’re priced accordingly — to the tune of around $40 for 15 strawberries at some stores. We first admired them in the basement of a mall in Tokyo, where the food offerings blew our mind. (If you’re in Japan and hungry, just head to the food court in a mall and you’ll find dozens of counters serving more than you ever imagined and it’s all amazing.) Then we encountered more of them in different food markets for similar prices. Finally, in Nara, my husband found a relative bargain and spent about $15 on a pack of 12. We savored each one. They tasted like candy.
“Parade of insanity.”: In Kyoto, we stayed in a ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese inn. It was evening when we arrived at Seikoro Ryokan, and as we entered from a dark alley, a cortege was immediately upon us, enthusiastically greeting us in Japanese and wildly gesturing about — something. It took a moment to understand they were telling us to take off our shoes and put on slippers. It was the start of an elaborately choreographed evening that involved a lengthy sequence of courses served by a kimono-clad attendant in our room. The meal was followed by massages, which were performed by two older people (a man for me and a woman for my husband) with hands as hard as walnut shells. Afterward we slept — soundly — on futons laid out on tatami mats.
That sensation of being swept up in a (fast-moving) parade characterized much of our visit. It was there in the overwhelming crush of nearly 12,000 shockingly orderly people crossing the street at the same time at the famous “Shibuya scramble” traffic crossing in Tokyo. And in the endless procession of vending machines on the streets, where you can find hot soup, beer and even costumes for your cat. It’s what it felt like to explore Don Quijote in Osaka, a general store where we lost hours winding up and down aisles across six floors, looking at things such as snack packs of crunchy dried crabs; KitKats of every imaginable flavor (sweet potato! red pepper!); and a mind-blowing array of surgical masks. The succession of new, shiny objects was dizzying.
I wanted a giant pause button I could press so the world around me would stop. As it turns out, I really needed 26 — the letter keys on my phone — to do it.
Silver is a writer based in Chicago. Find her on Twitter: @K8Silver.
More from Travel:
If you go
Where to stay
467 Nishitachibana-cho, Kyoto
This traditional Japanese inn dates back to 1831. Guests sleep on futons atop tatami floor mats and soak in wooden bathtubs. Service goes above and beyond: an attendant will bring a multicourse dinner and breakfast to your room, and there’s also an on-site public bath. Rooms start at about $300.
Where to eat
7-1 Yamatocho, Yamato Ojitori 4-jo Kudaru, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
This high-end teppanyaki steakhouse has 34 seats and guests get to watch their own chef cook Kobe beef — along with vegetables and rice — to absolute perfection. Kobe beef dinners range from about $50 to $160 per person, not including beverages.
What to do
Iwatayama Monkey Park
8 Arashiyama Genrokuyama-cho, Nishikyo-ku, Kyoto
The payoff for a 20-minute hike up a fairly steep hill is a park filled with free-range Japanese macaques, a.k.a. snow monkeys. You can feed them for a small fee, or just stand back and take it all in. But follow the rules and don’t make eye contact — they don’t like that. Tickets are around $5 for adults and around $2 for kids 5 to 14.
7-13 Muneonemoncho-cho, Chuo Ward, Osaka
If Don Quijote doesn’t have it, you might not really need it. You can find these general stores, packed with toiletries, cosmetics, food, appliances, toys and even costumes (sometimes including costumes for pets) in a number of cities around Japan. The six-level, 24-hour Don Quijote Dotonburi is in the Chuo Ward of Osaka.