There’s a place on the other side of this world that is like no other, where you can find any assortment of oddities inside a vending machine around the street corner; where the mishmash of old and new can collide at a single moment in time; where the largest metropolitan population in the world aggregate to miraculously form a clean, safe, orderly chaos; and where those people are egregiously well-mannered, serviceable, and prideful of their craftsmanship and work.
That place is Japan.
A country whose culture is so rich and deep, that it’s as known for its shrines, zen gardens and castles as it is for its capsule hotels, cuddle cafes, and anime. For these reasons and many more, Japan’s been on my bucket list for almost a decade. With only 8 days and 3 of our closest friends to explore it, Sam and I only got a small cross-section of it, but we left with our hearts and bellies full, and ache to return one day!
While Sam is working on a comprehensive travel guide based on our activities, in this post, I cover some of my personal favourite experiences from the 8-day trip, hitting only the highlights and most memorable parts. Enjoy!
Favourite Tokyo Experience: Meguro River
While most of Tokyo screams “bright lights, big city”, surprisingly my favourite experience in the megacity was a slice of tranquility that we found along the Meguro River. We picked the perfect time to visit — right after the Cherry Blossom Festival (which draws thousands of locals and tourists alike) but still in time for the cherry blossoms to be near full bloom.
I don’t think I understood the appeal of cherry blossoms until then, but the Meguro River made me a believer. That night, illuminated by the street lights that lined the sides of the walkway, we bore witness to the gentle gusts of wind releasing showers of pink petals into the path and river below, and it was enchanting, poetic, and made me feel all the feels.
Favourite Kyoto Experience: Japanese Monkey Park in Arashiyama
The first thing we noticed when we arrived at Arashiyama was how vast and expansive it is. A friend told us the night before that we’d need at least half a day to explore it, but I didn’t believe her until I arrived there myself.
As soon as we got off at Arashiyama Station, we were greeted by the endless woody mountains, bamboo forests, flowing rivers, cherry blossoms, and ancient temples and shrines ahead. All of which were spectacular, but the thing that really caught our eyes was the mountaintop Arashiyama Iwatayama Monkey Park, where Japanese macaque snow monkeys roamed open and free! Me and Sam both love monkeys, so we were game!
The monkey park was situated atop a 20-minute hike up the mountain, which took us to a vantage point 525 feet above sea level. The vantage point gave way to an unobstructed view of everything from Kyoto Tower to the Kyoto Mountains, but our eyes didn’t have time to linger, because the rambunctious and mischievous monkeys were too much for us to ignore!
There were monkeys of all temperaments and lifestyles. We saw young ones play-fighting each other, others snagging fruit snacks off visitors, mothers nursing babies, elderly monkeys resting and napping in the pockets of shade, and every now and then, the park staff would interact with select monkeys as if they were old friends.
The monkey park was nothing compared to zoo experiences I’ve had. These monkeys were clearly happy, energetic, joyous and free, and I guarantee you’ll have bundles of fun with them!
Favourite Osaka Experience: Gastronomic Escapade in Dotonbori
After having experienced the hustle and bustle of Tokyo and the ancient elegance of Kyoto, Osaka was by far the least touristy city and a nice breathe of fresh air. The day we arrived, we were pretty beat and it was pouring like a mother outside, but we had heard that Osaka was the food capital of Japan, and it was Sam’s last night, so we weren’t letting anything stop us!
We booked it to Dotonbori and started on our gastronomic escapade. Within a couple of hours, we had whet our palettes with sushi, takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and yakisoba. Sam had intended to save his 5th stomach for one last bowl of ramen, but even he had to call it quits.
By the time we emerged at the end of a night of feasting, we found that most shops were still open and the area was still bustling! Dotonbori was an endless labyrinth of main streets, side streets, and alleyways, so we simply picked a direction and started walking. The window shopping opportunities were endless, and we ended up picking up everything from midnight snacks to souvenirs, and spent a good portion of the night people-watching (once again: so nice to not be surrounded by tourists!). Dotonbori’s really got a lot to offer, but I think ultimately, it’ll be your stomach that guides you back.
Best Meal: Kagari Ramen
Speaking of stomachs, I can’t write a post about Japan without talking about food. I thought it’d be hard to pick the single best meal I had in Japan, but as it turned out, I had no problem because the best meal I had on the trip may very well have been the best meal of my life.
Kagari Ramen, top of Sam’s “must-try” list, is an 8-seater joint tucked away in an alleyway in Ginza, most easily spotted by the queue of hungry patrons that start to gather even before the ramen shop opens.
We waited in line for 1.5 hours, and by the time the 6 of us were all seated, it felt like we had the whole place to ourselves.
There was no need to go to the menu, because there was only one thing we were there for: the Tori Paitan. This renowned bowl of ramen is served in a thick chicken-based broth that is surprisingly well-balanced and delicate, despite being a creamy consistency. Topped with seasonal vegetables and a couple of slices of tender chicken, the lightness of the toppings perfectly balances the butteriness of the broth.
By the time I finished my bowl (and my friend’s leftovers), I had no words. I couldn’t believe that the best meal I had ever had was a bowl of ramen: something so homestyle, seemingly so simple to make, with such few ingredients, and yet can be mastered to this level. But I guess that’s the Japanese way. This I’ll know for sure: I’ll never have a bowl of ramen again in Toronto without feeling the pang of remorse that nothing will ever stand up to Kagari.
Most Immersive Experience: Omotesando & Koffee Mameya
One thing was clear during this trip: we clearly didn’t make it to Japan before the rest of China did. With Japan being such a tourist hotspot, squeezing a truly immersive experience out of it wasn’t easy.
Still, there were a few moments during the trip when I felt like I was able to let a truly unadulterated moment sink in: leaving the selfie-stick tourists behind as we climbed ever-higher up the steps of the Fushimi Inari Shrine, midnight biking around the alleyways and riverbanks of Kyoto, and my favourite experience… exploring the backstreets of Omotesando in Tokyo.
Running parallel to the bougie main shopping area in Omotesando, is a hipster haven, lined with boutique stores, galleries, and cafes, situated within a labyrinth of winding, unlevel streets. Leaving the crowds behind, we wandered into these backstreets in the pursuit of great coffee.
Our destination, Koffee Mameya (formerly Omotesando Koffee) was tucked away so far back from the main Omotesando area that it feels residential. From the outside, the building is wooden, unassuming, with no signage. We walked past it twice while actively looking for it, and still didn’t catch it. As soon as we stepped in, we were struck by how perfectly square, uniform, and painstakingly minimalistic the interior was.
As a bean-specialist shop, its two baristas exist only to help you connect with the perfect bean and to counsel you on extracting the perfect beverage experience from your bean. They wear lab coats and take their work very seriously.
I won’t lie — I had a lot of doubts. Experiences that are this self-serious are usually huge turn-offs for me. It wasn’t until I took my first sip of my Ethiopian seasonal blend that I was fully bought in. My mind was blown. It was the perfect elixir, and the kind of sensory experience that makes you marvel at how quality can emerge from craftsmanship. I’m not being dramatic. As soon as I finished sipping my cup, I retraced my steps back to Mameya to pick up a bag of beans and sheepishly order a second cup.
My barista saw that I was back, and gave me a knowing smile.
What I have in my hand here is a perfect expression of Japanese craftsmanship, and I look forward to returning one day and experiencing it again, in its many forms. Until then, Japan, sayonara!