Tokyo, Japan

One of the biggest surprises of Tokyo and Japan in general is how "human scale" it is, compared to what I was expecting I guess. Although some of the buildings and intersections are big, the rest of the side streets, areas like the Tsukiji fish market and a lot of the hangout streets lined with cool bars and restaurants are all pretty tiny and adorable. It makes a place like Tokyo feel more homey and less daunting and grandiose than expected.

Here's a breakdown of Tokyo based on the neighborhoods we visited:

  1. Shimokitazawa
    We stayed there. Once again, we somehow found the "Brooklyn". It's artsy, hipster and young, hella cool and a lot of tourists miss out on it because it's a bit far from the center but 100% worth checking out.
  2. Shinjuku
    My favorite hangout area. Walking around in this neighborhood you really can't go wrong. There's so many cool things going on! One of my favorite spots is the "Golden Gaia small strip of izakaya-style bars, tucked away in these cute narrow alleys behind the tall Shinjuku buildings. 
  3. Shibuya & Roppongi
    If you picture tall buildings with neon lights and crazy amounts of people rushing past a busy intersection, you're picturing Shibuya. There's a cool nightlife scene but it's a bit too hectic for me (from what I saw). I bunched Roppongi up with Shibuya because I feel like it has a similar vibe. Clubby and fun if you feel like going hard one night (we had a great time there the night before Halloween!).
  4. Akihabara
    The weirdest of weird can be found in Akihabara. You name it, they went there, from 7-story porn shops to "maid cafés" where flirty teen waitresses act as servants to their gross middle-aged customers. It's your go-to place for anything video game-related, anime, manga, you get the picture.

We managed to work "Halloween in Tokyo" into our plans which meant we had to come up with a cool costume. We thought about being the "konbini krew" which meant dressing up as the three main convenience stores (which pretty much equate to gods in Asia), this video pretty much sums it up. But after seeing so many WARNING! posters that showed the danger of selfie sticks, we couldn't resist. We went as "Selfie Stick Victims". I know people have actually been hurt and I don't mean to offend, but yeah, we had to.

Kyoto, Japan

Ahhhhhhhhhhh Kyoto. Feel your body relax just saying the name.
When you think of Japan, you probably think of something hi-tech or cutting edge, and sooo many people it stresses you out. Try to re-wire your brain, and just think of Kyoto. It's a large city, but a peaceful one, where everyone rides bikes everywhere (it's quite flat so it's super easy! And you can ride on the sidewalk so there's no fear of getting hit by a car), there's temples everywhere you look, and bookshops, cute cafe's and wine bars with fascinating stories to tell. Kyoto has an energy I didn't expect to find in Japan. It's mellow vibe is definitely something I could jive to. There was definitely a cool nightlife scene there too, but we didn't venture much beyond a cool jazzy wine bar, and a Beatles bar, which is fine by me!

Some highlights include:

  1. Riding our rented bikes down the Philosopher's Path, where we got to check out a bunch of cool temples, restaurants and shops along the way.
  2. Trying some delicious Ramen and Sushi and connecting with our awesome waitress that spoke perfect spanish!
  3. Zen-ing out with our amazing yoga instructor Mark Shvemia (who translated our entire class) at Studio Bindu.
  4. Discovering the most adorable coffee shops, such as Cafe Bibliotic Hello! 
  5. Asking for a restaurant recommendation and getting WALKED right up to the door to an amazing sushi conveyor belt restaurant.
  6. Making friends that don't speak english via Beatles songs in a cute Omiya Dori izakaya.
  7. From these friends' recommendation, visiting Lennon Bar.
  8. Meeting up with some lovely Bostonian Bros walking along the Fushimi Inari Shrine! (we met up with them again later in Tokyo!)

Osaka, Japan

Osaka was our first stop in Japan… the land of Murakami, Miyazaki, Pokemon, and Sailor Moon. As our plane landed in the Osaka airport, I couldn’t help but think about how far we’ve already travelled; and how far from home we were. It’s still crazy to think that this is all really happening, and that we had just landed in that far away, mystical place I knew from books and movies, but never really thought I’d get a chance to visit –Japan. One of the things I was most excited about was the food! Bring on the fresh sushi and ramen! 

At the airport, we met up with an old high school friend who had posted on Facebook about wanting to go to Japan a few weeks before. We chatted about our plans and set coordinating dates. Amazing! A fellow Boricua joining us for Japan! He had even taken a few courses in Japanese, so he was a huge help for translating and getting around. 

Japanese ATMs & US Debit/Credit Card Struggles

The very first unexpected obstacle we ran into was this: Japan is terrible for US banks. Most ATMs simply won’t accept non-Japanese bank cards. We even tried the convenient store ATMs that bloggers online suggested, but nothing worked for us. We finally figured out that we had to find our way to a post office in order to take out cash. The other thing is, that almost no restaurant, tourist site, bar, store, coffee shop accepts any kind of credit cards. Convenient stores did take card, but for the most part, we had to get used to carrying a lot of cash on us.

The Teeny-Tiniest Airbnb in Namba

We stayed in the Namba area in an apartment we found through Airbnb. It was the tiniest little apartment ever, with just baaarely enough floor space to fit the double bed; and yet we managed to fit three young adults and all our luggage. The Namba area, however, made up for the small space: bright lights, arcade games, restaurants, and bars in every corner. At first sight when walking around Namba, all you see are large arcade game stores with tons of adults in suits inside playing like kids. It sounds pretty strange, but it’s very similar to casino culture… with a little less gambling and a lot more funny sounds coming from the machines. As cool as it was to experience, this was not really our scene; but as we kept walking around, we found some amazing back alleys with tiny bars that fit about 5 to 6 people max called izakayas. Namba is filled with them!  

Magical Food of Osaka

We found some incredible restaurants nearby and tried some of the local okonomiyaki in the well known restaurant, Mizuno. Here, we found out that as part of the Japanese culture, it’s very impolite to take photographs or video of the chefs as they prepare your meal in front of you. It was truly an impressive show tho. The classic okonomiyaki (originated in Osaka) is like a savoury Japanese pancake made with a variety of ingredients. Okonomi literally means "what you like" or "what you want", and believe me, YOU WANT IT. We had to try the classic, but we also tried the signature Mizuno version, a yam-based okonomiyaki with scallops and roast pork. YUM. 

We also tried the famous local street food takoyaki (fried octopus fritters). They’re made up of a wheat flour batter, diced octopus, pickled ginger, and onion; topped with a super yummy sauce. The really impressive part however, is seeing how the street vendors prepare these little balls. It’s amazing the grace and skill they have as they quickly whip the batter around with little sticks in what looks like round-shaped cupcake trays to perfectly crisp the outer layer of the balls. 

There was one more famous local dish, but this one we purposely stayed away from.. the deadly fugu (blowfish). Many restaurants specialise in preparing this dish, but the thrill of maybe dying after eating it didn’t sound very appealing to me. 

Crazy Shopping & Our Favorite Bar

Osaka is FILLED with large shopping street malls: Shinsaibashi, Horie Tachibana (Orange Street), Amerikamura, and more. If you enjoy shopping, you’ll definitely love Osaka… I’m not much of a shopping type myself. And as a world traveler, I can’t really afford to shop much anyway - especially after 11 other countries and their souvenirs… I’ve pretty much packed up my backpack to bursting point by now! Either way, walking around, window-shopping and people-watching is still fun. The shops in the area called “Amerikamura” or “American village” - not making this up - are particularly cool because you can also admire the impressively creative store designs (exterior and interior). This area has a bit of an indie-punk feeling kind of scene where we found our favorite bar, Little Sheep. Don’t be thrown off from the english name… it’s actually really cool. We crawled down a tiny flight of stairs after following a chalkboard sign with promise of cocktails and music. This place is like someone’s tiny dark basement. Everyone takes off their shoes and cuddles on the floor with pillows and blankets. It’s awesome. Great music, great lounge-y atmosphere, great cocktails, a projector showing hip Japanese music videos, and fun games like UNO and Jenga are passed around. The bartenders we’re all the friendliest of people too. 

Lights, more lights, and food!

Dotonbori is crazy. It’s just one street, not a big metropolitan business district or anything like I had somewhat expected, but it’s so filled with neon lights and 3D signs, you might not be able to tell the difference. It packs with people day and night, seven days a week. During the day, people flock there for the food. During the night, it’s club-and-bar-central.

Cute Design & Coffee Shops

Orange Street is the place to go during the day to find cute design stores, furniture boutiques, and coffee shops. Our favourite by far was Biopic - an adorable design furniture store with a café on the first floor and a rooftop bar / restaurant. We also travelled a bit further uptown to check out a cool co-working space we had found online: "Crossing" Come on up House. It was a great place to focus with other like-minded digital nomads, and get some work done with tea and snacks. 

Tourist Sites

There’s not very many tourist sites in Osaka… but we went to see the Hozen-ji temple and the Osaka castle. They were cool, but they were kind of out-shined by the amazing food in Osaka. They were cool, but visiting Osaka seems to be much more about experiencing the crazy arcade lifestyle and tasting the delicious Osaka cuisine.