Nippon Dreams, Part I

Tokyo & Kyoto, Japan. [December 2018]

Fernweh: “a longing to travel to distant lands…a kind of homesickness for the unexplored.”

How peculiarly apt a word to describe the long-overdue visit to the heart of Japan.

The Nippon mystique has been globally inescapable for our generation, a people captivated by Super Saiyan transformations to Hadouken combos to Jiro Loves Sushi to its darker not-too-distant history. Anyone who’s ever been to Japan raves about its almost neurotically orderly citizenry and universally beloved food culture.

So we hop on the pampered 14-hour JAL flight to Narita – thank you again Chase for the miles – to learn what Japan is, the only way possible, via osmosis.

Tokyo: Robots, Michelins, Orderly Chaos

Robot Restaurant. Sensory overload is the defining feature of Tokyo, and nowhere is that more over-the-top in-your-face loud than at Robot Restaurant, with decors so gaudy and tacky that it ended up being one of the absolute highlights of the trip and a photographer’s delight. I don’t really have the words to describe this epileptic seizure of a gem, but suffice to say this couldn’t really exist anywhere other than in Japan.

The Grinch trying to steal a Japanese Xmas!

Meiji Jingu & Senso-Ji Shrines. For a little detox from the Tokyo bustle we took a morning stride through Senso-Ji, teeming with purveyors of delicious fried chicken, crab on a stick, and yakisoba noodles, then headed over to the urban oasis of Meiji Shrine. Little details like the polychrome sake barrels, gracefully aged oak beams, and water droplets at the chozuya serve as tiny but not overlooked reminders of what makes Japan great: its obsessive attention to perfection.

Enormous red lantern at Senso-Ji

Akiba Fukarou Owl Cafe and Cat Cafe MoCHA. Japanese affinity for lazy little furry creatures is shared with us at Akiba Fukarou Owl Cafe, where we hung out with 30 mellowed out birds that turn their heads like the girl from the Exorcist, and at Cat Cafe MoCHA, where my master plan towards eventually getting her to agree to a Husky puppy progressed further. Yes, there were other options like puppies, raccoons, and maids – No, we did not partake.

He only likes me for my 100 Yen cat treats

Eat: Tempura Fukamachi, Sushi Tokami, Genki Sushi, Tsukiji Market. Paleo diets don’t work in Japan, but we probably earned our share of ricey goodness with our 25,000 steps per day. Needless to say the food here is impeccably sumptuous, from the pieces of sushi that fly out of the kitchen on 3 levels of conveyor belts, to the deep-fried yet heavenly light creations of Tempura Fukamachi, to the 8-seat, Tabelog-raved 20-piece odyssey at Sushi Tokami, to the street-side indulgences at outer Tsukiji Market. There is a beauty to the dizzying gastronomical array that so defines this city of orderly chaos.

Genki Sushi delivery on a conveyor belt
Meticulously arranging one of 20 pieces at Sushi Tokami
Pieces of Mr. Krabs at Tsukiji Market
A choreography of orderly chaos at Shibuya Crossing

Kyoto/Himeji: Toriis, Bamboos, Effortless History

Shinkansen. If you thought a grown man would purchase a kid’s bento shaped like a bullet train for the 3-hour Shinkansen ride from Tokyo to Kyoto, you would be 100% correct.

What it didn’t pack in adequate quantities of food, it made up for with massive quantities of love

Fushimi Inari-taisha. Like many others, this was for us the very pinnacle of our Japan visit – just beware it is not as empty as the photos look. How did we get such nice, clear shots? Because the locals and tourists were a bit more courteous (and sneaking their own photo opps) with Cindy dressed up in her rental Kimono and attracting quite a small following of Chinese paparazzi. Still, the infinite tessellation of the orange Torii gates is jaw-dropping gorgeously and unmistakably Japanese – not to be found anywhere else on Earth.

My absolute favorite photo from the trip – Cindy at Fushimi Inari-taisha in full kimono

Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. There’s something unique that makes this hunk of gold that looks commissioned by a Russian oligarch fit right into the zenful greenery around it: perhaps softened by the soft raindrops that day, the glitter mellows into its backdrop peacefully and at one with the world, not asserting its monetary value but rather accentuating its comfort in its own contrast.

The Golden Pavilion fits right into its bonsai-like surroundings
Te beauty of contrast – in colors and elements

Arashiyama strikes a different vibe. The famed bamboo forest is, ultimately, somewhat underwhelming thanks to the throngs of visitors; but the Kimono forest by the train station is a beautiful modern homage, and the little tea-house along the walk is a convenient little spot to sit down and reflect over macha-infused goodness.

Colorful and unique Kimono Forest at Arashiyama Train Station

Yasaka Shrine, Kiyomizu-dera, Nijo Castle. Everywhere you turn in Tokyo, you see modernity; everywhere you turn in Kyoto, you see history. Strolling through the Unesco sites of Nijo Castle, Yasaka Shrine, and Kiyomizu-dera, pre-Meiji Restoration era stories are all around in the oxidized copper gates, Kanji-ridden lanterns, and manicured gardens; what a land of contrast this is, a mere 3-hour train ride away, as if transporting us not through space but time.

Eat: Menbakaichidai Fire Ramen, Kichi Kichi Omurice, Premium Pound Kobe. We almost get our eyebrows burned off our faces at an eccentric chef’s pyromaniac ramen joint, hang out with Buzzfeed celebrity and celebrity omelet-cutter Kichi Kichi, and savor real cubes of Kobe beef as it melts to nothing in our mouths – in other words, just another 3 days in Japan.

A fiery meal at Menbakaichidai Fire Ramen
Real Kobe beef, and this ain’t Benihana

Himeji, Osaka, Nara, Hakone, and Seoul would follow in the week after Tokyo and Kyoto and recapped in Part II – but truthfully, our grand Nippon tour peaked in the first 2 stops….the bar is set too high. We will be back, soon enough, ready to explore, ready to get lost in more hidden alleys, ready to take in more of the beauty and colors of this country…so foreign, so familiar, so Fernweh-satisfying.

“Sometimes when I look at you, I feel I’m gazing at a distant star.
It’s dazzling, but the light is from tens of thousands of years ago.
Maybe the star doesn’t even exist any more. Yet sometimes that light seems more real to me than anything.” – Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun

“And it came to me then. That we were wonderful traveling companions but in the end no more than lonely lumps of metal in their own separate orbits. From far off they look like beautiful shooting stars, but in reality they’re nothing more than prisons, where each of us is locked up alone, going nowhere. When the orbits of these two satellites of ours happened to cross paths, we could be together. Maybe even open our hearts to each other. But that was only for the briefest moment. In the next instant we’d be in absolute solitude. Until we burned up and became nothing.” – Haruki Murakami, Sputnik Sweetheart

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