I went to Japan on holiday with my friend Charlie in October 2018. He had never been to Japan before and when the chance came up to accompany him and act as a guide/translator, I jumped at it. I started the notes for this post at the time, almost two years ago, and never got around to publishing them; for the sake of posterity and future memories, I'm putting them up now. Had some great times, created some great stories, and this is still one of my most fondly remembered trips to Japan.
We kicked off in Osaka. Charlie was a lot more energetic than me, as he won the 'lottery' to cash in his flyer miles for a business class upgrade and spent the flight in the comfort of seat 1A, while I was stuck back in cattle class. My tradition on landing in Japan is to start the trip off with a bowl of Ichiran Ramen, so we headed there at around 11pm after we got to the city from KIX and checked into our Airbnb.
Ichiran has an order sheet where you can specify details such as the noodle hardness, spiciness, and what colour of onion you want. Being an uncultured swine, I usually just get the recommended level for each, with a little extra spice. Charlie is half Vietnamese and has easily the highest tolerance for spice of anyone I've ever met. To Charlie, the fact that the spiciness options go as high as 20 (it only lists 10 levels on the sheet but actually goes to 20 - kind of a secret menu for masochists) was tantamount to a challenge, so over the course of the trip he worked his way up to the max level. You can see the comparison below of the lovely white soup of a level 2 (to me already pretty spicy) and the angry red pile of spice powder that comes with a level 20.
The next day we started the trip by walking around America-mura and taking in the sights of a part of the city that was relatively average as far as Japanese cities go, and yet still a completely different world from Sydney.
The second day Charles had plans at lunch with a family friend, Andy, so I took the opportunity to get some souvenir shopping out of the way and do some study.
I had one of those fun 'only in Japan' encounters at Starbucks in the morning. I headed there at 7am for a coffee and to flick through my morning news feed, when 3 girls joined my table. Judging by the fact they were red-eyed and drunk, I'm guessing their night was just finishing while my day was starting1. They sat there staring at me blearily for a couple of minutes while I stared at my phone and avoided eye contact until one of them loudly asked in heavily accented English "Do you have magnum one?" and "Can you give baby?" - funny, flattering, but more than a little uncomfortable.
The next day was a bit more interesting, Charlie bought himself a Nintendo 64 in the morning, then went to meet his family friend Andy for a tour of Osaka. I was invited along for karaoke around 8:30 in the evening so I went and joined them. Then we kicked on at some random izakaya, and finished the night at the Coolabah2 over a few beers and shit talking with some guys living in Osaka. I was already contemplating an imminent move to Japan so I semi-interrogated the guys about their thoughts and advice on living here. They made a pretty good case for Osaka being a better place to live than Tokyo, enough that I'd still prefer to live there if I'm honest, but after all - Tokyo is where the tech is. We stayed there hanging out after the bar closed and got home around 230.
We made sure that we didn't feed any deer unless they bowed to us first, of course.
You can't visit Osaka without getting in some of the local specialty, okonomiyaki, so we grabbed some before we hit the road to Kyoto.
We got to Kyoto around 8pm and checked into our Airbnb, which was on the second floor of an electronics store. The room was fantastic and had the most futuristic shower and toilet I've ever seen - the shower had water coming from not just a nozzle, but out of the roof and walls. After checking in we had Gyoza (below) then went drinking at some shisha bars along Pontocho.
From there the trip continued the next day with a visit to Nishiki Market in the morning.
For the afternoon, Kyoto tower, Kiyomizudera for your standard Kyoto temple sightseeing, and then shopping for ceramics and goods.
Once it got dark we wandered through Gion, to see some of the more historical architecture and district of the city.
At this point it was 930 and we had had only had about 4 or 5 hours of sleep so Charles called it a night. I didn't want to miss seeing Japanese Halloween though so I went for a costume-spotting walk. That turned into "one or two drinks before I head home" which turned into another night out until 5am.
I started at a shisha bar called Zaza where I met some Japanese salarymen working in sales. The older guy, who I'm gonna call bossman because he was the manager of the younger guy, was forcing his junior to drink. Despite being out on a business trip and supposedly letting off steam after work, bossman was still very clearly the boss and continued to give orders all night. The junior wasn't enjoying it, at one point even going over to the bar, where he pretended to be in line for another drink for about half an hour to avoid drinking more. Eventually he vanished without saying goodbye, which didn't surprise bossman at all. Apparently bossman expected he would eventually get too drunk and give up for the night and go home. It seemed like the culture was such that he had to drink to the point where he was passing out if he wanted to leave.
I made it back to the hotel in the early hours of the morning, and pulled it together enough to go out with Charlie to join him and a friend of his dads for breakfast/lunch. Yayoi was a Japanese lady that knew Charlie's family when she lived in Canberra, and all we knew going into the experience was that she wanted to take us to a popular Udon restaurant. What happened next was unexpectedly the highlight of the trip.
She took us to a 3 star Michelin udon restaurant, aiming to get there early and beat the queue. We expected a long line but there was no one waiting outside and it was closed, with an apologetic sign on the door. However in a surprising turn of events, the owner was Yayoi's cousin, so she gave him a call. It turned out his wife had a heart attack the day before, so he had closed up for the day. However, he opened anyway just for us, served us personally in an empty restaurant and came and chatted with us for the entire meal. It was an incredible experience, a 3 starred Michelin chef, opening the entire restaurant just for us, then sitting and chatting with us as we ate. My mind was blown at the hospitality of the guy and the random chances that led to being able to experience that. Luckily his wife was OK and recovering already, and Yayoi suggested later that, if anything, he probably enjoyed the company and the chance to take his mind off things.
After that, we went across to Arashiyama, seeing the bamboo groves, the temples, and then after Yayoi left, the monkeys at the peak of the mountain. We took it fairly quietly after that though, I'd been out 3 nights in a row and was running low on gas so I passed out early.
We intended to get to Hakone early the next day, stopping in at Fushimi Inari Taisha on the way. However by the time we checked out and got there after dropping out bags at Kyoto station, it was already midday. I had some of the best ramen I've eaten at Kyoto Station Ramen St, at a place that gave unlimited free eggs to add to your ramen. To this day, possibly the only ramen that I can say gives Ichiran a run for its money.3.
We did the walk up and down the mountain, panting all the way, then decided to also do a little souvenir shopping to take advantage of being in the city of artisans. Finally we made our way to Hakone and settled in after a restful onsen and massage (chair).
We had been invited to go see a football game at Andy's old university in Osaka, so after checking out from Hakone the next morning, we headed back to Osaka to catch the game. This time we went via the ropeway across the top of Hakone, passing over an active volcanic sulfur field on the way.
Capsule Hotel Stay (Osaka Part II)
We eventually got to Osaka around 5pm. We hadn't booked any accomodation for the second half of the trip after Hakone, with the aim of keeping the trip open and travelling wherever our whim took us, so we checked into a capsule hotel for the night. The capsule hotel was really interesting, and had a lot more amenities than I initially expected. It was like a little capsule world (hah), with a sauna, hot spring bath, TV room, manga library, vending machine room, and even a mini pachinko parlor. Photos below.
After checking in we went out for another night on the town, starting at a bar called ganja acid (drugs are extremely illegal in Japan so, not as interesting as it sounds) then went on to a place called balabushkas where we met some English lads and challenged them to darts, winning one game apiece and shouting rounds as we did. After darts we shifted bars to a 'gaijin club' and had a decent sesh there until getting home around dawn.
After recovering, Charles and I got up and went to see the football game at 2. It was pretty hectic, with Andy's team scoring a touchdown in the last 40 seconds of the game.
I'm not really familiar with American Football, so I have no idea how different this experience was from what it would be like in the states.
I left the two of them to go have fugu (puffer fish) after that and hit the road to Tokyo on my own. Charlie wanted to go to Hiroshima and I wasnt too keen to repeat it, having already been there six months earlier, so we split up and planned to meet back up in Tokyo.
I spent my next few days shopping and drinking in Tokyo, staying in the Shinjuku area for a few days and going out in Golden Gai every night. Writing this now two years later, it feels so distant in my memory and has that hazy 'vacation' quality as if not part of a normal life. It's surreal to realise that if I jump on a train I can be back in those same bars in less than half an hour4.
Charlie came back to Tokyo a couple days before I was due to leave - due to work I had a couple less days in Japan. We finished off the trip with your usual tourist stuff, some sightseeing in Akihabara and Shinjuku, and the robot restaurant show which was as crazy as it always is.
One of those nights out in Tokyo I also had the worst ramen I've ever eaten. This trip was full of a lot of good times, late nights, and stories of new experiences so it feels fitting in a way that it contains both the worst and best bowls of ramen I've ever had. After drinking in Golden Gai, getting hungry and asking for a ramen recommendation, we stumbled our way up to the second floor of a tiny bar in Golden Gai, and were presented with the fishiest bowl of noodles I've ever had the displeasure of tasting. Before I looked at the photo I could've sworn there were dead fish floating in the ramen but it turns out they were just hanging from the roof(?!).
From there it was back to Sydney and back to reality after my 3rd time in Japan. Thinking of this trip two years later, I think it had a big influence on my moving here. It was such a memorable time packed with good nights, and it was also the first time I went to Japan fluent enough to meet many locals and speak entirely in Japanese, a huge boost to my confidence and motivation.
Just to cap off this post - a few random sights from the trip through Japan that didn't really fit anywhere else. In order, Starbucks seasonal art, green tea coca cola, ass ramen, pervert undies, and a wall of toilet paper in the Shinjuku Ichiran bathroom.
- Trains in Japan stop between midnight and 5am, so if you don't catch the last train home then you're committing to party till sunrise. This means that in any nightlife areas, you see more people drunk and stumbling home at 6am than you do at 1am. ↩
- As you might guess from the name, an Aussie themed bar in Osaka that serves classics like VB and chicken parma ↩
- Anyone who has spent a lot of time in Japan is probably scoffing right now because Ichiran is a chain - but trust me, I have tried a lot of different Ramen places and it's still my favourite. If you know somewhere better then please let me know! ↩
- Albeit much less lively than it was then, given the state of the world in 2020 and how few people are keen to drink in a tiny crowded bar with strangers these days. ↩