Here’s the last of my Geek & Eat posts. Hold onto your seats, because Japan is going to be a loooong one…
Alright, let’s get straight into it. You like anime? You think Japan has anime in every nook and cranny of the country? Trust me, you’re not far off. You can buy anime merchandise pretty much everywhere. This is especially the case for really popular titles; One Piece and Attack on Titan are the two I saw everywhere when I was there. When you visit well-known landmarks, such as Osaka Castle or the Tokyo Sky Tree (amongst others), you’ll usually find an anime character hugging or posing with the landmark in the souvenir store. Usually it’s a key-chain or something else small, and only the most popular characters are used (you’ll find Luffy and Chopper everywhere). Other cheaper (and sometimes tacky) anime-related products you can find are gachapon! These are basically vending machine-dispensed capsule toys. There’s lots of different types (not all are anime-related; you can find some pretty hilarious ones!) and you’re basically gambling on what you figure/variation you’ll get for each line of toys. WARNING: They are very, very addictive. You’ll tell yourself you’ll just want one or two, and before you know it, you’re actively seeking them out. You find them in gaming centres mostly, but they’re pretty much everywhere. There’s also plenty of anime-related products in department stores (but they’re so much more!) such as Loft or Tokyu Hands, as well as toy shops and souvenir shops. Don’t be afraid to go a little crazy!
If we’re talking anime heaven, then, naturally, we are talking Tokyo. Akihabara is probably on your list if you’re into anime. Selling everything from figurines to manga to body pillows, there’s bound to be some sort of merchandise you’ll want to pick up. A couple of things to keep in mind when visiting; Akihabara is very, very big. And there are a lot of places you’ll probably want to check out. We’re talking multi-level gaming centres and stores, maid cafes, and other themed cafes. Basically what I’m saying is: have a plan. Of course you’ll want to explore at your own pace, but if there are certain places that you really want to check out, you’ll need to have the self-discipline to drag yourself out of a store and continue on your way. Alternatively, plan to have multiple days here! Another good Tokyo location is the area around Ueno Station. There you’ll find Yamashiroya, a cool toy store, but there are plenty of other similar stores in the area. Finally, there’s the Ghibli Museum for all you Miyazaki Hayao fans out there. There are a couple of exhibitions inside the museum, but sadly, not all of the text is translated to English. However, just the joy of visiting the museum is enough reason to go! They’ve really thought through the building a lot, and nothing feels untouched or ordinary. If you’re ready to be swept up in the magic of Ghibli, then you should be buying your ticket already! Note that the ticket process is a little complicated, but you can find lots on useful information on their website.
Now otaku isn’t all anime, so I’m going to take a moment for two other things that are well loved about Japan; kimono and youth fashion. There are several places where you can rent out kimono in Japan, but by far, Kyoto is the most popular place for tourists to do it. This was particularly the case in the Higashiyama district, where there there are a lot of stores to rent (and buy) them. Don’t be afraid to have a look around; some places include doing hair and/or makeup, some charge extra for shoes or bags, some have time limits on how long you can take the kimono. We spent somewhere in the region of ¥8 800 ($110 AUD, $85 USD), so it’s not cheap, but also not horrifying expensive. Now, for those of you who don’t know, I’m full-blooded Caucasian. I was a little nervous about wearing a kimono, and a little cautious as to how Japanese people would react. Throughout the duration of the day I wore one, I got maybe two unpleasant side-glances. However, the overwhelming excited and encouraging responses I received from people more than outweighed the two nasties. There were older ladies waving excitedly at us when we walked by, and a massive group of middle-aged ladies (who had just left a temple) telling me in broken English (and my understanding of maybe three Japanese adjectives) that I looked pretty. If that doesn’t convince anyone who’s worried about offending others, then I don’t know what will! And boys, don’t think that this is just a girly thing to do, because there were plenty of places that rented male kimono out as well. One of the people travelling with me was a Caucasian male, and he also received a lot of positive responses when wearing one (one group of girls asked for a photo with him). The whole experience of picking out the clothing and decorations, getting dressed, and then feeling stunning the whole day is definitely worth it! As for Japan’s fashion, Harajuku in Tokyo is the place to go (although undoubtedly there’ll be similar youth hot-spots in other cities). You’ll see lots of street fashion and lots of shops so there’s plenty to see and explore! The best day to visit Harajuku is on a Sunday, so make sure you’re in Tokyo on that day!
ASIAN POP CULTURE
Everyone probably already knows about Japan’s massive pop and rock scene, and drama and movie scene (and if you don’t, you’re missing out!). Obviously, you’ll be able to easily get your hands on CDs, series, and the like, once you’re in Japan. I’ve heard that merchandise can be a little bit harder to obtain, but you can be guaranteed to find some in youth areas such as Harajuku in Tokyo or in Akihabara. If you’re a fan of the girl-group(s that comprise) AKB48, you can also visit their cafe in Akihabara and watch one of their performances!
If you didn’t already know, K-Pop is a big thing in Japan. There are certain groups that are more popular there than others (Big Bang rules over all, as usual), but if you are really seeking out something K-Pop related whilst in Japan, you will probably find it. For example, Tokyo’s Korea Town has merchandise, music, and dramas (I didn’t actually visit, having just come from South Korea). In other places, you can find some unusual K-Pop merchandise (of sorts). We often saw Big Bang’s teddy bears in gaming buildings, and I even found and EXO gachapon! With some K-Pop groups touring Japan fairly regularly, keep on the look out for shows you might to go to! We used Japan Concert Tickets to buy our tickets, since we didn’t have a Japanese address and couldn’t read the websites. The website was reasonably priced, the person I was emailing was very helpful, and it’s all very legal and trustworthy. The actual concert was amazing, the crowd was really energetic and excited (although hardly anyone clapped, which completely threw us off after the first song!), and there was a merchandise stall at the concert. Despite not being able to speak Korean or Japanese, we still enjoyed ourselves, so that gives you an idea how great it is!
If you’re visiting Osaka, you should definitely squeeze in a visit to Osaka Castle. The castle played an important role in Japan’s unification in the 1500s, but was mostly-destroyed during the Meiji Period. The main keep you see today is a restoration of the 1928 restoration of the castle. It’s not unusual for buildings in Japan (and other parts of Asia) to be rebuilt over time due to damage from war, civil unrest, fire, or earthquakes (most buildings are, after all, made of wood), so don’t let the more recent build put you off! After exploring the pretty grounds, you get in the elevator up to the top floor and then work your way down. The interior of the castle is actually a museum, focusing on the castle’s history and the life and achievements of Hideyoshi Toyotomi (certainly a very interesting character!). Beautifully kept and informative, it’s worth the visit!
Kyoto, considered the “thousand-year capital”, is just bursting with attractions for those of you seeking out history. There are countless temples and shrines to visit in the city, so I’m not even going to try and mention all of them. Instead, I’m going to talk about the Higashiyama districts; one of the city’s best preserved historical areas. Narrow lanes, wooden buildings, and lots of traditional merchant shops, it’s got the atmosphere you’re craving. It’s also a popular spot to rent kimono, which only adds to the feeling! Major attractions in this area include the Yasaka Shrine, Kiyomizu-dera Temple, Tofuku-ji Temple, Kennin-ji Temple, and Kodai-ji Temple, amongst many others. There’s plenty of other attractions too; I visited the Entokuin Gardens and Temple and the site of the Goryo Eji Tonsho. The area’s very compact, so with good planning, you can see a lot in a day!
There were two places we did as a day trip from Kyoto that may interest you history buffs out there. The first was to Nara Park. Apart from some very intense deer, the park has a lot of religious buildings including Todai-ji Temple, Kofuku-ji Temple, and the Kasuga Grand Shrine. There’s also other smaller temples and historical buildings and gardens… that’s a lot in a small space! The other day trip was to Himeji Castle. This castle is considered one of the best examples of surviving Japanese castle architecture. The castle has an incredible perch on top of a hill overlooking Himeji, and the grounds of the castle, with a large parade square, are equally impressive. The inside of the main keep is relatively empty, with signs drawing your attention to the main architectural features of each floor. Elsewhere, there is plenty of information about the castle’s long history. Be sure to also explore the West Bailey Palace, a more recent (1618!) addition to the castle!
Finally, Tokyo. Now Tokyo has its Edo-Tokyo Museum (amongst many other museums) and Imperial Palace, but unfortunately, we didn’t get the chance to visit them. We did, however, visit Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest temple. It’s been rebuilt several times, but the location itself is obviously an important spiritual place for the city. The Asakusa Shrine is also adjacent to the temple. Leading to the temple is Nakamise, a line of various shops that features traditional crafts as well as more modern souvenirs. There are many interesting attractions in the area, including Hanayashiki, which claims to be Japan’s oldest amusement park. We didn’t get to visit here, but I plan to next time! Tokyo is also a good location for day trips, and heading up to Nikko is a great option for history-lovers! Toshogu Shrine, with its beautifully decorated carvings, is breathtaking… and I’m saying this without seeing the main Yomeimon Gate (under restoration)! There’s plenty of other things to see in the area, make sure you grab a map from the train station and plan out your day!
Just like I’ve said about every other country in these posts, Japan is the place for food! If you’ve had Japanese food before, then you probably have dishes you want to try already. The most popular dishes (e.g. sushi, tempura, tonkatsu, etc.) you can find easily, and noodle restaurants commonly specialise in one type (udon and ramen are the most common). Make a list of what you want to try, and cross it off as you go! Another thing to note is that different areas in Japan have different specialities. We tried the houtou noodles in Fuji when we were there, and they were delicious! If you’re travelling around while in Japan, be sure to do a little research to find what you should be trying where! A little less luxurious, but still an interesting experience in itself, is the food from convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, Lawson, or FamilyMart. Apart from the snackage (definitely check out the ice-creams!), there’s also light meals available; bento boxes, onigiri, various types of breads, and many, many others. The quality is better than what you’ll find in western countries, and it’s cheap! I particularly loved the onigiri with karaage chicken! You’ll also find drink vending machines everywhere in Japan. Offering warm and cold drinks, and ranging from various teas, energy drinks, soft drinks, and milky drinks, they’re an incredibly convenient and fun way to try some of Japan’s popular drinks! Finally, if you happen to be visiting a temple or shrine during a festival, be sure to keep an eye out on the food stalls. Apart from popular regulars like takoyaki, yaki soba, and dango, you’ll find lots of other interesting food! A lot of the times, you’ll play some sort of game or draw a coloured stick to determine something about the food you’ll get, such as the number of eggs, toppings, or the number of treats you’ll get. A very interesting test of luck!
A couple of other “everywhere” places that are worth trying are some of the chain restaurants. If, like me, you’re from a country like Australia where there aren’t many big American chain restaurants, Japan is a country where you can enjoy them. We’re talking Denny’s, Starbucks, etc. It may just be ‘anytime’ food for others, but it was exciting for me! Japan, of course, has its own chain restaurants. We tried out a couple and found them really delicious. For some good quality Japanese curry, Coco’s Curry House is a good choice. You can customise your meal easily, including size and spiciness, and, considering I don’t particularly like Japanese curry but I enjoyed eating here, you can rest assured that it’s delicious! If you’re craving something more western-styled, Mos Burger is a chain restaurant. Their burgers are quite tasty, and served with chips and a drink if you buy in a meal. It’s very delicious, and a competitive alternative to McDonalds! Finally, Yoshinoya is a chain restaurant that specialises in gyuodon. This is essentially bowls of rice or noodles topped with beef (although lots of variations). The restaurants are usually quite small, and you get in and out fairly quickly. The bowls are cheap and pretty tasty!
Finally, on to more specific locations and restaurants. I found that the teppanyaki in the Kansai (Osaka and Kyoto, amongst others) area was the most delicious. In Namba and Shinsekai in Osaka, there is a high concentration of teppanyaki restaurants, so if you’re in the area, check them out! You’ll find similar things on each menu, but usually there’s variations in ingredients for things such as okonomiyaki and yaki soba. Eat at restaurants that seem the busiest! In Kyoto, there are two very specific noodle restaurants that we went to that were amazing! Both are located on the main north-south road in Higashiyama (I believe it’s called Higashi Oji Dori). The udon place Mimikuo (small white building, very close to the Yaska Shrine complex) served some incredibly delicious noodles! If you’re a fan of udon, or you want to try a Kyoto-style dish, this is the place to go! The staff spoke very good English and you’re given bibs to wear while eating! The other noodle place Abura Soba Nekomata specialises in “oil noodles” (better described as soup-less noodles). This place is further up the road from Mimikuo, but well worth the walk. Follow the restaurant’s suggestion to add an onsen tomago (slow-cooked egg) to the dish, follow their instructions in the menu on how to eat, and enjoy! I loved the noodles so much, I ate here twice, and still dream of the food! Moving on to Tokyo, where there’s a lot to eat. However, I’m just going to talk about one thing; crepes in Harajuku. They’re a very big thing, and you’ll get overwhelmed both by the number of stalls selling them, and the number of options! As with anything else, follow the crowd to the popular places, even if it means waiting in queues. You won’t be disappointed!
Well that’s it for my Geek & Eat posts. I hope you enjoyed reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them! Have you been to Japan? If so, how were your experiences there? Did you find a cool anime figurine you’ve been dying for, or visit a really interesting, historical place? Or did you have one of the best meals of your life? I’d love to know!