February is the month when winter feels like it’s been so long that you begin to worry that you’ll never feel warm again. Needing a boost of excited energy to combat the gloomy weather, I impulsively booked a flight to Japan for October.
Why The Land of The Rising Sun? It wasn’t the zen life philosophies that the Japanese practice that drew me or the OCD-level city organization. Nor was it the promise of impressive temples and shrines or even the luscious slices of sashimi and rich bowls of ramen.
While those are all legit AF reasons, what ultimately convinced me to book the 13-hour direct flight was the prospect of shelves upon shelves of freshly made onigiri at the 7-Elevens in Japan.
Because I am one classy broad 🙏🍙 #alltheonigiri
Also I suppose I’m highly suggestible. Two of my good friends had returned from Japan raving about their trip, filling my one-track mind with visions of sakura blossoms and onigiri. Mostly of onigiri. Ugh, I’m sorry for lying. I never thought of sakura blossoms at all – only the onigiri. I was just trying to sound like I was
less internally obese more well-rounded and cultured.
Now that I’ve committed to travel plans with the symbolic ring of a roundtrip flight, I’ve recruited said friends for intel in the form of recommendations and tips.
In the advertising world, it’s said that a testimonial from someone you know is a much more effective marketing strategy than traditional advertisements which is why I’m starting this new series called “Word-of-Mouth.” Here I solicit recommendations from friends for everything from where to eat and what to see to authentic cultural experiences.
For a little background, Jordana is my roommate, regular brunch date, the talented developer who built this site (!) and pretty much who I’m going to grow old with. We are going to get all Grey Gardens together👵🏻👵🏽 Whether she agrees or not 😝
Nhi is a little potato of a freelance graphic designer (and ex-coworker) with a
n obsessive love of bananas🍌, dogs of all kinds (she doesn’t discriminate) and snacking until she hurts herself (because she has self-control issues or eyes that are bigger than her stomach).
in their own words
What kind of traveller are you?
Jordana: I seek out cool landscapes and awesome food almost exclusively. I love street/casual food, but I’ll shell out for one or two fancy meals usually.
Nhi: Hungry – local favourites, traveller favourites, 1-2 fancy meals for the experience
Very active: hikes, walks, constantly moving, other sport/athletic activities
Art/culture: museums, galleries, interesting neighbourhoods
What surprised you the most about Japan?
Nhi: A lot of places are still cash based.
What was your favourite meal/dish you had the entire trip?
Jordana: Don’t make me choose! But there was one piece of Wagyu sushi from Kyubey in the Ginza district of Tokyo that I STILL THINK ABOUT MONTHS LATER. It was the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth, hands down.
What was the best thing you ate?
Nhi: High-end – Omakase at Kyubey
Low-end – Everything from Family Mart, 7Eleven, etc… Gyudon, beef bowls with rice *SO GOOD*
Dessert – Matcha everything, it’s legit
What are your top 3 tips you’d give people visiting Japan for the first time?
1/ Bring comfortable shoes(!!!). Japan had very little seating on the streets, so expect to walk A LOT.
2/ A pocket wifi is an absolute must. I prefer it over the sim card because people you’re travelling with can also use it, you can use it with multiple types of devices, and it’s always compatible. If I didn’t have this, I would have been lost all the time. Cost me about $70 for the 2 weeks and was completely worth it.
3/ Visit popular restaurants and tourist destinations early because they get VERY busy mid day. So, if you’re looking to have an actual peaceful and reflective experience at the temples, use your jet lag advantage and go early. Like 6/7AM early.
As an example, I went to the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest at 7AM and it was almost empty, but by 10AM it was packed with people and had touristy rickshaws all over the place.
Bonus #4! Save yourself the headache of figuring out train costs for each trip, and get a Suica or Passmo card at any train station. You load the card with money, and then when you’re going on and off the trains and busses you just tap to pay the correct fare. I just got mine when I arrived at Haneda Airport and it made things very simple. You can even buy drinks from the vending machines with them
What one bucket list activity would you recommend?
Nhi: Things I missed and would go back for: Mt Fuji, sumo wrestling.
Something unexpectedly fun: a baseball game
What’s one thing you missed that you wish you had done/seen/eaten?
Jordana: I didn’t give myself enough time in Kyoto and I missed out seeing the one shrine I really wanted to see, the Fushimi Inari Shrine.
What spots would you return to?
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
What cities would you recommend new visitors to stay in?
Nhi: Tokyo, Kyoto
What’s a good day trip to take (and from where)?
Jordana: Osaka and Nara make a perfect day trip from Kyoto. They’re all about an hour away from each other so you can see them both in one day. It’s pretty cheap to go to each location since they just use the local trains, so you’ll just have to pay the normal train fare.
Kyoto ——> Nara
8:00AM: From Kyoto Station, take the Kintetsu-Limited Express line to Kintetsu-Nara Station (¥1,130)
9:00AM: Walk from the station to Nara Park. It takes about 20 minutes but there’s shrines to stop at on the way. You’ll know you’re close when you start seeing all of the deer.
9:20AM: Walk around the park (pet and feed the deer) and visit the Todai-ji shrine.
11:30AM: Walk back to the station but stop for lunch or ice cream somewhere. I don’t recommend eating in the park because the deer will try to steal your food!!
Nara ——> Osaka
You could choose to either go to Osaka Castle first, or go straight to Dotonbori (the food and shopping street). I opted to go right to the food street and skipped the castle. Though I’ve heard the castle is pretty great too, and you would definitely have time to do both if you wanted.
1:00PM: From Nara, take the Kintetsu-Nara Line to Kintetsu-Nippombashi Station in Osaka (¥560)
2:15PM: Walk about 6 minutes to Dotonbori. You’ll know you’ve reached it when you can see the giant food signs!
Some food I’d recommend trying while you’re there: Osaka-style okonomiyaki, takoyaki, gyoza, crab (from the place with the giant food sign), and kushikatsu. Osaka is THE food city in Japan, so arrive hungry! Then just walk around and explore the area as much as you want.
Osaka ——> Kyoto
7:00PM (or whenever you’ve had your fill!): Leave Osaka from Namba Station, taking the Midosuji Line to Umeda Station. You’ll then have to walk a couple mins from Umeda Station to Osaka Station. From Osaka Station, take the Tokaido-Sanyo Line to Kyoto Station (¥790). The full trip back takes about an hour.
What type of person is Japan perfect for and why?
Jordana: Japan is perfect for foodies, solo travellers, nerds of all kinds, and adventurous people. Skip it if you typically like beach bum vacations, or are not willing to adapt to another culture’s rules.
Where was your favourite accommodations that you stayed?
Nhi: The Millennials [Capsule Hostel] was fun.
What was your favourite souvenir from your trip?
Jordana: My goshuin-cho.
In Japan you can buy a goshuin-cho (it looks like a journal) at any temple or shrine. It’s a special book used for collecting goshuin temple stamps at any of the various shrines and temples throughout the country.
To collect them you look for a booth with monks doing calligraphy, hand them your book and pay 300-500 yen. The monks then write and stamp the temple symbol and date. Sometimes you choose the stamp since some of them have different meanings, but I generally stuck with just the symbol of the shrine itself. They’re kind of like passport stamps for shrines, so for me they were great to collect and bring back as symbols of the places I’ve been. I visited over 30 shrines to fill my book!
What did you like about Japan that you wish Toronto would adopt?
Nhi: Design efficiency in every way + how clean it is.
What did you love the most about Japan and why?
Jordana: Japan was #1 on my bucket list since I was a young teen, and it did not disappoint me in any way.
It’s super safe. The people are welcoming and respectful. The landscapes are beautiful. Everything runs on time. Convenience stores are actually convenient. The shrines are peaceful escapes from the city. The toilets even greet you.
But probably most of all the food is incredible and diverse. Most people probably think first about sushi – which admittedly is the freshest I’ve ever eaten – but there’s so much more to Japanese food than that.
Like you’ve got ramen, katsudon, takoyaki, kushikatsu, matcha, okonomiyaki, japanese barbeque, japanese curry, gyoza, korroke, shabu shabu, onigiri, handmade udon, giant fluffy pancakes, all of the adorable desserts, melon bread, taiyaki, mochi, wagyu beef. I could probably go on forever. Everything was just so good.
As if I wasn’t bouncing-out-of-my-chair excited for my upcoming trip to Japan as it was, these recommendations have me even MORE impatient with anticipation! Hope these word-of-mouth tips and recos have helped you as much as they’ve helped me 🙂
(Photo Credit for Featured Image: Nhi Tran)