Going to Japan is like having a dream wide awake. Some bits feel normal, like eating an ice cream by the Kamo River in Kyoto, and then some others are out of this world, like being one of the 37 millions habitants walking through the streets of Tokyo.
Last fall, I was on a plane about to take off to Toronto when I received ZEEE email. The then-fashion editor of Clin d’oeil magazine, Sophie Montminy, was asking me if I was available to go on a press trip with UNIQLO, three weeks later… in Japan!!!
You should have seen my face. It was the exact same one I had when I received a Super Nintendo for Christmas in 1996. That gift made me the happiest girl on earth (I’ve always been a bit of a geek). And that email made me the happiest full-grown woman in the world (I’ve always been Japan-obsessed).
The press trip was in Tokyo and meant to be five-days long. But eh, if I’m going to take a 15-hour flight and be on a 13-hour jet lag, I might as well make it count. I extended my trip to two weeks so I could add Osaka and Kyoto to my itinerary — and a couple more ramen bowls.
Japan has always been so high on my travel list that being invited by UNIQLO — a Japanese brand — was kind of surreal. Especially only two months after returning from Scandinavia.
Of course, the trap with having such high expectations of a place you’ve never set foot in is to be disappointed. Japan is nothing like you could imagine — it’s ten times better. I had read about it, I had seen a couple of movies set in Tokyo (shout out to Scarlett and Bill), and I had heard of some people’s experiences, but no words or images will ever do it justice. Get ready: Japan will blow you away.
If you’ve never been, here are five reasons why you should go asap. You won’t regret it, I promise.
1. Back to the Future
Minutes from landing in Tokyo, I was still expecting the city to be all about neon lights, doll-dressed teenagers and sushi served by robots. I was half right. What I couldn’t have predicted is, regardless of all the elements straight out of Blade Runner, how Japan is tightly tied to its traditional roots.
I love how you encounter one of the hundreds of shrines in Tokyo — Osaka has thousands! — and then you turn around only to discover the second largest building on earth. Also, don’t be surprised if you pass by a woman dressed in geisha attire and a couple of seconds later one wearing the craziest post-goth-apocalyptic outfit ever.
One tradition that I wish we had in Canada are oshibori, or hot towels, which are served before every meal, whether you’re eating at a Michelin restaurant or at a McDonald’s! A little spa treatment for your hands three times a day? Yes, please.
2. They <3 Nature
Japan is all about extremes. You only have to walk a few minutes on the streets of Tokyo to understand why so many people need to rush towards nature once in a while.
During our press trip, UNIQLO brought us to Mount Hakone, which sounds like a pretty harmless name considering it’s a volcano. In Japan, though, volcanos are everyday business. There are more than 110 active ones in the country which is why onsen, known as hot springs, are everywhere and crazy popular.
I have to say: the one we went to wasn’t so great. It looked more like the West Edmonton Mall’s aquatic club than a legit onsen. The only reason why we went there is because nice ones require visitors to be naked… Having been by myself, I would have done it. But the idea of doing small talk with a bunch of journalist peers with our boobs hanging out did sound a little uncomfortable.
Also, if you have tattoos, be careful. They have an extremely bad reputation in Japan; they’re associated with mobs. So if you go to an onsen, make sure your hide them with some kind of bandage. Otherwise, the little hummingbird on your shoulder blade might make you look like a serial killer. Remember when I said Japan was all about extremes?
For more natural beauty, the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove in Kyoto is a must. The name says it all. It’s a forest filled with thousands and thousands of bamboos. The trees are so dense and regular that little sun shines through. The ambiance really makes you feel like you’re wandering in a magical woodland (with dozens of tourists with selfie sticks).
Right next to the grove, there’s the Iwatayam Monkey Park. It’s basically 170 macaque monkeys running free on a small mountain. If you love cute little furry things (if you don’t, I don’t think you’re on the right blog), you should love it as much as I did.
3. Ramen, Sushi, Sashimi = Heaven
Food in Japan is amazing, BUT (yes, there’s a but) you have to be willing to redefine some of your pre-acquired tastes. For example, Japanese restaurants are big on gooey textures, so you’ll often find broth shaped into little gelatine cubes, sprinkled on top of your meal.
I hate to say it — but hey, that’s who I am — I’m not a big food risk-taker. I love food, but I’m easily thrown off by the visual and/or texture of things. So let’s say I LOADED up on ramen. But I mean, not any kind of ramen — the best I’ve had in my entire life. Even ramen from restaurant chains are like the fanciest you could find here in Montreal.
Funny story. The night before coming back home, I went to a ramen restaurant called Ichiran in the Shimokitazawa neighborhood in Tokyo. It’s part of a chain but rated as of one the best ramen places in the city.
I get to the restaurant and right past the door, there’s something that looks like a vending machine. Blame it on my clueless face, but a waiter comes out to help me figure this whole thing out. “Aaah, I have to order my food heeere! Arigato, Mr. The Waiter”.
As I’m about to walk through the curtains separating the lobby from the restaurant, I notice a floor map with little light bulbs and numbers. Some are on and some others are off; they indicate which seats are available. Alright, seat #8, I’m comin’ for ya!
Surprise, surprise! Once I go in, I realize that each place, all around one bar, is like a little cubicle. You’re sitting next to a bunch of people, but it feels like you’re by yourself. I sit down to my assigned seat and all of sudden, a little straw curtain in front of me goes up and an unidentified hand gives me a bowl of ramen. It disappears as fast as it appeared. Was in a Japanese Oompa Loompa? No one will ever know. Once my soup is done, I get up in total silence and leave.
If it wasn’t for that waiter at the beginning, I would have had no human interactions whatsoever. Yeah, it may seem like a sad concept, but as a westerner, it was such a weird experience. And that’s exactly why you should try it.
4. People Are Nice
Maybe it’s because I looked like a tourist or maybe it’s just social consensus, but the Japanese are beyond polite. They bow more times than you can count, say “thank you” at every turn, and will do anything to answer your questions. Most of them can barely speak English, but each time I asked about directions — I mean, Tokyo subway has more than 270 subway stations! — they did everything to help me find my way.
Also, you know how employees in fancy boutiques across Europe and America rarely say “hi”, unless you look like you have billions in your bank account? Japan is the exact opposite. Every time you come into a shop, someone cheerfully says “Irasshaimase” and shouts “Arigato gozaimasu” when you walk out. Don’t choke on your bubble tea, it just means “welcome” and “thank you for coming”.
Most importantly, Japan felt incredibly safe for a woman travelling by herself. Much like Copenhagen, not once have I felt uncomfortable while walking home alone at night. That is even more impressive considering I would be a pretty easy target: a blue-eyed blond woman, let’s just say I stood out quite a lot. Strangers stared at me, especially kids, but it always seemed out of curiosity. The only people who talked to me were school kids who had been asked by their teacher to spot Americans in crowds and practice their English with them. One of the cutest moments: when two young girls kept staring at me with huge smiles on their faces. I smiled back and, in response, they drew air-hearts with their fingers and ran away. Cuteness at its best.
5. Fashion as You’ve Never Seen It Before
Just type “Tokyo street style” on Google and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’a bit unclear why Japanese style is so out there. My guess is that they have such a disciplined upbringing and are under such incredible work pressure that fashion is their way of blowing off some steam.
In Tokyo, Shibuya is THE place to witness amongst the most extravagant outfits. The area is mostly made up of shops, so the crowd is mostly young adults who are not afraid to experiment with their style. It’s also where you’ll find the amazing Laforet, a department store that hosts hundreds of curated boutiques spread across ten floors.
For vintage fans, Shimokitazawa, also in Tokyo, is a must-see neighbourhood. It’s thrift-store heaven where all the best Japanese style memorabilia can be found. If your heart is pounding fast just at the thought of it, it’s normal. Mine is too.
Last but not least, if you happen to be in Osaka, head over to what is called the “Orange Street” to shop in crazy cool concept stores. Some of the price tags may give you a heatstroke, but I personally enjoy looking at exclusive luxury goods even if four months’ worth of rent sounds a little steep for a cropped top. Just make yourself believe you’re in a museum.
I could keep on talking about Japan forever, but a post’s got to end at some point :) If ever you’re thinking of going to the Land of the Rising Sun and need more specific recommandations, ask me! The Japan groupie in me will be more than happy to help you out.