Travelogue 04: Japan

November, 2018

Japan in a word: unforgettable

There’s a reason we included so many photos in this travelogue; I had the choice of including 300 images from our trip or writing 3,000,000 words and the choice was easy. Put simply, Japan is unforgettable, and unbelievably beautiful, and I’m really just gonna do my best here to briefly explain why before letting the photos do the talking.

A dream

I had always dreamed of travelling to Japan, since I was a kid. It was at the top of my bucket travel list, but also seemed like the kind of place I’d never actually get the chance to visit. When a good friend moved there, and when Jess and I got on top of our finances, it started to look more and more doable. And then when we found cheap tickets at ⅓ the usual price, we excitedly jumped on ‘em. We knew there’d be challenges, so we got to researching early and came up with a gameplan.

What to bring

One thing we knew for certain was that we wanted to pack as minimally as possible. We wanted to be able to go and walk anywhere, and do anything, whenever we wanted. We travel light in general, and loved the challenge of doing it for an international trip. We decided to carry a backpack each and worked really hard to trim our stuff down to the essentials.

What I brought:

  • Backpack: Lowepro Photo Sport BP 300 AW II

  • One body, one lens, extra batteries/cards, cleaning stuff

  • One pair of pants, two t-shirts, one thermal long sleeved shirt, one pair of walking shoes, two pairs of wool socks, four pairs of underwear

  • Nano puff jacket, beanie, sunglasses

  • Ziplock for toothbrush and hygiene products in tiny containers

  • Nintendo Switch, charging cables

  • Thermos

Jess carried more or less the same amount, but brought a Fuji X100F, extra shoes, her kindle, etc.

Packing decisions: clothes

Layering strategies for what clothes to wear were a bit less difficult for me as my wardrobe’s pretty minimal as is and built around layering. Just like on road trips, I kept it simple, with one main outfit and some extra under-layers to swap out in case I got smelly. I don’t really sweat much or smell, so that’s a huge help. If you’re a sweater or get smelly, you’ll need to pack a few more pairs of under things. Laundry is available in most hotels/hostels/guest houses as well.

Nano puff jackets are game changers, as they keep you super warm and pack down extremely small. I wanted to bring a denim jacket but they’re nowhere near as warm or packable – same for the second sweater I wanted to bring, but it didn’t pass the packable test and took up too much room, so I left at home (luckily).

After a bunch of weighing (not literally) my options, I ended up with the smallest amount of things I needed, and it all managed to fit inside a small backpack. Success!

In hindsight, I really wouldn’t change anything besides bringing along a super lightweight rain jacket just in case, as it briefly rained one of the days (we just stayed inside and ate ramen instead which is still a win)

Packing decisions: camera gear

The hardest part for me, and my main source of anxiety, was figuring out what camera gear to bring to Japan; if this was the first and last time I’d be travelling there, would I be okay with making photos with just one lens? Which lens should it be? Could I live without bringing two pro lenses? A grip on the camera? How would I carry it, what strap would I use? I did a lot of research into my lightroom catalog to see what I tended to use, and digging through forums online to see what others have tried.

In the end I chose to go with one camera body (Nikon D750), and one lens (Nikon 35mm f/1.8). They’re both small and light, and the 35 is a classic focal length for photojournalism. I resolved myself to the fact that no matter what I brought I wouldn’t be able to get every shot I wanted, and decided I was okay with the kind of shots I could make with a 35. The challenge and limitation was also pretty appealing. I attached the camera to my backpack using Black Rapid’s backpack sling, and that was perfect.

We also rented a Fuji X100F for Jess to shoot, which was much smaller and lighter than my Nikon setup. She used a simple wrist strap from Black Rapid but probably would have loved a backpack sling of her own to keep her hands free.

Both Jess and I would have similar setups and we were interested to see the photos we’d each bring back!

The plane rides

Our route took us through LA first, where we grabbed a cheap hotel near the airport. If you haven’t been to LAX, it’s fantastic, as it’s actually in LA and there are a lot of lodging options within a short walking/Lyfting distance of the airport. Having just our backpacks was a huge help here as we weren’t rolling luggage around with us.

The next morning we packed up and walked back to the airport and made our way through security. Flying internationally means a couple extra steps, but nothing major, and the quick lines meant we were extremely early at our gate.

Let me be frank about something: it’s a long fucking flight to Japan.

I think ours was like 11.5 hours (our route took us over southern Alaska). Even for someone who spends a lot of time at a computer, 11.5 hours is a loooooong time to be sitting around. My main tips here are entertainment and SNACKS. There’s a great chance you’re gonna get bored. I watched in-flight movies (which were surprisingly good), played my Switch, read. Still though. Make sure you’ve got plenty of things to keep you busy!

Importantly: if you’ve got any dietary restrictions (like being vegan or gf), call ahead to have your meals arranged! You’ll have very little to munch on otherwise. We made the mistake of not calling ahead and I was always hungry-bordering-on-hangry. Bring snacks with you.

Time difference

Be prepared to have your internal clock get messed. Up.

Japan is 13hrs ahead of us, just enough to make adjustment really difficult. We did some research on how to best mitigate this, but didn’t do a great job of implementing it. Would definitely work harder on this next time.

We landed, and had to first make our way to Tokyo by train.

Tired, hungry, jet-lagged, and with a language barrier, we first had to:

  • Pick up our reserved pocket wifi (crucial – if you’re going to Japan, you need this).

  • Find an ATM, and figure out how to put money onto to a reloadable transportation (Suica) card

  • Find anything to snack on

We did it, and were soon in Tokyo station, trying our absolute damndest to find the highly-rated (and can’t-miss) vegan ramen place at the station.

Doing our best impression of how not to win at Amazing Race, Jess and I teamed up and managed to get this stuff done together. It was definitely a team effort, and the ramen was our prize. Later, we absolutely collapsed into the bed at our hostel.

What we did

If you follow along with Jess and me, you know we travel simply wherever we go. We see stuff, do cheap stuff, eat every five minutes, and stop for tea/coffee often. Japan was no different! Here’s a list of what we did and saw in order along with some highlights.

Meiji Shrine in Tokyo: a beautiful shrine surprisingly tucked into the city, offering a relaxing stroll through densely forested walkways. We did this first thing in the morning and the clean, crisp air was the perfect start to our sightseeing.

Senso-ji: we met up with my good friend who’s been living and working in Japan for years, and made our way early to see this gorgeous shrine with its enormous gateway. The sights were incredible, and my friend walked us through a few of the traditions. Fried sweet potatoes with a honey glaze on a stick were absolutely a highlight.

Mt. Takao: the three of us together then took a short train ride from Asakusa to Mt. Takao, and hiked a steep, winding, paved path to its summit. It was packed, but quiet (a good overall summary of our experience in Japan). Plenty to see and eat and drink along the way and the view from the top at sunset was magic.

Akabane: just a few more train stops and we were off to stay with my friend in Akabane after the hike. The next day we did some exploring around the neighborhood, down a river walk, and definitely couldn’t miss out on taking some photos in one of Japan’s top-notch photo booths. The pictures were fun, the effects and stickers and doodles you can add make them priceless.

Magome to Tsumago: hands down, this hike was both Jess’ and my favorite experience during our trip.

Just a short taxi ride from a train stop, you start in Magome, a beautiful, hillside post town. A stop here on its own would be worth it, as the town’s absolutely beautiful. Visitors should not miss stopping into Hillbilly Coffee for great coffee and conversation. We stayed at a GREAT hostel near the top of the town and met tourists from Germany and Italy.

They told us about a vegan-friendly restaurant near the bottom of the town, but they didn’t know where it was. It was getting late, and dark, but we were super hungry and intrigued, and the idea of great vegan food gave us the push we needed to see if we couldn’t find it. We wandered around, looking for obvious signs, and finally settled on a place we figured was the restaurant. We poked our heads in the door (which turned out to be the rear employee entrance ha), and were greeted and led to a private room behind a sliding door and told someone would be with us shortly. A little strange, but success!

A room over, we could hear a larger group having a great time as we just kinda waited in this beautiful place. We were sitting on a mat at a low table. Our server came in soon, greeted us super graciously, and offered us tea. We let him know in broken Japanese that we were vegan, and the server nodded vigorously and left. We shrugged and did a little more waiting.

A short while later, he returned with huge trays full of 5-6 incredible dishes for each of us. All kind of varieties of veggies, tofu, rice, noodles… it was sublime. We enjoyed our delicious private dinner, thanked the staff a ton, and took a moonlit stroll back up the hill to our hostel, happy and full.

The next morning we climbed to the top of the town and started the hike! It’s a simple, approachable, ~5mi trek through the Japan Alps. There are rest stops that serve food and drinks every mile or so and bathrooms with wifi, making this easier than it may sound. Along the way we passed through small towns, through a garden with permission, passed by houses and people just living, through forests(ringing bear bells), past forest shrines, and stopped in a free public tea house.

This was definitely more about the journey than the destination. Tsumago itself was ...cool – a gorgeous little town lined with wood work and little shops (Jess bought some chopsticks that she absolutely loves). It’s mostly a nice little bonus at the end of an incredible hike.

Arashiyama, Kyoto: Where Tokyo is bustling, modern, full of lights and grey and black, Kyoto is a more natural, traditional, relaxed place. More trees, more colors, slower pace. It’s here where we spent a large portion of our time with no regrets. If you find that Tokyo makes you anxious, Kyoto should be your next stop. Plus you can take a bullet train there from Tokyo!

Once in Kyoto, we walked around, took in the sights. Strolled a river walk, wandered side streets (a favorite past time in Japan). Saw more shrines. Hiked up a hill to the Monkey Park. We split up for lunch and had similar incredible dining experiences; Jess, modern and higher-end, me, more neighborhood. It was fun meeting back up and telling each other all about it.

Osaka: our trip capped off with another bullet train out to Osaka from Kyoto. We didn’t spend much time here, but we did get to do some more walking around between meals and had a couple great interactions with people who lived there. We really just had a little extra time and wanted to see it just to see it.

After we saw and ate everything we could in the short time we had, we bee-lined back toward Akabane to say with my friend again before making our way back to Tokyo, and then back to the airport.

Our plane ride back was shorter, with more food (even though we called in our vegan option, we hilariously packed waaaay too many snacks to avoid a repeat of the flight in), huge pours of wine, and the Dreamliner experience of simulating sunlight to help our clocks better adjust. It was a wonderful flying experience.

After ~9hrs we were in LA for donuts and a sunset, on another short plane ride to Denver, and eventually back home to Cooper.

In closing:

This trip was unforgettable, and we’ve been thinking back on and talking about it several times a week since we’ve been back – Remember that garden? Remember that double breakfast? Remember that frozen sake? Remember that bathroom?

We’re beyond excited to have the opportunity to go back in April 2020 and share this incredible experience with a couple.

General observations and tips for travelling to Japan:

  • Sunglasses: I noticed that like no one wears them

  • Tattoos: taboo, no one has them, but the culture seems to be coming around on them. No one gave Jess any shit for her many tattoos, but she did have a lot of trouble finding a hot spring she’d be allowed in. And covering up in temples is recommended out of respect.

  • As a westerner: you’ll get looks, stares, smiles, help, conversations, mini-tours

  • JR pass: only get one if you're going to other cities

  • Suica: 5000 yen (~$50) loaded for a week stay is a good start to avoid having to reload it so often

  • Mind personal space, follow the vibe and volume of those around you

  • Google translate: SPEAK into it! You can have great conversations and get help this way

  • Walking: Plan for 5-10 miles per day, so wear comfy WALKING shoes

  • Language: At a minimum, learn to say Excuse Me (sumimasen) and Thanks (arigato gozaimasu)

  • Ordering food: Point to menu/plastic display

  • 7-11: Invaluable and numerous, to get money and delicious onigiri!

  • Money: carrying cash is a sure bet, so be prepared to hold bills and lots of coins

  • Sightseeing: Tour shrines at sunrise, towns in the afternoon, eat dinner early, travel late

  • Hours: places don't open till 11am (even coffee shops), and they close at 5

  • Vending machines: the ability to get hot coffee and tea almost anywhere is GREAT

  • Tipping: Don’t tip anyone!

  • Navigation: GPS can be unreliable in dense areas, makes using landmarks difficult

  • Lockers: most bus/train stations let you store stuff for cheap

  • Side streets: look like alleys, have great food/drink and make for great sightseeing

  • Lodging: Guest houses are beautiful, no need to spend more than $100ish US

  • Foot traffic: Walk on the left side! You’ll be in the way otherwise. And don’t jay walk.

  • Ask for help: lost? Ask tourism/information for help! Staff is super helpful with maps and navigation, and random people might see you at a sign and offer some help

  • The flight home: Use up Suica funds at stores! Cheap snacks for flight, little souvenirs

- Austin


First gallery of images by Jess, second gallery by Austin.

Click to enlarge and scroll through ‘em full size!