Next Up: Going Big in Japan

I have never been to Japan.

Audrey has, but she enjoys the distinction of having eaten a hamburger there. In fact, she requested it. Insisted even. Forgive her though, she was only seven, it was her birthday and she was tired of noodles. But she did wear a blue kimono to make up for it.

Japan Geisha

No, this is not Audrey.

When people inquire about where we’ve been and we tell them that we haven’t yet been to Japan together despite having spent almost two years across Asia, they express disbelief: “How have you not been to Japan?!?!

In turn, we feel a void, a gap, like we really missed something and passed over a place we should have visited long ago.

Now it’s time to correct that.

Why Japan?

Our fascination with Japan goes back, in part, to an outing in San Francisco’s Japantown in the late 1990s. It began in a row of addictive Japanese vending machines, including a booth that spat out a custom-made ink stamp based on a photo snapped of us. The image of our faces was then framed by and filled the windshield of a car — as if we were driving, on the road again. That stamp transformed us back into little children, full of the glee of simplicity and novelty. We applied that stamp to letters, random pieces of paper, anything we could get our hands on. I’d include a photo of the stamp here – it was silly and entertaining and frighteningly lifelike – but it has long since been tucked into a box somewhere.

Cheesy photo stamp-making vending machines as motivation for a trip to Japan?

Yes. This and a host of other pop culture goodies, history and personal advice all helped to plant and tend the seed.

In 2007, at the beginning of our trip, we met a travel and tour consultant that specialized in East Asia, including Japan. Why the focus there? To him, Japan represented “the perfect society.” Courtesy and respect amidst human compression and tight spaces of modern day population density.

Japan, however, always eluded us.

Then in early 2011, we made plans to live in Japan for a couple of months. But, the tsunami and earthquake struck.

We vowed to keep Japan in our sights and visit as soon as we could make it happen. We also hoped to see how it has bounced back.

What Means Japan?

I feel a bit sheepish when trying to describe what Japan means to me. Outside of a reading of Ian Baruma’s then freshly published Inventing Japan: 1853-1964, much of my mind’s image of Japan has been back-filled from a collection of dated bits of pop culture and grade school superficiality.

Speed and light. Moments and tableau. Lost in Translation, loneliness amidst a sea of humanity. Bright lights, big city. Seinfeld gave us the image of Japanese men sleeping in drawers with Kramer. Japan speaks traditional and modern. Geishas, white faces, bold colors. Pokemon and Hello Kitty. Fashion and custom, twisting and temporal. Propriety, formality, and the ultimate in organization to sustain a population stitched into a societal fabric spread across islands. On the flip side, an apparent suppression of emotion so strong that it’s said to produce some of the most profound pornography on the planet. (I am also told by Audrey that I will not consume such content while we are there. Maybe when we return?)

I was recently asked in an interview about where I most wanted to photograph, and answered that although India is likely at the top of my list in terms of places I’ve been it’s Japan – my personal unknown — that I now have a taste to capture.

But the real challenge will be to understand the story, the people, and the culture behind all those images. Clearly, this trip is just the beginning.

Our Japan Itinerary

We take off for Japan this weekend! We’ll start off with G AdventuresDiscover Japan tour.

The tour will take us from Tokyo to Takayama, Kanazawa to Hiroshima, then Kyoto before setting us down at the foot of Mount Fuji for a climb. Our route will be dotted with temples, mountains, sake breweries, and a dose of sobering history. The trains, we’re certain, will run on time.

Mt. Fuji

We’ll follow that up with 4-5 days of hanging in and around Tokyo on our own.

I want to see those Japanese cities of organized compression, people pushed into and subsequently disgorged from subway trains in as timely a fashion as possible. I want to be among those people.

I want to sing karaoke. I want to lavish red-faced in a steam bath.

And of course, there’s the food. Massaged beef, udon and sushi so sweet. And yes, we’ll go to that famous fish market that is scheduled to close sometime soon. I can assure you: astounding amounts of sushi will be eaten.

In spite of these few “musts” I have in my head, I’m not quite certain what I will find. I’m leaving myself open to Japan and I’m thrilled by the opportunity to explore.

I also know that Audrey has come a long way. This time, she tells me, she won’t be eating any hamburgers. But she may just look for another kimono.


Join us on our journey through Japan! You can follow along on Twitter at #dna2japan or on our Facebook page. Don’t worry, we promise not to post too many photos of sushi.

If you have Japan suggestions- food, sights, karaoke bars or otherwise – for any of the places mentioned above, especially Tokyo, please let us know!


If you plan to book this Discover Japan Tour or another tour with G Adventures, please consider starting the process by clicking on the ad below. The price stays the same to you and we earn a small commission. Thank you!

G Adventures Tours to Asia

Disclosure: Our Discover Japan tour was provided by G Adventures in cooperation with its Wanderers in Residence program. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own.

Photo credits to G Adventures

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  1. says

    Sorry for the sour grapes but all I can say is you lucky bastards. I would love to do this trip but I guess I will have to live with the experience of traveling along with you via your blogs. Have a great time and don’t let me down as I am your virtual companion.

  2. says

    @Keith: Your comment made me smile. We will try not to let you down. We’ll even jump into some sumo suits if we have to. Thanks for your virtual companionship!

  3. says

    Food recommendations:
    Obviously the sushi will be some of the best in the world. Also try Katzu don. Ansley if you can find this ultra thinly sliced beef (also looks like roast beef) and it has a dipping sauce that is awesome.

    You have to do a tea ceremony.
    May is cherry blossoms, right?!?

    Enjoy the people. They are genuine!

    I spent nearly a month there on a performing tour but it has been a few years so I have forgotten some of the specifics!

    Jason Ansley

  4. says

    When my husband and I started planning our upcoming RTW trip, I casually suggested at one point that maybe we should save Japan for its own trip because it’s so expensive compared to the rest of Asia (especially since flights in and out tend to be spendy as well). He point-blank refused, which I can’t really blame him for. I went for a week when I was 12, so I was just old enough to know I didn’t want to eat hamburgers, but not so old that I could fully appreciate the experience I was having!

  5. says

    I’m so excited you are off to Japan! We loved our time there last year. We don’t really have any tips for Tokyo (except Disney Sea is awesome :) ) but we spent 3.5 weeks in Kyoto and have loads for there if you have any flexibility in your schedule. My top picks are eating shojin ryori in one of the temples (Tenryuji was good) and visiting Fushimi Inari shrine and Otagi Nenbutsuji temple. Enjoy!

  6. says

    Japan is adorable. It’s like a mini USA with it’s own unique culture and people. You’ll never have a dull moment in there, everything was interesting and entertaining. I’ve stayed there for 3 months and I never want to go home anymore.

  7. Sutapa says

    Great!!! I am so excited! I am always curious about Japan and it has not happened for me so far. Looking forward to your trip!

  8. says

    @John: That’s what I’m hoping. We shall see :)

    @Lori: Great to hear from you. Thanks!

    @Jason: What is the ultra thinly sliced beef called?

    Actually, April (it’s getting earlier, I believe) is cherry blossom season.

    Thanks for your comment!

    @Steph: Ha! Sounds like double digits are the break point of not-to-eat-hamburger-in-Japan awareness. Fun and safe travels!

    @Erin: I suspect we’ll be heading back sometime after this trip, so we’ll definitely take your Kyoto suggestions. Thanks for the tips!

    @Reeda: Never a dull moment…love that. Am looking forward to it!

    @Sutapa: Thanks! We’ll climb up Mt. Fuji. How far we make it will depend on conditions. I believe there are seven stations and at this time of year, with the gear we have, we might make it to five. Stay tuned!

  9. Melissa says

    I’ve been following the blog for a while, but this is my first time commenting. I just had to say: do eat some “burgers” while you’re there!

    When people think of Japanese food, inevitably sushi comes to mind, and more recently maybe foods like udon or ramen. But Japanese food is so much more than that. And yes, it does also encompass “Western” foods, or rather Western-INSPIRED food. Some might call these items that have been taken from abroad and adapted to Japanese palates an abomination or simply “inauthentic Western food”, but tons of Japanese people enjoy them daily and I’ve come to realize that these foods are as much a part of the modern culture as the classics. Ramen, after all, can be considered an “import” from China, and Japanese curry, though an entirely different yummy concoction, maybe from India?

    So, certainly do enjoy the more traditionally Japanese foods (and there is a LOT to feast on), but don’t actively avoid spaghetti (with mayo sauce!) or stopping by a Mos Burger just because it is “not Japanese food” on the surface.

    Excited for you guys and look forward to hearing about your adventures in Japan! ^o^

    (Btw, don’t miss: okonomiyaki & monjayaki (Tokyo’s version), curry, exploring the combinis (convenience stores)… and much more but I’m sure you guys have plenty to eat/see/do!)

  10. says

    VERY cool! Bon voyage! I will be very curious once you get there if you can actually definitively answer WHY everybody HAS to go to Japan. I’ve never been there either, but everyone always raves about the country and says it’s a ‘must’. If there are an endless number of places to visit in Asia, is Japan really a ‘must’? Maybe you’ll let us know!

  11. says

    @Melissa: I said to Audrey just before we published, “I bet you someone is going to write to tell us that the hamburgers in Japan are great.” Actually, I even did a search and found out, not really to my surprise, that there are plenty of burger joints in Japan, many of which people rave about.

    Thanks for the perspective and suggestions on Japanese food. Don’t worry, we’ll try to maintain an open mind — and open stomachs — on the Japanese food front.

    I’ve had a “Japanese curry” elsewhere and wondered what made it Japanese. We’ll have to try it in country.

    Spaghetti with mayo sauce may just have to be skipped, however.

    Japanese convenience stores…now that sounds like my kind of trip. Seriously.

    Thanks for a great comment and we’ll look forward to exchanging notes after our visit!

    @Barbara: We shall see. When it comes to anything in life and travel, “must” is in the eye of the beholder. Stay tuned!

  12. says

    Dan, the tone of your writing is always a hoot, and always enjoyable — more of it, please! Can’t wait to see the images and stories you guys capture, Mt. Fuji is high on my list, so I’m intrigued to see what you find there! :)

  13. Blaž says

    Missed the Seinfield episode of the Japanese men 😀 But funny how the Japanese are likely to be depicted as some kind of aliens. Wanna go to Japan too some day. Thinking that way, that’s as close to “Mars” as it gets 😉

  14. 美里 (Misato) says

    Hi there. Blaž told me about your website and your trip to Japan. So I’m here 😀 I’m Japanese living in Japan, so I may have a few tips for you.

    You might enjoy going to a maid cafe, many of which are in Akihabara. It will be a pretty bizzare experince but I bet it’s something you can’t get anywhere else in the world… Akihabara also has weird hobby shops.

    And Harajuku can be interesting. You will find people in unique fashion. Just be careful with people on Takeshita street who are trying to pull you into a store to buy stuff.

    In terms of food, you can go to an underground floor of a big department store. They have all sorts of food there. Some travel agencies even offer a tour of デパ地下 (depachika “department store underground”).
    And some people mentioned ramen. So you might enjoy here:

    Oh, it can be also fun to go to 100-yen shop!

    hope you have a great trip in Japan!

  15. says

    @Shannon: Thank you. (What is the emoticon for blushing?) Regarding writing more, I’m working on it!

    Fuji is high…on our list, too.

    @Blaž: We’ll give you the fullest report on Japan, and I promise it will be better than Seinfeld. I suppose Seinfeld depicted everyone on that show as aliens, not just the Japanese men sleeping in drawers.

    @Misato: I found your original comment and restored it. Thank you for all the suggestions. More exciting stuff. It does not look like there will be a shortage of things we should do while in Japan. I’m certain we’ll be short of time and be forced to return.

    Maid cafes…sounds interesting. Hobby shops. 100-yen shops. Excellent suggestion. Now, to find room in the bag, for the stuff from the 100-yen shops.

    Tours of “department store underground” — we are almost certain to do that.

    Great to hear from you. Thanks again for taking the time to comment!

  16. says

    I’m not sure if you’ll be in Tokyo between May 18th and 20th, but the Sanja Matsuri (one of Tokyo’s three big festivals) is being held in Asakusa and should definitely not be missed. Either way, try to check out any local matusuri (festival) in any town your in and you won’t be disappointed (food, mikoshi (think the Japanese version of Carnival floats), yukata (a ‘summer kimono’), etc). Also you should also definitely check out Nara and Todai-ji, the largest wooden building in the world, when you’re in Kyoto.

    If you have lots of time (and have someone with you who speaks Japanese), I’d recommend checking out some of the more interesting islands such as Shikoku (which has some fantastic hiking, but watch out for the pit vipers).

  17. says

    Sounds like the perfect itinerary! Japan is a top 5 for us, we love everything about Japan – food, temples, bright lights, oddities, history…

    Hopefully we’ll catch up with you guys in Vancouver later this month! 😉

  18. says

    That’s so awesome! Hope you have an awesome time in Japan! Great time of year to be there so make sure you get some cherry blossom tree photos! Will be interested to see your photos and get your thoughts on the country.

  19. says

    @John: Terrific suggestions! Thank you. I think we’ll be in Tokyo at least for a day that coincides with the festival. Sounds like something we must see.

    Thanks for all the Kyoto suggestions, too. Am hoping we can fit some of them in.

    @Marshall: Japan certainly strikes me as exceptionally clean. I don’t think recent events have changed that.

    @Cam: We’ll look forward to it!

    @Jeremy: Currently collecting — and overloaded — with Japan impressions. Stay tuned.

    @Nicholas: We all have our weaknesses. Here in Japan, mine happens to be coffee. Having said that, the green tea is pretty exceptional.

  20. Lori says

    I’ve been following your adventures for a while now, and am thrilled that you’re getting to Japan. I had the opportunity to live there for a couple of years and loved it. Hiroshima was amazing. Kamakura was another personal favorite if you have a bit of time.
    Regarding food, a place called Tsunahachi for tempura. Several locations, including a really good one in Shinjuku/Tokyo. Get seats at the counter to watch the preparation. May… maybe the wisteria will be in bloom.

  21. Olivia says

    Hey Uncle Dan & Audrey,
    I hope you’re having a great time in Japan! Can you do a post on the “pop culture goodies” you mentioned? Apparently there are tons of cute/fun novelty toys there that have always intrigued me haha! Hope to see you in June!!

  22. Jeffrey Noll says

    Hey Dan and Audrey,
    Olivia and I would like you to check out this really fun video of a Japanese candy making kit. You can buy these in Japan. They look like a blast to do! Hint, hint.
    You guys are the best! See you soon.

  23. says

    Am very excited to read all about your trip to Japan! My boyfriend and I are starting our 2 year backpacking trip there in September so I will be looking out for all tips and advice that you have!

  24. Erio Beatz says

    I’m living in Japan Center city in Germany now and I often take a look at Japanese store and stuffs, also the foods for sure!
    That makes me want to visit Japan so badly but unfortunately I still haven’t got the right time, wish I could this year!

  25. says

    @Lori: Agreed. I loved all of Japan, but there was a special feeling in Hiroshima (and nearby Miyajima was terrific, too).

    We eventually did get to Kamakura also, so thank you for the recommendation.

    Tsunahachi tempura, done. Loved it, too. We enjoyed the Shinjuku location and got a lot of personal attention just after lunch on a rainy day.

    The wisteria was in bloom in places, even a few cherry blossoms leftover. However, our timing was great because we had a clear view of Mt. Fuji for about two days.

    A big thanks again for the suggestions!

    @Jo: Kanazawa was fun. A great market, a beautiful department store basement (at the department store in the train station), awesome green tea chocolates at the convenience store (that you cannot get anywhere else in Japan, it seemed). Thanks for your comment!

    @Olivia: We had a great time in Japan. Wish we had more time. Boy, were we busy. We’ll try and do a post on some more pop culture goodies. However, I can tell you now that we met Hello Kitty (or at least the woman who is the English language voice of Hello Kitty). It was cool. We’ll post a video.

    @Jeff: Great candy making kit. Very Japanese. Be on the lookout in your mailbox for something soon.

    @Mary: Bright, energetic culture, anime. And a whole lot more. There’s a lot to process. We just got started with our latest post:

    There’s a lot more to unpack. It’s going to be a slow drip.

    @Vicky: This is a first installment for what to look for (or perhaps all this will make itself obvious very quickly):

    We’ll be covering Japanese food (with some suggestions, of course), Mt. Fuji, Shinto festivals, our awesome interactions with Japanese school groups and Hello Kitty. Stay tuned!

  26. says

    Audrey and Daniel, it was fun to follow the Japan tour on Twitter, I’m waiting for the new posts. The country has never been top in my travel list, but your impressions (as well as Nomadic Matt’s) have been changing that. Beautiful, beautiful images!
    Have a safe trip through Canada!

  27. says

    @Emilia: Thanks. Glad you enjoyed our live Twitter stream on Japan and photos via Instagram. Stay tuned for more Japan content. There’s a lot to unpack!

  28. says

    I must say, everything about Japan seems so very attractive. One of my dreams is to once be dressed as a real Geisha and walk on the streets of Tokyo like that.

  29. says

    @Lidia: You can go to a Geisha spa that will make you out to look like one. They are a little pricey at a couple hundred to several hundred dollars, though.

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