Tokyo you’re too much.

Tokyo. Hold on, it gets nuts.

Tokyo is huge first of all. As far as cities go it is spread out like Los Angeles with way more people walking around. It’s busy, full of life, and amazing. Finding a place to stay can be a little daunting, but getting around on the subway is easy enough. We landed at the hotel Claska  in the Meguro section.

So yeah. It has a maritime theme to it. I suppose. If ships were made of stucco. It was a cool, hip place, kind of an bargain Ace Hotel, with a cute little coffee place in the lobby, where all the food came with something the shape of a penis. Not sure if that was by design.

First thing was first and that was breakfast… a quick Google search came up with the “best” breakfast in Tokyo, a little place called Kaila, which, as far as I could tell, had a Hawaiian theme to it. The specialty here was the waffles and pancakes, although the Benedict was off the charts. Also I got to see more people take pictures of their plates then most do of their babies.

Belly full, I immediately felt the urge to experience all the weirdness that I heard Tokyo was famous for, so I made a B line for Akihabara, which if nothing else, is super fun to say. Arriving there I was not disappointed, visually smacked with bright signs, throngs of kids, and tons of manga. It was an overload of nerdiness.

They even had a functional Tower Records there… I guess no one told the manager they went out of business like 8 years ago.

Next I wandered back through the city into Shibuya, which I ended up finding an AirBnB at as the neighborhood was way cooler then where Claska was. Shabuya is hard to describe, it’s kind of the West Village meets 5th Avenue of New York, a place where a funky junk shop could be next door to a couture designer. The streets twist and turn here in gentle, winding arcs, and there are a ton of great places to shop, and more importantly for this Italian, eat. I found two places that were amazing, one was a food truck that had a line of people outside.

First I saw the line, that led me into an alley, and there, I saw the omelette food truck called OmtRak. Basically its rice, a fresh scrambled egg on top, and then your choice of sauce. I chose curry, mainly because it was the only thing I could point to. It was amazing. The other was the Dominque Ansei bakery which is like a Willie Wonka factory. Inside they take oversized homemade marshmallows, dip them in chocolate, and give them to you on a stick. I mean a curry omelette and chocolate marshmallow is kinda the best meal ever.

It was a pleasure to walk off that meal through the dope streets of Shabuya (also fun to say, especially if you do a fist to pelvis hip thrust while saying it.)

Here I found a little traditional kimono shop  and grabbed my kimono cause I stand behind a culture where a robe is considered formal wear. I also encountered the strange ritual of having receipts stapled into your passport. Apparently they keep a record of this and at the airport you are suppose to show them the receipts and they are going to check to make sure you have all the stuff you bough, but between you and me, this never happened.

They also like to make models of their food. All their food. In every restaurant they have these fake plates, with food on them. It’s kinda amazing. So is this reindeer having his way with Santa. Who’s laughing and calling the names now fat man?

Hungry, I found a BBQ joint called Smokehouse. Yeah. Like American BBQ. Usually I think it’s a sin not to eat local food, but I thought it would be interesting to see what Japanese American BBQ looked like, in my mouth. Spoiler alert: they do it better.

Walking off the meat coma I had put myself into I found myself in Harajuka, which is the funkier, “east village” part of Tokyo that I really dug. Weird little streets, lots of street art, and funky shops keep you company here. There are the traditional conveyor belt style sushi joints to chow down at, or, if you’re in the mood for a cuddle, you can actually rent a puppy for an hour to hold. More traditionally you can get your nails done in these little back alley style shops, or dig into some amazing coffee like at Deus Ex Machina which I know from LA.

 

The night was upon me so it was time to take in some serious Tokyo culture. Yes, I am talking about a robot restaurant. What do I say about this… other then just go. You might think it’s a tourist trap, you might think it’s garbage, but I’m telling you it’s one of the most fun evenings you can have, and I once hung out with Mel Brooks and Kevin Heart on a booze cruise.

Pro Tip: Tell them it’s your friends birthday and embarrass the shit out of him.

So yes, there are some amazing restaurants in Tokyo, beautiful gardens, plenty of culture to behold, but in all honestly Tokyo felt the least Japanese to me of any other city, even Osaka. The identity here is mixed, influence from all over the world has muddied the culture here, and while it is super interesting, it is not nearly as profound as in other cities or towns. That said, it’s a helluva place to go shopping, eat, and walk around, and should definitely not be missed. I would just say start your trip there, not end it. Also definitely do not miss that omelette truck.

That concludes my journeys through Japan. From Kyoto to Nara to Osaka I have to say, out of any country I’ve visited I am surprised to say that it was Japan I found the most foreign. From the language, to the people, to the food, it really seemed like a culture onto itself, unsullied from a mix of foreign influence. It is a country I hope to return again and again to, perhaps with more then a handful of words next time. Until then…

 

Roberto Serrini is a professional traveler who records his adventures in wordphotography and film. He is a staff writer for Get Lost Magazine, a senior contributor to Trip Advisor, as well as a commercial film director and drone pilot. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com where he can be contacted as well.

 

 

 

 

Japan: Kick-Ass Kyoto.

Kyoto is kinda a perfect city. There. I said it.

Japan, as a whole, is a mind-blowing experience. If you’ve read my lead up to this post you will have an understanding that in a world where I have made love to many countries, Japan is probably be the one I’m thinking about while traveling in another. Sorry Canada, I didn’t mean to call out “Oh, Japan!” while singing your anthem, promise. And the hottest part on this sexy country is it’s big, juicy, Kyoto.

Go get a kleenex… it’s gonna get messy.

Kyoto has all the things that a foreign city should have; captivating culture, excellence in cuisine, and a true love for itself. No matter where you roam in this jewel of a city it’s hard to not find an element of all three of these ingredients. So, let’s just start at the top of the awesome list, cause I know what you came here for: Geishas.

Geishas are awesome. They’re beautiful, exotic, secretive, and for all intensive purposes shouldn’t really exist in the modern age. There is lots to know about Geishas to even get a small understanding of this unique facet of Japanese culture. First, there are two types of Geisha’s, those that have sex, and those that don’t. I suppose that could apply to any occupation, but it seems to be an important classification for Geisha’s. In the entertaining kind (i.e. non-sex version) there are two types; dancing and singing Geisha’s. Those that want to become Geishas can apprentice, and are usually younger then 18 years of age. These are called Maikos and they have a slightly different dress with a longer tail, and shorter hair.

For me Geishas pretty much sum up why Japan is so interesting. When a country has a closed border for millennia, and refines every aspect of its own culture ad infinitum, even its courtesans, it can only produce something like a Geisha. They are stunning to see, beautiful and mysterious, and like something out of a fairytale.

The place to see them is Gion, which is just over the river, and it will pretty much make you want to move immediately to Japan. Gion is like a movie set, except real. Delicate streets that wind around a village-type atmosphere, where paper lanterns light cobblestone roads or age old wooden doors lead into exquisite restaurants where the best meal of your life is served. Here Kyoto holds on to its rich history and keeps it pristine, and instead of making it a cheesy tourist attraction it is very much alive and well, with a valid reason to be existing; it is simply charming and beautiful.

Here we went to a superb restaurant called Gion Karyo. Traditional in every way, we were invited inside this ancient home, took off our shoes, and proceeded downstairs to prepare for our meal. It’s surprising that they don’t hand out some sort of shower-cap for your head because everyone that eats here has their mind completely blown. Cleanup must be a bitch.

A set menu the meal lasts for a good 3 hours. The plates of food are more work of art then sustenance; flavors color your senses and you leave each setting more emotionally drained then full. It was a dance not a dinner, and truly something not to be missed.

While it is impossible not to fall madly in love with Gion there is a whole other city out there in Kyoto. Crossing the bridge back into the modern era you are greeted to a vibrant and modern city that has lots to offer. Just over the Shin-Jujo Dori bridge from Gion you will find what could be equated to 5th Avenue in New York. Fashionable high end shops and modern city folk all bustling along like any other major city in the world. Go one street in however and you are transported to another world, half Blade Runner and half Willie Wonka is the Kurisunouchikoshicho market. This street runs along side the modern shopping thoroughfare and offers anything from octopus on a stick to wacky costume shops. Perhaps most lovely was a drink where they take a whole cold grapefruit, cut a hole in the top, pulverize the fruit inside and add a type of frozen rum and give it to you with a straw. Yes another please.

For the brave, try ducking off the main strip to one of the side alleys. Here you can find strange little shops and bars that couldn’t quite find a way to squeeze into the party. As such, they are pretty much guaranteed to be old school and hardcore. Here is a little place we found that had no name. The cast of characters contained within can only be described as characters Kafka rejected from his novels. We decided to order some “snacks” of the menu which included shoshito peppers and foreskin. Yeah, foreskin. Of what we don’t know, but really, does it matter? I imagined this is where Mohels come for a wrap party. Honestly, it was like being in a strange bar in some rum-running town on the fringe of society. I half expected to see Hans Solo sharing a sake with Gredo.

Cruising a few blocks north you run into Nijo Castle, literally. It’s smack dab in the middle of the city, and impossible to miss. It’s a fantastic place to visit with its imposing 100 foot walls and impossibly beautiful architecture. Heading in and taking off your shoes, as not to disturb the centuries old wood floor, you shuffle through some of Japan’s most prolific history, experiencing first hand what it would have been like in during the Edo period. Im not sure who their interior designer was, but I’m sure he wasn’t cheap.

Moving further north you start to enter the Kamigyo Ward which is where Kyoto for me really started to come into focus. This is the city, where people work and live, and the true flavor of this town hits the palette. Here you can find a funky little place called Coffee Shop Brazil where I watched a man make the most involved, albeit slowest, cup of coffee using what I could only assume was high school science lab equipment. He only asked me if I wanted regular or strong, and the regular was so jammed with caffeine that I started remember homework assignments I missed in College. And I went to UCSB. It was a foggy time.

Immediately starving from the caffeine that was giving my bodies tremors and melting fat from my frame, we found this very ordinary noodle shop where we had, not even kidding, the most amazing bowl of noodles ever to enter a mouth, ever. It must have been good, because even at an odd hour, there was a steady stream of people slurping and moaning through their hot, delicious bowls of delight.

Belly’s full, we continued to wander through the Nishijin section, where we came across a little door with a sign and arrow; the international sign of “hey you, peek your head in here please”. Inside we found a small textile museum; Nishijin it turns out is the third largest producer of fine silk fabrics, along with Milan and Lyon. The man inside spoke no English, but offered us some warm tea, before letting us into the ancient house to see the display. Interesting old machines, and beautiful garments lined the walls, and the building itself was as eye-catching as its contents. I’d love to tell you what it was called or where it was, but sadly, I have no idea. There lies the point; wandering around Kyoto you are guaranteed to find some magic.

At this point getting low on film (we brought the old AE-1 out for a spin this trip, and that is it’s own blog post). So, looking around I spotted a faithful yellow and orange Kodak banner and made a B-line for it. Inside I found what a photographer only dreams of. A little ol’ ma and pop shop overrun with old camera gear. Everywhere, on every surface, was a little miracle waiting to be taken home. My eyes widened and a small gasp exited my broth scented lips. “Dear God. It’s El Dorado” I murmured. The little old Japanese man who owned the shop was equally surprised and excited. “AE-1…” he said wide eyed, pointing to my 40 year old camera. We locked eyes and then both relaxed into a wide grin, as montage music started to play in our minds.

After a good hour of digging through decades of camera history I walked away with 4 prime lenses, a Canon Coronet that I’ve never even knew existed, and a Mamiya medium format BEAST loaded with a fresh 120 roll. Happy? Hell yeah.

Fully photorific, we continued deeper into Kamigyo Ward to find what we were aiming for: Hosoo Kyoto. Hosoo is a textile company dates back to the 6th century, and its based in Kyoto since 1688. It’s not easy to find; there is no real signs or advertising to visit, which makes it all that more special. This is the genuine article and the textiles they produce using their 3 dimensional Nishijin weaving technique has clothed emperors, samurai and made countless kimonos and is as fundamental in Japan’s history as the people who wore their garments. We were therefor super excited for a tour of their showroom to just be able to get a glimpse of these amazing fabrics.

Unfortunately we had not made an appointment.

Here’s the thing though; I have mentioned before how Japanese people are extremely accommodating, stating that even the word “no” is seldom, if ever, heard in a conversation. When we told the woman who happened upon to random people sitting in their front office that we did not make a appointment, she without hesitation closed down the front shop, stopped whatever she was doing, and gave us a private tour. Now, by no means am I saying you should ever exploit this level of kindness, but I am saying that the Japanese deserve the utmost respect when it comes to customer care. They go not only above and beyond, they go to a whole other dimension.

I’m certainly glad they did because what we saw was so exquisite, so beautiful, that it felt like a crime to be able to touch the various swatches of fabric. These articles deserved to be behind vacuum sealed, humidity controlled class in some very large marble building, not running through the fingers of a commoner wearing denim. They are works of art, and you can sense the deep routed history not only in the product, but in the building where they design and fabricate it; amazingly old and perfectly kept Hosoo is living history, and those that appreciate such things will fail to find a more perfect example.

Heading westward and rounding out the trip, we decided to see a bit of ancient Kyoto and visit Tenryu-Ji Temple adjacent to the Katsura river. We were really surprised how much of a mob scene this part of town was. Truly a tourist destination this was more people then we saw anywhere else by far, the streets literally clogged with wandering sightseers. Everyone was Japanese mind you which was perhaps even stranger to us. The temples were beautiful, as was the bamboo forest, but really the sheer number of people made it impossible to fully enjoy.

Seeking refuge we decided to duck into Saganoyu, a “coffee style resort”, for a bite to eat. This place was darling in every aspect; clean, white and open, with a lovely little outdoor space and even a little shop to buy some memorable items. The pancakes are king here, and come with a special drizzle sauce which conveniently can be poured directly into your mouth. They think of everything here you know. I opted for a fresh tofu carbonara because I’m Italian and like to be disappointed. I can’t say I was though; the pasta was perfectly al dente, the sauce was rich, and the tofu, while not buffalo mozzarella, added an interesting savory tartness that made this dish entirely unique. It even came with cute directions which made me feel like Ikea sponsored the meal.

Wandering back toward the station we enjoyed getting lost in the little streets and river walkways. Lots of little shops, moody gravesite, and tons of people watching led to a small repose in a pachinko parlor. Dropping in some coin thousands of little balls begin firing down a pegged wall with such cacophony and fury that even the most severe OCD case in the world would be wholly focused on the action. In the end we won, something, somehow, not knowing the rules, and received a token to buy a little gift. Yeah, like Chuck’e’cheeses. Or Skeeball. We thought we were gambling.

3 KYOTO_kyoto_86

“Go around the corner. You can trade that crap in for money.” A man said, cigarette defying multiple laws of physics, without shifting his view from the chaos happening on his Pachinko machine. Apparently gambling is illegal in Japan. So, you play to win toys. However, there are conveniently located stores near Pachinko parlors where these toys can be bought for various sums of money. Basically Japan invented a toy economy to get around a legal issue. A country so polite that instead of changing a law dealing with morality they will just create a loophole. Genius.

Pockets full, hearts soaring, and legs truly exhausted we hopped back on the bullet train and 15 minutes later were in Osaka where our little Air B&B was. A more perfect day I can’t really think of, but that didn’t stop us from visiting Kyoto 2 more times during our stay, just to try out some other places.

Those days were as magical as the first, but in consideration of not being repetitious, we will move on to our next city … Tokyo.

-Rs

Roberto Serrini is a professional traveler who records his adventures in word, photography and film. He is a staff writer for Get Lost Magazine, a senior contributor to Trip Advisor, as well as a commercial film director and drone pilot. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com where he can be contacted as well. 

Japan: Next Stop Nara.

Nara is a beautiful little town. Quiet, out of the way, and not murdered by tourists, it really is a beautiful retreat where you can experience ancient Japan in the modern era. The train here is a quick hop from Osaka, and getting around by foot is a breeze.

Arriving at the station we didn’t know what to expect; it really looked like any other town. As we walked down the main street, just off the station, we started to notice the shops were a bit more geared to antiques and writing utensils. It took us a good 20 minutes to get Nara Park. Lemme tell you something, this place is magical.

First of all… deer. Everywhere. It’s like a Disney movie. According to legend, a mythological god Takemikazuchi arrived in Nara on a white deer to guard the newly built capital of Heijō-kyō. Since then the deer have been regarded as heavenly animals, protecting the city and the country. They also love these deer biscuits that guys with carts sell. Don’t try to ride them thought. They do not like to be ridden, apparently, if you are not a god.

The park is magical. There are several shrines and museums, but the most fantastic part is just walking the paths. Stone lanterns line green paths, there are gardens pretty much everywhere, and you truly feel at total peace. At the end there is a small “love” shrine, where you can get a “magical” piece of paper that when soaked in the sacred water will show your love’s path. I can tell you this, my love’s path was the one that led me to Nara because I simply am in love with it.

Once you had your full of nature, the back roads of Nara are equally enchanting. This is an ancient city, and was the capital of Japan in the 700’s. Not too shabby. Wandering around here you will find little shops and artisans selling this and that, and some fantastic spots to eat that will make you cry tears of miso.

One thing that was super interesting were these yellow raised tiles (see above). You will find them everywhere in Japan, in the train stations, in the streets, everywhere. They’re for blind people. Yeah. So blind people can get around Japan, easier. That’s the kind of place Japan is.

In any case, blind or not, Nara is definitely not to be missed. Easy to get to, walk and see in a day. We had lot’s to see though so …

Next stop… KYOTO!

-Rs

Roberto Serrini is a professional traveler who records his adventures in word, photography and film. He is a staff writer for Get Lost Magazine as well as a commercial film director and drone pilot. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com where he can be contacted as well. 

Japan: Osaka is OK by me!

Japan is by far the most foreign place I have ever travelled to. Let me mention that I have been to Bhutan, Pond Inlet above the North Pole, and even the south Bronx. Japan is by far the most xenocentric locations on the globe, and has good reason why that is so.

My knowledge of Japan was like any other persons; a heathy understanding that sushi is delicious, Judo is awesome, and you can buy panties in vending machines. Unfortunately none of these academic kernels of knowledge came close to preparing me for what would be a mind blowing adventure.

If you’re reading this because you are about to embark to Japan then know that I like to travel as close as possible to a local. I like to stay in proletariat areas, usually renting an apartment, and eat at places that the general population favors. This is a disease I have that I caught at some point from living in Williamsburg in the early 2000’s. Unfortunately I can no longer be sated by a centrally located hotel and restaurants that have a menu in my native language. Makes me sick.

As training to enter a new culture, I do a minimal amount of research, as I hate spoilers, and yeah, you can spoil a city. I was fortunate to find one of the best guide books ever written, A Geek in Japan, by Hector Garcia. Who knew a Spaniard could capture Japan so well. What’s fantastic about this book is just that; it frames Japan from the mindset of a foreigner. He fills you in on not only what the culture has to offer, but why it is so different. Let me give you this small nugget to chew on: Japan was completely, COMPLETELY, closed off to the world up until the 1860’s. Think about that for a second. A country, stewing solely in it’s own culture for thousands of years. Only until an American captain (with finally superior weapons) forced them to open up their boarders to trade. When you understand that their culture was refined without input from any other culture for a millennial, and has only started to let the rest of the world in for the last 150 years, you start to understand why things are so differentspecial, in Japan.

Let’s get onto it, first stop, Osaka.

Osaka has a brand new airport that kicks ass and offers wickedly affordable flights, much lower then flying into Tokyo. This is the reason we chose it for our home base, also considering that the Shinkansen or Bullet Train is only 2 1/2 hours to Tokyo and a ridiculous 15 minutes to Kyoto.

ALERT: First thing to mention, buy a rail pass for the Shinkansen, or Bullet Train. YOU CAN ONLY DO THIS OUTSIDE OF JAPAN for reasons I have have no idea why. In any case buy them, they are super cheap, and make travel a SNAP. Don’t cheap out and get the “green” pass … it’s the first class version and it’s sick. I never want to travel any other way ever again then on a bullet train. They have good food, fully reclining seats, and hot towels with jasmine. Also they bow to the train when it arrives which is just so goddamn sweet I wanna kill myself.

bento box

The first thing you will notice is Japan isn’t nearly as expensive as you think its going to be. In fact, it was 1.25 to the dollar while we were there. So good on you there Japan.

I take it back, the very first thing you will notice is that NO ONE SPEAKS ENGLISH. I have been to roadless villages in India where people spoke more English then Japan. It’s surprising, but also quite nice in an unexacting way. Japanese people in general are super accommodating. It’s integrated in their culture, and you will be hard pressed to hear anyone say the word “no” to you at any time. We called a restaurant to get a reservation and the reservationist said “Oh, it would be very difficult to sit you at that time”. Asking in a different way for a different time she said “It would be very difficult to sit you at that time as well”. It is never “We don’t have any space available.” or “We’re sold out.” it’s just never said cause it’s super rude to them. That being the case, even if you don’t speak Japanese, they will make every attempt to make sure you are satisfied, no matter what the request. Ridiculously polite is not even close to what Japan is.

From the airport its about an hour ride on the train to Shin-Osaka; a bustling outskirt of the main city, where we rented an Air B&B. It was in a traditional residential high-rise and nothing less then adorable. The ceilings were about 7 feet high, the tatami mats were pristine, and we got to sleep on a futon on the floor. In fact everything was on the floor. I imagine Ikea doesn’t do much business in Japan.

The nice thing about staying in Shin-Osaka is that you’re right next to the station which is amazing. There are dozen of restaurants and shops, it’s almost its own city. And in 10 minutes you are anywhere in Osaka, which, would turn out to be my favorite cities in Japan.

Osaka gets overlooked a lot. It’s modern, not as big as Tokyo, and is mostly proletariat in nature, but that is exactly why it’s so fantastic. It’s the difference between midtown Manhattan and the East Village; one is where tourists go, and the other is where the “real” people are. Osaka is a fully functioning city, and in so has some of the best restaurants in Japan. In fact it’s quickly getting the recognition as being the “chef’s city” where you can sample some of the best food this island has to offer. For instance, behind the Hozen-Ji temple you will find a positively ancient street with no name. You will know it by it’s cobblestone and crooked design. It is here in the heart of Dotonbori you will find a skinny little sushi restaurant that will melt your face with deliciousness.

Another night we hit the same street … lightning does strike twice people. This time for the famous Kobe beef and a fantastic Yakiniku restaurant named MatSuzAkaGyu. In a narrow little building you climb ancient steps, and they give you a little private booth with a grill where you proceed to cook the most amazing beef you have ever had. AmAzIng.

The entire area is a zoo in the best possible ways; nightclubs that offer “groups” of girls (for men) and boys (for girls) line the street. Apparently nightlife is pretty segregated here, with men grouping together to go to these nightclubs to be entertained by young girls singing and dancing. Women have the same option usually next door. It is truly bizarre.

There are also maid cafes, where girls, dressed as sexy maids, serve you tea or coffee. Thats pretty much what they do. And giggle. That’s a thing. These streets are full of rowdy locals, all getting their drink and food on. It’s about as authentic as it gets.

On the other side of the river in Namba you can find some amazing shopping. Electronics, camera gear, and a cooking center where you can buy the most exquisite knives you have ever seen. It’s a bit industrial, but never dull, and there are plenty of street markets to keep your eyes and stomach entertained for sure. Don’t forget to hit up Don Quijote; a 8 level superstore of bizarre Japanese shit that can easily be the mecca for finding gifts for your jealous friends back home.

Here the food is amazing, and sometimes tastes you back. There are a few things you must try… the pancake which is an Osaka original… usually good after several high powered beers. Then the octopus balls. WARNING they are extremely hot. Let them cool, then when you think they are cool enough, let them cool again. In fact, buy them, forget you bought them, then later that day find them and eat them. Last is the little octopus with a quail egg in its head. Is it good? No. But it sure is fun to eat.

And of course, after a day of drinking and eating it was obligatory to visit your local Karaoke center to drink some sochu, smoke some cigs, and sing some Springsteen. Karaoke here is serious business, so much so that the lobby looked like a Ritz Carlton. Oh yeah, they have costumes you can wear too. Epic.

And so we did Osaka … next stop… NARA

-Rs

Roberto Serrini is a professional traveler who records his adventures in word, photography and film. He is a staff writer for Get Lost Magazine as well as a commercial film director and drone pilot. His work can be seen at www.robertoserrini.com where he can be contacted as well.