That happiness and excitement led me to a series of wonderful experiences and moments in Japan. To say the least, my Japan trip was enriching, exhilarating and rejuvenating. Everything about the country is so intrinsically different from the US that I find myself thinking about going back to relive this beautiful country.
1. Go to Tokyo Dome.
When my travel group and I got off the Metro stop, we finally entered the Tokyo Dome area — and I was shocked. Tokyo Dome was a sweeping entertainment city. Not only does it consist of the literal dome, which houses the indoor theme park, bowling alley, batting cage, observatory and SEGA arcade games, it also includes the attractions outside of the dome, which features a roller coaster, ferris wheel, various carnival games and a sizable shopping center with plenty of places to eat and shop. The outer section of the Tokyo Dome reminds me a lot of the Santa Monica Pier, minus the pier and the ocean and the added bonus of being in the heart of Japan. I spent my birthday night exploring, trying the boba, and enjoying the view from the ferris wheel. It was a beautiful end to my birthday night.
2. Eat at every single ramen restaurant imaginable.
The first ramen shop I went to coincidentally was one of the best ramen places I had visited in Japan. We were tired, jet lagged and starving, so we went to the first ramen restaurant we could find next to our AirBnB in the Nakano neighborhood. The ramen restaurant was called Musashiya Nagano Honten, which was made more enticing due to the sign at the front that said, “Foreigners welcome.” It was our very first time using a vending machine to order ramen, which is actually a very popular device in many Japanese restaurants. I ordered the Tonkotsu, which is ramen marinated in pork bone. I took the slip from the vending machine, sat down at the bar and handed the chefs my slip. Before I knew it, I was immediately served a steaming bowl of Tonkotsu ramen. I took one sip of the hot, flavorful broth and, at that moment, I couldn’t think of a better first meal in Japan.
My next favorite ramen place was actually stumbled upon by accident. We were walking around Shibuya, hungry, when we spotted a bright red sign and a menu with delicious images of ramen. We were sold! Little did we know that this place was coincidentally one of the most popular, authentic Japanese ramen restaurants — Ichiran. Social media touts Ichiran as “an introvert’s dream”. And it truly is. After I made my order on the vending machine, I was taken to a cubby seat and filled out a form that listed preferences for the ramen (noodle and broth consistency, spice level, etc.). In front of the cubby was small window with blinds. I placed the form and my order slips in front of the window and serves immediately opened the blinds to receive them. In a short amount of time, two sturdy hands served me a fresh bowl of ramen, filled with the preferences I listed. They shut the blinds for added privacy, leaving me alone with my delicious Tonkotsu ramen.
3. Visit Family Mart and Lawson every morning.
My typical morning routine consisted of one main thing: a trip to Family Mart or Lawson. These two are one of the most popular convenience stores in Japan, next to 7-Eleven. What’s different about these convenience stores are the types of food and beverages they offer. I came here because I loved the variety of breakfast items such as sandos (sandwiches) or onigiri, and latte cups, which were easily my favorite things from the store. I also came here a lot for the unique, Japanese snacks, basic grocery items and, of course, the alcohol.
4. Feed the deer at Nara Park.
After what felt like a long day of traveling to Kyoto and Nara, we finally made it to Nara Park, which was one of my Japan bucket list items. Nara Park is home to thousands of wild sika deer, who roam freely around the park and even several parts of the city. They are considered to be “friendly” since they are easily fed by humans, but I wouldn’t necessarily call them friendly. When I bought crackers from one of the vendors in Nara, a swarm of young deer immediately tried to nab away at the crackers. When I ran away, one of them jumped to where my hand was and knocked the crackers out of my hand! So much for “friendly”. However, I learned the trick. You must bow to them, like a hippogriff, and they bow right back in order to take the cracker from your hand. It took me an hour to get used to feeding them, but the process was fun and phenomenal.
5. Play at Taito Game Station in Shinjuku.
The first time we visited Shinjuku, I was elated. It was our first day and I was beginning to experience Tokyo’s vibrance and energy. I was open to explore and try anything in Shinjuku. The first thing my group and I immediately saw was Taito Game Station, which was spelled out in bold white lettering against a bright red, six-story high building. Taito Game Station is an arcade gamer’s dream. There were hundreds of games imaginable — claw games, claw games, multiplayer games, racing games, arcade games and pachinko/slot machine-like games for adults to gamble their money away. I tried (and failed) to win a prize from the claw game, won 2nd place in the life size Tsum Tsum arcade game and played a pachinko medal game for the first time. Despite the money lost, I would do it all over again for the experience.
6. Use the vending machines.
One of the most unique things about Japan is their vending machines, which can be found on every corner. Although every vending machine possesses similar things, each are uniquely different and may carry items that the vending machine across the street may not have. It’s almost like a scavenger hunt when you visit each machine — what does this have to offer? My favorite drinks were Pocari Sweat and their different fruit flavored carbonated drinks. It was like candy in a drink!
7. Visit an onsen.
Left. Left. Right. Left again. After many turns into alleys upon alleyways, we finally found what we were looking for – Jakotsuyu, an onsen. Unlike most traditional onsens, however, this onsen accepted tattoos. We were lucky — Austin found this randomly online while we were researching different onsens to try and we thought, “Why not?” Gratefully, the indoors onsen is foreigner friendly and knew enough English for us to pay at the front desk and grab a towel, which they graciously offered. The process is that you go inside, strip your clothes and place them in a locker, wash yourself in the publish showers using only soap and water and walk out naked into the tub of natural hot spring water. As I let my whole body soak, I felt waves of relaxation caress my body, rubbing away any anxiety away and leaving behind a sense of contentment.
8. Visit Shinto and Buddhist shrines.
I was raised Catholic, so I knew nothing about the Shinto and Buddhist religions that permeated Japanese culture. Visiting the Sensō-ji and the Fushimi Inari-taisha shrines in Japan felt very refreshing and even welcoming. Although there were many tourists in each of these shrines, I found comfort in the fact that people around the world were being exposed to something that was not familiar to them. We were all learning and discovering a culture that was much different from what we were used to. I paid my respects to each shrine and followed and learned some of the rituals that were practiced. There was immense power and presence in each shrine and I couldn’t help but feel amazed and blessed at having the opportunity to experience it.
9. Go to Tokyo Disneyland and DisneySea.
When Austin and I got off the Metro and walked towards the Disneyland Gateway Station, I knew we were already in for a treat. We weren’t disappointed. Both DisneySea and Tokyo Disneyland were phenomenal attractions. The first thing we saw when we walked in to Disney Sea was a large fountain with an even larger rotating globe in the middle. That globe eluded to the whole park — DisneySea essentially combined multiple parts of the world and placed them into its corner of the park. Instead of a typical castle, there was a large volcano right in the middle of the park that would periodically explode every so often. We rode on a lot of thriller rides such as Tower of Terror and Raging Spirit, and even bought some delicious mochi balls.
After spending some time in DisneySea, we bought a Starlight Passport after 6PM to visit Tokyo Disneyland at a discounted price. Although most of the rides are the same as the Disneyland in Anaheim, the space and decor are very different. Main Street was decked with beautiful strips of color in celebration of Tanabata, a holiday that celebrates two star crossed lovers and their ability to grant wishes. Although they didn’t have a fireworks show like we had expected, we watched a fantastic light show, which was a beautiful thing to witness with my own eyes.
10. Go to Tokyo Tower.
I arrived to Tokyo Tower, not expecting much after several disappointed visits to the Tokyo Government Building and the Skytree. Both were incredible monuments, but I felt they did not warrant another visit from me. However, there was something magical about Tokyo Tower when I finally arrived at the top. The view of the skylines were at a perfect level to take photos and just admire the sunset. The best part was that there were absolutely no clouds. It was a gorgeous moment shared between myself and the Tokyo sunset. For that reason, I would come back in a heart beat.