Danielle and I have been to Japan twice now. Both times were trips working on projects for Major League Baseball. The first time was to film a commercial for Wilson at the factory that makes MLB gloves and the second time was to create content for a promo for the World Baseball Classics. Each time we decided to stay a couple weeks after to explore.
What is so cool about Japan is that everything is visually interesting. There are so many amazing textures, signs, buildings and people. Since we can’t read or understand Japanese, all the text becomes more of a visual piece of artwork.
In Tokyo we had a few days and we mostly spent them in the design district of Daikanyama. One of our favorite places is the Daikanyama T-site which has a really cool book store and camera shop. There are also some designer vintage clothing stores and cool places to see. Another place we went in Tokyo was Yakitori Alley. Danielle read about how to get there and go through this small passageway to get into the restaurants. We ended up sitting next to a couple of Japanese businessmen. They invited us to share their food and we communicated through a translator app. It was such a cool experience!
On both of our trips we spent about 2 weeks in Kyoto. It’s one of our favorite cities. We like to stay in a traditional Ryokan for a few nights and then a Machiya. We rent bikes as our mode of transportation and ride along the river and then stop when we get close to an area we want to stop at. There are so many great restaurants, vintage shops, coffee shops and markets to explore. They also have a very high concentration of temples and shrines to look at. Everything feels like you are stepping on a movie set. We thought going the second time wouldn’t be as magical. But we enjoyed it even more.
Traveling to another country instantly gives you an understanding of someone other than yourself. You get the opportunity to see how other people live, work and move through life. Especially if you get to stay in a city for longer periods of time and are able to go grocery shopping and do some of the normal things rather than just touristy things. Another thing we realized when we went to Japan was that it was the first country we went to where there wasn’t a lot of english spoken and we didn’t understand the language. When you aren’t using language, it opens up your brain to use all your other senses. And focus on body language and gestures to communicate. It’s a really beautiful way to reset your mind and relax. We hope to travel there again and again over the years.
OUR IDEAL JAPAN TRIP
- Tokyo – 3-5 days
- Pick a small “off the beaten path town” – 1-3 days
- Kyoto – 1-2 weeks.
We usually like the medium cities better (aka we loved Florence over Rome). Tokyo is Rome – Kyoto is Florence. So just keep that in mind. If you big cities better you may want to spend more time in Tokyo.
—- TOKYO —-
Super big city (infact, largest metropolitan area in the world, with 39 million people) don’t expect to see everything in 1-2 days. You might need maybe 3-4 to scratch the surface. Bigger cities aren’t our favorite to spend our whole time in when we travel.
Notes: Very hip design district. Our favorite. Could probably spent 3-4 days in this area alone. We just kept coming back.
- Hit up the amazing Bookstore called Tsutaya which is in the Daikanyama T-Site (also has an amazing Leica store with new and vintage camera models) There are also a lot of clothing, design, coffee shops in and around this area.
- They are obsessed with anything Pacific Northwest… we found a entire shop selling hats and backpacks and the brand was called “Mt. Rainier” lol – anyways, if you bring some PNW branded stuff you might be able to trade it for stuff in some of the vintage stores
Notes: I believe it’s the largest street crossing in the world, but not 100% sure. You can get a nice view of it by hitting up the escalators inside the Tsutaya bookshop and Starbucks thats in there
Yakitori Alley (Image 1 below)
Notes: we had a very cool experience here eating yakitori and sharing with our table mates who didn’t speak english but wanted to know about us so we used a translator to communicate. Such an amazing little strip of restaurants. Easy to miss its under an overpass / subway thing. But just do a bit of research on how to get in there and look at photos. It’s worth it.
Shinjuku Golden Gai, aka Blade Runner (Image 2 below)
Notes: This area is amazing, windy streets, darkly lit alleyways, wires everywhere with flickering neon signs. It was the main inspiration for the set design and art direction for the original Blade Runner film.
Asakusa (Image 3 below)
— KYOTO —
By far our favorite city! We spend almost 3 weeks there the first time and 2 weeks the second time. We thought we would get bored of it but we love it there. Big enough for there to be lots to do, small enough to get around easily and see lots of things. Really cool mix of ancient temples and modern stores and coffee shops. Don’t expect sushi here. More meat and culturally diverse food such as italian.
Before you do anything… Get Bikes…
-kyoto is bikeable – rent a bike the first day and use it for transportation — seriously don’t skip this. Taxi drivers don’t speak a ton of english and its really easy to bike down the waterway path and then leave your bike at the top and walk to wherever you are going. I hadn’t ridden a bike in 10 years before Japan and it was sooo easy and made us be able to see way more things.
WHERE TO STAY
Many traditional Japanese Inns / Bed and Breakfasts. They are amazing for a 1-2 night stay and for the total Japan experience. You can wear traditional clothes (robes etc), usually have a hot spring in your room (made out of rocks and water that comes from a mountain) or some sort of tub.
- They made amazing meals for you.
- May of them have expansive rooms with one often opening up to a private garden view
- Expect to pay $500-800 per night, but it’s totally worth it for the whole experience. You really only need 1 or 2 days in one to get the experience
These are traditional Japanese houses that are around 95-100 years old. Many of them are available on Airbnb and have modern insides, etc. They will often come with bikes so you don’t have to rent them and also they are usually located inside neighborhoods, so you can really get the local experience. The one we stayed in was right near a lot of the things we wanted to go to in Kyoto which was perfect. They are often cheaper than hotels but you get much more room and more amenities. Hotels are expensive in Japan and if you go with the big name brands like we have here in the US, you don’t really get anything new or different to experience.
The best hotels, if you decide to stay in one, would be finding one is a small town. They will usually be more custom and unique. But if you stay in one in a bigger city like Tokyo or Kyoto, then pick one that is a Japanese branded one or at least not something like the Marriott. One of our trips in Tokyo we stayed in the Hotel New Otani which is literally one of the biggest hotels we stayed in ever, but still really fun and super Japanese.
– First time we stayed in Kyoto was at the Hyatt Regency which is super great location and really nice but its now much more expensive. Second time we stayed in this area: Sakyō-ku, Kyōto-shi, Kyōto-fu 606-8335, Japan ( little bit further from cool stuff but is a machiya, which was awesome ).
-Kyoto is like a grid surrounding the waterway. Stay close to the waterway on the right side (if you can) for more easy access to things. Left side is more businesses and big buildings.
Favorite Tourist Stops
Kinkakuji Temple (golden temple)
Fushimi Inari Shrine
All of these things are kinda outside of Kyoto and take more effort to get to but totally worth it. Even go in the morning so there aren’t as many people. But the awesome thing about Kyoto is that you can literally stumble upon cool things anywhere.
Nishiki Market (can go there for cheap breakfast and pick up things at the market)
-getting a good matcha dessert somewhere
Pontocho: other geisha street. It was our favorite place to have dinner. They have tons of nice restaurants and several korean bbq (expensive but yummy!) Its a really small street so we had a hard time finding it. But once you find it you will know bc its so much more traditional looking than all the other streets around it and its amazing.
Higashiyama is a more traditional area above the city (has some nice views of some of the tops of temples). Lots of cool walks ways and good food, but many of the restaurants are open at weird hours (late) and often are hidden behind gates or large walls and all you see if a small menu out front in Japanese. But you can use Google Translate to see what the restaurant is called and then look them up online
Also, if your in the Higashiyama area hit up Arabica coffee shop… amazing shop and really cool design. Also the coffee machine in there is custom built by a company here in Seattle called Slayer Espresso
Shijo Dori (I think this is the right street) (Dori means street) on the East side of the river on the north side of the street there is this place that makes these amazing desserts. You will see a line for them and you’re like why the hell are people lined up for balls of rice that look sticky and brown. And then you eat one and you’re like !!!!. and stand in line again and buy more.
-Really good korean bbq and meat places Pontocho and cool streets Pontocho & Gion
Cool Hot springs, walk around in wooden shoes and robes and then do the hot springs.
Fairly expensive at $600 plus a night – more in the winter, but it includes food and its yummy and amazing.
If you do it – spend 2 nights So you have 1 full day to explore and do hot springs. No need for more than 2 nights.
OTHER CITIES TO EXPLORE
Takayama, in the main part of the historic city, all the buildings are matte black
We stayed in a Ryokan here too, but it wasn’t as amazing as the one in Kinosaki. Bigger town and more to see and do
-eat beef sushi off the main street of the black preserved building area.
We didn’t stay long enough to do the hikes or go to the area with all the houses but that would have been nice
Stay 2-3 nights. No need for more. Just 1 or 2 full days.
As part of their love for Japan, Casey and Danielle crafted a visual poem in honor of a Japanese vlogger who struggled with depression that ultimately ended her life.
“The film is a visual epitaph for a young woman named Hikari- san who we unfortunately never got to meet. Her words, however inspired us to make this film in memory of her.” On her channel she would read in a quiet whisper voice, called ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) which creates a calming sensation for many listeners and is often used in helping those battle depression or anxiety.
Filmed on-location in Kyoto, the film showcases this dichotomy. The short takes viewers on a visual journey through shrines and small passageways, into the workshops of craftsmen, and finally culminating in a journey of visual motifs that build a foundation for the story. Watch this beautiful piece below: