We just visited Japan for the first time; it’s an amazing place. For those of you who asked to see pics, here’s my top twenty, with some commentary.
Tokyo is a city of ambitious architecture and art. These two design-forward buildings, for example, are Asahi’s global headquarters. The righthand rooftop gold flourish was apparently designed to be standing up, but the building wouldn’t support the weight so it ended up sideways.
The famous Shibuya scramble crossing. Thousands of people cross the street all at once in this super busy shopping and transit crossroads – including on the diagonal – but it’s all organized, efficient, and polite, just like Japan. Everyone waits for the light, and people apologize if they run into you!
A Hello Kitty themed express train about to fly through an intersection in Osaka, at street level. It’s not just Japan’s bullet trains that are awesome, the whole train system is a marvel. It’s a beautifully choreographed dance of inter and intra-city and subway trains, run by dozens of different companies, all connecting perfectly together, all electrified, all with priority over cars.
A line of women photographs a street boy band. We didn’t see young men and women interacting in public much. Restaurants and cafes often seemed full of women, with hardly a man in sight. On the subway there are separate cars for women, to address/avoid harassment.
Pets and colorful characters are ubiquitous in Japan. This friendly dog walker in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park and was psyched to have his picture taken, proudly boasting that he was walking fifteen dogs (he was). Now we know who keeps all those dog grooming shops (on every block) in business!
Luxury and aspirational brands, especially cars and clothing, are everywhere in Japan’s big cities. These McLarens turned up near our hotel one day. They were doing some kind of public photo session in a nearby mall the next day. We also saw a similar BMW thing… set up next to a Mercedes showroom to troll them.
Japanese TV is fun and wacky. There’s a lot of fast paced talk shows, like low-budget SNL skits, with colorful personalities. We came across this live TV shoot while getting lunch at a mall in Tokyo. I was told it was a comedy panel sponsored by Oral B. About oral hygiene? Who knows. I got scolded for taking the photo… didn’t see the sign, sumimasen.
Love the city vibe and energy of this one… the commute home, the food stalls under the train tracks, the high wattage electronic store pulling you in (Bic Camera). Three metro areas and their sprawl (Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya) account for over half Japan’s 125M population. When you’re in one of them, you kind of see why, they’re their own planet.
Heat pump condensers are all over building fronts in Japan, crammed anywhere they’ll fit and often decorated. That’s a climate positive for Japan, among the many negatives (e.g. doubling down on coal and gas, going slow on renewables, shipping emissions) For more heat pump pics, see my separate blog post on the Japanese art of heat pumps.
The friendly kitchen staff at our favorite yakiniku (grill-your-own-meat) in remote Ise. They were having lots of fun hamming it up in the kitchen, and with their friends at the bar. There were very few young people in the rural areas we visited – they’re all in the cities. Even there, Japan has a big aging population challenge. So whenever we saw young people having a great time, it made us happy.
Jazz is huge in Japan, like many things American (surf culture, baseball, convenience stores). This was a tiny basement jazz club (‘Jazz Spot Intro’) a friend said was their one ‘must-do’ in Tokyo. They were right, it was great, even at 7:30 on a weekday night!
There are so many beautiful places in Japan… the result of a combined appreciation for nature, design, and attention to detail. This is the garden at the Heian-jingu Shrine in Kyoto. Because the entrance is not marked in English, the crowds at the shrine mostly don’t seem to find their way into the garden, so it was very peaceful.
Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples are everywhere in Japan, often side by side (many people pray at both). We liked the small ones as much as the big famous ones clogged with tourist buses. This Shinto shrine guarded by mice (not the usual lion-dogs) was just off the philosophers path in Kyoto. We didn’t stay long because of a sign warning about an aggressive family of local monkeys (who can blame them).
This unassuming, simple wooden building is part of the Inner Shrine complex at Ise, Japan’s most sacred shrine, where all the buildings are rebuilt by hand every twenty years using traditional woodworking methods (no nails, etc). What blew us away was how basic this whole place is… no big temples or embellishments. Just minimalist buildings surrounded by lots of trees, water and buzzing cicadas.
Political posters were everywhere on our trip… always a smiling guy. We didn’t bother to lens-translate the posters, but I can imagine what they say. I’m young and likeable. I have a suit. I’ll do whatever you want to believe I’ll do!
We spent a couple days on Lake Biwa, Japans largest (and most swimmable) lake. Wonderful, but strangely deserted, for a place that’s under an hour from Osaka, a city as big as NYC. The train stops a block from the water. Yet almost nobody was there, except for a few jet-skiers and students, a couple tiki-bar places, and tons of seemingly abandoned buildings. A mystery.
The countryside whizzes by at 180mph on the Shinkansen (bullet train). You see mostly rice fields, some small villages, irrigation canals, industrial stuff, and the occasional small solar array. On slower trains, you see more of the villages; farmers working and kids running or biking down little alleyways.
Many traditional Japanese buildings overlook a garden (or have a central one), with doors or windows that slide open onto it. This former guesthouse for the Imperial family in Ise had a great vibe. And the folks in the picture were super friendly to us – a museum guide and a local woodblock/paper artist having an exhibition there.
Things can be confusing in Japan… like bathrooms. Often there’s no English on signs (we quickly discovered Google Lens), and when there is, it doesn’t necessarily help. These controls, in the bathroom at a museum, are the industrial version of what you see in most bathrooms, courtesy of Toto, which dominates Japanese plumbing (post their rock career). Note the ‘Emergency’ button… gotta love it!
It’s almost impossible to find public trash cans in Japan, and when you do, they’re tiny (note the size of these, relative to the creamer). Which is odd, because Japan’s consumer culture generates mountains of packaging waste. Even the smallest food item is elaborately wrapped in paper and plastic, often multiple layers. Where does it all go? Unfortunately, Japan burns 75% of its waste in massive urban incinerators (no space for landfills). The problem: massive carbon emissions.
Bonus Photos: Food in Japan
Ok, so I lied… I couldn’t fit my favorite Japan photos into twenty. So here’s a few more!
The famous crab sign in Osaka’s Dotonbori neighborhood. There are many food alleys in Japan, some catering to tourists, others like this one full of locals who come to carouse and eat seafood at night in this fun, neon-lit area by the canal.
Fruit sandwiches is a thing in Japan. While visiting a small shrine in Tokyo’s Ebisu neighborhood, we noticed a hipster shop having a grand opening across the street. Was it coffee? Hemp clothing? Eyewear? Nope… fruit sandwiches.
Soft serve ice cream is huge in Japan, as are the plastic cone models that lure you in to buy it. Mostly it’s vanilla, but occasionally you’ll find a place selling nice green matcha ice cream. We also saw stores selling yam-flavored soft serve, like this one; sometimes in combo with other yam products like french fries.
Sashimi for breakfast? I’m a convert, based on how good this one was at 9am at the Tsukuji fish market in Tokyo. Fish is a huge deal in Japan, they don’t mess around with it. Even the sushi we grabbed at the Haneda airport terminal before boarding our flight home was great.
One course of a traditional Japanese dinner – or was it breakfast? – that we got at our hotel on Lake Biwa. The food was amazing, but the dinners and breakfasts were largely the same. Both had lots of fish, soy, rice, pickled veggies, and other stuff that wasn’t immediately recognizable (and in some cases we never figured out).
The stuff you find in Japanese markets… what can I say? Gotta love the enthusiastic promotion. Fortunately, we never started munching.
Traditional ‘Ise-style’ noodles, seriously the best breakfast I had our whole trip. They were super thick and super hot and tasted so good. Served up with roasted tea by our Airbnb host and her mom in their jazz cafe in a 170 year old building with a few locals hanging around. I was super hungry, having gotten up early to tour the Ise inner shrine before breakfast. Sometimes the simplest things are the best!