For more than a century, Japan has been the place we look to for a shot of adrenaline when our own cultural routines become overly familiar.
Every few years it seems our mouths collectively drop as we are exposed to one extraordinary Japanese import after another. We gasp in delight at an unlikely new food or a ridiculously cute toy and then promptly incorporate it into the fabric of our own culture. And in case you are drawing a blank, let me direct you to some of our all time favorites: sushi, Godzilla, karaoke, anime, emojis, edamame, Pokemon, and let’s not forget the grand dame of it all, Hello Kitty!
From fashion and gaming to food, Americans are obsessed with Japan, and that society just continues to cultivate ever more fantastic fuel to feed that obsession. So whether you want to travel back in time at a ryokan — a traditional inn, where you can sleep on the tatami floors, partake in communal baths and wear yukata (summer kimonos) — or need to stock up on adorable erasers, now is the ideal time to experience the land where it all began.
The Art of Dining
Take ramen noodles. The inexpensive instant meal was first introduced to the U.S. market in the late 1950s, and it was love at first slurp. If you are already a fan, then you’ll fall in love all over again at the Momofuku Ando Instant Ramen Museum in Osaka or at the more extravagant Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum. Billed as the world’s first food-themed amusement park, it houses a miniature neighborhood that’s built to resemble a streetscape from 1958, lined with ramen shops. Wander the three-story building sampling noodles from different regions of the country. But try not to get too disoriented by the strange lighting. It’s just an artificial sun that sets every 15 minutes to help stimulate your appetite.
If you prefer your noodle experience to be less fabricated, travel about an hour by rail from Tokyo to the old capital city of Kamakura and visit Chaya-Kado restaurant, where you can catch your own refreshingly cold nagashi somen noodles as they flow past your table along a hollowed out bamboo pipe.
If you are more the sushi type, then there’s plenty for you. After all, Japan is home to Tsukiji Market, the world’s largest fish market. Sushi stalls and restaurants abound, but tucked away in the basement of an unassuming office building attached to the Ginza Metro Station in Tokyo is Sukiyabashi Jiro. Perhaps the most celebrated sushi restaurant in the world,
it was the first to earn three Michelin stars. With that kind of acclaim and
only 10 tables, reservations need to be made at least two months in advance,
so plan accordingly.
The Robot Restaurant is a must for anyone seeking an out-of-this-world — and yet quintessentially Japanese — experience. Fluorescent lights, flashy colors and mirrored glass fill every corner of the spectacular arena. The dinner show features robots made to resemble action heroes, dinosaurs, pandas and Transformers, among many other characters. The women who put on the show ride bikes, tanks and glittering horses while dressed in showgirl glitter and armor with flashing LEDs. Oh yeah, and they do this while they play drums, too. It is a sensory overload unlike anything else you will ever experience.
It’s Play Time
Those of you who are regulars at your neighborhood karaoke bars will feel right at home in just about any corner of Japan. For starters, a visit to Smash Hits in Tokyo is a great option. Located at the west end of the Hiroo shotengai (neighborhood shopping street), it offers a familiar karaoke experience and features a large English-language catalog. Once you’ve found your voice you can try something a little different. Lovenet in Roppongi offers private themed lounges with names like Candy, Sunshine, Aqua and Heaven. In the Aqua suite, for example, you can belt out your best “Billie Jean” while soaking in a Jacuzzi.
For a more relaxing experience that still borders on the wild, visiting one of Tokyo’s owl cafés should be at the top of your list. These establishments offer almost exactly what they say, as they are places where you can mingle with owls. The healthy and tame — though rather underwhelmed — birds can perch on your arm, shoulder or head, and attendants are there to help with anything. But don’t get misled by the “café” portion of the name. While there is plenty of avian interaction, there isn’t much in the way of food or drink.
If plush or toy animals are more your speed, or you are traveling with children, make a stop at Legoland Discovery Center in Tokyo, where more than 3 million LEGO bricks offer endless possibilities under one roof. Here, you can rediscover Godzilla in his lego form and introduce your children to the iconic lizard. Sanrio Puroland is also a must for kids of all ages. Kawaii (pronounced ka-wah-EE), the Japanese term for “cute,” is a cultural badge that is taken to a whole new level at this indoor amusement park. Dedicated to all things Hello Kitty — and friends — Sanrio Puroland is sure to charm all the kids in your party.
Speaking of kawaii, when it comes to shopping, just about anything that falls in that category makes a great souvenir. Your friends and family will surely be thrilled to receive any of these novelties: an eyelid exerciser from Tokyu Hands at Ikebukuro, deodorant candy (eat a piece and smell like a rose), a magic umbrella (flowers appear once raindrops wet the fabric), a cupcake shaped contact lens case, a pair of socks designed to resemble two pieces of sushi side by side at Loft in Shibuya or something none of us can do without: a pair of lucky red underwear from Red Underpants. I mean, who wouldn’t want a pair?
Those who are a little more serious about fashion must make a pilgrimage to the shopping district of Harajuku, which is also the name of a uniquely Japanese style of dress. The elements of Harajuku style may include punk, school uniforms, manga-inspired baby-doll dresses and pigtails, goth makeup, platform shoes and kimonos. Once you’ve got a sense of the mash-up look, check out vintage clothing stores Dog, Flower or Ragtag Harajuku to assemble your own outfit.
Ginza is to Tokyo what Times Square is to Manhattan — only on steroids. Located in the heart of the city, the bright neon lights of thousands of signs illuminate the evening. Those who are in the market for luxury goods should definitely see what Ginza has to offer. From Dior and Louis Vuitton to Bvlgari, you can find it all right there.
If you want to coincide your trip with local LGBT events, then spring is the best season. Enthusiastic gay pride celebrations take place in Osaka, Sapporo and Tokyo throughout April. Just as they are the world over, Japan’s pride festivals are loads of fun, and, in a society where LGBT rights still have some way to go, they serve as an important reminder to the country that its gay population is present and strong.
Also in the spring time, the city of Kawasaki hosts the Festival of the Steel Phallus. Commonly known as the penis festival, this popular celebration isn’t the byproduct of an over-active gay imagination. However, the event does involve a giant pink steel phallus carried aloft through crowded streets as smiley-faced spectators of all ages nibble on similarly shaped lollipops. The festival’s roots date back to the 17th century when prostitutes are said to have prayed for protection from sexually transmitted infections. Nowadays, the event draws attention to safe sex practices and raises money and awareness for HIV organizations.
Once the parades are over, you can continue your support by taking a trip to the Shunkoin Temple (Temple of the Spring Ray) in Kyoto. Shunkoin is the first temple in the country to welcome same-sex wedding ceremonies. It is home to beautiful gardens and an exhibit of decorated sliding door panels, too.
Tokyo, of course, is the springboard for most journeys across Japan. LGBT travelers will feel welcome throughout the teeming metropolis of 13 million, but the main area of interest is a warren of narrow streets called Shinjuku Ni-chome. This district is home to many shops and hundreds of gay bars, each catering to a specific subset of the Japanese LGBT community, with some reserved for Japanese patrons only. GB is a video bar that is foreigner-friendly, and Arty Farty is an old-school favorite. But keep your eyes peeled. Many of the businesses are easy to miss. They are tucked away and discreet, so be prepared to pop into the wrong kind of bar a few times before you find the right one for you.
For most Americans the streets, customs and geography of Japan alone will be a breathtaking revelation. So next time you grab a bag of frozen edamame
or add a winky face emoji to a text, consider taking a trip to their country of origin. The Land of the Rising Sun is brimming with possibility.