Welcome to the first installment of intrepid interviews! In this new series, I’ll be interviewing friends, family, and other world travelers about their globetrotting adventures (and misadventures.) We’ll talk about the reasons why they travel, their favorite moments, and the biggest surprises they encountered. These tell-all tales will provide inspiration whether you’re actively planning a trip or simply dreaming about your next one.
Our first episode takes us to Japan. My brother David is an aspiring street photographer and just got back from his very first trip to Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto in spring. Without further ado, here’s our interview, along with some of the amazing street photos he took from his journey.
So, you just got back from an 11-day trip to Japan. Your photos are fantastic. Tell me a little more about where you went and what you did.
We arrived in Tokyo and immediately caught a flight to Osaka for the first part of our trip. The second half of the trip involved taking the Shinkansen, or high-speed railway, back to Tokyo.
Why did you start in Osaka?
Osaka is a great home base because of its proximity to other cities. It also has a lot of nightlife, restaurants, evening markets, and so on. From Osaka you can travel north, east, or west to other cities in Japan. To the north is Kyoto, to the east is Nara, and to the west is Kobe.
Thanks to the Shinkansen, many cities that seem like they would be a much longer trip are only 1-2 hours away. Our plan was to stay in Osaka and go to all the surrounding cities. Ultimately, we did go on a day trip to Kyoto, but we ended up skipping Nara and Kobe. Instead, we jumped on the Shinkansen and went to Hiroshima, which is 2-3 hours from Osaka by train.
Why did you change your plans?
We woke up in Osaka and decided that after Kyoto we weren’t committed to Kobe or Nara. We picked Hiroshima because of our interest in its history. Hiroshima was also the longer train ride, so we were able to see more of the Japanese countryside.
What was the Japanese countryside like?
Cities didn’t really seem to end. Here and there they do, but there’s an incredible amount of urban sprawl. By the time you’ve escaped one city, you’ve already entered the next one. There were only small sections where we were actually out in rural Japan. But you’re also moving really quickly.
What did you do in Hiroshima?
We spent a little bit of time wandering around the city center, but we quickly realized we could hop on a ferry and go to a nearby island named Itsukushima, so we did! We really wanted to go to the island to explore outside the city center and because there were tiny deer.
Yes! There are many places in Japan where you can see similar deer, but this was the closest location to us. The deer have taken over the island. They’re not afraid of humans, so they just lounge around and live off the sympathy of tourists who feed them. After reaching the island by ferry, we also realized we could ride a gondola to the top of a mountain, so we decided to do that.
That is quite the string of weird transit choices, from a ferry, to a gondola…
Yep! Then we went on an accidental hike.
You went on an accidental hike? We really are related.
Hiking before the gondola, and then afterwards. You had to hike to get up to the gondola. It’s very picturesque as you hike to get up there. Very prototypical “Studio Ghibli”. You’d look into a stream or a pond and see koi swimming around.
After riding the gondola, we discovered we weren’t actually at the top of the mountain – only halfway to the top. We still had the option to hike the rest of the way. It was around 3:30 pm at that time; the gondola’s last trip to the bottom was at 4:30. We made some time quick calculations and decided to give it a shot. So, we hiked to the top and then had to speed-hike our way back down to the gondola. That’s the story of how we accidentally went on a hike during our trip to Japan.
You traveled with a friend, correct? What was it like traveling with someone else? How did you negotiate between what he wanted to do and what you wanted to do?
It didn’t work out perfectly. I think we had different expectations for the trip. When I travel I have very low expectations. I mostly want to see new things, eating interesting food, rest, and relax. I know I’ll be back, so I’m not too worried about seeing every tourist attraction or historical marker – that can be tough for some travelers to miss. We could have navigated the situation better.
How would you change that in the future?
If you’re going to travel with someone else, they need to be comfortable going off on their own and doing their own thing. Your plans aren’t always going to match up exactly. I think it’s reasonable for different traveling partners to have different expectations for the trip; they just need to be comfortable admitting that.
You don’t need, or even want, to travel with someone who’s going to want to see and do exactly the same things as you all the time. So, you both need to be comfortable with the idea of spending time together and apart. When you’re not spending time together, that’s your opportunity to have exactly the trip that you want.
Very well said. Before you left, you mentioned that you knew where you were going, but not what you were going to do when you got there. How did you figure it all out? Did you play it all by ear?
Half and half. Before I left on the trip, a coworker was also planning a trip to Japan in July. He’s much better at trip planning than I am. He lent me his travel document, so that gave us an initial idea of what to do and see. We tried to stay a day ahead of ourselves and spent the evening discussing what we wanted to do the next day.
I also like to pick out points of interest that are far enough apart from each other that you end up traversing from point A to point B and seeing things you weren’t expecting to see in-between.
For example, you might plan to get breakfast or coffee on one side of town. Then as you’re in the process of getting to the other side of town you end up seeing things along the way that you weren’t expecting. This approach isn’t particularly strategic; sometimes you can end up crisscrossing a lot, but you’ll end up making new discoveries along the way.
I saw on your Instagram that you went to a lot of really cool cafes. They looked a lot like some cafes you might see here in Seattle. Can you tell me a little more about the coffee shop trend in Japan?
I went to coffee shops in Osaka, Tokyo, and Kyoto – originally out of necessity, I drink too much coffee in Seattle, and can’t stop just because I’m on vacation! It was great to compare the different cafes – particularly their interior design, almost all of them run as single independent locations. It was a great way to get a morning or afternoon coffee and collect an interesting series of photographs along the way.
You took Japanese in high school, right? Did you use any of your language skills while you were on your trip, or did you end up speaking English most of the time?
No, it was pretty much English all the way. Although, as you travel through Japan you get very good at nodding, saying thank you in Japanese, and apologizing.
Did you do anything touristy while you were there, or did you generally go off the beaten path?
We visited bamboo forests in and around Kyoto. They’re very touristy until you go off the beaten path. The key was getting off the main path and away from all the tour groups.
Where did you stay? How did you decide to stay there?
All AirBnBs, my first international experience with AirBnB, and it went great! I’m soft – they all had Western amenities like larger bathrooms, modern furnishings that sort of thing. Though, the Tokyo AirBnB building manager was not enthusiastic about apartment owners renting out their spaces to travelers.
We stayed in Shibuya, which was particularly interesting. A combination of Times Square, a shopping district with some of the largest department stores, and nightlife. We had a great view of Shibuya from a rooftop balcony – perfect for watching the sunset and reading a good book.
What was Tokyo like?
Tokyo is like a lot of metropolitan centers where you can describe it as one city, but there are many cities within the city. A lot of Tokyo (and Osaka, too) is a bit overrun with concrete and borderline-dystopian, with skywalks crossing over streets where sidewalks no longer made sense.
In particularly busy areas it feels like they’ve given up on the ground floor of the city; there were areas of Tokyo that really favored skywalks, bridges between train stations, and underground tunnels beneath the street. Something all cities have, but it felt more common here.
What was your favorite meal on the trip?
Yakitori from this little hole in the wall place–it was amazing. One night we winged it and ended up down an alley in Shibuya, in a tiny restaurant with 6 seats.
It was like being in a futuristic noir: you’re at this hole in the wall place, having incredible grilled meat, surrounded by Japanese businessmen and women who are smoking constantly… every so often a train rumbles by and rattles the whole building – and of course it’s raining that night – then the yakitori chef decides he wants to teach you how to drink sake. Oh, and mind you, this is at midnight and feels like everyone has just gotten off of work.
Wait, they allow smoking inside?
I noticed two types two types of restaurants in Japan: ones that had proudly just banned smoking (and wanted you to know it), and ones that proudly still allowed smoking (and wanted you to know it).
So, the yakitori chef decided he wants to teach you how to drink sake?
He did! It’s not that complicated, but I was still confused: the chef put a shot glass inside a small wooden box in front of me. He began pouring sake from a large wine bottle into the small shot glass. I expected him to stop when the shot glass was full, but he kept going until the shot glass overflowed.
I thought I made a mistake and was supposed to tell him when to stop, because now I had to figure out how to drink this shot glass full of sake, sitting in a wooden box that was also full of sake… it was just a lot of sake.
I mucked things up pretty quickly, so he helped me out. Apparently this is the process–lean over the box, take a sip, set the shot glass on the edge of the box to let it drain, repeat this until the shot glass is empty, then pour the sake from the box into the shot glass.
Do you remember what this amazing yakitori place was called?
No idea. But I can give you the name of another place we went to. It was very highbrow, complete with a cartoon pig outside as its mascot: Shibuya Hyakkendana No Koya.
What tips do you have for people traveling to Japan for the first time?
You’re supposed to walk on the left side of the sidewalk… but also, people didn’t seem to always follow that rule. Signs in subway stations will also say to keep left, except every so often they will tell you to keep right. It’s inconsistent.
How comfortable were you taking street photographs? Were people okay with that?
The cities we visited were so busy you can take pictures without being noticed. The same is true for cities like New York or London. There are so many people you really can blend in as a tourist and work on street photography without there being a stigma. No one was ever offended that I was taking a photo. Though, people are very polite, so if they thought that I was taking a photo of something touristy they would step out of the way. They didn’t realize I was taking a photo of them.
Where can we find you on the internet?
All photos courtesy of David Koenig.