Japan with Friends!

Beth & Todd arrived in Japan after an epic day of traveling, including flights from San Francisco to Vancouver to Tokyo, and then a 3 hour train to Kyoto. We rented a 2 bedroom “typical” Japanese home for their stay. While this was the best of the AirBnBs we had in Kyoto, it was still very compact and not entirely comfortable – there were many opportunities for The German to smack his head on things, the stairs were so steep it was like climbing a ladder, and the bedrooms smelled strongly of boiled cabbage. We just weren’t having the best luck with AirBnBs in Japan.

Despite their jet-lag and lots of rain, we spent our first full day together running all over Kyoto, including visiting Fushimi Inari Shrine, eating ramen, drinking craft beers, buying gifts for friends, drinking several lattes, and generally enjoying all the random strange signs and other foreign weirdness.

English Practice

When we visited the famous Kiyomizudera Temple, a timid group of students approached The German and asked for his help with a school project. They were visiting from Hokkaido and were obviously tasked with asking native English speakers several basic questions as conversation practice. At the end, we all took photos and they gave us this hand-crafted introduction to their town as a thank you gift.  The whole exchange was adorable and we were happy to help them.

Eating Our Way Through Kyoto

People usually visit Kyoto to see all the beautiful temples and shrines, but our real priority was food.  We joked that the goal was to eat until you hurt, then walk 20 minutes and eat some more.  

One night we had an 8 course tasting menu highlighting local tofu, served to us in a traditional private dining room. I loved it but The German didn’t care for the texture or subtle flavours and would probably be ok never eating tofu again.

He looks happy because he hasn’t tasted the food yet.
Course 6
The German is thrilled for yet another dish of tofu.
We also visited the okonomikyaki spot I frequented when I was studying in Kyoto. It was just as good (and giant) as I remembered:

Thankfully, we didn’t have to cook it ourselves
One night we gorged ourselves at Japan’s “Gyoza Champion” spot – they had dozens of different dumplings and we did our best to try them all.

Choa Chao Gyoze
Beth & Todd will hate me for this photo…
And we also made regular stops for street food snacks, mochi, and green tea ice cream:

Political (?) Posters

We became obsessed with these posters, which we assumed were politicians campaigning for election (but I couldn’t read the kanji, so who knows if that was accurate).

We decided the dynamic hand gestures were far better than boring headshots, and the one who looked like he was conjuring a spell was our favourite:

Gang Signs

And then there was this:

Pocket Wifi
All hail Pocket Wifi!
We weren’t sure if these wifi ads were mocking the political posters or if they just looked similar to us because we couldn’t read anything. Regardless, we all agreed that those politicians wouldn’t stand a chance if they were running against that adorable cat!


Beth & I made a quick trip to Nara to see the giant buddha and the abundant deer.

Both the giant buddha and the building that housed it were impressive:


One of the statues supposedly had healing powers, so I treated it like a free doctor appointment and made sure he saw to my rib and elbow:

Healing Statue

After that we headed for the dangerously interactive deer:

Deer Sign

The signs didn’t lie – the deer knew we had snacks for them and weren’t at all timid.  Beth was very popular and not exactly thrilled about it… one attempted to eat her sweater in hopes of finding more cookies.


That said, they weren’t without charm. The deer have learned that bowing is more likely to get them a snack:

High Class vs Trash

After 5 days in Kyoto, we said goodbye to our smelly AirBnB and took the shinkansen back to Tokyo for the remainder of our adventures together. 

We had one day where we alternated between refined, sophisticated experiences, like finely crafted cocktails at a bespoke cocktail bar:

Gen Yamamoto
Each drink was inspired by the day’s weather, seasonal produce, and general mood of the bartender…
Gen Yamamoto seated only 8 people at a gorgeous bar made of 500 year old Japanese oak. The cocktails were unexpected combinations of local ingredients that were tasty and refreshing.  It was a delightfully refined experience.

We followed this up with Robot Restaurant, which is a robot-filled day-glow assault on all of your senses. It’s like nothing you expect, yet somehow conveys all the strange delight that is Tokyo. Videos and photos don’t do it justice, but Todd’s expression kind of says it all:

Robot Restaurant

Other Tokyo Antics

In addition to Robot Restaurant, we had numerous other “only in Tokyo” experiences, including:

An outing to a Yayoi Kusama exhibit which included a large number of her paintings, sculptures, and installations, including one were we got to contribute to the art:

A trip to the fabulous Ghibli Museum, which was a Totoro pilgrimage for me.  There were many interactive exhibits, including a life-sized cat bus.  (No photos were allowed inside, unfortunately.)  Getting tickets was a challenge, but absolutely worth the effort.

A visit to the Line store, home of enourmous stuffed animals and the most complex yet wonderful photo booth ever. (Line is like the Japanese version of What’s App or Facebook Messenger, only they have adorable mascots integrated throughout the app. The store is full of all sorts of products with the characters on them, and a photo booth that magically made us look young and cute.)

Stalking some Harajuku girls as they were shopping in a mall:

Cuddling some hedgehogs:

Watching rockabilly fanatics in Yoyogi Park:

Yoyogi Park

And making our own onigiri with our housemates at Roam. (Onigiri are rice balls filled with pickles or seafood. Their normal form is seaweed-wrapped triangles, but for this event we got more creative.):


Japan has a lot of great food, and our non-stop eating continued in Tokyo. It seemed like we were planning what to eat next before our current meal finished.  The Japanese have a concept of eating until you’re 80% full (“hara hachi bu“), but we joked that our style was closer to eating until we were 180% full. When we learned about the word “kuidaore” – eating until you pass out – we felt like it was our new theme.

Going Meta

Since we were all constantly taking the same photos, The German started taking these:

And when we all took too long to photograph our food, he invented something we now call “Finger Bombing”:

Nina Restaurant

It’s a great way to annoy your friends who ceaselessly take food photos.

Upping Our Posing Game

At every shrine, temple, and flowering tree there were many yukata-clad Japanese taking photos of each other.  They didn’t just go for the ordinary tourist shots in front of an attraction, but would turn their back to the camera and gaze thoughtfully in the distance, or gesture gently to a flower. We did our best to incorporate these new techniques into our own photos:

Though this eventually devolved into our usual antics of impersonating things and generally being ridiculous. (You really can’t take us anywhere.)

What’s Next?

After spending a couple hours sampling all the sake at the airport lounge, we parted ways with Beth & Todd… saying it was fun to be with them in Japan would be a major understatement. (We spent as much time laughing as we did eating!)

Beth & Todd are heading back to SF while The German and I are en route to Mexico. I am signed up for a 4 day retreat with a YouTube dance fitness star (The Fitness Marshall). (My good friend Sue is meeting me there, while The German relaxes at a nearby town.)

After that, The German and I will head to Cancun where we will officially end our year (or 13 months) of travel!

Kyoto Continued

Though we were originally dazzled by the fact that AirBnB #2 had actual furniture, we did ultimately have to admit that it lacked any charm… the furniture was pretty uncomfortable and the decor mostly consisted of “House Rules” signs. That said, it was unquestionably an improvement over the last place, especially because the wifi was obscenely fast.

Plus the sponge was undeniably cute…

Speaking Japanese (I Really Think So…)

Having failed at finding an in-person option for Japanese tutoring, I decided to try some Skype lessons via the website iTalki (which was recommended by someone I met at Roam Tokyo). You can choose between experienced conversation partners or professionally certified teachers for almost any language.

I first had some sessions with a conversation partner – a Japanese woman who teaches English professionally. She did a great job keeping the conversation flowing while correcting my grammar, and was also happy to role-play any day-to-day scenarios where I felt less confident  (like making restaurant reservations over the phone). And as a bonus, she sent me a recommendation for a vegetarian restaurant in Tokyo.

I also had some sessions with a professional teacher. She paid close attention to my intonation (which is very important in Japanese) and had a number of exercises designed to help improve my speaking speed. Though both types of sessions were valuable,  I could certainly tell the different between the two.

I took advantage of the great wifi and scheduled quite a few sessions. Just being forced to use Japanese daily has been great, but having this outlet for reviewing the situations I encountered and correcting my grammar has really helped.

Thanks to improved confidence with my Japanese, I was able to purchase prescription sunglasses from a local shop, enjoy a cat cafe where no one spoke English, ask strangers to help me identify onigiri that didn’t contain fish  (because reading is still a challenge), and even successfully made restaurant reservations over the phone!

I hope I will keep these up after I leave Japan, too – I spent far too much time studying it in college to let it all fade away.

Seeing Old Friends

Our string of rendezvous continued with my college pal Erik.  I hadn’t seen him since before his son was born:

Erik's Son Lloyd
As you can see from the size of this child, that was quite a while ago…

It was like no time had passed! He & Stephanie looked just the same as when they left San Francisco 15 years ago. It was fun catching up with them and meeting their British friends over countless sushi rolls and glasses of sake.

Sushi with Friends


Our next date was with our former colleague from Apple UK, James, and his girlfriend Lauren. We caught up with them over an elaborate tempura dinner:

Tempura Endo
Modeling our classy tempura bibs

It was fun to talk tech, catch up on mutual friends, and exchange travel tips. (And the tempura was exceptional.)

It’s easy to feel isolated in Japan… As the movie Lost in Translation highlighted, the cultural differences make it very difficult to meet locals. And until my rib is fully healed, I can’t go to Zumba, which was another way I connected with people during our travels. This means we especially valued having these encounters with various friends throughout our time in Kyoto.

Other Adventures

Once the last of the sakura petals had fallen, I was able to focus on some other local highlights like Nishiki Market (full of local delicacies), Nijo Castle, green tea parfaits, and cat cafes.


What’s Next

We are spending the next 2 weeks in Japan with our very good friends, Beth & Todd. Since I haven’t seen them for 8 months, I would be excited to see them anywhere but it will be especially fun to explore Kyoto & Tokyo together.  I’ve been saving all the major sights and activities for their arrival, so I anticipate every day will be jam-packed with adventure!

The Beginning of Kyoto

We took the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto.  The whole experience was delightfully civilized – the train was perfectly punctual, very clean, and had spacious seats with a window at every row. Tokyo Station had an impressive array of food packaged especially for travel so we enjoyed a nice lunch during our 3 hour journey.

The soy sauce bottles were especially adorable

Unfortunately, it was downhill from there.  The weather was cold, grey and rainy, and our AirBnB was comically problematic. Because it was peak cherry blossom week, we should have booked a place 6 months in advance (or more). There was very limited availability event a couple months out, so we took a gamble on a listing with no reviews and only one photo because it was reasonably priced. (Any hotels with rooms open were close to $1000/night because everyone wants to see the cherry blossoms in full bloom in Kyoto.)

Though nicely styled on the surface, the AirBnB turned out to be very poorly designed in function. It was one small room plus a tiny bathroom with the trains running outside the front door. Our host suggested we buy earplugs (gee, thanks), but having lived on Market St in SF, the train noise wasn’t the biggest issue.

This is pretty much the entire place…

It was clear that the host never lived there – the only furniture were the Japanese futons for sleeping and a coffee table. There weren’t any garbage bags, or cooking implements, and there was only 1 plate.  In order to use the induction burner, we had to unplug the refrigerator (there was only one plug in the vicinity). The shower & sink were in one small corner together, making it awkward to use either of them.

I stood over the toilet to take this photo. The sink is at mid-thigh height.

Worst of all, the host lied about the amenities and there was neither a washer nor wifi. While we could certainly go a week without washing clothes, the lack of wifi was extremely inconvenient and we burned through all of our data on our local SIMs in 5 days. This issue highlighted all the shortcomings of AirBnB – we paid for things that weren’t provided yet it was impossible to communicate with a real person from the company. (While I could handle basic communication with our host, the complexities of explaining that we felt scammed were beyond my vocabulary).

As a result, we spent far more time in Starbucks that I care to admit. Though I am not a huge fan of their coffee, I was incredibly grateful for their decent wifi. (Hotspots are pretty rare in Japan, unfortunately.)

Noodles with Friends

Our disappointing AirBnB didn’t prevent us from having some fun, though. Getting noodles with friends started to emerge as a welcome theme. Blake & Santiago, pals from SF, were visiting Kyoto with Blake’s parents.  We all took a break from our various cherry blossom strolls to meet for soba at a restaurant that has been making it for hundreds of years. As you’d expect, the noodles were fantastic and it was fun to see them.  The German especially enjoyed exchanging sympathetic tales of banged knees and near misses on concussions… the struggles of being tall men in Japan. (Blake & Santiago make The German look short).

Blake & Santiago at Honke Soba

We spent another day with them, powering through several top sights including a temple with some beautiful gardens, the bamboo forest, and a monkey park. We really enjoyed seeing them and exploring Kyoto together.

Cherry Blossoms

We were very lucky in that we managed to hit Kyoto just in time for the peak blooms.  Like Tokyo, everyone was out to admire the flowers and take millions of photos. However Kyoto-ites upped their game and often had professional photographers in tow. We saw a number of shops where you could rent a kimono, get your hair & makeup done professionally and hire a photographer for the day.

Photo Session

People in Japane are always so polite.Without being asked, people would queue up to take photos from certain vantage points, or patiently wait to cross a bridge or take a narrow path while others were taking photos.

Kudos to this couple for recreating fight scenes instead of the standard posed shots

I spent the first few days going to all the major cherry blossoms spots and taking far too many photos… here is just a small sampling:

Random Observations

Japan is known for being safe, clean and orderly and I am pleased that none of that has changed. I would much rather queue for the subway than push my way on.

There are far fewer smokers than I remember. Even the sidewalks have designated smoking areas!

Though finding vegetarian food in restaurants has always been a challenge in Japan, I had forgotten how great and reasonably priced prepared food is. Every place from 7-11 to supermarkets to fancy department stores had a huge selection of freshly made food – it was a great way to sample a lot of different dishes and though I occassionally had to ask a clerk to read the kanji to me, it was otherwise easy to find vegetarian options.

From Honkan Supermarket
Many of our dinners looked like this, from our favourite supermarket that had a vegetable garden on their roof.

What’s Next

Having failed at finding in-person Japanese classes (the shortest ones required a one-month committment), I scheduled some Skype lessons with native speakers.  While I can (mostly) understand what people are saying, my speaking is still coming very slowly (and likely inaccurately) so I hope some tutoring can help me rapidly improve.

We have a week and a half before our pals Beth & Todd arrive from SF, at which point we will go into hard-core tourist mode. In the meantime, we gleefully changed to a new AirBnB.  While it was objectively kind of drab and lacking in charm, it had incredibly fast wifi and actual furniture so it felt like a major upgrade. We are both much happier.

And now, your moment of zen:

Weekend Coffee


I wanted to stay in Bali until all of my stitches were removed, so we abandoned plans for Hong Kong (and possibly Taiwan) in order to minimize how many non-refundable flights and hotels we had to cancel or change (plus I was still hoping to catch a glimpse of the cherry blossoms). We wound up taking a red eye from Bali to Tokyo as it was the only non-stop option. (We were also trying to minimize how much hobbling through the airport I needed to do.)

Unfortunately, the flight was full so we landed at 8:30am, fairly discombobulated from lack of sleep.  Tokyo felt delightfully dry compared to Bali’s intense humidity, but going from 85° to 45° was far less pleasant. It was immediately obvious that we didn’t have the right clothing for this weather.

The German was trying to handle most of the luggage on his own, given my broken rib and still unsteady right leg.  It basically took us 3 hours to get from Narita Airport to Roam Tokyo (involving trains, lots of walking, and eventually a taxi).  However, I was pleased that my rusty Japanese was sufficient to navigate us there, plus purchase the advance tickets we needed for the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto.

We decided to spend a week at the Tokyo branch of the coliving place we loved so much in Bali.  Having fellow travelers and a friendly staff seemed like a great way to ease into our Japan experience.

The Tokyo location has only been open a couple months. It did feel like the staff were still figuring things out, though they were incredibly friendly and helpful if we asked for anything. The rooms were huge (by Tokyo standards) but pretty sparse – pretty much just a bed and a bonsai, but it had a very zen feeling to it.

We didn’t get as strong of a sense of community as we did in Bali – it may have just been our timing, or perhaps Tokyo is so exciting that people spend more time exploring the city than hanging out on the property. Still, we really enjoyed the folks we did meet, the kitchen was fantastic, the location was great, and the wifi was blazingly fast.

Night One

Though we were exhausted from the red eye flight, we didn’t want to miss a chance to see our friend Celine (whom we last saw in Lapland). She was in town for a gaming conference and was also exhausted (from an intense week of meetings and conference after-parties) so we thought we would have a low key dinner and then call it a night.

Having no reservations on Friday night in Tokyo, we wound up at a pizza spot that served only two types of perfectly crafted pizzas.  The whole place was barely larger than their wood oven. As anticipated, they really had made pizza an art form, and we all agreed this was some of the best pizza we have ever had.

Savoy Pizza
The German and Celine impatiently waiting to devour the pizza

Halfway through dinner Celine got an invitation to join some folks for a drink.  One thing lead to another and we ultimately wound up at a night club where our host ordered a jerobaum of champagne:

Night 1 in Tokyo
Everyone took turns posing with our host and the champagne

So there we were at the club, me with my broken rib and fleece shirt, surrounded by stylish Tokyo-ites dancing to hiphop.  It was a hilarious yet fantastic way to kick off our time in Japan!

Cherry Blossoms

We were fortunate to arrive in Tokyo just as it was hitting peak cherry blossom season. Despite the chilly temperatures and regular rain, the locals didn’t hesitate to spread out tarps in the parks to picnic beneath the blooming trees.

On weekends, every patch of grass is covered with people having picnics

People would often queue at certain spots, just to get the optimal perspective for a photo.

Sakura Photos
The people clustered to the right of the crosswalk are all taking photos

And on weekends, it was common to see kimono-clad ladies strolling together, pointing out especially beautiful branches of blooms. As The German noted, it somehow felt similar to Christmas.

At night, certain spots would be overflowing with people strolling past the trees, sipping pink sparkling wine and taking tons of photos.

Nakameguro at Night
Just me and a few thousand friends, admiring the cherry blossoms

While the trees were undeniably beautiful, the people-watching was just as much fun.

Fun with Friends

We were excited that we had a steady string of friends who would be in Japan at the same time as us. In addition to seeing our Finnish friend Celine, we also met up with my pal Dan from SF.

Here we are enjoying modestly sized bowls of udon:

We also spent several hours wandering around Tokyo, which included a stop at Uniqlo where we purchased their signature down jackets:

My down jacket is beneath my other jacket – it’s cold enough that I wore them both.

Due to a the bizarre rules and some communication confusion at a popular cake spot, we wound up eating strawberry cakes while the Incredible Hulk loomed in the background:

It’s always nice to see friends while we are traveling, and especially fun to have wacky adventures in Japan with them!

Injury Update

Though I am feeling better every day, I am still moving at a pace that is considerably slower than normal and my knee doesn’t have the stamina for long periods of walking.  At times, it’s frustrating – I’d love to be out and about exploring Tokyo all day, but I know my body is still healing.  On the plus side, I see improvement every day: moving from sitting to standing no longer involves an awkward baby-giraffe-like dance, my left knee is looking almost normal, and I no longer need to take the pain killers to get a decent night’s sleep.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from spending a day shopping in Harajuku, getting a much-needed haircut, eating sushi delivered by a mini tram, taking countless photos of cherry blossoms, and drinking the most hipster cup of coffee ever.

Now we are off to Kyoto, where I hope to see even more cherry blossoms and find some Japanese classes.

As your reward for reading this far, here are some random funny things we saw in Tokyo: