Back in high school, I got kind of into anime. My friends and I were the ones hanging out in anime IRC channels, and trekking across the state to conferences to meet with others of our kind. Back in the ’90s, the anime community was still relatively small, which lead to a tight-knit community of like-minded geeks.
Although my love for anime isn’t what it once was, and I get winded playing 9-foot songs on Dance Dance Revolution, that started a fascination with Japan that has stuck with me. It lead me to take Japanese language classes in college, get really into Kurosawa and Miyazaki movies, and begin counting the days to when I could travel there.
A Last Gift
I’d talked about traveling to Japan with my mom during this time. We went so far as to figure out some of the places we’d go and the sites we’d see. When she passed away 2 months after I graduated college, I put a lot on hold. Rather than traveling or developing websites in my spare time, I spent the next year dealing with the emotions that come with losing a parent while cleaning out and fixing up the house I grew up in. This meant driving from Orlando to St. Petersburg (90 minutes) every weekend for almost a year. It was without a doubt the most stressful time of my life so far.
On the weekend before my birthday, when the house was almost ready to sell, I was clearing out my moms’ room. In her closet, within a suitcase, I spotted a bank envelope. Written on it were the words “Adam to Japan fund”. I scratched my head and opened the envelope. Inside was $1,000 in cash, with a ledger on the side denoting deposits to it over the last year of her life. The thought behind this hit me hard, and I still tear up remembering it.
That was my moms last birthday gift to me.
Fast forward almost 8 years later. Marilyn and I have been together since before finding that special envelope and had also put off this trip in favor of easier, mostly domestic vacations. Towards the end of 2013, we decided the next year is when we’d make Japan a reality.
The tl;dr of the trip is that it was amazing. Over the course of 2 weeks, we did a lot. We spent 4 nights in a hotel across the street from Nijo Castle in Kyoto, experienced mineral baths and amazing meals for 2 nights at a ryokan in Hakone, and finished our trip by exploring Tokyo for 7 full days.
During our time in Kyoto, we took a food and sake tour with a local, who grew up in the midwest. We explored ancient shrines like Fushimi Inari and Kiyomizu-dera temple. Fed the sacred deer in Nara and explored the amazing temples of Japan’s first capital. We saw a Maiko (Geisha) performance in Gion, the historic home of the culture. We explored the ancient castles used by the Shogun. At only an hour away, we made a side trip to Osaka that resulted in some amazing okonomiyaki and culture shock.
In Hakone, we shed our shoes and enjoyed 12-course kaiseki meals in our room at a hundred-year-old ryokan (hotel). We took a ropeway tour of the mountainside and ate eggs boiled in Owakudani, a natural hot spring, before taking a ship across Lake Ashinoko.
With so much to do in Tokyo, there was no shortage of nightlife, food, shopping, or culture to fill a week. We loved the feel of Harajuku, littered with crepe stands, cafes, boutiques, and second-hand stores. We were wowed by the sheer amount of people and lights in Shibuya. We walked through the blooming sakura in Ueno park watching salarymen and women picnic everywhere (Hanami). Watched gamers and otaku wander the 6-floor arcades and model stores in Akihabara. Fulfilled a lifelong dream and visited the Ghibli museum. Woke up early and had sushi at the Tsukiji Fish Market. Had drinks at the Park Hyatt – famous for its role in Lost in Translation. And finished the trip with a very odd show – The Robot Dinner Show.
What follows is a breakdown of the trip, day by day, with more pictures than I’ve ever included in a post. If you’re looking for a multi-week itinerary for a trip to Japan, this post is for you! Or, if you’re curious and just want to see some photos, read on!